How the biggest consumer apps got their first 1,000 users - Issue 25
Considering every startup confronts this question at some point, I was surprised by how little has been written about it. Particularly anything actionable. So I decided to do my own digging. I spent the past month personally reaching out to founders, scouring interviews, and tapping the Twitterverse.
Key question: Who are your early target users, and where they currently congregating offline?
Whitney Wolfe and Justin Mateen would basically run around USC pitching Tinder to sororities and fraternities. The hook of seeing other single people on campus for the first time (and knowing if they’re interested in you) went viral.
To help us connect further with customers, we brought in Corey Bridges to work on customer acquisition – or, more specifically, on something we jokingly called Black ops. A one-time English major at Berkely, he was a brilliant writer with a gift for creating characters.
He'd realized, early on, that the only way to find DVD owners was in the fringe communities of the internet: user groups, bulletin boards, web forums, and all of the other digital watering holes where enthusiasts met up. Corey's plan was to infiltrate these communities. He wouldn't announce himself as a Netflix employee. Posing as a home theater enthusiast or cinephile, he would join the conversation in communities geared toward DVD fanatics and movie buffs, befriend the major players, and slowly, over time, alert the most respected commenters, moderators, and website owners about this great new site called Netflix. We were months from launch, but he was planting seeds that would pay off...big time.
— That Will Never Work by Marc Randolph (Netflix)
Key question: Do your friends fit into the target user group? If so, have you invited them yet?
We begged and cajoled our friends at other companies to try it out and give us feedback. We had maybe six to ten companies to start with that we found this way.The pattern was to share Slack with progressively larger groups. We amplified the feedback we got at each stage by adding more teams.— Stewart Butterfield
- Does your product rely on user generated content? Consider curating the early community.
- Is your value-prop incredibly strong? Consider throwing up a waitlist.
- Is your product innately social? Consider relying on existing users to invite new users.
The invitation-only element was a vital part of the platform’s rise. Not only did it help manage the growth level of Spotify, but it also helped create a viral element to the service, with users each having 5 invites at first to share with their friends.
Key question: Who are influencers of your target users, and how could you get them to talk about your product?
The founders picked their first users carefully, courting people who would be good photographers—especially designers who had high Twitter follower counts. Those first users would help set the right artistic tone, creating good content for everyone else to look at, in what was essentially the first-ever Instagram influencer campaign, years before that would become a concept. Dorsey became their best salesman. He was initially shocked to find out his investment money was going toward an entirely different app than Burbn. Usually, founders pivoted to a new product as a last-ditch effort to avoid going out of business. But Dorsey loved Instagram, way more than he’d ever loved Burbn.When Instagram launched to the public on October 6, 2010, it immediately went viral thanks to shares from people like Dorsey. It reached number one in camera applications in the Apple app store.— No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram, by Sarah Frier
Key question: What’s a unique, compelling, fresh story you could pitch press?
The best way to do it is to pick one or two events a year where you can insert yourself into the cultural zeitgeist. For us, one such event was when Mailbox was being shut down. It was the perfect narrative, “I’m over here, come look at my company.” […] I currently have one of the most widely read articles on how to survive an acquisition. It was written in response to the Mailbox shutdown. […] That post ended up on Medium, and was syndicated to qz.com. We were able to insert it into the Zeitgeist. That article probably took me three days of doing nothing else, and another day of shopping it around. So four days all in. But those four days bought north of 5,000 signups.— Rahul Vohra
Key question: Could you build a community now, to leverage later?
The founders of Stack Overflow (Joel Spolsky & Jeff Atwood) both had large communities of existing followers from their previous online endeavors (Joel On Software and Coding Horror respectively). They invited members of those communities to participate in a private beta, in which they seeded the site with content so it didn't launch with no content whatsoever.— Jon
What is good about it?
- Makes the point that the first 1000 is very different to the next 10,000
What is bad about it?
- Not everything is translatable beyond consumer apps