Starting a business is hard.
Finding your first customers is even harder.
Every day companies with kick ass products fail. Why?
Lot of reasons. Sometimes it's a lack of funding or poor product validation. Other times it's a bad business model. Often there is no product-market fit:
Pre-launch or post-launch, potential failure lurks everywhere, especially in the early days of a startup.
And, while financing, team structure and product-market fit will vary considerably for all startups, there is one common challenge staring all businesses in the face:
Finding leads and turning those leads into paying customers.
But, what makes this most difficult is there is no one-size-fits-all model. No plug-and-play formulas. Every industry and business is different. Each requiring a unique approach to generate demand, and do it as quickly as possible.
How did companies like AirBnB, PayPal, Evernote, Foursquare and Uber get their first customers, scale and grow into multi-billion brands?
The answers might surprise you.
Below, I uncover the growth hacking strategies and techniques used by 77 of the most successful companies on the planet to acquire their first customers and generate quick traction in the market.
No matter the size of stage of your company, this in-depth study should provide loads of growth inspiration.
A taste of what’s inside:
- How Evernote landed 1M users in 12 months
- How Mailbox built a waiting list of 538,000 people in 37 days
- How Jon Oringer took Shutterstock from zero to IPO
- How Snappa.io used “side project marketing” to get pre-launch traction
- Purple cows, viral loops, scalable entry points and 7 more of my top growth hacking takeaways
Note: Fair warning, this post tips the scales at over 20,000 words. If you're looking for information about a specific company's growth tactics, you can use the jump links below the takeaways section here.
You can also download a PDF of the entire post.
My Top 10 Growth Hacking Takeaways...
While there are dozens of strategies to learn from, here are my top 10 growth takeaways...
Identify Your Growth Engine
There are 3 primary engines - Viral, Paid and Sticky - determined by your Customer Lifetime Value. Each engine helps prioritize tactics feasible for driving adoption.
Find Scalable Entry Points
Find an existing community that is right for your startup, or piggyback one, and launch into it for a quick start.
Conquer one small market and move on. Get the wheels turning, build credibility, and the word-of-mouth will help penetrate larger markets.
Start With "Who & Where"
Identify WHO your customers are, and WHERE they exist online. Invest heavily in making sure you are always where they are.
Tap Existing Communities
Your first customers are already seeded in online communities. You just need to find and engage them.
Sometimes you just need to make it look like you have a customer/user base. Leverage the herd mentality, and others will catch on.
Make sure you are building something people actually want or need before investing time and money. Give yourself a short timeframe to validate.
Create Viral Loops
Build functionality into the product that forces engagement, makes it easy to share experiences, and turns customers into evangelists.
Now it's your turn 🙂
The Growth Hacking Strategies 77 Companies Used to Gain Traction and Land Paying Customers
Below you will learn the back story and unique growth strategies companies like Gmail, Box, Spotify, AirBnB and PayPal used to build awareness, generate demand and grow into billion dollar global brands. You'll also see some smaller, but equally amazing stories of companies using creative tactics to gain traction. Enjoy!
Table of Contents: Jump to Your Favorite Brands
34. Under Armour
35. New Relic
40. Karma Hotspot
42. Candy Crush
43. I Am Playr
48. Living Social
49. Blue Leaf
60. Inman Next
63. Hello Bar
75. Mobile Roadie
The Growth Hacking Strategies 77 Successful Companies Used to Gain Traction and Land Paying Customers
#1. Gmail - a beta launch for the ages
If you’re far enough ahead people can’t figure out if you’re joking, you know you’ve innovated.
On April 1st, 2004 Google published this press release.
The company had a history of April Fool’s mischief, often posting outlandish PR such as the announcement of the Copernicus Center lunar research lab:
When Google made the (strategic) aannouncement on April 1st, 2004 they would be releasing a web-based email service called Gmail offering 1GB of space, people naturally thought it was a hoax.
After all, it was 500 times the capacity of their biggest rivals at the time, Yahoo and Hotmail:
Gmail's home page as it looked on March 31, 2004
When the announcement was still posted on April 2nd, people began to realize Gmail was actually a real thing. And, so the buzz began.
At the time Gmail launched, it was running on 300 Pentium III processors, meaning it could only be rolled out to a small number of people.
As a result, one thousand hand picked individuals were each given two invites to hand out to friends.
The limited invite-only model generated the exclusivity and scarcity that had people begging everyone they knew for an invite:
At one point, people were bidding up to $150 on ebay for an invite!
The user base expanded as Google increased its capacity to handle more accounts.
Gmail’s restricted invite-only launch is considered one of the most successful launches in tech history.
Create something remarkable. Or, as Seth Godin calls it, a purple cow. Give it away for free. Then, restrict access.
GMail now has over 1 billion monthly active users!
#2. Box - planted moles inside companies
Box Inc. is an online file sharing and personal cloud content management service for businesses.
The company's first office was a garage that Aaron Levie (co-founder) used as a bedroom.
How did Box grow into a multi-billion company?
In an account based marketing spin off, the company started out by selecting individual employees of target corporations and giving them free access to the software in the hope they would love the product, tell co-workers and eventually get the company to pay for it.
It was a gamble. But, it certainly paid off.
By carefully targeting the individuals that had an influence on the tools and technologies their companies were using on a daily basis, Box managed to infiltrate 34,000 companies, with one signing up 60,000 employees!
#3. Spotify - private beta, social and segmentation
Daniel Ek (Founder) hated iTunes and wanted to do better.
Back in 2006 iTunes had DRM on all their tracks, low quality audio and a limited catalog. Ek noticed a clear gap (and opportunity) in the market.
Other folks like Rhapsody, Rdio and MOG already had a first-mover advantage, and loyal audiences. This didn't deter Ek.
His greatest challenge was content - he needed music for people to listen to.
What did Ek do to overcome this massive obstacle?
He loaded Spotify with pirated songs and sent demos to industry executives.
With Spotify, people don’t get it until they try it.
Founder of Spotify
This artificial content base got people to pay attention, but it took another 2 years for the company to secure licenses in Europe.
Meanwhile, across the pond consumers were chomping at the bit for Spotify to arrive in the US.
How did the company build so much buzz?
Private beta with geographic segmentation.
Spotify started in small markets, offering exclusive beta access to a select number of users (mostly friends, family and industry influencers), who then had a limited number of invites they could hand out.
(Ahem - G.C.H.E.E.S.E. anyone? :))
This scarcity built a ton of anticipation that would eventually spread to larger markets. The word of mouth snowballed.
But, that wasn't the only smart move Spotify made in the early days.
The company accelerated its growth by piggybacking the largest social network on the planet….facebook.
Every time a user played a song, the song title (and a link to Spotify) showed up on the user's facebook feed. Millions of facebook users became advocates for the platform, driving a wave of free referral traffic to the site.
Spotify now has over 50 million paying customers.
#4. Uber - free rides generated local publicity
Uber started in San Francisco, using a hyper-local strategy to seed itself close to larger markets.
The ride sharing service leveraged popular events to generate goodwill and tons of free publicity.
Here are a few of the tactics they used:
- Gave out free rides during Austin’s SXSW conference.
- Free rides to stranded school children during the Boston bus strike.
- During Valentine’s Day Uber users were able to send roses to their significant others with the touch of a button in their app.
- Drove around investors and entrepreneurs during pitch events.
The good gesture resulted in news coverage from major publications, including the New York Times, Venture Beat and the Boston Globe.
Uber has now expanded into dozens of cities and has been pinned with a $70B valuation.
#5. Reddit - created fake accounts and submitted early content
Reddit was one of the first startups out of Y Combinator, receiving $12,000 in funding. Today, they see over 100 million unique monthly visitors a month.
How did founders Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman get it's first customers?
A couple strategies. Both are unorthodox and don't scale.
In the beginning, the company spent it's entire marketing budget ($500) on stickers. Whenever the founders traveled, they would post stickers everywhere - signs, poles and other high traffic public areas. They would also hand out the stickers at events and local meetups.
While this helped generate interest and drive traffic to the site, there was no content to keep people around.
Ohanian and Huffman started creating multiple fake accounts and responded to themselves to make it look like Reddit had a large engaged audience.
According to co-founder Steve Huffman, it took several months before the front page began to fill up without their submissions.
Reddit is now a $500 million company.
#6. AirBnB - Obama O's, Photos and Manilow
How did three guys go from renting air mattresses on their floor to building a $30 billion room-letting empire?
In a nutshell:
It all started when the founders couldn’t afford to pay rent while living in San Francisco. To generate some supplemental income they decided to rent out three air mattresses on the floor and serve breakfast.
Next, they recruited a college friend to join the team and help build a website.
(airbedandbreakfast.com was born)
The company "officially" launched at SXSW and got two bookings.
In 2008 the team got real creative, selling old cereal called “Obama O’s” before the election for $40 a box.
They raised $30,000:
The founders used this money to travel to NYC and go door-to-door taking photos of listed houses.
When New York took off, we flew back every weekend. We went door to door with cameras taking pictures of all these apartments to put them online. I lived in their living rooms. And home by home, block by block, communities started growing. And people would visit New York and bring the idea back with them to their city.
I don’t know what tactics worked more than others, but I think press was always the number one tactic for us. The press would spark another group of users, then we’d go visit those people and talk to them and get them excited. It was a pattern that repeated itself.
Then, one day...
Barry Manilow used the site to rent an entire house!
With a slow growing seed user base, the AirBnB looked for ways to fuel growth.
So, the company started “spamming” Craiglist users:
AirBnB used Craigslist to find listings and solicited the people who posted the Craigslist ads, asking them to place ads on Airbnb as well.
Engineers eventually coded a set of tools that allowed members to seamlessly cross-post Airbnb listings on Craigslist.
This was an extremely effective growth tactic used to bootstrap the business and skyrocket the number of listings on the platform:
#7. Dropbox - poster child of incentivized referral
The idea for Dropbox was born in 2006 when the company's founder, Drew Houston, was on a bus from Boston to New York.
He planned to work on the four hour bus ride, but forgot his USB stick.
So, as any normal person would do, he immediately began building technology to sync files over the web. Four months later he flew to San Francisco to pitch his idea to Paul Graham of incubator Y Combinator.
Dropbox landed $15,000 from Y Combinator - enough money to get an apartment and buy a Mac.
Eager to get Dropbox working on any machine, in every country, Houston and Arash Ferdowsi (co founder) spent 20 hour days working on the MVP:
Houston says “there were a couple important inflection points for the company.”
The first occurred after Dropbox released a demo video that captured Y Combinator’s attention and helped to secure an invitation to join the exclusive startup program:
The second inflection point occurred a year later when Dropbox released a second video on Digg during it’s private beta launch. In an interesting move, the company “layered easter eggs aimed at the Digg audience” into the presentation.
This creativity sparked of surge of attention.
Within 24-hours Dropbox had 75,000 people signup for the wait-list.
Not wanting to risk a buggy product on all 75,000 people, the company screened who could try the early version of the product by extending invites through a “Gmail-style closed beta”.
The strategy worked. Seven months after public launch Dropbox had one million users!
The company then toyed with an aggressive AdWords PPC campaign. But, it was quickly stopped when the channel had a $300 customer acquisition cost:
So, the company pivoted on it's acquisition strategy...
The company offered users 500MB of free space for every friend they invited:
Once users had installed Dropbox they saw a “photos” and “get started” folder encouraging them to engage with the platform right away.
Users were also given 125MB of free space if they shared Dropbox on Twitter or Facebook.
Today, 35% of Dropbox customers come via referral.
#8. Shutterstock - from Zero to IPO
Image Credit: Photography by William Hereford
Jon Oringer founded Shutterstock in 2003 with an idea and an $800 Canon Digital Rebel camera.
Oringer spent 9 months teaching himself how to become a photographer, snapping over 100,000 photos. He eventually cut it down to 30,000 pictures and uploaded them online to seed the first Shutterstock photo library.
He charged a $49 monthly subscription.
To get the word out, Oringer offered bloggers, media agencies and businesses of all sizes access to low-cost images.
This manual outreach built demand for the service, and enough supply to generate a critical mass that would fuel the growth of the company. .
Soon, Shutterstock had thousands of photographers requesting to be contributors, recognizing the companies skyrocketing purchase volume.
The website now houses close to 50 million royalty-free images, illustrations, vectors and video clips, is available in 15 languages, and has over 40,000 contributors from 100 countries.
The company sells two images every second and was the first company in a now-crowded industry to reach 250 million downloads.
#9. Twitter - guerilla marketing at SXSW
Twitter got it’s big start at the 2007 South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) conference.
During the event, the founders placed two 60-inch plasma TVs in the conference hallways exclusively streaming twitter messages:
The company won the top award at the conference and got instant exposure across some of the biggest blogs and online publications on the planet.
This is one of the first public mentions of the company:
The company went from 20,000 to 60,000 tweets a day following the conference.
Twitter also took a note out of the Dropbox playbook and built a “suggested users” interface inside the app. This would keep users from joining and quitting:
Twitter now has close to 350 million users.
#10. Crazy Egg - CSS Galleries and Partnerships
Crazy Egg got 100,000 users with a $10,000 marketing budget.
A methodical approach. The company started with a signup-driven homepage - a quick value proposition and an option to get a free heat map of your site in exchange for an email address.
(Check out the video below to see how I created a signup-driven home page in minutes with Thrive Content Builder that helped almost 4x email signups):
How did Crazy Egg generate traffic to it's homepage?
One time $10,000 ad placements on CSS galleries crawling with hundreds of thousands of web designers.
The ads drove thousands of people to the landing page, allowing Crazy Egg to build a pre-launch list of 20,000 email subscribers.
The company didn't stop there.
After seeing the quality of traffic generted by these CSS galleries, Crazy Egg decided to double down by coding their website using CSS best practices, and submitted it to the same CSS galleries.
The communities loved the site design. This got the site featured multiple times, generating a tidal wave of targeted referral traffic to the site.
The company made a long list of popular news sites and reached out offering a free $99 account. This got the company featured on TechCrunch and Mashable.
Crazy Egg also partnered with companies like Lunar Pages, offering their customers free accounts.
Thousands of new users for each partner they signed up. Strategic partnerships like this accounted for over 40% of all new user signups when the company started.
Finally, Crazy Egg offered industry influencers free accounts and spoke at popular conferences like HostingCon. No fees.
To be labeled as an event sponsor.
Crazy Egg is now used by over 200,000 businesses.
#11. Buffer - from Concept to Paying Customers in 7 Weeks
How did Buffer go from an idea to paying customers in seven weeks?
Founder Joel Gascoigne is a proponent of testing viability and building a minimum viable product.
Here’s what he started with -
The initial goal was to quickly determine whether or not people would actually use the app.
Gascoigne tweeted the link and asked people what they thought of the idea. After a few people entered their email and gave positive feedback he considered the idea “validated”.
The next step was to determine if people would be willing to pay for the product.
An extra page was added to the sign up flow:
People continued clicking through, and some signed up for paid accounts. This provided enough validation for Gascoigne to move forward building the first minimum version of the product.
A stroke of luck:
At the same time the product was being built, Hacker News was running it’s “November Startup Sprint” hackathon where people agreed to race to get something launched by the end of November.
Buffer went live on November 30th receiving great feedback from the Hacker News Community:
The company had it’s first paying customer within four days of MVP.
How did Buffer scale and go from zero to 1,000,000 users in three short years?
An aggressive guest post strategy designed to build links, relationships and tap into the large audiences of reputable industry blogs.
In fact, Leo Wildrich wrote 150 guest posts in the first nine months as content manager.
To this day, 70% of buffer signups are the result of content marketing.
Interesting back story...
It took the founders of Buffer 150 meetings to secure $450K in seed funding.
They moved from the UK to the US, lost their visas, had to move operations to Hong Kong. Lost their visas again. Then moved to Tel Aviv, before finally being granted visas to move back and set up headquarters in San Francisco.
#12. Evernote - killer app store strategy
It took Evernote about 15 months to get its first million users. Now, over 19,000 new people sign up for the app every single day:
How did the company get it’s first users?
Evernote launched right when app stores were taking off.
We definitely were very lucky with the timing, absolutely. We were very fortunate that the app stores were launching right as we were getting ready. If we were 6 months behind in our development, we would had missed all of it.
Evernote targeted each new store and platform, working around the clock for months on end to make sure they were the first to enter each new app store on day one.
This allowed the company to become the “showcased app” dozens of times.
The company also launched a closed beta to generate buzz for the product. They promoted the beta release by offering 100 exclusive invites on Techcrunch. This gave Evernote an easy angle to get featured on the publication.
The Techcrunch exposure generated a couple thousand users in the first few days.
Once the seed user base had been established, the company built a referral engine into the product incentivizing users to refer friends in exchange for additional storage and Premium credits:
These efforts generated exponential growth for the company. In fact, it took Evernote half the time to reach it's next million users - 222 days. That number was halved again with the next million users - 133 days:
#13. PayPal - seeding growth with eBay
In the beginning, PayPal hustled to get the product in front of ebay users as a way to exchange money for online transactions.
Ebay allowed the sellers to mention the payment options they were willing to accept. PayPal leveraged this, manually reaching out to hundreds of merchants asking them to use PayPal as a payment option.
Over time, this cold outreach strategy worked and the company managed to build a seed base of merchants collecting payment with PayPal.
But it was not a default option provided by ebay. The sellers had to manually write down the name “PayPal” in several places.
This quickly changed as ebay saw how popular PayPal was becoming with both sellers and buyers. PayPal signed a deal with eBay, allowing the sellers to use it’s logo if they were accepting payments through it.
This got PayPal featured next to other reputable brands such as Mastercard and Visa.
This helped the company in 3 ways -
1. Being featured next to reputable brands like Mastercard increased PayPal's market value.
2. PayPal used ebay’s traffic to rapidly boost it's brand awareness.
3. As more sellers accepted payments through PayPal more customers needed to set up a PayPal account.
The eBay partnership was a HUGE driving force behind PayPal's early traction.
The company wanted to expand and grow faster.
They explored traditional paid advertising and business development deals with banks. It proved to be a bureaucratic mess.
The founders decided the biz dev route wasn't working. They needed organic, viral growth.
What did they do? Gave people money. Literally.
PayPal gave each new customer $10 cash, and $10 to the customer that referred them. This set off a chain reaction that would drive 7-10% daily growth, and help PayPal reach 1 million customers in its first year.
This tactic was so successful the company spent tens of millions in sign up and referral bonuses:
Initially users just had to sign up, confirm their email address, and add a (unique, authorized) credit card. The money was simply added to their account. This was real money. Users could send it to someone else or withdraw it. So it was a real cost to PayPal. We must have spent tens of millions in signup and referral bonuses the first year. (PayPal acquired 1 million users by March 2000 and 5 million by summer 2000.)
The bonuses were gradually phased out, first by reducing them to $5, then by adding more verification hoops (like bank account verification) so they became more difficult to get. Then they were eliminated altogether.
Former COO of PayPal
#14. Hotmail - P.S. I love you!
In 1996 Sabeer Bhatia and Jack Smith launched the first Hotmail prototype and shared it with a small circle of friends to collect feedback.
Bhatia and Smith demonstrated the prototype to investors, who were very impressed. When asked, “How are you going to get the word out there?”..
Bhattia mentioned radio advertising and billboards.
Investors hated the idea because it would be too expensive and instead suggested they add a promotional URL at the end of all email communications.
The founders didn’t like the idea and decided to launch Hotmail within an existing circle of friends, family and acquaintances. The company saw 250 signups in the first 24 hours.
They decided to go with the investor's recommendations and added a “P.S. I love you. Get your free email at Hotmail” to the bottom of all emails. The phrase linked straight back to the Hotmail website.
The company hoped to leverage their small personal user base to test the viral play.
Within hours Hotmail’s growth took on the shape of a classic hockey stick curve:
The company was adding 3,000 users a day, compounded daily. By Labor Day they registered 750,000 users. Within six months the company had grown to one million users, adding more than 20,000 signups a day.
Hotmail turned every email sent by a user into an advertisement. This viral loop was mind blowing.
The company sold out to Microsoft for $400 million the next year.
#15. Warby Parker - cross country bus trip earns serious media attention
Warby Parker launched in 2010. The company grew 500% in one year and beat its yearly sales projections in three weeks!
From day one, the business model was simple: Glasses, including lenses, are $95. There is also a social element: for every pair of glasses bought, a pair is donated to someone in need.
Guess how much the company spent on advertising when they launched?
The company launched two well-timed editorials in Vogue and GQ. When the magazine went live, their website crashed. Within two weeks, they had sold out of 15 styles of sunglasses, and had a waiting list of 20,000 customers.
Warby Parker has since leveraged controversial events to spark media attention and waves of free publicity.
The company bought an old yellow school bus, traveled across the U.S., and created a mobile store called The Warby Parker Class Trip.
The founders knew the business was heavily reliant on word-of-mouth, so they implemented a campaign that would enable them to meet potential customers and make strong in-person impressions.
The bus attracted a bunch of attention from local, regional and national news publications.
Warby Parker has now sold over one million pairs of glasses, and word-of-mouth accounts for over 50% of annual sales.
#16. Mailbox - the famous "reservation scheme"
Photo: Flickr via Colinr
In January 2013, Gentry Underwood launched an email organization app called Mailbox. It promised to help users reach inbox zero.
37 days later Dropbox acquired the company for a reported $100 million.
Mailbox went viral before the app even launched.
The company released an emotional video about the free app prior to launching Mailbox in the App Store.
The video got 100,000 views in 4 hours!
Blogs like TheVerge, Cool Hunting and TechCrunch went wild.
Mailbox announced it’s now-famous “reservation scheme”.
Here’s how it worked -
- Users went to the Mailbox site and signed up to secure a place in line.
- Mailbox sent a text message with your reservation number and place in line.
- Along with the reservation number you received a private code, which you would use to claim your reservation when the app was available for download in the App Store.
There were 538,000 people in line at the time of the Dropbox sale.
People were amazed at how many people were on the waiting list.
This created so much social proof people couldn't resist hopping in the waiting line.
#17. Appsumo - took the founder of Reddit out for breakfast
Noah kagan launched AppSumo - a site offering deals on cool web apps and digital goods.
The concept originated when Noah was running a payments company for facebook games and noticed partners were having trouble finding new cloud applications in web distribution.
In classic Noah fashion, he set out to quickly validate whether or not his idea presented a legitimate business opportunity.
For $50 he contracted a developer to build the backend, while building the app's front end himself using open source registration code.
The site was launched within a month.
Noah chose to leverage Reddit for it’s initial traffic generation. He noticed people were using imgur a lot and that there was an imgur Pro account.
He decided to see if he could sell imgur Pro at a special price to Redditors:
Noah contacted the owner of imgur to see if he would run a promotion with him. He agreed.
Appsumo had it’s first product to sell, but no site or customers.
So, what did Noah do?
He cold emailed one of the owners of Reddit and invited him out to breakfast, of course 😉
At breakfast he asked the founder if he would provide some free ad space for the imgur promotion. He agreed.
200 imgur Pro accounts were sold and the business idea was validated.
The company rebuilt the site and launched a productivity bundle on Lifehacker that sold 500 bundles, providing the final piece of validation that Appsumo would be a valued service.
#18. YouTube - piggbacked the MySpace user base
In the beginning, YouTube’s founders created and uploaded video content themselves. They adhered very loosely to DMCA laws by leveraging primarily copyrighted content to seed the content base.
The company ran monthly video contests -
The founders gave away a nano a day to users who created accounts and uploaded videos -
Next, they “hacked” the MySpace platform which had 25 million users at the time.
Engagement on MySpace was built around indie bands and musicians who needed a way to showcase their talent. YouTube fixed that with its flash-based one-click video experience:
YouTube took on the costs of hosting in exchange for increased brand recognition.
Each embedded video was a free ad that exposed the YouTube brand to the visitors of all the sites it was placed on, putting the brand was able to put itself in front of millions of engaged users.
In 2006 Google bought YouTube for $1.65 billion.
#19. Snapchat - seeded growth in high schools
The first version of the app was called Picaboo. It debuted in the iOS app store on July, 2013, and by the end of summer had only landed 127 users.
Shortly after, the company changed its name to Snapchat following a cease-and-desist letter from the photo-book company with the same name.
Progress remained slow. Evan Spiegel (founder) returned to Stanford for his senior year while Bobby Murphy (founder) took a coding job at Revel Systems, an iPad point-of-sale company in San Francisco.
Things remained slow for several more months, but later that Fall, Snapchat began to show a pulse. As the company reached 1,000 users, an interesting pattern emerged - activity consistently peaked between 9am-3pm.
Apparently, Spiegel’s mother told her niece about the app, who then spread the word through her Orange County high school. Since facebook had beened banned at the school, students began embracing the app on the high school iPads.
Usage doubled over the holidays as students began also downloading the app to their smartphones.
By December they had 2,241 users. By January it was 20,000. By April, 100,000.
While the YoY growth rate has slowed, the number of daily active users (DAUs) has continued to climb:
The founders chose to target millennials - children aged 8-12, as well as young adults.
And, it built three irresistible features:
- No data plan required.
- No need for a smartphone.
- Self-destructing images combated privacy concerns.
The owners shared the iPhone app with educational institutions and schools across California, before word-of-mouth got it featured in large industry publications including the New York Times and TechCrunch, generating a ton of free publicity that quickly spread the app across the country.
Around the same time, Snapchat saw an explosive climb in the app store rankings:
Snapchat is now valued at over $22 billion.
#20. Foursquare - chalk and two rubber balls
Foursquare made it’s first prototype in June 2008.
The next year it launched at the popular SXSW conference.
Foursquare didn’t have a booth like many other startups, neither did they have Twitter’s marketing budget.
They set up an actual game of foursquare - chalk and two rubber balls.
We played all day long, and there was always a waiting line. We were handing out tee shirts, buttons, and stickers. Anytime someone didn't know what Foursquare was, we helped them find it on their phone. We helped get them up and running and using it.
The New York Times wrote about the brand's appearance at SXSW, CNN included Foursquare in a segment about the festival, and MSNBC.com had a feature article about the brand:
Ashton Kuchar, who was in town to promote his media firm, Katalyst, also tweeted the guerilla campaign to his 4.6 million followers.
Attendees and users quickly fell in love with the competitive gaming element of the app – ousting each other as mayors.
Based on user feedback, the company decided to focus on the gamification elements of the app for 6 months after the conference, while also building out the API so companies could develop interesting apps on top of the system.
First, they gamified with badges. Becoming the “mayor”, or the person who checks in the most at a certain place, quickly became an addiction for people.
They hacked the facebook user base by allowing people to post check-ins on facebook timelines for others to see.
Foursquare now has over 55 million monthly active users.
#21. Unroll.me - charge social capital
What is unroll.me?
The app gives your email inbox the spring cleaning it’s needed for years. It’s free. It’s easy. It’s a solution to email overload.
The average consumer has well over 100 newsletters in their inbox.
With Unroll.me, it takes less than 10 minutes to “unroll” the long list of subscriptions you’ve compiled over the years.
How did Rosenwald and fellow co-founder Jojo Hedaya come up with the idea?
The two friends had been emailing back and forth ideas for a startup when they noticed their inboxes were filling up with crap. So, they started building some software to help quickly clean out their inboxes.
It started out as a project, not a company. But, as friends started using the app and adoption grew, they decided to jump in and see if they could turn it into a business.
The company admits not having a defined target audience:
The truth is we’re not targeting at all. We’re really trying to build a system that works for everybody, and we don’t want to limit that.
Instead of charging money to use the app, Unroll.me decided to charge users social capital.
To increase the number of services they could unsubscribe from users needed to share the product via email, Twitter or facebook:
Another thing that helped Unroll.me grow quickly was it’s simple setup process.
They set it up using Gmail where users had to allow Unroll.me limited access to their Gmail account.
Since Unroll got permission to access the inbox, it automatically suggested friends (your top contacts) to invite to use the service.
If you’re using the tool and like it, why wouldn’t you tell your friends about it. When your friend receives an invite they’re more likely to create an account because the recommendation comes from a trusted source:
The company now has over 500K users.
#22. Instagram - a smart influencer marketing strategy
Co-founder Kevin Systrom managed to build Instagram into a $1 billion business in 2 years.
The app was originally built when Mike Krieger (co-founder) and Systrom gutted their Burbn app (combination of Mafia Wars and Foursquare) in an effort to focus on just one thing...
It took 8 weeks for them to build and ship the app.
Instagram started small with 100 people provisioned to use beta, most of which were friends, family and people ported over from the original Burbn app:
How did the company get 25,000 sign ups its first day?
When launch day came the company prompted users to start tweeting and posting their pictures. Many of the initial users were influencers, including Chris Messina, Cole Rise, Gregor Hochmuth and Twitter founder Jack Dorsey shared the app's launch with their enormous audiences.
The initial surge in engagement got the app featured in the Top 10 Free Apps section of the App Store.
There are several other key factors that fueled Instagram’s early grow.
First - the app was ‘public by default’. The default privacy state of user’s photos was set to public. Instagram allowed people to discover other people through their photos in the popular section. This was the main distribution channel and source of followers.
A bold move as most mobile photo apps did not surface pictures without explicit user permission.
Second - Instagram adopted the asymmetric follow model allowing people to follow and be followed by people they did not know offline.
Third - the app allowed cross-promotion with other large social networks which meant it could leverage the distribution channels of other big players like facebook.
Instagram now has over 500 million monthly active users.
#23. Tinder - throw private college parties
How do you grow a mobile dating app into a $5 billion business?
Throw a house party.
The company got it’s first users by throwing large private parties at USC. To enter, you had to install Tinder on your phone.
The company took it a step further.
Then-CMO Whitney Wolfe traveled to prominent campuses across the country. She would go to chapters of her sorority, do a presentation, and have all the girls download the app:
Then Wolfe would go to the corresponding fraternity and open Tinder. All the members would see all the cute girls and download the app.
This push got Tinder its first 15,000 users.
#24. Udemy - consult the "commons"
Udemy had zero content on their site when they started.
At first, the founders tried to convince book authors, professors, and famous public speakers to start creating courses.
But, the notion of online courses at the time was foreign. Authors and professors still preferred the hard copy.
So, Eren Bali (founder) devised a new approach:
Use the many creative commons-licensed courses on the internet to seed the base content.
They legally obtained the videos and posted them to Udemy. This gave the company a hundred courses to start.
The launch was promoted on Mashable, TechCrunch and other reputable publications generating 10,000 sign ups.
#25. Yelp - a hyper-local roll out
Yelp emerged from San Francisco incubator MRL Ventures.
It started when an out-of-town founder got the flu and didn’t know where to go for treatment. He wanted a recommendation from friends and no one had any insights.
An idea was born.
The name is "short," "memorable," and ties into what the site does because Yelp sounds similar to "yellow pages" and "help."
Initially an email recommendation service, it launched in its existing form in October 2004, catering only to the San Francisco market.
Yelp went from zero to 25 million users in just three years!
There were three secrets to their early success:
1. Made the platform social. While earlier review sites sat and waited for anonymous reviews to come in, Yelp focused on building a network of reviewers with profiles, friends, and accolades. Profiles gave anonymous reviews a name and a face, lending credibility to the platform, something their competitor’s didn’t offer.
2. Rewarded “elite” users. Those gave their most engaged users an "elite" status badge on their profile. This element of gamification further increased engagement levels.
3. Started with a local city-by-city approach. Starting in San Francisco, then moving into LA, Chicago and New York. This generated buzz as people began to talk about “which city was next”.
#26. AnyPerk - bought advocates inside target companies
Anyperk is a platform that provides employee perks and discounts to companies of all sizes.
The company was accepted to join the Y Combinator incubator in the winter of 2012.
It officially launched in March 2012, quickly picking up clients such as Pinterest, Birchbox, Seamless and Pandora.
Without making a call or sales pitch, AnyPerk pays members in the target company $50 to convince HR directors to use the app.
A smart strategy, considering customer acquisition costs for B2B SaaS companies is typically about 12-18 months of sale revenue, far more than the $50 AnyPerk is shelling out for new customers.
Here’s the actual message AnyPerk used to entice B2B decision-makers -
"Love your coworkers? Love $50? Have 5 seconds? If your company isn't an Anyperk member, introduce us to your HR director. You get $50 and access to huge discounts and savings. Get started by entering your email address to the left."
The founders, Taro Fukuyama and Sunny Tsang, hustled to get the word out to everyone they could using email and various social media platforms:
#27. Pandora - pivoted to an ad-supported site model
Pandora launched in August 2005 with a ‘freemium’ model: users got 10 hours of free online radio at signup, after which they were asked to pay $36 per year.
In the first couple weeks we had 100,000 people come through and the vast majority listened to every last minute of their free ten hours. Then we asked them for a credit card, and they would wander off into the wilderness.
Chief Strategy Officer, Pandora
Pandora pivoted to an “ad supported” option. It was ad-supported in name only, however, because they had no ad server, no ad staff — not even a place on the page to put ads.
Growth tripled overnight.
Within three days Apple called and asked to buy out ad inventory at $10,000 per month.
The team literally hard-coded the ads into the page. Every time Apple changed the creative they would need to re-launch the entire site.
#28. Alibaba - put boots on the ground
Alibaba’s founder, Jack Ma, failed the University entrance exam in China (twice) and got denied employment at KFC.
He’s now known as the “Crocodile of the Yangtze”, and his company makes more profit than ebay and Amazon...combined.
Back in 1995, while working as an interpreter in Seattle, Ma collected 18 friends in a small apartment to share his vision of creating a global ecommerce company.
After Ma spoke, the group pooled their resources - just $60,000 - and formed Alibaba, a B2B ecommerce platform connecting exporters with buyers from across the globe.
Alibaba went door-to-door to get started.
Back in the early ’000s, the company sent out a large sales force to fan out across the country, visiting factories one by one to show them how they could use Alibaba and Taobao to sell stuff online.
Companies quickly caught on, and Alibaba is now valued at $162.7 billion.
#29. Etsy - leveraged existing communities to seed interest
Etsy reached out to targeted communities before launching.
The founders used to run a web design shop. One of their projects was a site called getcrafty.com.
While working on the project they realized a need for a marketplace for handmade crafts. While they were building Etsy, they reached out to the crafts community on getcrafty.com and craftster.org, which had an even larger user base.
By the time they launched, the Etsy website had already generated a ton of interest from the two platforms helping to generate the initial traction (and seed base) it needed.
#30. Groupon - focused on local products and services
Groupon started as locally as you can get.
The founders went around the office building they were renting a space in asking people to sign up.
Their first campaign?
Half-priced pizzas at the restaurant on the first floor.
The first 500 signups came from there. After that, the focus shifted to local products and services.
A lot of smaller businesses had never even tried marketing so Groupon's offer was enticing. They were able to negotiate much better prices with these vendors than if they tried to go up against the Walmart types.
Andrew Mason didn't want to waste time developing a full platform around the Groupon idea, so he set up a WordPress blog to post offers on. The site wouldn't be updated for 5 years!
Coupons were individually emailed and no one had a clear idea of their role or title in the company. They spent the first months tracking sales to determine if they were in fact onto something big.
Groupon focused on deals for things like cafes, restaurants and movies, as they were all things people typically invite other people to do.
This focus would provide the organic engagement the company needed to get traction.
#31. Baremetrics - transparency is the ultimate selling tool
Baremetrics is a tool that connects to your Stripe account and instantly shows key stats about the growth of your business.
The company experienced amazing growth, and they did it in an unorthodox way.
The company didn't start a blog, collect email addresses, run a private beta, give out coupons, invite influencers or send out press releases.
Their secret weapon:
Interesting, considering Baremetrics has no free plan, no free trial and the average customer pays $70/month.
Yet - the company was shared 4,000 times across Twitter in it’s first six months.
This level of engagement had nothing to do with the number of tweets and everything to do with the solution:
So, how did the company get shared so much through Twitter and other social networks?
The immediacy of the solution.
Baremetrics has no setup process. No settings to edit. No code to integrate. The user clicks one button and instantly has a dashboard filled with actionable data.
Users don’t even need to wait for data to populate. The platform pulls historical data from your Stripe account.
Baremetrics made another clever move by providing ultimate transparency.
What better way to show off how the product works than to show the actual growth of your own metrics to the public:
#32. Twoodo - targeted blog commenting strategy
Twoodo is a “social” online collaboration tool.
The company found itself in the same predicament many startups find themselves:
We had little money to spend on acquiring new users but a huge need for users to visit, sign-up and test the first version of our website.
In order to attract it’s first customer at a low cost, the company implemented a targeted blog commenting strategy.
The idea was simple:
Find blogs the target audience enjoyed reading, leave a comment on articles related to their business, and hope readers clicked through to the Twoodo website:
After two weeks the company saw the following results:
Number of articles commented on: 40
Number of unique visitors acquired: 452 (average of 11.25 per comment)
Number of visitors who signed up to the website: 72 (16% conversion)
Time spent per comment: 10 mins
Total time spent (searching, reading, commenting): 6.5 hours
Visitors ROI: 70 visitors/hour spent
Sign-ups ROI: 11 sign-ups/hour spent
Number of visitors from the top 3 blog comments: 326 (72 percent of total visitors)
Not the most scalable way to attract users, but it allowed the company to get some initial traction with a relatively low customer acquisition cost.
Start with things that don’t scale.
#33. Front - seeded user base with existing communities
Front is a collaborative inbox for businesses in the B2B SaaS industry. The company has some notable big brand clients including Mailchimp, KISSmetrics and Exposure:
Front went grassroots and acquired its first 2,000 users with very little cost.
The first thing the company did, as many startups do, was reach out to all their friends, family and acquaintances. They were also members of a SaaS startup studio which helped the company find its first qualified testers: Mailjet, mention, Textmaster and Pressking.
This initial push to their direct network resulted in 200 sign ups.
Next, the company submitted the product to the beta user community, Betali.st:
The submission generated 832 visits and 400 signups, at a whopping 48% conversion rate!
News.layervault is like Hacker News but for designers. Quickly after Front got featured on Betali.st a reader shared Front on Layervault generating 500 new signups.
Next, the founders got exposure on Product Hunt, a young community of people sharing the best new apps.
The company also blogged about vision, company culture and subjects related to their product. One of their articles got featured at the top of Hacker News delivering 400 new signups.
Finally, the company wrote a guest post for Intercom that got featured on RudeBaguette resulting in another 300 signups.
#34. Under Armour - landed a handful of NFL contracts
Kevin Plank launched Under Armour from his grandmother’s townhouse in Washington DC.
The former quarterback for the University of Maryland wanted to create a T-shirt that wouldn’t hold moisture. As he began developing prototypes he gave samples out to a small network of college and pro football players he had access to.
Plank knew the likes of Jermaine Lewis, Frank Wychek and Eddie George, players who went on to play in the NFL.
I remember reading about this small [apparel] company that sent Mike Tyson a hat, back in the early '90s. Out of nowhere, he put the hat on during a post-fight interview. These guys ended up getting orders for a quarter of a million dollars. There was a little of that to my thought process.
Founder of Under Armour
Plank admits to getting himself into almost $40,000 credit card debt and being forced to eat meals at his mother’s place each night, before finally getting his first round of orders.
In September 1996, Under Armour received it’s first order from the Atlanta Falcons. Two dozen other NFL teams followed.
Word of mouth spread and the company quickly became one of the most recognized apparel brands on the planet.
#35. New Relic - targeted a super niche market
New Relic is a software analytics company that extracts actionable data across millions of apps.
The company started in late 2007, focusing on the relatively small, but rapidly growing Ruby on Rails market. At the time, Ruby on Rails was growing in reputation, but wasn't mainstream.
New Relic saw this as an opportunity to penetrate a market segment: not too big to attract a ton of well funded competition, but large enough to support an early stage startup.
To start, they targeted highly visible members of the Rails community, such as DHH, Tobi Luetke, Rick Olson, Obie Fernandez and Tom Mornini.
Rails developers are notorious for adopting the latest technologies, passionately supporting great products, and vocally criticizing those that are inferior.
New Relic was confident they had a kickass product, and soon influencers were touting it on blogs and forums helping the company quickly climb to 15,000 customers.
#36. Craigslist - it all started as a simple email list
Craig Newmark. CREDIT: Shayan Asgharnia
Having observed people helping one another in friendly, social, and trusting communal ways on the Internet via the WELL, MindVox and Usenet, and feeling isolated as a relative newcomer to San Francisco, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark decided to create something similar for local events.
In early 1995, he began an email distribution list to 10 of his friends. Most of the early postings were submitted by Newmark and were notices of social events of interest to software and Internet developers living and working in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Newmark was known for throwing big parties that were seen as popular networking events. People would pay $6 to go to the parties (beer and DJ). Those forming dot com businesses used the parties to network and meet other Craigslisters face to face.
Newmark would use the events to collect email addresses and add them to his growing list.
Soon, people began using the list for non-event postings. People trying to get technical positions filled found the list was a good way to reach people with the skills they were looking for.
In 1996 community members began asking for a web interface.
Within 9 months, Newmark had the site built. Enough people were using it that he quit his job as a software engineer and began focusing full time on Craigslist.
#37. Bazaart - used an integration as a market entry point
Bazaart is a social photo collage editor.
The company positioned the launch of its MVP around it's direct integration with Pinterest, and used it as an entry point into the market.
At the time, Bazaart was part of an incubator in NYC. The product launched a week before demo day and generated instant media coverage by piggybacking on the Pinterest user base.
The core feature of photo editing was already built, which gave Pinterest users real value.The integration, and subsequent media coverage gave Bazaart it’s first wave of users.
The founders were from Israel, a country with a population of 8M people. There was no sizable homefront market.
As a result:
Bazaart decided to start localizing their app experience to other countries.
Russia was the first external market to be targeted. Both founders were fluent in Russian, so there were zero translation costs.
The localization got Bazaart featured in the Russian AppStore, and to this day brings the company 21% of app downloads.
In an effort to scale the localization strategy, the company began hiring translators on Fiverr to translate the AppStore meta data, eventually helping Bazaart expand into the Italian, Spanish, French and German markets.
#38. Eventbrite - indexed events and profiles to drive organic traffic from the search engines
Eventbrite was founded in 2006 as a self-service platform for people to create, manage and sell event tickets.
The company reached 20 million users by August, 2012.
Eventbrite seeded it’s initial user base by reaching out to close friends they knew were holding events, and had them try out the platform.
The company spent months closely studying what their competitors were doing to acquire new users. During this research period, Kevin Hartz (founder) was impressed by how Yelp was leveraging the indexation of it’s business profiles to drive organic search traffic.
As a result, he decided to implement a similar strategy by making it a priority to get all the country's businesses and events indexed.
Hartz also noticed users began coming to the site organically through facebook.
What it was, was that people naturally want to go to events with their friends or to conferences with their colleagues and share those.
Eventbrite took these observations and immediately began building tools and functionality that made sharing events on facebook as simple and intuitive as possible.
Today, facebook is Eventbrite’s top source of referral traffic.
Bottom line: study your competition and replicate what works.
#39. Rafflecopter - turned widgets into referral traffic
Rafflecopter placed branding on the bottom of all embeddable Rafflecopter widgets so they would receive impressions from all people visiting giveaways launched with their app.
People can click directly through to their website from these widgets.
Rafflecopter is able to leverage the audiences of every one of their users.
#40. Karma Hotspot - turns users into evangelists
The Karma wifi hotspot is wide open. Anyone anywhere can jump on and surf the net.
$14 per gigabyte without an expiration.
But, that’s not how they appeal to customers.
Instead, the company rewards you for sharing your hotspot with friends and strangers. Every time a new user finds your hotspot and logs onto it you’re rewarded with 100 megabytes of extra data (the same amount is also given to the new user to get them started).
This turns every user into a brand evangelist.
#41. Belly - local "boots-on-pavement" sales strategy
Belly Card (commonly known as Belly) is a customer loyalty program that allows merchants to offer customized rewards to customers.
The Chicago-based company has helped thousands of SMBs increase their customer retention rate with an affordable, easy-to-use loyalty platform.
How did Belly break into the ultra difficult local business marketplace?
A hyperlocal focus.
The company put boots on the ground and spoke with hundreds of merchants in the Chicago area in an effort to intimately understand their needs and pain points. From the research, Belly was able to understand SMBs wanted a solution that would allow them to better connect with customers.
As a result:
The team built a platform that was easy to use, while providing merchants with everything they needed to run the solution: point of Purchase marketing materials, iPads, software, and even Belly business cards.
Once the product was built, Belly hit the streets and phone lines, using a traditional sales approach to sign up 500 customers in the Chicago area.
As a critical mass was reached, local networking effects began to drive growth.
Once the Chicago market was established the company set it’s sights on Austin, specifically the SWSW conference.
But, Belly did it a little different. In an effort to generate buzz before the tech conference, the company sent out a team to pre-seed interest in the market (similar to Chicago) one month prior to the SXSW conference.
By the time SXSW arrived, Belly already had merchants on board.
Belly continues to roll out this local sales strategy, tapping regional markets one by one.
#42. Candy Crush - piggybacked facebook
How did Candy Crush become the most downloaded iOS app?
Facebook and simple psychology.
One of the biggest challenges in turning a mobile game into a commercial hit is discovery. Candy Crush overcame this by integrating with facebook.
The company leveraged the social platform in two ways:
1. When players progressed in Candy Crush the game would post Facebook updates on their behalf.
2. Candy Crush showed the progress of a player’s Facebook friends on the game’s level map. This created an element of competition among the player’s social network pushing people to keep engaging in the game, share achievements and request additional credits.
Finally, Candy Crush gave users 3 options if they died...
- Wait until the reset timer runs out and you can play again in 30 minutes.
- Pay and you get to play again right away.
- Sell out your friends by inviting them to ‘help’ you.
The viral component needed to drive organic growth was baked right into the game.
#43. I Am Playr - facebook, localization and 'click banners'
I Am Playr is a social gaming platform that used several strategies to take its business from zero to 4 million users in 6 months:
First - the company built viral loops into the product. Users could share achievements on their facebook timeline, and were rewarded for inviting friends to join the game:
Second - they used facebook ads to fuel the viral marketing components of the product.
This was a smart move for two reasons:
1. Users play the game on facebook - so when they clicked on the ads they were already signed into facebook which removed friction within the conversion funnel.
Compare this to a Google PPC ad. The user clicks the ad, then needs to log into facebook in order to play. This would result in a large drop off.
2. Facebook ads allowed the company to target users based on demographic and psychographic characteristics.
Third - data showed hundreds of thousands of users were playing the game in countries such as Turkey, Brazil and Argentina.
As a result, I Am Playr localized the game into Spanish, Portugese and Turkish. This caused a massive uptick in (paying) users in those countries.
Fourth - the company leveraged facebook’s Open Graph. By requesting facebook permissions before playing the game, the Open Graph protocol would publish certain information to the users timeline. This is similar to Spotify posting the song you’re listening to.
This allowed the company to directly tap into and leverage facebook’s enormous user base.
Finally - I Am Playr cross-promoted their games across click sharing networks such as Applifier and MauDau. They were able to place banners within other games.
Every time a user clicked on an ad on the bar, the game owner receives a ‘click credit’ and they receive a reciprocal click from a user somewhere on the game network.
I Am Playr received 30,000 clicks in 3 days from the click share banners.
The company now has over 1.3 million active users playing the game an average of 48 minutes a day.
#44. GrooveHQ - targeted PR and a viral sign up process
The company wanted to get featured by a major tech blog so they reached out to 40 different outlets.
Only one responded.
The Next Web.
Getting featured on TNW brought them a few hundred email signups, and they were rolling.
Next, GroveHQ created a viral sign up process. Users could only get beta access if they invited friends to use the software.
The company got 30% more subscribers per day after invitees responded to their friends’ posts on Facebook and Twitter:
Finally, they launched a targeted blog campaign, analyzing which types of content resonated with their competitor’s audience.
One of the blog posts got featured at the top of Hacker News for a half day:
#45. Path - facebook ads and phone lists
Path spent $10 million on facebook ads in two months, while auto-spamming phone contact lists to drive traction.
The company now has over 30 million users.
#46. Bidsketch - only integrated with cross-promoters
Bidsketch helps designers create professional looking proposals in minutes.
Six weeks after launch the company had 99% free users and 1% paid accounts. A big revenue problem!
In fact, it took Ruben Gamez (founder) a year and a half after launching Bidsketch to reach a monthly recurring revenue high enough to quit his full time job.
I reached out and asked Ruben how he got his first 100 customers:
Ruben took a pretty traditional approach, leveraging SEO and content marketing to build a launch email list.
Gamez also cold emailed design blogs asking to be featured, requested email cross promotion deals, and only integrated with other apps that would cross-promote his product.
The first ever integration was with Freshbooks, and it got the company more signups in a single day than any previous month.
Gamez admits he will not integrate with an app unless they are willing to promote his product to their email list.
If a company refused, I simply responded - that’s okay, but we tend to prioritize our integrations based on who’s willing to work with us on cross-promotions, so we’ll probably table this for a bit and integrate with competitor Y. We’ll try to revisit an integration with you a few months down the road.
Founder of Bidsketch
Gamez tested removing the Bidsketch free option for a week in an effort to increase paid signups.
An 8x increase in paid conversions. He continued along this path for the next month and saw a 10x increase. Free is not always better.
#47. Feedly - capitalized on the demise of Google Reader
While many sobbed over the demise of Google Reader, Feedly was busy seizing a major market opportunity.
As Google Reader was being phased out, Feedly announced a simple one-click migration (goodbye paint point) and reached out to industry influencers asking them to spread the word:
Feedly also made it their number one priority to speak directly to the Google Reader audience by building out content for likely searches such as “Google Reader alternatives”.
This two punch strategy allowed the company to immediately tap into Google Reader’s large engaged user base.
The company now integrates with a number of other social networks which has increased adoption and helped scale growth.
First come, first serve.
#48. LivingSocial - built on top of the facebook platform
LivingSocial started when the facebook platform opened up for third party developers.
Why did the company first build on top of facebook?
You might be able to acquire users faster and cheaper than you ever could in the history of the web. Can we build engaging applications around these different commerce verticals and figure out how to help people engage around these commerce verticals in a transactional way?
CEO of LivingSocial
The company built several ultra successful apps on top of the facebook platform with over 100 million users adding the applications.
One such app was Virtual Bookshelf, one of the larger book-sharing applications on Facebook, which “at one point in time… got more book reviews per day than Amazon.com.”
This exposure allowed O’Shaugnessy to quickly transition LivingSocial into a business.
How did the company move from an advertising to an ecommerce-based model?
In 2009, LivingSocial acquired a company that had a local sales force in several markets - Boston, New York and DC.
The sales force had a model where Bacardi would go and say, "Hey, I want a thousand people to try Bacardi and Coke in New York in the next 30 days. We'll pay for the cost of the drink and we'll give you $20 for every person you can track that goes and does this."
LivingSocial’s sales force would go into bars and ask:
"Hey, do you want new customers to come in? If you do, all you need to do is accept this sheet of paper that people will print out, keep track of them, and at the end of every month we'll cut you a check for every person that bought a drink, and you get more if they brought someone else with them, if they ordered food, if they ordered a second drink, you get all that upside."
LivingSocial would then target their existing 10 million user audience (from facebook apps). They would ask users what their favorite restaurants were in each target market and then say:
"Hey, do you want a free drink? If you do, you can pick from any of these bars or restaurants. Just send this to your phone or print out this sheet of paper and you can walk in."
On all deals they include a message that states "get this deal for free". If a user purchased a deal and recommend it to three friends who bought it via a special link, it was free for them, no matter how much the deal costs.
#48. Blue Leaf - the world's strictest invite system
How did Blue Leaf get 10,000 users before they even launched?
There were only two ways people could get into Blue Leaf:
1. Get an invite from the company
2. Get an invite from a current user
Only people who request an invite and follow us on Twitter, Like us on Facebook, or otherwise make it clear that they want in, get in. This means they have to sign up with us and tell everyone else about us before they can get in.
CEO of Blueleaf
Blue Leaf didn’t limit the number of invites. Instead, they put a limit on the timeframe to invite a friend.
This infused an element of urgency and practically made people beg to join.
#49. iDoneThis - found customers in other communities
iDoneThis is a productivity tool that allows users to easily keep track of what they did at any given point in time. The tool is currently used by brands such as Shopify and Reddit.
How did the company get its first 5,000 users?
Walter Chen, iDoneThis founder, realized his first 5,000 customers already existed, they were just seeded in other communities.
As a result, he set out to tap into large industry forums and extract his initial user base.
At 9am PST on January 3rd, iDoneThis posted a “Show HN” article on Hacker News with the hook that we built this site to keep our New Year’s Resolutions.
The Show HN post linked to the iDoneThis website along with a description of the project.
Courtney Boyd Myers at The Next Web picked up the story from Hacker News and wrote an article about the startup.
The HN post sent 2,300 visitors to their site over the next 6 weeks, resulting in 150 signups.
The next month, the company cross-promoted a post to three relevant subreddits totally 16,000 subscribers.
The posts generated over 50 comments and remained at the top of the subreddits for 2-3 days.
The reddit exposure sent 3,000 people to the site resulting in 400 signups. It also sparked added social media exposure as people began tweeting and blogging about the company, even offering to build web applications on top of the service.
However, the big spike came when the company got featured on Lifehacker. One month prior to getting featured on LH, Chen had pitched the publication but got no response. As a result, he decided to pitch some “smaller fish”.
One of those smaller fish was How-To Geek. The publication posted their article on March 30. The next day, Lifehacker picked up the post.
This was a game changer for the struggling startup. The LH article sent 25,000 people to the iDoneThis website resulting in 4,500 sign ups:
Today, 20% of their customers use the product every single day.
#50. Unbounce - doubled down on content and webinars
Rick Perreault (founder) became frustrated when he needed to constantly go back and forth with this IT department to get custom landing pages built and deployed.
So, he went searching for a solution. At the time there were plenty of enterprise level solutions in the market, but nothing for SMBs.
Perreault started interviewing other marketers he knew to see if they were experiencing the same challenges. He began contacting marketers he didn’t know, and launched a facebook ad campaign with a survey.
Hundreds of people completed the survey.
Perreault used the feedback he collected to validate the MVP build.
We started marketing the day we started coding. We started our blog at the same time we started developing the product.
Co-Founder of Unbounce
This allowed the company to immediately attract people interested in conversion-rate optimization and online marketing. At the time the concept of landing page optimization was still in infancy:
From day one UnBouce has been on a mission to publish and promote "ridiculously epic" content, while showcasing different landing page designs to capture email addresses.
This 13,000 word "Noob Guide to Online Marketing" was originally published on Moz as a guest post and has been downloaded over 160,000 times:
The company used the blog and email list to announce the platform’s beta release, and has continued executing keyword-driven content strategy to drive targeted organic traffic.
Another tactic UnBounce used to grow quickly was co-hosted webinars to leverage the large audiences of industry influencers. Today, webinars are the company’s #1 source of lead generation.
#51. Pinterest - personally wrote to first 5,000 users
Pinterest hit 17 million users in 18 months.
But, it wasn’t easy.
Ben Silbermann (founder) came from a family of doctors. His parents were doctors. Both of his sisters were doctors. Naturally, he thought he would be a doctor.
He worked in a couple consulting roles outside of college, including a short stint in Google’s customer support center.
But, “there were too many spreadsheets, and not enough innovation":
Ben got frustrated because Google wouldn’t let him build any products. His girlfriend told him to stop complaining and just go do it.
If you’re lucky in life you have someone to call you out on your own bullshit.
Founder of Pinterest
Ben eventually teamed up with a friend in New York, Paul Sciarra.
Together, they produced a product called Tote, which was essentially a phone catalogue.
The founders had dozens of doors slammed in their faces before finally getting a check from an investor. Ben leveraged this, calling all the investors that had previously said no and told them: “You’re going to miss out. This is the hot deal.”
The company secured more funding, hired a designer from New York named Evan Sharp (now a co-founder) and began building what is now known as Pinterest.
In January 2010, Silbermann launched the very first pin. He sent it to all his friends in California:
(no one got it)
"I think I personally wrote to the first 5,000 users," said Silbermann, who also gave the site's users his cell phone number and met some of them for coffee:
A lot of people ask, 'Why did you keep going? Why didn't you bail? I think theidea of telling people, 'We blew it,' was just too embarrassing.
Founder of Pinterest
Most early users came from Silbermann’s home town of Des Moines, Iowa.
It wasn’t until May 2010, when he organized a program called “Pin It Forward” - a chain letter where bloggers would exchange pinboards about what home meant to them. People would create a pinboard and get more invites by getting friends to create pinboards.
This was the inflection point.
Here are some other early moves Pinterest used to fuel it’s growth:
The company built in functionality that would allow the platform to fuel it’s own growth.
When users joined Pinterest, they could automatically sync up with their connections from other social media networks, enabling them to avoid the cold-start syndrome of having to build a community from scratch. Similar to Twitter’s “suggested user” functionality.
The company also made sharing content on its site easy with a bookmarklet and social sharing integrations. This spread their brand to other larger social networks.
When Pinterest was first getting started, it was invitation-only, but allowed users to request an invitation if they wanted to join.
After requesting an invitation, Pinterest sent out an email to prospective users explaining that the waiting list was quite long, but that eventually, they would be accepted to join.
This helped the social network generate buzz.
Finally, the infinite scroll allowed people to see loads of content by scrolling down the screen, being exposed to hundreds of new pinners and brands along the way.
People were hooked. As users began repinning and cross-promoting content the Pinterest brand quickly grew into a social media juggernaut valued at $11 billion.
In 2003, as a sophmore, Mark Zuckerberg created the site Facemash:
The site would show two pictures of people (usually young women) and ask the user to rate who they thought was more attractive. The women displayed were members of Harvard’s nine houses.
In order to get the site to work, Zuckerberg needed to hack into Harvard’s private network to get all the dormitory ID pictures.
This almost got him expelled.
In 2004, Zuckerberg created “The Facebook”. Within 30 days of the site’s creation, over half of Harvard’s undergraduates were members.
A couple months later and the site had expanded into 3 more universities: Stanford, Columbia and Yale.
In June, the company move to Palo Alto and acquired the “facebook.com” domain for $200,000.
Zuckerberg was able to grow the number of facebook users by scraping email addresses from university websites, and then send them invites to use the service.
He also opened the platform to high school students, and then eventually anyone over the age of 13 years.
Once people were signed up, the “invite contacts” feature prompted users to start engaging and acted as a referral engine that would eventually make the site go viral.
Another feature that helped facebook grow into the juggernaut it is today was the photo tagging feature. If a non-user was tagged in a photo on Facebook, they got an email that required them to register a Facebook account in order to view it.
Imagine going to a party and getting tagged in a photo with ten of your friends. Your inbox would blow up with invitations to register an account.
Peer pressure 😉
Yammer burst onto the scene in 2009 when they won TechCrunch50. The win gave them instant exposure:
Continued endorsement from TechCrunch got the company off to a fast start.
Yammer’s client base now includes 80% of the Fortune 500.
What’s the secret to the company’s sustained growth?
A bait-them-with-basic strategy.
The platform was designed in such a way that anyone could sign up for the basic service with their work e-mail, no fees or strings attached.
The free plan includes the basics, and if the user wanted to introduce a more robust experience to their business peers they needed to upgrade to either the three or five dollar per user per month paid plans.
The company converts 15% of customers from the basic version to a premium option.
Any employee in a company can come to our website and sign up for Yammer, thus creating a Yammer network for his/her company. That is how we have gotten into 90,000+ companies and organizations in just over 2 years.
Founder of Yammer
Just like many have done before them, Ello positioned itself as an “invite only” startup. The codes were selling on ebay for as much as $100.
They leveraged the FOMO perfectly - Fear Of Missing Out ;)
Ello went viral after the Daily Dot published an article titled “The great gay Facebook exodus begins.”
Almost immediately, people were flocking to the site at a rate of 4,000 new users an hour.
Todd Berger (founder) and the Ello team also chalk the site’s rapid exposure up to the recent vocal criticism directed at Facebook's legal name policy by the LGBT and drag community.
Drag queens Sister Roma and Lil Miss Hot Mess were among many in the community who found their profiles deactivated by Facebook because they used stage names, not real names.
Things really started to explode about 10 days ago when members of the San Francisco LGBTQ community began coming over because Facebook had been kicking them off their network. That led to more interest within the larger creative community, and people in general.
Founder of Ello
Funnelfeed is a twitter social marketing platform that builds you a list of suggested tweets based on your keywords.
The company got it’s first signups on Craigslist by offering people a HUGE promo code for free office space:
All signups were entered into the giveaway.
Circa started by doing something surprisingly most other mobile apps weren’t doing. Circa allowed users to share in-app content by text.
This was a clever move considering 98% of text messages are opened, and most text messages are read in 3 minutes.
By allowing their users to text interesting bits from Circa, their friends instantly got the news and a link to download the app.
It was a direct (almost unavoidable) line to the end user.
These guys grew by “baiting” beta customers.
The Rackscanner app helps you track keyword rankings.
During beta, users could only track 5 keywords, unless they referred more people to use the app.
This isn’t anything groundbreaking, but the company used it effectively because they gave away the one thing they knew their users absolutely wanted...
How did MessageMe acquire 1.2 million users in 12 days?
They got featured by Apple for one full week as the first app in new and noteworthy - this alone resulted in 1 million downloads.
The company also embedded an “auto-select” feature that let users grab all their friend’s contact details and invite them to use the app with a single click.
A combination of good timing and a viral growth engine.
#59. Inman Next
Inman Next acquired 225,000 users in 11 months.
The company created a content engine that leveraged highly influential guest post contributors within the real estate vertical.
Generate a steady stream of content that would be amplified across large social audiences.
This allowed the company to acquire backlinks and sent a huge volume of traffic to the site.
Inman also conducted extensive content analysis to uncover which external content sources were performing best, and then reached out to the authors requesting permission to syndicate their content.
They were able to leverage proven content and piggyback on the content written by reputable brands.
LogMeln is a provider of SaaS and cloud-based remote connectivity services for collaboration, IT management and customer engagement.
According to Sean Ellis, original growth hacker at LogMeln, the company used a Google search engine marketing campaign to target users searching for keywords related to “IT management”.
This generated an initial surge in traffic.
However, LogMeln soon realized that traffic was not converting.
So, the company decided to poll users and learned that they weren’t converting because they thought the free offer was too good to be true.
They quickly introduced a premium option and conversions increased 300%.
Freemium is not always better.
The first phase for the company focused on getting beta testers and exposure to early adopters.
To get started, Launchrock focused exclusively on startup directories such as Erli Bird, Betali.st, CSSMania, KillerStartups, and Producthunt.co.
Engaging within these startup communities helped LaunchRock acquire a mailing list of 700 for the beta launch.
#62. Hello Bar
Originally a freemium product, Hello Bar was finding it hard to build traction.
At the time of the SOPA and PIPA outrage when sites like Wikipedia and Reddit were threatening to go dark, the team at Hello Bar saw opportunity.
Instead of going dark they decided to create a new skin for the hello bar that would send people to an information page about the proposed legislation.
The team then outreached to major influencers such as Boing Boing and even got the Hello Bar featured on Radio Head. This created a viral loop that got the bar featured on thousands of websites, sending over a million users to the site in the next month.
This was critical for the company starting out as it helped overcome the barrier of copying and embedding the code onto the website.
People wanted to be part of the movement against the PIPA/SOPA threat, and using Hello Bar was an easy way to do it.
Leah Busque came up with the idea for TaskRabbit in 2008 when she realized she needed dog food but didn't have time to buy it herself.
What strategy did the company use to acquire it's first 10,000 users?
Like Uber annd Yelp, Taskrabbit started with a hyperlocal focus.
It can be tempting to just go really broad, really wide scale, really fast. But for us, we just focused on one customer segment.
We focused on this mothers’ group in Boston. And once we had cornered that market with that moms’ group, those moms were talking to other moms on Beacon Hill and Backbay and Cambridge, and it just spread from there.
Founder of TaskRabbit
The lesson: start small, crush it, and word-of-mouth will help leak your business into larger external markets.
Jason Fried started a web design company in 2003 called 37signals.
However, the company had a common problem:
They were managing all their projects through email. This proved inefficient, so the team built internal software to help with project management. The company became so efficient that clients began asking what software they were using for projects.
The founders had an “aha” moment, polished up the product, priced it and put it on the market.
In February 2004, Basecamp was born.
The company promoted the launch on their blog, and within a month they had a hundred paying customers.
After a year, Basecamp was generating more revenue than the web design company.
Today, more than 15 million people have worked on a project with Basecamp.
Exclusivity marketing in an unsaturated market.
LinkedIn’s early success can be attributed to the quality of the people they invited to use the platform. The company focused on (1) VCs and (2) professionals with a large number of connections.
This allowed the company to build a strong seeded user base that could fuel growth through their extended networks.
Once users were on board they were able to create public profiles so they could be indexed and show up in organic search results.
Before LinkedIn, it was almost impossible for someone to find themselves in the top five search results.
Similar to Reddit…
Quora co-founders D’Angelo, Cheever and Cox wrote most of the earliest questions and answers themselves. The first employees and beta testers then continued this trend, until the platform generated enough activity for them to stop.
InVision is a prototyping and wireframing tool for designers to get iterative feedback on products.
How did they go from zero to 118,443 users?
To get early adopters, the company made a deliberate push to visit as many live events and meetups attended by designers as possible.
They supplemented this strategy by building and nurturing relationships across Twitter:
Getting out there on the ground and meeting our end users was how we built those early relationships. And a ton of twitter, I can’t stress how important twitter is to supplement an early strategy.
CEO at InVision
Twitter helped the company turn personal relationships into loyal recommendations.
The company also chose to give away a free T-shirt each week and promote the giveaway heavily across social media channels.
"I’d say our Free t-shirts have been a much bigger success than expected. Startup swag is still really hot! We give away 1 a week, and it’s just crazy how much social media buzz and email addresses that gains us each week."
Every email that gets collected is entered into a fixed drip campaign. To build that campaign, InVision re-used content from their blog. Low cost, high ROI.
Today, 80% of the InVision’s traffic comes via word-of-mouth.
Tint is a self-serve platform that allows organizations to create social hubs in minutes.
They used strategic content partnerships to quickly get their product in the hands of users, reaching out to a number of website builders.
The company leveraged the domain authority of larger industry publications to rank for highly competitive keywords, and drive targeted traffic.
The company ran a targeted press outreach campaign, pitching large industry publications such as TechCrunch, and Makeuseof.
Not only did these articles generate a large amount of exposure, they began ranking highly for related keywords, delivering a steady stream of organic traffic and new leads:
Amazon launched back in 1995 and leveraged some clever search engine marketing strategies to build its initial user base.
The company established a number of deals with web portals and popular search engines at the time such as Infoseek, Yahoo!, Lycos and AltaVista to serve ads to people that were searching for books, or a specific book title.
It would be an obvious strategy today, but this came at a time before AdWords and search engine marketing (SEM) really existed. As a result, they were able to acquire traffic and achieve a low initial customer acquisition cost.
Amazon had a number of other book selling websites such as 2millionbooks.com prior to the launch of Amazon and leveraged those properties to drive traffic to the Amazon website.
Finally, as one of the first big ecommerce websites, Amazon was able to attract PR and media coverage early on, helping to quickly build exposure.
Flynx is one of the latest Android browsers to hit the app store.
The company took a leaf out of Neil Patel’s book -
Press is the best way to kick start your startup, and the best way to get it is to manually reach out to journalists.
They executed an aggressive manuel outreach campaign program, contacting top publications in the tech space, eventually getting featured on leading publications in the tech space like Lifehacker, Gizmodo, Android Authority, Android Community and Addictive Tips.
This initial surge in exposure helped the company go from zero to 50,000 downloads without spending a penny.
Ryan Carson launched Treehouse in 2011.
It's an online interactive educational platform which teaches web design, web development, and gives business education classes.
Treehouse used blog content to build thought leadership and capture traffic from people searching for “web development training” related search terms.
I definitely believe what Brad Felt said about the best way to do marketing is through thought leadership. We do a lot of let’s write about interesting things on the cutting edge, let’s teach interesting things, let’s be seen as the experts, let’s be seen as helping people.
Founder of Treehouse
Carson also leveraged Twitter to validate his MVP. He tweeted directly to web designers and developers, asking them to check out his (at the time) wireframed homepage.
He got back 90% positive response with the opinion “I would pay for it”.
The company did a launch on Techcrunch that increased the number of paying customers by 46% in 7 days.
Shortly after launch, Treehouse realized that the platform had a 12% churn rate. At the time, a churn rate of 12% would have zeroed the company out in 10 months.
As a result, the company implemented a motivation system based on unlocking badges to encourage students to keep learning.
23,000 badges were unlocked in the first week.
In a very short period of time, GrowthHackers has grown to be one of the most popular online forums for entrepreneurs and online marketers.
When the forum first launched, Seth Ellis (co-founder) and ten other friends and colleagues spent six weeks scouring the internet looking for quality content to seed the forum.
At the time, Ellis had a following of roughly 10K and would regularly tweet new articles. Other members of the team such as Everette Taylor and Morgan Brown did the same.
This sent a steady stream of traffic to the GH website.
Ellis wanted to know which channels their audience was using to find growth inspiration, so he placed a Qualaroo pop up on the site asking people that exact question.
It quickly became apparent that most people went to Twitter for this information.
The team quickly launched the GrowthHackers twitter handle and began tweeting out links to new posts.
The founders would retweet and leverage their large social audiences to drive traffic.
GrowthHackers has seen exponential growth in recent years due it's "high tempo testing" framework.
#73. Growth Hacker TV
Growth Hacker TV partnered up with growth niche sites and agreed to drive traffic to each other’s site using Hello Bar.
The company got partners to agree for every two clicks given away they’d send one click back.
Basically, the company gives two clicks, gets one click. They always received more traffic than they give away.
No one would have pegged Mark Pincus as a game tycoon. Prior to launching Zynga, the four year entrepreneur had zero game industry experience.
Yet, he took Zynga from zero to an $8.9 billion valuation in less than five years, holding the top five games on facebook.
How did Pincus do it?
The Chicago native came from humble beginnings. Pincus studied business at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. He worked in finance, got an MBA from Harvard and bounced through a couple different jobs.
Pincus says, “I got fired or asked to leave from all my jobs.”
He decided to become an entrepreneur, and is on record for starting 4 different successful companies prior to Zynga, none of which were gaming related.
Pincus admits failing 15-20 times along the way.
One of Pincus’ defining moments came as an angel investor. He invested in many successful startups, including Napster, Naseeb, Technorati, Friendster, Xoom, but there was one company in particular that would open up the doors to a multi-billion dollar opportunity…
Pincus’ investment gave him the in with founder Mark Zuckerberg.
In 2007, when facebook opened up its API, Pincus decided to go along for the ride. He changed the name of his company from Presidio Media to Zynga.
Zynga’s early revenue came from Myspace, but it exploded when the company shifted focus to facebook.
The company released their first (poker) game for Facebook in September 2007.
We were the first company to believe in the social gaming opportunity and go after it with our poker game in July, 2007...everyone else was focused on viral apps like pokes and other things.
Founder of Zynga
Zynga was the first application to leverage Facebook as a marketing platform at scale.
Users could acquire time (faster leveling up) or resources in the game by inviting friends.
In March 2008, Zynga added a way to sell poker chips via lead generation. A user could get chips if they participated in revenue-generating activity for Zynga, such as accepting an offer to sign up for something.
Zynga admits, its company’s growth and survival hinged on the coattails of facebook’s explosive growth.
“Does it bother us that we’re a fly on Facebook’s ass?” Pincus joked in his talk. “In 2007, people laughed at me” for doing a Facebook app company. “We live and die by the changes these guys make.” - Pincus
#75. Mobile Roadie
Mobile Roadie makes it easy for anyone to build mobile apps for iPhone, Android, iPad and the Mobile Web.
Influencer outreach was the catalyst for their early success.
They made it a goal to attract one marquee client per vertical they were going after.
In 2009, the company convinced Madonna to come on board and made a killing in the music industry.
Likewise, they penetrated the sporting industry in the US when they partnered with the Miami Dolphins.
Sometimes it just takes one to convince many.
Before releasing Snappa to the public, the company launched a side project called Stocksnap.io offering beautiful free stock photos.
We knew that a lot of people searching for free stock photos would probably be interested in an easy to use graphic design tool. Once we officially launched Snappa, we started cross promoting the tool to visitors of StockSnap.io.
Founder of Snappa.io
The company used the "engineered marketing" approach to quickly build a large audience they could market the Snappa design tool to as soon as it launched.
As content marketing becomes more competitive, the strategy of creating a free complimentary tool to build a pre-launch community to sell into will help companies gain initial traction.
A one-man show.
Jack Dorsey (face of Twitter) leveraged his celebrity status to quickly build mass exposure on industry blogs and news sites such as Mashable.
But, he also went grassroots.
Dorsey performed in-person demonstrations of the product with investors and vendors to show how easy it was to use.
The defining move came when Dorsey built and leveraged a high-profile partnership with Apple. The company stocked and sold its reader for $10 in every store.
Another strategic partnership with Visa built credibility and established them as a legitimate product that big brand customers bought into quickly.
What Growth Strategies and Tactics are You Going to Try in Your Business?
There you have it - inside the ropes of 77 hyper-growth companies. Hopefully you've come away with loads of inspiration and ideas.
What are some of the key takeaways you got from the post? What growth hacking strategies are you going to test to scale your business?
Let us know in the comments below. And, if you have had success with any other growth tactics not mention in this post, please share those too 🙂