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Ask HN: How do you develop a userbase for your side projects?
63 points by rfitz on Jan 12, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 31 comments
For a while now, whenever I build something on the side, my single biggest point of difficulty is getting users and increasing user count month to month. Certain projects I get enough users to initially validate the idea as good or bad, but after that point it's hard to continue to build and grow a decent userbase. I know there are many talented individuals here, so I guess my question to you is what tips and tricks do you use to build and develop a userbase?

I've launched multiple side projects since the early 1970s. Nothing in the way of marketing has worked for me, but I think I have finally found an approach that works.

I know it's counter-intuitive, but, trying to find customers is actually a mistake! It's too much work for too little return.

The right approach is to devise a method to find someone who will find customers for you. This might be deeper than it first appears. Consider this example.

My current budding project (call it E) is a tool for students who are having academic problems. Before, I would have tried to convince students that E would help them. Instead, my current approach is to find people whose problem is not to improve their own academic work but to improve the work of others. My value proposition is directed at them not at students. It is their problem I am trying to solve. E solves their problem by giving them something they can offer to students needing help.

Now my effort is to approach academic advisors, tutors, remedial educators, learning disability psychologists, and the like via professional associations and activities. In a sense, these people have become my market NOT the students. They will work for years for free and share their success stories to fellow workers. This sustained compounding effort is the sort that can lead to exponential growth.

Devising a method to find such people can be difficult. Deep thought is needed.

Who really are your customers?


As an experiment I posted my side project in subreddits related to what the project's about. I went from ~15 registered users to 45 registered users in a couple of days. Google Analytics showed ~300 new users in 1 day and ~3000k page views within a couple of days.

Just by posting there and using Google Analytics for the most basic metrics, it boosted my site's ranking in google searches which helped. The numbers I got back are tiny, but it's fun to see new users still signing up and adding data to my project.

I also used reddit for my side projects with mixed results. My saleable project didn't do well but my OSS project did. My OSS project got 27 stars within 3 or 4 days (which is 3 times the amount of stars I had on my most popular repo).

Nice! Yeah definitely mixed results with Reddit, but it's great for free one-time advertising.

Another downside is you can't hit your audience more than once without being targeted a spammer, so I like to think of it as a free 'usertesting.com' outlet.

You can hit them more than once, depending on your target audience. I posted my library to /r/elixir and then to /r/programming. Admittedly it didn't do well on /r/programming but it got some views

Good to know. Maybe I'll post again in a couple of months to see if I can snag more users.

I've had a lot of mixed results from reddit as well. I'm fairly active in a number of subreddits so I find I get decent results when I post products in those, but overall my experience could be categorized as "luck" I would say...Sometimes it takes and other times it doesn't.

Yeah it's definitely mixed. Luckily I haven't had any negative feedback, it's been mostly positive and I've had some great suggestions as well. Downside is it takes a bit of time to post the same thing across subreddits, but it's free.

There are a lot of advice out there for this, only that it is always for full-time endeavors, ambitious startups with a team of co-founders and even hire marketers.

These advice can give insights but are rarely directly appliable to side-projects. What you want is a constant, predictable source of people genuinely interested in your project, rather than growth hacking your way to the exponential explosion.

The best way to do it for a side-project is to have access to and trust from an audience.

There are two ways to do it. Write a blog and be part of an online community where your target audience hang out. That is why the advice of having experience at the industry you are focusing is even more a sine qua non than with startups.

Both actions are actually very complementary. Regularly write interesting posts on your blog and create an audience with time. Regularly contribute at HN or subreddits or Twitter or whatever and gain trust.

In both strategies be sure to be useful and deliver value not necessarily related to your side-project. If people sense you are only doing that artificially as pure content marketing, you will lose their trust. And for one-man side-projects, this kind of trust it is even more important than to startups.

Thanks for the really informative post. I've actually tried some blogging in the past but have since slowed down as I wasn't getting a ton of results, I'm definitely going to try and stick with that though. I also like the idea of being active in various communities. Thanks again.

I've been building https://www.findlectures.com, and have ~400 people on an email list and a few hundred people a day use the site, primarily from having articles written about the project on TNW / Lifehacker.

Some observations:

* I work directly with a couple end users who really like the project, which gives much better feedback than posting on reddit, etc

* Build features that help more technical users (in my case, facets for programming languages)- people who come from HN / twitter give better feedback, write better tickets, and are more able to tell others if they like the app

* As far as promotion, I've had success with HN comments, guest posts on dev.to, and the startups reddit. All three have exposed the app to people with much larger audiences.

* The email lists Cooper Press manages are good to write for, because they pick up a lot of their content from niche subreddits.

* People who write articles about you rely heavily on material you've posted about yourself / your project (either on your own site, or in comments here).

* Some Simple UI features communicate what your project does better than verbal explanations (e.g. for a search engine, help text that shows example searches for different features)

* Any articles you write you can re-purpose in emails you send out, or vice-versa, so the time you spent doesn't get wasted if one approach doesn't work

* There is a compelling psychological benefit to posting a project on reddit (etc) in comments - every time I do, I think of some minor way I could improve the project. This is a bit like code reviews, where the pressure of showing someone your work makes you do a better job.

* Broadening the scope of what you can do gives you a lot more to talk about publicly. E.g. you might not be an expert in AI, but if you do a couple experiments on a dataset you have, you can participate in all those forum threads.

See also: https://www.findlectures.com/articles/2016/12/19/FindLecture...

Really helpful feedback, thanks! I can definitely incorporate and adapt a lot of these points with what I do.

Glad it helped! If it works out I'd love to hear what the outcome is.

In my experience, it's really, really tough. To get our first customers we had to send thousands of emails, talk on the phone with dozens of prospective customers (for both customer development and actual selling). There's a reason why SDRs/Lead Gen marketers are full-time positions and it's ambitious to try and replicate a legitimate sales funnel without being able to dedicate time to it.

This isn't something I would have been able to do if I were still employed, which I assume is your situation since you refer to it as "something on the side." For instance, even getting on the phone with people can be tough, since the hours they're more likely to chat with you are the hours you're at work.

I know this isn't something you want to hear. The good news is that I'm sure it depends on the industry - we had zero connections and background in our industry when we started - and I'm sure our experience doesn't reflect _all_ companies. But I admittedly underestimated how much time/effort needed to go into selling a b2b product when I was a comfortably employed developer.

Edit: re-reading your post, I think you might be describing a consumer-facing product. In which case user acquisition is different, but I would say the challenges are the same (having built many consumer-facing side projects in the past).

I agree completely. I've come to learn its certainly a time consuming task regardless of the product, and the fact that it's a side product adds a degree of difficulty.

Just should actually do community building from the first second on. The easiest way is to share your idea and getting feedback on it. We developed a product for this. It is called STOMT. For example the game "Empires of the Undergrowth" (not on the market yet) intensively uses STOMT to collect feedback in form of short wishes (you can label them as a page owner). We also have integrations for a lot of platforms so people don't have to leave your product: https://www.stomt.com/empires-of-the-undergrowth

Also works well for ourselves: https://www.stomt.com/stomt

You can think of STOMT as consumer-friendly GitHub Issues.

That sounds really intriguing, I'll take a look!

Its hard to provide actionable advice without knowing more about you. However, in general terms, you focus on developing and audience through a marketing plan that has a clear content strategy.

Your marketing plan might simply be:

Produce content in various formats for $market. Put call to action on content to urge $market to buy/subscribe/whatever. Then post the content in $community.

The content strategy might be something like:

I will focus on $subject. Will produce blog posts, vlogs, podcasts, whatever. The main subject revolves around it. I will do this three times a week for twelve weeks and measure which content got the most attention.

Its hard to say $advice will work for you because there are many variables. Feel free to ping me (email on profile) if you have more questions.

Valuable and actionable advice, I really appreciate it! I continue to see content marketing pop up, so I'm definitely going to try and explore that much more.

Its inbound through content. Works well for various markets but its not for everyone.

I have side project where we charge 60€/month to our customers (mostly small businesses but also individuals).

What we did to build a userbase is to pay a small fee (1,5€) to freelancers of our trust who would find possible clients (not random but selected people) and write a personalised message for them that we would send. Whenever someone becomes a client, they get extra money (7€).

If you run the numbers, it's just a matter of probability the fact that we make more money from paying them to find people (and knowing that a lot will fail) than from staying with our userbase without growing.

So far, it's been a good method.

That seems to be a low payout. If the ltv is say $600 your affiliate program pays out just over 1% of that. How do you get away with that?

There's a couple of things to consider here.

First, the affiliates do this to get some extra money, they aren't making a living of that.

Regarding the 1% of the ltv, you should also think about the conversion rate. Let's say we get 1 final customer of every 30 prospects the affiliate has selected. He is making 52.7€ which pretty much covers a full month of what the client pays.

Also, the ltv of our service is more like 300€ (I wish it was more, but for now that's good enough).

Another point is that finding a prospect isn't much of an effort. It can take them from 5 to 10 minutes max. At 5 min that would be a minimum payout of 18€/h. That's without counting on the +7.5€ if it becomes a client. If every 3 hours they can make a client, they make 20.5€/h. I don't think that's a bad payout for something you can do whenever you want without any obligation.

Lastly, there's the fact that some affiliates are better than others and have better conversion. The better you do, the more money you can make. Taking it to the extreme, let's say 1 of 3 became clients and it takes you 5 minutes to find one, you would be making 48€/h.

try doing customer development to figure out if your on the right path. There is a short book Running Lean that has a great script template you can start with.

another great book Traction: How Any Startup Can Achieve Explosive Customer Growth co-authored by the founder of Duck Duck Go gives some really great advice on exploring channels through experiments in parallel to your development effort.

You could also try something like betalist to get some initial users.

Thanks for the suggestions, I'll take a look!

Meet people having the pain point your side project solves in person and tell them about your solution. Have you ever tried attending meetups?

I have not (at least not with the intention of talking about a side project), excellent idea!

I suggest a title change from "How do you develop a userbase for your side projects?" to something like "How have you developed a userbase for your side projects?" or "How did you develop the userbase for your side projects?".

Much depends on what platform you are on. If you are an app - you need a marketing boost - can be done in multiple ways i.e. paid marketing, blog coverage, event launches, etc.

There's a thousand different answers to this.

A simple answer is to keep doing what you did to get your initial users, until that thing doesn't work anymore.

This is exactly his problem though. After having enough customers to validate the idea, using the same method doesn't help him to grow the user base. In other words, doing what he did isn't working anymore for him.

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