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Ask HN: Obtaining initial users for a startup
119 points by havoc2005 on Feb 19, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 24 comments
This may seem like a very basic question, but basic is where I need the most assistance. For tech start ups and social applications, or anything for that matter. How do most companies usually get their initial set of users?

An example to clarify my question: say you start a dating site for a specific niche. How do you get a good amount of users registered on your site, so that when you launch, you don't have people that register, see no activity, and then leave immediately?

I apologize if this is common knowledge ahead of time.

Exactly what I was looking for. Thank you

You're welcome - mostly found by this and similar searches:


(removed comment about upvoted - I made it in a moment of weakness and shouldn't've)

I actually appreciate the up vote comment. Being a redditor and ex digg user, one of the first things I looked for was an upvote/downvote button on here but due to all of the information I've been taking in on this site lately, I've completely disregarded everything else and didn't stop to think that the tiny triangle was the upvote link.

So far HN has been an absolute goldmine

Thanks for these excellent links. Getting a boulder to start rolling is the hardest part :-)

Thanks for these links, I'm in a very similar situation at the moment.

In a mixergy interview, reddit's Alexis talks about how the whole team would post links all day until it had enough traction to move on its own.

Basically "fake it till you make it".

This can work in cases where gaining a critical mass of information/content/links is necessary for a critical mass of users, but what about gaining a critical mass for a product or service? It has to be something real that people buy, so faking it wouldn't work.

I wrote more on that topic here: http://sahillavingia.com/blog/faking-it/ [1].

[1] - shameless plug.

It's "chicken-and-egg" problem. You should go read Chris Dixon's post here http://cdixon.org/2009/08/25/six-strategies-for-overcoming-c...

37 Signals has followed a "market by sharing" strategy since the beginning.

They have no sales force or advertising and yet manage to create entertaining, educational and valuable content in a variety of formats that gets spread throughout the web and garners them valuable distribution.

The idea is to share everthing that's in and around your domain. For instance, a small web design shop could create content on the following topics:

* How to write a killer proposal * How to close sales * Design tips for small businesses * Mobile strategy for small businesses * Is Groupon worth it? * Web site tips * etc

Most businesses will never achieve the reach that 37 Signals has - for obvious reason. Not all of us could invent Ruby on Rails. However, I think every small business and startup can implement the strategies used by 37 signals - share everything, including your secret sauces and recipes just like chefs do, and you'll increase reach and decrease user acquisition costs.

There are a few links gathered here about chicken and egg problems:



I will add that I was looking for similar info for a variety of reasons but I seem to suck at starting these threads. Some of my reasons: A) I have a number of tiny email lists that I can't seem to jumpstart and it annoys/frustrates me especially because B) I have a history of turning existing lists/forums from tiny little flames to bonfires of traffic, attracting wildly larger numbers of users C) I've wondered if there is a means to monetize that last talent and D) I have some websites that I want to grow and am not getting there.

Well, that last point is a little more complicated than that. I debate whether or not to grow them or just move on to something new. I have a long history of being very controversial, usually without meaning to me. I have spent a lot of time working on how to not get such strong (negative) reactions and part of the outcome has been that it has kind of left me afraid to say anything. I belong to some lists where I actively discourage the strong fan-fare type reactions and it seems to have left people not knowing how to talk to me at all, so people mostly don't, like they are afraid or something. I remain stuck, not knowing how to effectively move forward.

Thanks for posting this question. You obviously have more talent for asking a "good" question than I have.

This is actually a lot easier if you have a specific niche as per your example.

Without a niche, the whole world is your target and you will not have any good place to market to.

With a niche you are able to clearly say that you have a target market and then constrain your activities to just attracting them.

When I started a fixed gear cycling forum I didn't really know anyone, so I spent time researching where they hung out, and understand the problems with the tools that they already used. When I finally pitched my product to them it was by then as a friend rather than a cold-call, and they already knew me and I they... it wasn't enough to make revenue on day one, but it was the start of a snowball effect as they each invited others.

Niches are good. If you have one look to where those people already hang out... in the real world as well as virtually.

Do not be ashamed of asking such a question. It's actually the #1 question that most entrepreneurs face once they are done coding. They suddenly discover that by and large, the world doesn't know and doesn't care about their site.

So allow me a meta question: I was just working on putting together a social media panel on how to gain traction, for the next Founder Conference. Who do you think would contribute most to such a panel?

Would you like a format where 4 entrepreneurs from the audience get coached, live, by the panelists? I think this would avoid dull presentations with no concrete actions.

Apologies for the plug. Current program is at http://founderconference.eventbrite.com

If I understood the question correctly, how about using 4 recent start-ups that have gained significant traction and have the audience question them on how they did it?

Hum... That's kind of already included because most of the other speakers are succesful entrepreneurs, and they share their stories. But it always sounds easier in hindsight, so I was thinking that by using real testcases of startups that didn't take off yet, you'd understand the challenges better.

Test cases would be very good. I've attended many events myself, Techcrunch50 being the last one and the questions that I ask here have helped me more because I get to ask the same people that have gone through the issue.

I'm exactly in the same boat right now. I have a great startup http://UpOut.com. I can tell you what we're trying right now:

1) Email sign up form (200+ users signed up with 60+ so far on the "Submit an Activity") 2) Funny videos about us (first one is posted) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VSZMn-s3NZs 3) Email every blog out there big and small to see if they're interested in covering when you launch. 4) Hiring people to write initial content. 5) Giving presents to advocates and good users of our beta.

We're trying everything right now to push it and get it viral. Any other suggestions anyone?

Nice work there on UpOut.com, congrats. To increase conversions, you might want to consider pulling an IP to geolocation thingie on the home page and say something (subtly) like Hi, welcome from <City>, <Country>. -HTH

For my site, Scribophile, it was a classic chicken-and-egg problem. You post your writing for critique, but must earn points by critiquing the writing of others first. This is what I did when I launched:

-Nobody will join a site if it looks like a ghost town, and sites always begin as ghost towns. So I had a lot of my friends create several accounts each and just futz around to give prospective members the illusion that the site was older and more active than it really was. I personally critiqued people's writing under several pseudonyms, and even though I don't write much myself, I sat down and wrote some stinkers just to post on the site to make it appear active.

-As I mentioned, you must critique writing to earn points, but you can't earn points if there's no writing on the site! So the first few hundred members got the ability to post their writing for free, without spending points. This seeded the site with some content--low quality content, but content nonetheless.

-I had a paid account option in place from the start (freemium model), but at first everyone who signed up got a free upgrade without them knowing it. That means they got to use the site to its full potential, and thus seed it more effectively, while I was growing the user base. They told their friends about this great new site with all these features... and once I felt that things were rolling along smoothly, I flipped the switch for new signups to start with a free account versus a downgraded account, so I could start getting paid. (I grandfathered in everyone who had signed up up to that point.)

-I spent a lot of time personally canvassing writer's blogs and offering them a free upgraded account if they were interested in joining and participating. Never mind that anyone who joined was automatically upgraded like I mentioned earlier! Writers write a lot (naturally) so finding blogs belonging to writers was pretty easy.

-I set up a few free writing contest with big cash prizes to launch the site. The catch was that instead of submitting your piece via email, you had to post it to the site using the points you earned from critiquing. So I basically "bought" early activity in that sense--both more writing to seed the site, and critiques, which is the most important thing.

-Along with relevant blogs, I also posted in forums telling people about my site. Turns out most forums aren't too interested in having someone sign up just to advertise their new venture and then disappear; so instead of advertising that I had launched Scribophile, I advertised the free writing contests I mentioned above. Seeing "announcing a free contest with cash prizes" is much more tempting than "hey guyz, come see the new web site I just made, pretty please use it!"

That's all I can think of right now off the top of my head. 3 years later and Scribophile is paying my bills and still growing strong.

Obviously things will vary greatly from case to case, but the takeaway is that it takes a lot of hard legwork, persistence, and maybe even cash to seed a site with users. Launching isn't the finish line, it's the starting line.

Very cool process - just wondering, when you flipped the switch to the free accounts, did you let people know? What sort of announcement did you create for that?

on the web there are 3 basic user sources: search, social nets, news sites.

search requires lots of good content; if you are using large dbs as raw material are adding real value on any scale a long tail search strategy will make sense. no campaigning just make sure google can read your site and you have good stuff.

social will work if a dialogue between users is intrinsic to your product. a virus will take hold if you make a good facebook experience.

either of these are added to a more important factor: your users ongoing experience. this will not only create viral opportunities but will make all of your efforts additive.

save the news for last, once the others work you will be a news story effortlessly.

While this does not answer your current question, I guess it could be of some use to you:


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