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How the biggest consumer apps got their first 1k users (lennyrachitsky.com)
623 points by maxgt on May 24, 2020 | hide | past | favorite | 102 comments

I bet the companies using inventive ways to get their first users like the ones listed in the article are in the minority (but certainly make for more interesting stories to read/write about).

I launched a SaaS product recently, and after a pretty successful HN launch, I've been trying different ways of marketing.

What I learned, and this may be obvious to many, is that the boring path of getting users by gamifying SEO actually works. I firmly believe that you can get your first 1K visitors by just using the formula of writing content. You don't even have to be good at writing -- target some keywords, use good SEO hygiene, have a high enough word count, and people will at least come.

I pumped out some mediocre blog posts with clickbaity titles [1] just to test it, and I was surprised to see it work, bringing in consistent weekly traffic. A popular Chinese blogger including a one-liner about my product in his blog in February is the sole source that brings ~1-2 Chinese users (actually signed up) to my app every day 3 months later.

[1] https://terrastruct.com/blog/10-tips-diagrams-system-design-...

Your product is already useful for a single isolated user. In contrast, apps such as tinder are essentially useless without a sizable existing user base. I'd imagine getting first users for a product that relies on network effects is on a completely different difficulty level.

My experience is that it's easier than you might expect if you're doing things right (you have an interesting product and low-friction signup process). I recently started a university-specific dating app and had no trouble getting the first few hundred users, even with the actual matching functionality turned off.

Free users for a dating is no problem, monetizing them is another ball game.


Interview from someone who had a problem with the way dating apps monetize, created a competing dating app with all features free, and then shut down because he couldn't monetize.

Yes definitely, it's just a side project that I don't plan on monetising. I don't think there's a good way of doing it, the incentives are just misaligned.

Can you very quickly summarize the basics here? How do you find which keywords to target, how do you include them in your content, what's good SEO hygiene, what wordcount do you need, etc?

Basically, I'm not really aware of how you do SEO marketing, and would like to learn.

I basically just read this to learn: https://www.kalzumeus.com/2010/01/24/startup-seo/

and watch patio11's talks on microconf.

I don't feel like qualified enough to give advice (also these are short term results, they say SEO takes ~6 months to yield results), so you should refer to his stuff.

Good enough, thanks!

Would recommend the Ahrefs videos:


Obviously they will push their product but it is very good and popular within the SEO space.

My suggestion is just to write good content that strengthens your brand and can be shared across multiple channels e.g. SEO, WhitePaper, Linkedin etc.

That's very helpful, thank you!

When you want to master the art you can follow the Northcutt guide: https://northcutt.com/seo-checklist/

> Can you very quickly summarize the basics here?

Once you found out, make a post with the title "10 keywords to get you up in SEO and how to use them". That's basically how the meta of SEO marketing works these days. Errr, I meant "this guy uses one simple trick and SEO marketers hate him [read more]" ...

Doc content [1] discovered via search engine has been a reliable source of new users for my recent published SaaS app. No SEO yet, already got 1 new registered user per week (haha don’t laugh at the small number). And a good day last week got 3 new, which is a pleasant surprise. Should keep doing this content stuff! One nice thing for acquiring users from search engine is that many people already know what they want, when they see a product fit, many would become a returned user.

[1] https://ihook.us/docs/check-nintendo-switch-availability

Content is not enough. You need inbound links. Getting links was much easier before when people ran their own blogs - they would link to content they thought was good.

Have you read “Traction” by the founder of DuckDuckGo? It’s perfect for startups such as yourself.

Thank you for posting the comment, now that I know about your service, I am going to sign-up.

So not just blog post, a mere (but meaningful) comment can get you paid users.

Hah thanks. Despite my self-deprecation at my blog posts, the product itself I'm extremely proud of. Hope you find it useful.

What a beautiful HN success story

I've come across a few other startups that got started this way, but from this research it was interesting to see that wasn't big for any of the biggest consumer apps.

Since you've got a SaaS product, (hopefully) you'll be happy to hear I'm doing a follow-up looking at how the fastest growing SaaS companies got started.

Imo you should never start with seo because it's expensive, takes ages for you to rank.

I'd just spend a few hundred dollars on a adwords campaign.

You know which keywords actually converts to paid users and then you can invest in your seo campaign.

If you just do seo you have no clue what keywords convert (unless all seo traffic is from 1 keyword alone)

How did you get inbound links for your initial blog content?

I post them on HackerNoon, which has a "originally published at" backlink. They tweet the ones with good engagement repeatedly, people shared those tweets. It makes its way into roundups and newsletters. Occasionally, people steal them and say they authored it, but they leave the backlinks so whatever. I post some on relevant forums as well.

Thanks. Though don't many forums treat links as nofollow and thus don't contribute to page rank?

Beware of survival bias. This article tells a tale that if you do similar things, you’ll get a billion dollar success too.

Suppose a black founder was out in the mall asking to install an app on your phone, security would drag them away.

Most of the founders went to prestigious colleges with enough connections and saved income to let them work on ideas before it became profitable. As the income divide gets larger, less and less Americans have that luxury.

For every founder that made it, they’re prolly 100s that didn’t make it even if they did the same things.

For a large chunk of the planet, surviving to day is a struggle, they can’t weather out months blowing their only savings on an idea that may or may not work.

This is why most founders tend to be white men from mostly wealthy backgrounds. Most VCs are in a similar demographic and would fund them, so it’s somewhat a self fulfilling cycle.


IMO, every successful founder has had at least one of these things in plentiful when starting up - money, connections, or deep insight into a painful problem. Luck, of course, cannot be overlooked.

I think learning what worked for someone is good. But more important is learning what did not work (which is only realised in hindsight)

There is a subreddit called r/shutdown. I keep visiting it from time to time to learn what not to do.

Surprised the Reddit 'solution' to this (fake accounts and activity until real people decide to join) isn't on the list. Fake it til you make it is definitely a strategy that a fair few successful products, services and communities used to kick things off.

That's not a strategy to get new users though. It makes a social site more appealing to new users, but it doesn't attract them.

Reddit used the "tell your friends" method first, and then "have PG blog about us", which really accelerated their growth, and falls under "Leverage Influencers".

>That's not a strategy to get new users though. It makes a social site more appealing to new users, but it doesn't attract them.

This statement appears thoroughly contradictory, unless you're using an unusual definition of either appeal or attract. IMHO most people are going to see those words having almost the same meaning in the context you used them

In 2012, Steve Huffman, Reddit co-founder, was honest enough to attribute Reddit's initial ability to attract new users to their fake user strategy first of all [1]. Even while they were doing that, he said, they still needed a few months to get the site self-sustaining so they could stop faking user engagement.

In that talk, Steve Huffman never even mentions influencers. Paul Graham didn't write about Reddit until 3 or 4 months in, after they had retired the fake user posting, though I agree with you influencers and friends must have been a help

[1] https://youtu.be/zmeDzx4SUME?t=28

The fake users are orthogonal to finding new users, which is what this post is about. The fake users were about retention, not new users. They kept people using reddit after they found reddit, but it wasn't a way to find new users.

Reddit launched on June 23rd, 2005, and Paul blogged about them in the first week of August. Only five weeks after launch. They were definitely still using the fake users then. In fact when I joined the company in 2007, we still had the ability to create new users on submit, we just didn't do it anymore.

Steve probably just didn't mention the PG blog post because he forgot. If you ask him, he'll gladly tell you about how PG basically forced the wide release of reddit by blogging about them despite Steve's objections.

Thanks jedberg <3

The Spiegel used a similar strategy at the beginning. The founder didn't have any money to hire people, but knew that a magazine written by only one guy wouldn't be taken seriously, so he just published his own writing under different names.

Surely things like that end up backfiring? People on reddit have a strangely good eye when it comes to spotting "shills" in the comment sections. Then again it could just be paranoia.

Parent isn't saying you should create Reddit accounts to shill for your new thing.

They are referencing the sock puppet accounts the Reddit founders used to make Reddit look like less of a ghost town in the early days[1].

> Huffman reveals that, “In the beginning Alexis and I submitted all the content.” When they submitted content they created new fake user names so that it would look like the site was populated with a large user base, while, at least in the beginning, it was just the two of them submitting the content.

> Huffman explains that this did two things. For starters, it helped set the tone of the site. “Websites have this kind of inertia, and we submitted content that we would be interested in seeing. That meant the content on Reddit, at least for our peer group, was good, interesting stuff. We wanted a site with the most interesting content online, and so we did our best to find it and then we submitted it ourselves.”

> Creating fake users and submitting content through them also made the site feel alive. Huffman says, “Users like to feel a part of something. If they showed up to the website and the front page was blank, it just looks like a ghost town.” He says, “At the time I think we were just embarrassed to have an empty website so we submitted the content, and it worked.” After a few months they had grown their real user base to the point that they didn’t have to submit content anymore.

[1]: https://www.adweek.com/digital/reddit-fake-users/

Ah now that I re-read their comment I can see that I misinterpreted it. For some reason I was thinking along the lines of buying upvotes to get your post to the frontpage, which is of course pretty shitty.

Astroturfing is pretty shitty too. It's literally lying to your users.

What about the PayPal way? They took a certain amount of VC money and used it to buy and sell on EBay and demand to pay/sell using only PayPal. It basically acted as a parasite on EBay until they reached critical mass. I call it "gamification of established platform". Diabolical but effective. PayPal's company mascot should be the Sea Lamprey.

I believe the primary way they succeeded was giving away money. When you signed up they'd give you $10. Later it was reduced to $5. You could also get that amount by signing up friends

This is the same way Square's cash app has grown very fast to 50 million users, buy giving away $5 to each new user referred.

would uber count? They subsidize the cost of rides to get users.

Heh, this is the first time I've heard this. Before I was only familiar with the up-from-bootstraps "we just became so popular through a pay button everyone loved" success story.

But some many online payment companies had already tried and failed at "traditional" growth. PayPal crossed the chasm by essentially bad faith gamesmanship. Nothing illegal, mind you; but I would consider it highly unethical. Not to mention difficult to stop if you're EBay.

Why would it have been difficult to stop for eBay, couldn't they have simply removed the PayPal button from their site if they didn't like it?

as I read the above PayPal wasnt a button on eBay yet. Just based on the above comments it sounds like initially PayPal staff were doing a bunch of buying and selling on eBay and insisting they they be paid via this thing called 'PayPal'.

See also: Airbnb and Craigslist.

>Below, you’ll find first-hand accounts of how essentially every major consumer app acquired their earliest users

Did anyone follow through on the links? Some of these "first-hand accounts" just redirect back to this guy's blog, some of them are just blurbs from other media. I looked at the Etsy one and it's a story by an economist with no first hand accounts by anyone at Etsy.

Is the author actually using some of the tricks described in other comments here to gain traction?

This definition of "essentially every" is also extremely flimsy.

A strategy I've been thinking of for my startup (10-20 WAU currently ) is going through old HN discussions that are relevant to my product, finding people who I think would be interested in it based on their comments, and emailing them with a quote from their comment and an explanation of why I think they specifically would be interested. (and then ask them to try it out & give feedback).

I thought of this since I was reading a discussion last night that made me think "this is a perfect use case for what I'm building!", and I've had the same thought with a few other discussions in the past.

I'd be interested to hear if anyone else has tried something like this.

I've done this once, pretty high response rates compared to regular cold emails. Especially the ones who seem passionate/opinionated in their comment.

I have utilized this approach, but on Reddit instead of HN. I launched a tool I was working on and got my very first users from Reddit who were passionate about the topic. Now, those users are evangelists and they've helped spread the word to their communities which has lead recent numbers hovering around 2k WAU.

Do you have any sample of a thread that you used for this strategy? I have a content generator app and have been using reddit on my own and having fun entering photoshop contests but I want to branch out and get evangelists of people in other ways on Reddit.

The posts I made were simply a description of what I had built and a link to my app. There are two things to focus on in your post: 1) do not use marketing speak and 2) talk about the features in the app that would be the most valuable to those users and why.

Glad you're using a personalized approach. I find that many people are mining the Indie Hackers and Product Hunt for creators, as I'm getting a lot of uncustomized pitch emails from those.

How do you find their emails on HN? Just by clicking on the username?

Yep. Not everyone includes a public email but some do.

I've had a couple HN members reach out to me this way, and I always respond to them since it's 1000x better than the usual crappy cold emails I get from sales people.

I've had some luck with a similar strategy on subreddits. Find related communities, message active members and ask for feedback/ux interview.

This article fails to include how Airbnb really got their first users - creating several accounts and mass emailing all the landlords on Craigslist

That's how they (allegedly) got supply, not demand, which is what I focused on in the post

Posting fake homes on Craigslist is the common strategy to get demand.

> Corey's plan was to infiltrate these communities. He wouldn't announce himself as a Netflix employee. ... and slowly, over time, alert the most respected commenters, moderators, and website owners about this great new site called Netflix.

Strikes me as unethical. Unless their alerts disclosed the relationship.

What's unethical about it ?

He talk about something that might be of interest for these people.

It doesn't sound like he was spamming or doing anything annoying.

It sounds to me like a more human way of doing advertisement. The only difference is that he is actually there to have an actual conversation about it.

Generally advertising regulations require you to disclose any relationship with the company.

That's why youtuber put #ad on their videos

No, under US law you're required to disclose if you have been paid specifically by a third party to promote their product or service. You don't have to disclose a mear 'relationship'.

An employee is being paid. Is that a specific exemption?

I don't know what they count as advertising per se but if endorsement via private message counts then the FTC's page[0] calls this out as "position with the company":

"Connections between an endorser and the company that are unclear or unexpected to a customer also must be disclosed, whether they have to do with a financial arrangement for a favorable endorsement, a position with the company, or stock ownership."

[0]: https://www.ftc.gov/tips-advice/business-center/guidance/adv...


From the FTC

>If you endorse a product through social media, your endorsement message should make it obvious when you have a relationship (“material connection”) with the brand. A “material connection” to the brand includes a personal, family, or employment relationship or a financial relationship – such as the brand paying you or giving you free or discounted products or services.


It's not a "more human" way of doing advertising, it's using deception to avoid getting kicked out from places and contexts where advertising isn't welcomed. It's trying to catch people with their guard down.

Ethical advertising is honest and up-front. If you need to be clandestine about it, you're doing something unethical pretty much by definition.

Unethical would be being asked about your relationship with the company and lying about it.

Discord's first cohort of users came from the final fantasy XIV subreddit - after a friend of the cofounder posted there after trying out the app. It's been all uphill from there.

Sorry to be that guy, but 'things were uphill from <point>' means something got super difficult (as in running uphill is hard) - not sure if that's what you were shooting for.

I believe they reversed the "it all went downhill from there" idiom.

> Get Press

Always wondered about this - do I just email an news outlet and tell them "my story" and see if they roll with it?

I'm starting to advertise my business around with the idea of growing a userbase before the official release. Ironically enough mentioning a link to it on my previous HN comment lead to more visitors than either of the Facebook or Reddit ads that I put up.

With that said, if you're into 3D printing, see https://makely.me

Yes, absolutely. Do your homework and find a reporter/ blogger that, based on past reporting, you think would be interested in your company.

Email them and keep it short, make it timely (what have you accomplished recently, how is it relevant to a current event or trend) and offer to provide other pieces of the story (e.g. do you have a customer or investor who’d be willing to speak to the reporter? Do you have photos, graphics, data you could send the reporter). Offer to jump on a call and speak on the record.

One mistake I’ve seen founders make is they treat the reporters as a marketing channel. I.e they want the reporter to help them “get the word out.” That is not a reporters job. Their job is to bring their readers timely, interesting and novel stories, so your goal is to help the reporter accomplish that.

> One mistake I’ve seen founders make is they treat the reporters as a marketing channel

This is what I am afraid of doing and why I've been a bit apprehensive about it. Thanks you for your advice, it actually really helped.

That's what I did with my audio app. After we got featured in the first magazine, I just sent that link to other magazines and offered interviews and giveaways.

Interesting. I am curious, did the giveaways yield any significant rise in users when compared to not doing a giveaway?

They put us on the cover of their print issue in exchange for us doing a giveaway for their users. We got an amazing traffic boost from that, but I wouldn't know how to measure the impact in sales.

I really like your business idea, also nice looking website!Best of luck

Thank you! Glad you like it! It's always encouraging to see comments like these :)

Press release with a story attached will get picked up on the newswire.

I had zero problems acquiring first 1K customers for my product. Just spammed some relevant forums. Actually I got way more then 1K this way. Problem was that said amount was not making it worth for me. And acquiring more presented a challenge. Basically lacking external investment to increase market share by whatever means I put that particular product on a diet (invest few hours here and there). Since then it brings me small but steady income without investing much. As I have other products and also create those for other companies I am ok and happy with what I got for my efforts. But if I had to live from that single product it would not be a comfy life to say it mildly

Are you commenting on every thread and linking to your site? How do you spam a forum? (Genuinely asking)

I did not comment on every thread. But I do answer some relevant questions on forums where my answer is likely to be appreciated and my signature is linked. Sometimes write short semi-article in the post (same thing with the signature). Also do product announcement once per forum. Sometimes they have rules against it but they also often let it slide. At some point was noticed by some reviewers and that had some positive outcome as well.

But as already said nothing really stellar in that particular product I mentioned

Do you feel comfortable sharing what the product is?

Normally I would but I have committed two sins:

1) Enough of my products and/or products I made for corporate clients are known one or the other way.

2) I sometimes talk in non tech topics (even tech ones can be rather political when you talk corporate culture).

Given amount of modern snooping by potential clients (comes from experience) I have zero desire to give them a chance to connect two dots.

A relatively well known and highly funded managed WordPress company got its first X,000 users by offering free accounts to people with audience in exchange for being able to place links on the site that juiced the SEO. It wasn't "Powered by hosting company X" but rather things like "Best WordPress Hosting" and "How to Update WordPress".

SEO juice + new/immature sector = lots of FOS traffic/users.

Shouldn't Netflix be in the "offline" category?

They started as a mail DVD service, didn't they?

They did start by mailing DVDs, but you ordered them from a website, not a print catalog or a phone number. Delivery was physical, but ordering was digital. This is similar to DoorDash or Lyft, where you order digitally and then wait for something physical to arrive at your doorstep.

I thought for sure this article was going to mention Bird or the other scooter companies that followed. But leaving the vehicles on the street was the way to get first 1,000 users for sure. What is the next thing that can be done this way? I've often thought it should be cheap android phones set with a custom build of android that does something very simple. Like display a bright green background and some text like "take me i'm free!" and some way to encourage the taker to charge the device and place it back in circulation.

Shameless plug: A bit old blog post from my company on the same topic. A bit more mobile app-specific. A little old but most of it is still relevant: https://mobisoftinfotech.com/resources/blog/top-34-technique...

I used to do that Apple store trick with reddit.

That's amazing

Looking forward to the version on B2B and B2D SaaS companies.

What's that first app in Create FOMO, the logo with the Bill Murray lookalike's face? Honest question, not trolling.

Clubhouse, apparently? Which is some kind of faddish social networking app that will never be heard from again after they run out of their current round of funding, I assume? https://www.wired.com/story/what-is-clubhouse-why-does-silic...

I thought it was weird to feature Clubhouse when the app launched fairly recently. Feels like this article is a way to market them?


I've been following these techniques for decades:

1) PG and Viaweb had no traction until they hired a PR firm. Back in the day, those were $5k to $15k/month.

"It took a painfully long time for word of mouth to get going, and we did not start to get a lot of press coverage until we hired a PR firm (admittedly the best in the business) for $16,000 per month."


YC now has "BookFace", so I suppose you could just promote to other YC'ers if you have an account.

2) Hotmail used a footer on every email for viral mindshare.

3) At Yahoo, new properties were announced on internal employee lists and it was requested that say 500 employees would seed the new service so it didn't look like a ghost town.

4) Most of the social networks spammed your contact list to go viral. Or just changed preferences underneath what you set, like Linkedin and Facebook.

5) Most of the dating sites early on send emails from women, even when you don't have an account on those sites!

As for 4), it looks like it was indeed very important for Facebook. Here's a quote from Steven Levy's book "Facebook":

For months, the two companies had been feuding over the way Facebook was scraping data from Hotmail and MSN Messenger products. Facebook had its own complaint—as retaliation, Hotmail had begun labeling invitations to join Facebook as spam. According to The Facebook Effect, Moskovitz said that this caused a 70 percent drop in new users.

Later on when Microsoft buys a stake in Facebook, they stop classifying the invites as spam.

I hadn't read that spam pass statistic before.

IIRC, FB also got MS Messenger chat access for FB messenger for a period of time after MS' investment, then that abruptly ended (likely the day the initial agreement expired.)

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