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Ask HN: How did you find your early adopters?
107 points by pwingo on Mar 13, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 69 comments
What outreach resources did you go through and how did you target potential users once you had a prototype?

edit (from comment I posted): Some friends and I had trouble getting leads on who to "sell" our prototype to, and we had the thought that this may be an even more legitimate problem than the one we were previously trying to solve.

Is this a problem that other startups have faced, trying to find specific (with contact information) customers to talk to and become the first users?

Three months before the MVP, I started a blog and established myself as 'somebody' for data analytics in the target domain. Started participating in online forums and commenting on other blog posts relevant to the target domain, specifically focusing on data analytics.

By the time, I launched MVP, influentials in the domain were aware of me. In a few months since launch, I gained several hundred registered users through these activities ... not a single penny spent on ads or to generate traffic.

Now I am working on figuring out how to generate revenue ...

Do you mind sharing a link o your MVP and maybe some ideas on ways you can monetise the service? Thanks!

I tried a Show HN for one of my projects. It's now dead. For my latest, Fork the Cookbook (http://forkthecookbook.com) I actually approached bloggers and talked to them, one by one. It's a tedious task, but I absolutely refuse to buy ads except for quick tests.

I'm sorry, but reading "I tried a Show HN for one of my projects. It's now dead." made me laugh so hard I spit out my tea.

You owe me new boxers, sir. And some burn cream.

I wish people(hackers) would spend same amount of time building and marketing/selling their idea. Unfortunately, i think its human nature, it is always easy to start with the fun part, and give up when the steps need to be taken become uninteresting/difficult.

Hackers love creating stuff, but when it comes to the selling that idea to their potential users, they dont have enough energy.

Hackers vs entrepreneurs?

Possible. Its also part of the trough of sorrow. Its hard to remain motivated when nobody is paying attention to you.

A lot of websites I liked using that launched at the same time I did on HN are now dead despite my asking to pay to use them. slowcop.com is one that springs to mind. I used that damn near every day and still miss it.

I wonder just how much success (small and large) can be attributed to just continuing for years till it actually works.

Maybe people just underestimate how long it takes to actually get traction.

Out of curiosity, what service/activity did slowcop offer?

Sorry about the late reply. It was somewhat similar to YSlow for Firefox. I always thought it had some potential because the implementation was so slick.

No worries. I think Google also has a competitor to slowcop (https://developers.google.com/speed/pagespeed/) so it could be they figured it wouldn't make any sense to try to charge.

They were offering all sorts of other services though. The ability to rerun after a deployment and get the comparison, daily/weekly/hourly reports and other services.

I really liked the idea, but as you say I can see how they wouldn't try to compete with Google. That said though considering the Reader fiasco they might have been perfectly positioned had Google decided to shut it down.

I absolutely agree. I have fallen into that trap a number of times. The latest was indeed with Fork the Cookbook. Some bloggers filed a DMCA request (fun fact, recipes cannot be copyrighted, so they essentially were perjuring themselves). It sapped so much energy from our marketing and coding efforts, that 3-4 weeks later we're still recovering - took ages to convince ourselves that it was still worth doing.

There's always a first time I guess

Of course recipes can't be copyrighted, but you running into this issue proves just how much you screwed up at trying to understand your audience. Don't blame them for filling DMCA requests, blame yourself for not building something that they'll want to use and contribute to. Think about it for a minute. Does Github grab your source code without asking you and then offers people the option to fork it? No! Devs upload their source code to Github because they get a value out of it. The same goes for food blogs or anything else. If your target audience can't get any value out of your product, then you're dead before launching. As devs, we need to keep this in mind: people won't care if they can't get value. Just because it took you days/weeks/months/years/decades to build does not mean it will produce value for anyone. Only studying your target customers and building on top of this knowledge will.

For what it's worth, I just discovered your site and i find the overall design and experience awesome. It's light, clean, pro, has some fun elements and a bit of a nicely integrated branding which is cool (the forking idea). Well done!

Well, there is nothing bad with this. Many people enjoy producing some proof of concepts, but polishing and making a product out of it is another (possibly boring) thing.

Think of it as a recreational activity, along with spending time with family, reading books, watching movies...

I'm curious as well as to why you don't want to buy ads. It's a great way to quickly get data without wasting your time on "a tedious task."

It is a great way to get data, which is why I mentioned "except for quick tests".

For actual growth, it's actually a pretty poor channel. A lot of time and energy will need to be spent optimizing ads, LP, CTA, etc. Time spent on funnel optimization can be better spent running tests elsewhere.

I have personally found it to be far easier to pop a few emails and reply over the course of the day. People who are genuinely interested about the product will link to it (take for example this fine lady: http://preppypaleo.blogspot.com.au/2013/03/paleo-banana-brea...). Those are the people we want to look for.

That way we can more effectively run tests and grow users more naturally, as opposed to having a HN-level spike and not have any follow up activity.

The current tests we're running/actively developing for are pro-accounts. So instead of spending time obsessing over ad quality, CTRs, optimizing landing pages, we can spend more time working on writing the software needed to test our assumptions.

Hope that helps

I think it really depends on the kind of product and your target market. Certain types of ads might not be worth the time and effort due to various factors.

To provide a counterexample though, I'm working on a student planner (tabuleapp.com). Homework management is a surprisingly big pain point for students, and we've found that Facebook ads are an excellent way to reach our audience. Near the beginning of the semester, when the need for a new organizational tool is highest, we had a lot of success from our first ad with no time spent on optimizing it. I can't think of a better way to reach thousands of college students that's scalable and affordable for a startup.

Just gave your app a shot (design student here). Some feedback:

As a designer:

* I love the expanding bottom bar and it's a very creative use of that space, you might have in your hands the new "Path menu" phenomenon.

* Your Path menu, on the other hand, could use a little bit more design effort.

* Item details is too busy / roughly designed that it looks busy, would benefit from a second look.

* Your logo on the other hand and above all, is quite awful. You might want to hire a real logo designer or illustrator to get that working.

* "Location" looks like the header of the details box as you're visually connecting them.

As a student:

* I like the idea, and I can immediately see the use case,

* but the intent is unclear in having "duration". Deadlines don't, and it feels like you're trying to replicate google calendar. Removing that ability would make it more clear that it's essentially a deadline app.

* I have different kinds of assignments, so for example this does not work very well for assignments other than those on paper.

* I want to be able to take a photo of the assignment sheet (there is almost always one) and attach it to the deadline.

* Better yet, do OCR on the sheet and fill the deadline for me. That's tricky, but not impossible to get 90% right.

* New Due Date is unclear. I'm not adding due dates, I'm adding assignments.

* There is no point in having a global class name search for a single user.

* It's unclear if the global names listed here are attached to specific universities. If yes, you're not showing me the uni name or allow me to search for it, if not, what's the point?

Here you go. If you need more feedback, reach me from HN profile, happy to give more. I'll be using your app.

I absolutely agree. If your startup/project etc is the kind that falls into the long tail, you will stand to benefit from advertising a lot.

For Fork the Cookbook, we had at one point contemplated targeting "recipe management app" and related keywords. I did a quick estimation of effort (I work in online advertising as my day job), and decided that effort was better spent blogging and looking for bloggers.

It depends, but I'd say in the beginning you want to get qualitative and not quantitative data. Adds are good for quantitative data, but if you write mails and people respond, they will usually tell you stuff. Most only a bit, but some a lot.

1-to-1 communication is the best way to learn about your potential customers in the beginning. And once you need to learn about them quantitatively, it'll become easier to use adds, because you know the pain points but also the wording of your customers.

I'm curious as to why you refuse to buy ads.

"Advertising is a tax for having an unremarkable product", said someone (http://thebrandbuilder.wordpress.com/2008/11/12/is-advertisi...)

Or in other words, spend your time and money not on advertising, but on making a product so compelling that your users/customers advertise for you. Think Dropbox, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Skype – no advertising, but a product that people will encourage others to use.

I would imagine that if you were entering a crowded market with an idea that simply cut costs, but provided no real unique consumer facing benefit, you could afford to ride on CPC.

Am I wrong?

What's dead? The project, or the Show HN post?

The project.

um i added recipes, now how do i search? is there a search functionality ?

hey, dont shut down forkthecookbook, i want to try it.

Not planning to. Just got off a 4 week long funk from it... first commit in 4 weeks!

When we were looking to fill up our private beta for AppThwack early last year we went to reddit, XDA, LinkedIn groups, and other places where we thought our target customers (Test engineers and app developers) would be. We posted non-spammy posts asking for beta testers and did not mention our product's name. We just described the problem we solved, how we were doing it, and asked for volunteers to sign up.

If I was doing it again I'd follow a similar path, but I'd also approach some of the more influential people in our target market and ask them directly for their help and feedback. We've done that with various features since and it's worked out great.

How did people sign up if you didn't tell them the product name? Did you not direct them to the product site?

Haha, good question. We did it via PMs or DMs or whatever the given site had. It also made it a bit more personal since we were using our own accounts.

This. For my current project, Fork the Cookbook (http://forkthecookbook.com) we found that being personal helps.

Show HN for original project, then iterate on the idea with new one (http://searchco.de/) and just keep going.

I got a lot of initial traction by being one of the first people to work on DuckDuckGo's ZeroClick info (donated a lot of the programming documentation) which provided some initial back-links and referral traffic. Kept this going by adding more things through DuckDuckHack.

Everything from there has been posting on comments (where relevant), posting in StackOverflow, building relationships with those using it and improving things. There is quite a bit of SEO mixed in there but mostly I just keep pushing and making something I want to use.

A few larger blog posts seemed to work too. Some of the more in depth ones that took quite a while to write helped quite a bit. This was more about adding discover ability and SEO value though.

EDIT - Also a lot of directly targeting people complaining about lack of code search over twitter. This was especially effective when Google Code Search shut down and Koders.com hadn't got its act together. I had planned for this, but it was not as effective as I would have expected.

I just found this thread so it's 'a bit' late but... A very useful service, I use it myself. I also couldn't fail to notice lots of supportive comments on Criticue (while moderating). Keep up the great work.

What have you written it in if it's not a secret? PHP?

That's ok :)

Yes a lot of support on Criticue which I used for a while to work on the design.

Its not. PHP for the front facing code, Python for most processing tasks, MySQL and Sphinx for the search.

Feel free to email me bboyte01@gmail.com for more details.

1. I searched for journalists who have written about topics my startup was related to and shared my story and gave them sneak peek into beta version. That gave me some great visibility via blogs like thenextweb and mashable.

2. I made sure that I use write set of words and language to provoke few early users to share my beta website with their network - It was all about wordings.

3. The tweets and facebook messages that went out had similarly provoking wordings that made posts viral.

4. I launched beta version with very basic feature but started rolling out new things every 48-72 hours.

5. I used a real bad logo initially, people made fun of that logo on twitter - i used that as an opportunity to ask for help from twitter world - got 19 logo designs (some from designers at big ad agency, TV network) in my inbox in 24 hours or so.

6. I was super super quick in support - people were wow'ed by the speed at which me and my small team replied to support mails.

1 month later, we were @ 100K users and got acquired in 4th month of launch.

Hope this helps.

Wow, can you share any details of what your startup was?

With StartHQ (http://starthq.com) I've been posting comments on HN, as well as relevant Facebook groups like local JS meetups, startup incubator & meetup groups etc. Those seem to work much better than e.g. LinkedIn or Google Plus.

One thing that dramatically improved the conversion rate was a blog post giving the background on what problem the service solves: http://www.arcticstartup.com/2013/03/11/starthq-targets-and-...

You could try submitting to Beta List (http://betali.st/). It's also a good way to keep track of newly released smaller products / startups.

Cliche but true: Become your client and swim in their circle.

I sold a product for business users. I presented myself as an expert in the field and became active in the field. Although the product actually came after the fact as I figured I might as well monetise on my publicity.

My first paying client contacted me days after I posted an open for beta landing page without any marketing.

Edit: after the first few customers, I failed to keep momentum and my business flopped. I folded it a year after.

'Make Noise' as you can see below everyone is sharing their links.

More the links, more clicks, and thus you get some visitors.

Now turning that visitor into adopters is Selling part. If there is something for visitors they will use it, else not.

P.S. I am also doing such experiments for my project: http://feedbacker.51stacks.com

and blog a few things at http://blog.51stacks.com

Press works pretty well as does posting to Facebook.

About press - you need to pitch people. Start with smaller blogs and work your way up from there. Guess reporter's email addresses and try to find a way in by being helpful first.

That's how I got my first customers for http://www.artsumo.com.

Business guy here. Depending on what your product is the approach can vary. For all my projects I try to target the most interested group of users. In some cases I might target linkedin groups, meetups, target specific website forums, etc. In other cases, I've tried the ad approach (fb, google, etc). You can also try direct emailing your user group (depending on where they are) and have them sign up for your product (launchrock).

Although I love HN, the challenge I've found with places like Show HN, reddit/r/startup, betalist is that its sometimes not related to the product I'm selling so a)I'm trying to sell a product to the wrong target market and b)tech sites can often times be an echo chamber and the data you get isn't necessarily quantitative.

The best course is to find users before building a prototype. Guess it's too late to apply.

Think about why you're doing what you're doing. What kind of problem it solves? Who has this problem? Once you understand the problem it takes some trial-and-error to find actual people that have it. The good thing if you're right about the problem people will be willing to talk to you, since you might have a solution they are looking for.

it takes time to really learn your users. I've built a community site for developers (DOU.ua) and it took me five years to figure out the most pressing problem my customers have. May be I wasn't listening hard enough but it still takes time.

Carry them over from another product you've made in the past. I work for Appfluence, and we make Priority Matrix, and app for managers. Every time we build a new version (for a different platform), it's easier to get traffic, because some of the people that were using the app on the original platforms migrate to the new ones.

I realize this doesn't apply to everyone, but if you can use it, it's great. Zynga is the master of this, but network effects work at all levels. Even if you don't have another product, think of what other social circles you can tap into. Chances are you talk to potential early adopters on a regular basis.

Here's how we did it at Backerbase.com.

The first thing to do is hypothesize/define as narrowly as possible who your early adopters will be and then start looking for where they're hanging out together online. (They will be hanging out together because early adopters are obsessives.)

Once you've found where they are you can approach them directly at that online hangout or launch a simple email marketing. (Hint: People's online handles are strongly correlated with their email addresses. Another hint: There are lots of taskrabbits who are good at finding email addresses.)

Pitch your value props and invite them to become early users.

Go to where your customers are.

When we launched matchist (http://matchist.com/talent) a few months ago, we wanted to get developers on board first. And since we knew a lot of quality developers hang out here on HN, we posted here.

About a month later, we wanted to started marketing to clients. We pitched at an in person event in Chicago, as well as started using a relevant existing newsletter from another business we run to reach potential clients for matchist.

Once you start getting a few initial customers using your product, talk to them constantly and get feedback.

We had the benefit of building products for a market that was highly active on Twitter. That and two popular HN posts bootstrapped both of my current company's products. I owe a ton to HN, but even more to Twitter.

This is really interesting. Some friends and I had trouble getting leads on who to "sell" our prototype to, and we had the thought that it may be an even more legitimate problem than the one we were previously trying to solve.

Can you comment more on the sell process to individual users with HN and Twitter: did you find and go after people that tweeted or posted about related topics to your products, or look for people that might want your products, or did you let them come to you through your posts or tweets?

The residual activity on Twitter from a #1 HN post is where we focused our energy, mainly by retweeting, engaging, following, etc. I think these HN posts also helped build our SEO and especially as some bloggers wrote about their experiences with our products.

I also tried "Show HN" and Betali.st for my project - sideprojectors (http://www.sideprojectors.com).

They are good starting points. I think Reddit also has a sub-reddit regarding startups.

As a shameless plug, would you like to post your project on SideProjectors? :) I'm doing a private beta testing at the moment with a handful of users. It's a showcase/discovery too for side projects.

I just posted my project on your website. It looks amazing, and the experience was great. when are you coming out of beta?

I would love to. Have submitted and waiting for you to be in touch :)

Added username and email too.

At Bitmaker Labs, we found our early adopters by reaching out in the community and meeting people face-to-face. We were able to convince them with our vision to spread programming literacy and get people jobs. Check us out and learn more about our progress http://bitmakerlabs.com/

For Rollbar (http://rollbar.com) it's been a fairly random mix: friends, twitter, reddit ads, sponsoring the Node Knockout, the occasional HN comment, and a surprising amount of word of mouth. More recently we've done a bit of PR but it hasn't been targeted at customers.

Wanted to check out your project but your homepage looks broken on my iPhone. You might want to fix it ;-)

I write a blog since 2001. So I am a known person in the design field. Over the years I have created a kind of network of readers which access anything I create or publish in my blog. That's the fastest way, and pretty healthy way to start. Then I try to open the case using paid advertising methods.

Recently found out about this site http://betali.st/ that has lists of startups coming out with new products you can sign up for a beta. I've personally never put anything on, but I like to scour the site to see what new useful ideas are coming out.

Reach for people in your social networks, former classmates, alumni, etc. Post and comment on websites that cover your area.

This is what we are doing at http://www.unioncy.com. We are building a platform that lets you easily catalog all your personal belongings.

I looked online for people who I wanted to be our early users, then emailed everyone with a personalized message. Surprisingly, when you are honest with people and ask them to join something that would benefit them, it's possible to get a lot of interest. Took some time though, a lot of time.

I think that with most products, there are at least some people for whom trying out the product would be a win-win. The issue is finding those people.

Your comment is really validating; thanks for your input!

We had a successful kickstarter campaign followed by having open sourced the project from the start helped a ton.


When building http://www.CraftzBay.com the only logical way to find sellers of handmade items was through Facebook. We started chatting with them through Facebook to explain our idea and many of them signed up!

That's awesome! Just curious, how did you go about searching for them?

Noah Kagan of appsumo literally goes over how you go about this http://www.appsumo.com/where-are-my-customers/. The best videos I've seen on early customer aquisition hands down.

at wepay, we cold emailed & cold called fraternities at stanford to see if they would use our system to collect dues.

What have you done already?

Currently building something that allows startups to automate their twitter accounts to try and get the lead gen going early. Right now we allow you to find and add topics that relate to your business, generate stories for you, and automate the tweets to a schedule. Tomorrow we will begin showing you experts for your topics on Twitter and incorporating their tweets into your feed.

Check it out at gobirdfeeder.com. It doesn't say this on the site, but we have a 30 day free trial going on right now for all new accounts. Would love for you to use it and provide input. You can reach me at matthew.cauble at googles email service. </shamelessplug>

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