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Ask HN: What'd you do to get your first 100 users?
214 points by brandonhsiao on Feb 16, 2014 | hide | past | favorite | 153 comments
I've never done any kind of user acquisition besides posting to Reddit and HN. I realize that this is, needless to say, not a working strategy. What do you people do?

I haven't done any promotion for http://asoftmurmur.com besides posting to reddit and HN, and it now has 400-500 regular daily users. It depends entirely on what type of product or service you're offering.

Another key thing is to understand the community. There is radical cultural diversity between subreddits which manifests in very different reactions to self-promotion. It's essential to engage appropriately and respectfully.

Something I've used for other projects is searching for coverage of competitors in the same space, then pitching to people who have already featured them. Again, very important to hand-tailor each pitch and offer value to the person you're contacting.

This is fantastic. I am in love, I feel like I'm beside the ocean while I'm working. Thanks for this. Instantly bookmarked.

agreed - asoftmurmur rocks - listened to it all evening.

Your site is great!

To add similar services I've been using for quite a while:

http://www.noisli.com/ (very nice UI with changing background colour, a distration free editor and so on)

http://mynoise.net/NoiseMachines/ (quite professional)

Please add "Crickets" pleeeeeeease. And make sure it's the subtle crickets and not the really harsh sounding ones. Find crickets that sound like these: http://naturesoundspa.com/nature-sounds-for-sleep/relaxing-c... and NOT these: http://naturesoundspa.com/nature-sounds-for-sleep/undisturbe...

It's funny, I was watching House of Cards last night and during one scene there are crickets in the background and I found it very relaxing so I was just thinking about adding this sound.

I'll have a hunt for some appropriate samples. I have to do some back-end tweaks before I can add more sounds, though, because there's a practical limit to how many samples the browser can stream at once.

Thanks very much for your suggestion!

Oh man, I love this. I've been using it since you've posted to HN.

For the life of me, though, I haven't been able to remember the name the last couple time's I've wanted it (and my bookmarks are horrendously disorganized at the moment), and googling different iterations of "white noise generator sliders people birds rain" didn't yield success. I need to stash this away somewhere I won't lose it...

Hey, thanks!

I have actually wondered about the name thing. It is a little whimsical, and I guess it would be easy to mix up with lots of similar descriptions like "a quiet buzz" or "a gentle burble". From that perspective, it might have been better to choose something more memorable.

The site won't rank well in google for descriptive terms because it doesn't contain a lot of text. Even for terms it does contain, it doesn't do very well (e.g. it ranks at ~20 for "ambient noise" in google US). I haven't worried about that so far because the large majority of the traffic is direct, social or for the exact term "a soft murmur".

Perhaps the reason a large portion of the traffic is direct, social etc. is you're far better optimized in these areas.

Based on your other comments it seems like you really know what you're doing in these spaces. I'm no expert, but based on all the positive feedback, capturing organic search traffic could help you kill it. Show them and they'll stick.

Add a blog of other subpages with content...

I've come across this site several times and promptly forgot where to find it.. perhaps a browser extension will make your user base more sticky instead of transient (I have no idea what i just said but it works).

I have to say, that's probably partly because you actually have a good product. Added to my bookmarks. I've been looking for something like this for years. Thanks for making it!

Thanks very much for using it! I built it because I wanted it to exist. I got tired of jury rigging three instances of VLC together on my laptop every time I wanted some background noise.

And i see the op has added "humans", which is a sound of coffitivity ;-)


>>> It depends entirely on what type of product or service you're offering.

And the luck/chance involved :) basically, the votes a new link gets in first 30mins largely decides whether it will make to front page or not. More specifically, the first upvote because then social proof kicks in (hey it must be good if someone liked it).

So while posting to HN/Reddit might help to kick in, I would take it more as 'good if it hits, fine if it doesn't'.

Sure. I didn't mean to suggest that if your product is a good fit it will definitely get a lot of traffic. Just that, if your product isn't a good fit, it definitely won't get a lot of traffic.

Oh, this is cool. There are lots of things like your app out there but this is the best implementation I've seen so far. Great work!

Thanks very much! It's still a big novelty and great pleasure for me to hear positive feedback. I really appreciate it.

Of course. I hope that it remains a novelty and pleasure for a very long time :)

This is really useful and very well implemented gabemart, congrats. The "humans" is a big no-no for me but I see why some people might use it. That would be amazing if you had more stuff.. Maybe some relaxing instruments such as piano or acoustic guitar. Wind could be great too.

Thanks for this, it is amazing. I feel like I am on a ship, floating at sea, whilst coding. Something about it is very isolating, which is good for this open plan office.

Thanks again!

I liked the simplicity of UI. Good work!!!

I have something like this that helps me sleep at night sometimes but this is much better!

Wow, that is absolutely great - also bookmarked. Very nice and many thanks!

Awesome. Make it a chrome plugin that shows in every new tab perhaps?

This is so good! Big fan!

Yeah, this is great.

One cool technique I saw recently (which isn't always applicable) is from a talk by Jason Cohen: http://vimeo.com/74338272 (around minute 7)

In a nutshell when he was building WPEngine he went to LinkedIn and found folks who were Wordpress consultants. He then sent them a follow email and said he's building a product for "folks like you and would love to talk to you about your pains, needs, etc" (customer development stuff) and offered to pay for their time. It worked well - he sent 40, 100% agreed to talk, actually talked to 38, and 0 asked for money. He suggests this worked so well because the offer to pay showed he was respectful of their time so they were happy to help. YMMV.

You have a very good example for shooting against the target niche where you have your best audience to listen to you. But the question is: "when he was building WPEngine", there are already 40 folks "who were Wordpress consultants"? Then the result is not unexpected, and can not be consider a good example. Sorry if I misunderstood you. What we want know is how he got that 40 consultants to working on WPEngine in the first place.

There were numerous WP consultants when he did this. They were his target customers. He interviewed them about their pain points and found that their pain was in line with what he had in mind for WPEngine (easy, fast, secure, no-friction hosting for WP) He asked them to write him a check at the end of the interview. BAM, customers. (I make this sound easier than it is..)

Oh, thank you both for your quick responses. So he really did a good job to solve the pains of his potential customers. Now the question becomes: how WP got so many consultants in the first place? But that's out of the scope of the parent posting, it still within the scope of the OP though, :)

Based on my experience, it's very hard for people to accept something new in the first place, for example, when WP was introduced. And this is still happening now. Once a group of people accept a new concept, building on top of it to improve the system is a little easier.

Well, arguably there was no established customer base for WPEngine before the launch. You either were a hobbyist and hosted for free on wordpress.com. Or you were a multi-billion dollar enterprise and used Automattic's premium hosting service (serious $$$).

OK. Thinking about it, there might have been a market there all along, but how come no one served it before? I mean Jason is crazy brilliant (talk to him, it's an experience!), but surely others could have come up with the same idea - right? I guess we'll never know, but my guess is that not too many people went out and searched for a thing like WPEngine before WPEngine

> how WP got so many consultants in the first place?

There are 75 million (!) WordPress sites in the world. It would be amazing if any software platform with 75 million users didn't have a large number of consultants available to help people with it.


WordPress was around for years before WPEngine started. There were thousands of WordPress consultants at that time, and he was building a WordPress hosting platform.

Thanks this is a great idea!

This is going to sound overly reductive, but I promise it's not:

1) What existing solution do you believe your product (or prospective product) is better than?

2) Where can you find a critical mass of people who use the existing solution?

3) Go there. Talk to them. Show them your product.

Now, none of this is trivial. First, because assuming you're operating lean, you start with no real clue if you're "better" than anyone or anything else, or on what dimensions that actually matter. You start with a hypothesis, and you have to seek out opinions (customer development). Second, because the existing solution might not be what you think it is. Or it might not be a product at all. It might be a behavior people are doing, or an "off-label" use of another product.

But by and large, this method works. It might not get you scale. But it'll get you in front of potential users, and those users will be primed to try out your product. The trick is in identifying the existing solution, finding people who use it, and getting some of their time.

I'd definitely advocate doing this before doing any "Show HN" posts. Show HN is a (potential) way to get a lot of traffic and attention in one blast. You don't want to play that card until you know you can benefit from it: either in terms of feedback (you'll want to have vetted out basic users and assumptions first), or in terms of users (aim for some indications of fit before firing the shotgun). The other problem with relying on Show HN, or Reddit, is that there's luck of the draw involved. Sometimes your post gets buried or washed out by the noise. Being good is no firm guarantee of charting to page one.

I'm going to go ahead and disagree with you completely. Apple didn't find a critical mass of blackberry users (the leading smart phone at time of iPhone introduction) and market something better to them. It just made a smart phone and marketed it to everyone. When it made the iPod back in the day, it didn't find a critical mass of people using hard drive based players already. It created one for everyone.

In more formal terms, if you are trying to steal someone else's customer you have to do something on day 1 (first sale) that is more than 100% as good.

But if you are marketing to different customers, you are acting like a reseller of your competition, with the difference that you don't actually have to buy it from them, but can make it at cost.

It's far better to be in the second situation. I don't think the right strategy is to take on entrenched competition head-on. It's better to create a new market.

I think what he's getting at is that a fairly large problem with starting a start-up is that you don't know if your product or service has a market in the first place.

If you start with a fresh idea, then you have to test and discover if what you are offering is viable. By taking an existing product or service, and improving upon it, that entire first phase of discovery is done for you.

That's why most new businesses aren't building something novel (ie: opening up a restaurant, retail store, software consulting, etc...).

That discovery phase is expensive. So if you're boot-strapping or limited on capital and time, then you're in a situation where creating something new is extremely risky. Even large companies with lots of resources often fail when launching a novel product.

Not every company is like Apple.

And conversely, many successful companies built on existing solutions. Google wasn't the first search engine. Facebook wasn't the first social network. Microsoft Word wasn't the first word processor.

I'll agree that "It's better to create a new market." But only IF you have the resources to take on that kind of risk.

sure - the resources, or the vision.

One of the biggest advantages some companies have, is having one or more people who can, kinda, SEE the future, without needing to focus group everything.

An ability to intuit what's right - what'll work - without needing to test and prove every hypothesis (expensive), or worse: launch a product that falls flat (crazy expensive). It's definitely something some people are better at than others. Jobs was obviously a total pro. Gates was alright. Ballmer sucks at it.

A lot of that is taste. Taste mixed with direction.

I think you're slightly misunderstanding me. I'll chalk that up to my not being as clear as I could have been.

I'm not talking about stealing from competition. What I'm saying is that every startup is solving a pain point or a need-state of some sort. That's the reason for the existence of the startup in the first place. You might have competitors attempting to solve the same pain point in the same way, and you might not. Either way, you're trying to solve a pain point.

How do you gauge the validity of your product and find your first 100 users? You do this by gauging the validity of the pain point you've identified. You do this because, in a sense, the value of your product is the delta between Your Solution and User Pain. Nine times out of ten, users have an existing solution (or behavior) they're doing to try to solve the pain -- but your product is going to be better, or at least you hope.

Let's look at your iPod example. There were some MP3 players in the market before the iPod launched, but for the sake of argument, we'll say that these players were insignificant at the time. So what was the pain point, and what was the existing solution, when Apple launched the iPod? The pain point was not being able to take your music library on the go -- most people had to make do with a single CD at a time. Their existing solutions? Walkmen, portable radios, MP3 collections on their computers, and so forth. What was Apple's solution? "1,000 songs in your pocket."

It's a common misconception that Apple "creates new markets" by bringing entirely-new-to-the-world products to everybody at once. Yes, they can do that now. They've got billions of dollars, a well-oiled marketing and distribution machine, their own highly successful sales channel, and distribution at every major retailer in the country. But that wasn't the case back in 2001. When Apple launched the iPod, it didn't launch to "everybody." It had to start with a segment of the market, which in 2001, was a relatively small set of Mac users and early tech adopters with big MP3 collections. It addressed and added more segments over the next few years, slowly building a snowball into critical mass, which it wouldn't achieve until roughly 2004-2006.

Most startups are like Apple in 2001, not Apple in 2014. They don't have a megaphone they can shout from. Their customer set isn't the set of basically all consumers. In the long run, sure, that's a fantastic place to be. But you have to start somewhere a lot more specific.

Which brings me back to the original topic: how do you get your first 100 users? The best way to get them is to assess which subset of users you believe will have the biggest delta between your value proposition and an existing need or pain. That's all I was trying to say. It's not about "stealing someone else's customers," per se. It's about solving needs. In the long run, maybe a billion people have this need, and you're indeed opening up a new market. Awesome. But you can't start there. You don't start with the set of all addressable users; you start with a subset of extremely addressable users.

Very respectfully, I think if you reflect on it a bit more deeply, you will see that when you say that every startup is solving a pain-point or need-state of some sort, you're begging the question.

By definition if the startup can get users to do something, anything, then those users are doing something, anything using the startup - also by definition. If they weren't doing something, anything with the startup, they would either a) be doing something, anything without the startup (pain point) or b) experiencing a need-state (something, anything as a latent need that they are not using.) This would follow from definitions.

If you're not begging the question, could you propose a hypothetical startup as a counterexample, i.e. describe a startup that would not be solving a pain point or need-state of some sort, if we imagine the (counterfactual) scenario that people do however use it.

For example: if a startup sells you the right to remove a virus (that you didn't know about, and which doesn't exist). Is this a pain point? Is this a latent need? By definition it would have to be, as you are paying for it. That's why I say you're begging the question. Kaspersky by definition is filling the need to feel secure (by the definition that they are actually making sales.)

If a fitness company really sells you the knowledge that you're at least doing something, by staying enrolled, even though its model depends on 90% of people not showing up. That would be an example. Are they filling a need to be enrolled, without going? By definition, they are.

If these skinner-box games (apps) get traction, without being fun, then are they filling a need? By definition they are. Zynga by definition is filling a need to "casually game". (By the definition that they are doing so.)

McDonald's is by definition filling a need for McDonald's food and/or experience etc.

So to talk about 'needs' or 'pain points' are both somewhat silly, if we get to define these things as anything you can get people to do. (Your chance at a counterexample would be to state something you can get people to do, that would not be a latent need or a pain point - for example if you get people to behave very irrationally to use your service. Go ahead and try to come up with examples.)

Specifically, I don't think people felt "pain" over not having a Facebook wall of their friends' updates. It's just something Facebook created for them. It's no good to retroactively say that it was an 'unfilled need' as by definition this would be a catch-all for anything that doesn't fit in the first bucket, of pain points.

Basically, I am saying that if a startup does anything, it would fit by definition into something that was already done, and therefore a pain-point, or something that wasn't already done, and therefore a latent need the moment you start selling it, retroactively, since the beginning of time. The moment the first of something is used or sold it becomes a retroactive latent need going back to the beginning of time. It's simply begging the question completely.

Nor is this a shallow observation. If we switched it to, "build something that people will use", then that is not a very good answer to how to get your first 100 users, as the definition of something that people will use, is something that people use. By definition you can get 100 users if you build something that a hundred people will use...

I suppose you can make deeper observation that the goal of a startup is to make something that people independently will decide to use based on a description alone, or an initial experience, or their friends using it, or its having social prestige, or based on a specific advertising copy, or in the context of the industry and other advertising they've seen, or based on their historical purchasing habits and impressions, or . . . . . . . . .

you see, as soon as you make it deeper, it no longer fits your buckets at all, really. At most we can make it a shorthand for, "produce a company that you would be a customer of", since you can probably judge introspectively whether that you would be a customer if you were still an outsider, given the company's products, copy, marketing, etc.

But make no mistake: plenty of successful startups do not have the kind of offering their founders would have jumped at.

good advice. Thanks!

In my opinion reddit is very underrated in terms of customer acquisition. It's a target community of early adopters who are willing to start a conversation with you. For my start-up, 900dpi, I got our first 400 users from reddit after failing miserably through other channels. We found our best success in /r/web_design but have also looked at /r/frontend and /r/webdev. Sometimes your best traffic comes from comments in other peoples posts (where redditors are asking for a product like yours or discussing a problem that you solve). Our product has been picked up on a couple blogs too after being discovered by the bloggers via a reddit post.

I've also had luck with some other niche community sites such as Designer News. The important piece here is to try and integrate yourself into the community instead of just spamming them with links to your website. Get involved in conversations about things other than your start-up (people notice this and appreciate it). Make friends with the moderators. When Designer News was still private with no search capabilities I wrote a quick search engine built on sphinx to index all of the posts and make them searchable. Not only did this get me an invite to the community but also sent some nice traffic to my start-ups site via a small link on the search page.

I've had little to no success with twitter and facebook, although I might be doing it wrong. Some of the targeted communities that you can find through google plus look somewhat promising, but I've yet to fully explore these.

Our most vocal power users are people we know personally, or met at local events (our local co-working space).

r/startups was great for one of my launches, gave a lot of interesting feedback and drove some traffic. Wasn't hard to hit the front page.

If you have a product that may generate profit, e.g. a SaaS application targeting businesses, not a money burning consumer-app train (see: twitter or another photo album app) one of the strategies that work is cold emailing:

0. Identify and name your target group, e.g. commercial real estate agents in CA.

1. Find these people on Linkedin using advanced search option and invite them to connect.

2. Once connected you have their e-mail address, so send them a short e-mail (better response rate than InMails) describing the business problem and your solution. Short means 3-5 sentences, no attachments, just try to attract their attention.

3. Don't forget about follow-ups.

4. They will reply if interested and bam, you have a lead! Now it's time to set up a call and go into details.

5. Rinse and repeat. Stay persistent, you should send at least 20+ every day. Track response rates and adjust, you should achieve at least 5-10% easily.

This is borderline to SPAM, so I think the e-mails should be very personal.

If you have many competitors I am probably getting lot's of these e-mails which means you would have much harder time to get my attention.

Let's say you are a hosting provider, I probably would not like to get an e-mail from you offering me some good price or hard to understand feature of yours, because there are probably lot's of cheap hosting providers out there and every other provider is trying to differentiate themselves somehow. Other than "identifying my problem" you really shouldn't sound like giving me a sales pitch.

But if you noticed that, let's say I have 350ms response time in Asia when it's only 50 in USA and you have some solution for it, I probably will reply you even if I am not going to buy your service right away.

But if you noticed that, let's say I have 350ms response time in Asia when it's only 50 in USA and you have some solution for it, I probably will reply you even if I am not going to buy your service right away.

That reminds me of a technique I used when doing freelance Web design. I focused on restaurants with bad websites. I wrote a crawler that searched for restaurants with email addresses on the site, but bad html like font or center tags or flash. I would then email them a sample site with their name and logo inserted programmatically. It got pretty good response.

This is Cool! Actually it was my plan to find local businesses with bad/outdated websites and offer them a "renovation" but I didn't think to do this pragmatically. Thanks for the cool idea :) If I am going to look for some freelance work, I may actually try to imitate your approach.

Yeah, to me some evidence that the person has attempted to understand what I do and why this product would actually help me (considered honestly) is what distinguishes interesting contacts from spam. I'm in academia rather than industry, but I think some at least vaguely similar principles apply.

I get some cold emails that, while slightly disguised, boil down to: "a paper you wrote came up in a Google scholar search for 'Prolog', and we also have a logic and/or rule system that's great, pls see this website and let me know if you want any details on licensing". Those are not usually that interesting, since of course I know there are such systems out there, and can Google for them myself...

On the other hand, if you read in the Future Work section of a paper I wrote something along the lines of, "it'd be great if X existed, but it doesn't seem to", and you think you really have built something meeting the description of X, then emailing me saying so is usually quite interesting and non-generic.

Exactly! This is how I differentiate SPAM from legit e-mails too. I don't mind if somebody is offering me some service or something, why should I? If I have a problem to be solved, I would be happy to get the offer.

Very good point on "identifying my problem", maybe it's better to be "identifying my specific problem" that nobody else can resolve for me. Thank you.

I'm sort of learning this point from others and trying to apply it to draw people's attention. I showed people that you need to build a private version of the web that stores the only information you are interested in or related to you. And we have a tool to help you create your Private Web with a few clicks. But I failed. Can you please pinpoint out why? The Kickstarter project is here: http://kck.st/JNqv8z

You're better of calling RE agents. They do lots of business over the phone, so they're likely to pick up.

If your solution really works, it should be an easy sell.

It can be a working strategy if you're building a lifestyle business and don't care about hockey-stick growth or making millions.

I'm an armchair entrepreneur for now (just getting that out of the way), but the advice I've seen over and over again can be generalized as: "Go out and talk to peope". You'll want to avoid starting with a sales pitch. Instead, talk to them about their business (or life) and see if your product is a fit (ie: don't try to sell a social network for cats to a dog owner). If it seems like there's some product fit, ask how they are filling the need now. If appropriate, give the the elevator pitch and a 1min demo on your live product. Ideally, convert them by having them sign up for a trial right then and there on your computer, followed by walking them through the COOLEST thing they can do on your product.

Rinse, repeat.

That's my 2 cents. Also interested what others think.

I don't think it is a working strategy ever, to be honest. What you usually want to get decent returns is not necessarily hockey-stick growth (unless the game is to impress investors but this usually leads to questions of gaming the system). What you want is decent, modest, exponential growth (when you are small your growth can approach exponential levels, but when you are big you have problems keeping it up, due to the fact that most growth in a finite market will resemble a sigmoid in shape -- this is also why big companies can't successfully innovate).

Getting out and taking to people, as you say, is where it is at, regardless of your business goals. Start with the three F's of fundraising (friends, family, fools) and go from there. Posting on Reddit and HN is good to create discussion or buzz, but it won't by itself get you sales.

Another thing I would recommend is that you do two things:

1. Write a marketing plan. Talk about the market, who you are going for, and how you will reach them. Discuss both PR and advertising, as well as other forms of outreach. Review it, write it as a team. Get everyone on the same page.

2. Then once that is done, put it on the shelf and don't look at it for a year. Act as if the plan doesn't exist. Go out and promote your product. Come back in a year and compare what you did and what you accomplished to what you set out in the plan.

If appropriate, give the the elevator pitch and a 1min demo on your live product.

I want to point out the the above snippet assumes/implies a fairly deep knowledge of your intended audience, the problem space you are working in and several other things, any one of which might be the real problem as to why the OP is not getting traction.

Not a criticism. Just ...an elaboration, I guess.

If potential customers tell you there's an issue with your approach, that's extremely valuable too.

I think if you want to be successful you need to have good knowledge about your audience. Maybe not when you are first starting out, but you should when you have a product to sell.

You won't be a good golf club salesman if you know absolutely nothing about golf.

That's part of my point. We don't know where the OP is coming from though in terms of how well he/she knows the problem space, etc. If they don't know it well enough, perhaps pointing this out will help them.

I tried many options to get to our first 100 users.

Tech Blogs (they thought we were to boring to cover)

HN (no interest)

Reddit (no interest)

Ad Words (I think I sucked at it)

So I shrugged and kept improving then one day out of the blue, a big Mommy blog covered us for ways to keep up to date on coupons.

This one coverage leads to our first 200 users, and then another blog (MakeUseOf) covered us, which then lead to other industry specific blogs to cover us. Now we are getting 70+ new accounts a day and have over 120k users.

My advice (if the OP is asking) would be to target industry specific blogs/sites that would find your product useful and covers news that relates to your websites offerings, that is what I do now.

What's your product?

Here's a tactic that has worked for me so far

1. Set up a blog on your domain

2. write 20+ articles on industry-related topics (this alone will bring in some traffic)

3. get a number of emails from prospective customers

4. write a PERSONALIZED email to everyone on the list and ask if they are interested in an interview to be published on your blog. Offer a link from your blog as additional incentive

My response rate so far was >80%

Good for you to have such high response rate. I learned the first two tactics from other people and applied it to my project. My blog posts usually have some hits everyday without prospects. I think my blogs did help some people and brings interesting topics. Unfortunately no luck. I'd appreciate if you can give me any input. Here is the blog: http://bingobo.info/blog/.

"3. get a number of emails from prospective customers" Can you elaborate on this step? How are getting these emails?

Typically, you swap them their email address for something they'd presumably want. Instant download of a white paper, one-month free course delivered over email about $FOO, etc.

Patrick already mentioned the best way to get email addresses.

However, for my use case (i.e. emailing cold contacts) you usually don't get their address handed to you. I just looked them up with a combination of Yellow Pages and Google-Fu.

Now that I think of it, I could probably ask the people on my list for interviews. Thanks for the idea, Patrick :-)

When you write the articles, do you SEO on questions that people may ask in their searches or just write general articles not necessarily pushing your product?

I do both. Sometimes I look for long tail keywords (< 200 local exact match searches in Google's Keyword Planner tool). I then write mildly optimized posts for that. On other days I am like "that should be an interesting topic and I want to write about it". When I do this I don't even think about SEO.

Thank you Christoph and best of luck to you and your projects.

Our first customer for our collaboration tool Loomio (htp://www.loomio.org) was the coworking space we were working in and the social enterprise hub that was based there.

We built a tool that was instantly useful to them, and in exchange we instantly had 100+ users. We released an extremely "M" MVP and had real users from day one. Because they were using it free and we were building features in response to their direct feedback, they were very understanding about it being a rough prototype. Two years later, they voluntarily opted to generously backpay us for use of the tool (we didn't even ask them to).

If you can get real users from very early on, even if your tool is rough, do it! It will help you build what's really useful to people, and involving early users in the design process actively means they are motivated to use the tool early and help you make it work as well as possible as quickly as possible.

The pay what you want model is interesting - I'd like to know how that's working for you!

A lot of people have happily paid us money, which is awesome. But we've decided to transition to a true "gift economy" model now. In the next few weeks, we're launching a big crowdfunding campaign to fund development of Loomio 1.0, where we're taking the learnings from our first 10,000 users and creating a much more accessible, mobile responsive, intuitive tool. After crowdfunding, we're going to just be giving the basic software away for free and accepting donations instead of having a structured subscription model.

At the same time though, we've had massive pull from enterprise customers for consulting to go alongside the tool to help them do really good internal collaboration and culture change to a more distributed leadership model, as well as facilitate constituent and stakeholder collaboration. That's been a significant source of income for us.

Overall, the commitment to "pay what you can" has been core to our model and our values, and we're sticking with it, but we're experimenting with interpreting it in different ways. It's very important to us to both be independently financially sustainable, and to give our tool to groups doing great stuff in their communities regardless of their financial means.

I've got 3 people cold-calling and driving around the country showcasing our product. They started last week. This is the first time I'm trying selling an online service this way, I must say that I am pleasantly surprised by the feedback and the signups.

What's your product? And how'd you find the 3 people?

What's your product and who is your target user? Where do they spend their time? LinkedIn, Reddit, and HN won't help if you're trying to reach, for example, teenage girls.

I collected some thoughts on this that you might find helpful: http://lgilchrist.github.io/how_to_get_your_first_100_users/

TL:DR; - get a splash page up and start collecting emails - guest blog - particularly in places you know your would-be-users will read - organize an event - play around with paid marketing

Great resource and some great ideas and reminders - I've bookmarked this for later!

My friend and I just started a site to help do this: http://leaklist.org/

It's super early, but we've already gotten 500 users who are looking to beta test software and we've already started sending out codes.

Our goal is to make it the best platform for developers to get their first 100 users and the best place for users to get early & free access to awesome apps.

If you're interested please sign up either as a user or a developer—we're sending out stuff weekly!

cool concept. Is it meant just for games and just mobile? Would your customers be interested in beta testing a web-based social network?

Right now just games and mobile but the focus is to open up other categories/platforms as we hit critical mass.

How did you get those 500 users?

This is almost the exact same question as this front page post from an hour earlier: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=7248460

In essence: Go where your users hang out. With few exceptions, this is probably NOT the same place as where startup geeks hang out.

One example: my startup has a website for the Energy & Utilities industry. We got a bunch of early users by forming a partnership with a trade organization for energy providers.

how did you manage to form a partnership with the trade organization? step by step approach?

I'm very lucky to have two co-founders who are both much better at sales and business development than I, so one of them handled the details... But my recollection is that they approached us with a very vague idea that we were doing good stuff and maybe we can work together somehow? First instinct might have been to try to sell them ads (we're fully ad-supported), but after talking to them what they really wanted was 1) ways to provide more value to their members, 2) ways to do internal promotions to existing members and 3) things that are really easy for them to execute. So we racked our brains and came up with a deal where we write, manage, and send a weekly email newsletter with content tailored for their audience. The newsletter has both our logos in it and we promote it to our larger audience. They have a section they can use to promote their own events and content, and we promote the newsletter to our larger audience. We also provide discounts on ads to their members.

It's not the sort of deal that "easy" in that it took real work to put together. But I think it's worked out great for everyone.

I was after people who used iTunes to listen to their music for Beathound (http://beathound.com), so I created a survey asking them about their listening habits and offered a $100 iTunes gift card as a reward in the hopes that folks filling it out would self-select based on how much they cared about the gift card. I posted a link to the survey in a handful of survey-oriented subreddits (/r/SampleSize is good) as well as some specific ones (like /r/music and /r/itunes).

I had them leave their email if they wanted to be notified of the survey results, and then when Beathound was ready to go I sent them a nice email that said "Thanks for filling out my survey! You didn't win the gift card, but [here] are the results, and [here] is what I built using them."

I had a terrible time giving the gift card to the person who won it, because they were in Australia and I'm in Canada - if you're going to give something away for your survey, make sure that you can easily do it internationally.

http://betali.st/ got us our first 300 users for http://www.marvelapp.com, it's free to submit, I recommend it, great way to get momentum.

To get our first 1000 I used a combination of Twitter, LinkedIn Groups and my own blog and newsletter

How long was the turnaround between submitting to betali.st and getting featured? I've heard some people submit just a few days before going live, so by the time users get invites it's still fresh in their minds.

Actually for us it was pretty long (which I don't recommend). I think what you suggested is a much better strategy.

I think it was around 3 months so it wasn't as fresh but what I did was go through email addresses one by one, picked out the companies that sounded the most promising and opened up a dialogue to get those guys in early.

Then kept the other guys informed to try and keep them excited. Although if I would have done it just before launching I would have saved a lot of effort.

Yea that's what I'd be afraid of. It sounds like you handled it well. Since betali.st only features products that haven't fully launched yet, I just don't want to submit, and then by the time they see my submission we're live and they won't accept it. How long did it take between when you submitted to them and when you were actually featured?

You don't appear to have any links to your product on your HN user page!!!

There are a lot of great answers here already, however if you just do everything at once, you have no idea what works and not. Therefore, my advice is to take all of the great strategies mentioned here and write them down in “column A” in a Google Docs spreadsheet. Then write todays date in “column B”. Then choose one of the strategies in the list, preferably one you believe in. In the intersection between the date and the strategy write “Procedure: <exactly how you plan to proceed>, Measure: <exactly how you plan to measure the result, i.e. pageviews, signups etc.>, Result: <the results per metric>, Comments: <any comments that you think you’d like to remember when you read this in three months> ”. Then do exactly what you planned to do, measure the results and write them down in the designated field. Next day (or when the first strategy is done) pick a new strategy and repeat the process.

I work with a lot of startups, and one of the things we keep learning is that it is a lot harder to get customers than it is to build something. Therefore try to think of marketing as a puzzle, a challenge to be solved. The key is to keep experimenting, and measure everything until you find something that works, then keep experimenting and measuring.

Back in Dec 2012, when we were planning to launch TripTern we were bootstrapped and didn't have any money for marketing. So we relied heavily on Facebook for promotion. One thing that we used to spread the word was to create promotional material based on movie posters ( see the links below). It helped us in getting the initial signups and also was instrumental in us getting featured on Mashable.




You can see the entire album here


Quick background on Collabo (www.letscollabo.com) for some context - we're a bootstrapped startup aimed at creating a safe environment for freelancers, solopreneurs, and work-from-homers to video chat about anything they want. No selling, just camaraderie. We're very much in the P/M fit stage and wanted to test our theories that we can build and sustain and engaged community of peers willing to share/learn/give/seek with each other. So, here's what we did to get our first 100:

1. When users sign up for our email drip campaign (which consists of drive-to's for our blog), they also receive an invite to a private Facebook Group. We manually approve every person in the Group, and use the Group to learn about our customers, connect them with each other, survey new ideas, and build a sense of community. The Group has been wildly key to our building process. We're seeing about 55-60% of our email sign-ups join the Group, with about 20% being active participants.

2. My co-founder and I put out an offer to all our customers/readers to meet us for a cup of coffee, on us. We're in Portland and NYC, so only for those folks.

3. Sent personal emails to our networks promoting Collabo and asking them for feedback.

4. I manually scraped the follower lists of our competitors and industry big dogs on Twitter and followed them, which yielded some really good results, mostly in terms of gaining targeted followers.

5. Lots of time spent offering advice and sharing stories/knowledge on communities like r/startups and r/freelance.

6. In the process of guest blogging on sites that serve our niche market.

For Briefmetrics[0], first 10 users were basically the people I was building the product for. About half of those immediately and enthusiastically converted to paying customers.

The next 100 were friends, people who follow me on Twitter/Facebook, and Show HN[1]/Show Lobsters[2]/Show Reddit[3]. Got a few more paid customers from this segment but the conversion rate was not great at all.

Now I'm working on the next 1,000 which will probably involve some "real press coverage" and some reviews on niche blogs or guest posts. This part has been the hardest for me and would love any advice/intros.


[0] Briefmetrics [https://briefmetrics.com/], email summaries of your Google Analytics.

[1] Show HN [https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=6641385], which annoyingly got flagged pretty early on and never got any traction. Considering doing another Show HN, but kind of worried about annoying the HN hivemind.

[2] Show Lobsters [https://lobste.rs/s/ppcmud/show_lobsters_i_built_briefmetric...], some good feedback, this went as well as I could have hoped for the size of the audience. Been really enjoying the Lobsters community.

[3] Show Reddit [http://www.reddit.com/r/analytics/comments/1uk9na/briefmetri...] Got a chunk of visitors, but all the comments were from people I knew so the feedback was a bit of an echochamber.

How would you describe your actual paying client?

How do you mean? My target customer audience?

Right now it falls into two groups across two dimensions:

1a. Small-medium businesses

1b. Individuals with many web projects

2a. Already use the Google Analytics frontend regularly but feel that this recurring process is too cumbersome (often 20-40 clicks per property) and would rather have email reports to save time/effort.

2b. Have GA and like the idea of it, but never remember to check it regularly so they miss out on the value of analytics unless they get regular email reports.

You should find people with such problems on Digital Point, Flippa and obviously here.

Digital Point is a great lead, thanks!

Why do you think Flippa? I imagine people looking to get rid of their property for money are less likely to pay to monitor its analytics? Then again, it could be a good audience for people who own multiple properties.

Exactly, I guess a solid number of Flippa users own multiple websites for profit, so they should be interested in tight control of stats. You may also e.g. post a sell offer for your web app and a) a number of your target clients will see your pitch, b) you may end with a nice exit at an early stage, so only good things may happen! ;)

Hah very crafty. I'll consider it. :) Thanks for the outside-of-the-box suggestion. Btw, I liked your LinkedIn suggestion in the other thread, going to try that too.

Adwords, Forums, facebook groups, blog audiences, commenting, twitter, pinterest.

Go and find out where you customer hangs out online. Who already has your perfect audience on their mailing list? See if you can write something of value for their audience and tap into existing groups.

When you do get users, ask how they found you then double down on promoting in that channel.

Some of those suggestions (eg. comments) may represent a risk to search ranking. From what I understand, Google considers comments a negative signal. Perhaps it's only duplicate comments, though. Can someone more experienced than I am please provide their perspective here?

Perhaps! However I think it's important to jump in with a community and comments give you the chance to be a valued member that contributes.

Also, if your customers can find you without the assistance of search rankings (which can change at any time) then surely that's a good thing.

What's your general field? B2B, especially for big industries, tends to call for networking and possibly cold calls. Individual sales tends to call for advertising with a focus on high relevance sites. Social or two-sided markets (think credit card companies and users) tend to call for narrow early focus via outreach to online or physical communities. This simulates widespread use by creating a regionally high use space.

If you're in a specific field (e.g. online cello sales), do outreach to things like relevant forums and subreddits. You'll get targeted use which will provide quality feedback, hopefully. If it's a broad spectrum project, buy up relevant and cheap(ish) ads in several venues. Push use with some definable group that you can interact with directly, get emails via a newsletter, etc.

Striking up conversations in targeted areas works well for Blonk [0].

We're targeting software engineers & smaller startups looking to hire in the bay area. Find an icebreaker and when they naturally ask what you do, have your elevator pitch ready. If they're interested they'll ask you for url info or start downloading it on the spot. If not, no worries.

We often work at coffee shops in that area. When someone starts talking, we're happy to chat. Typically when they need to plug in a laptop or they ask you to watch their stuff. Attending meetups that your target audience goes to can be very worthwhile.

[0] http://blonk.co is an job finding app that connects job seekers to co-founders or their potential dept. leader in large companies, skipping the recruiters entirely.

My last personal project was a fan site for an MMORPG where I was doing around 250k monthly uniques before the game tanked. Promoting it was just a matter of establishing a presence on the official forums prelaunch, looking at referrers and extending the presence to other sites that were generating traffic.

My last commercial project was an OTT IPTV startup which we mainly promoted through adwords, some premium online ads in our target demographic, and doing interviews with media outlets that were serving that demographic. In terms of CPA adwords were by far the most cost effective.

My current project is in the entertainment. We are looking to get buy in from a couple of prominent people in the space before we go live and expect that a "we like it" from them will give us critical mass very quickly.

We don't have budget for marketing at http://www.cloquo.com so the only way we can do in order to promote our platform is by inviting bloggers, related with our service, to try out what we have develop so far, and we got some good feedback and reviews. Other way we are experimenting is to listen on twitter what kind of upcoming events people is interesting to not miss out and we add some value to them by sharing an alarm to easily activate it and being reminded when time comes. As a Google Mentor told me once, is better to reach first your primary audience instead going mad to be reviewed at big tech media.

Maybe our experience can help others...

I've grown https://www.uncover.com (a simple tool to give employees perks and rewards) in various different ways. A lot of it began with telling my network of friends who run startups. Getting them signed up. Then getting them to tell their friends how much they liked it. Once that source was depleted, I began to do a lot of content marketing. I started writing for a lot of different blogs, websites, etc. That helped get out name out there and brought in about a third of our current customers. I'm now beginning to experiment with buying ads. It's still too early to tell how well that will work out, though.

I'm not in your target audience, but I found your site originally on a Show HN and have seen it be recommended to others on various places ever since so you seem to be doing something right! :)

Thanks! That's awesome. Referrals are our best source of new customers.

Focus on getting a product to the point that some small group (as small as one person) really loves the product. If you focus on that getting to 100 will be easy. Of course you will need to pick a product that at least 100 people have a use for.

Friends and family count for your first dozen at least, hopefully. After that, consider looking for online communities that need your product. For example, vbulletin forums that focus on them.

Ingratiate yourself to these communities by participating in discussions unrelated to what you're working on.

By then, you should be able to post a full thread describing what you've done, offer a few screenshots and ask if people will try it. By replying to people's questions and being friendly, you will keep the thread reasonably topped and pick up users that way.

This also works in general interest internet forums, so long as you are a reasonable participant and posting in the correct areas.

It really depends on the business. But ideally you want to find a place where your ideal user is and promote there. Some Example: - If you are doing something entertainment based try posting branded content on Tumblr and promoting it through social media. - If you are building a SaaS application for developers, try to speak at a conference.

Be sure not to fall into the trap of using users/straight growth as a vanity metric. Any website can get decent growth with a spammy strategy. You want quality users that will help grow the product.

I created a website chatleap.com about a month ago and I had moved on since I was unable to get people to use it. I saw the twitch plays pokemon post and realized that it was hard to chat in the twitch chat due to all the people spamming commands so I decided to post my website there in hopes to get 1 or two people to visit my lonely chat. I ended up getting around 130 people and even had others posting my link in the twitch chat. So thats how I got my first 100 users but I am afraid they wont stay for long.

I struck up a partnership with the owner of the largest forum in my vertical. I just published this blog post about the whole process a few days ago:

How One Strategic Partnership Generated Hockey Stick Growth For Our Online Community http://justinblase.quora.com/How-One-Strategic-Partnership-G...

Similar to what others have said...when I setup my DJ mixes website for electronic dance music back in 2008 (http://www.house-mixes.com), I literally jumped on to like-minded forums asking if people would be willing to trial it out, there was only a handful of competitors at the time which helped I suppose, but today we have over 550,000 registered users and an extremely active site.

A few years ago I started a norwegian Fiverr.com clone, called Mikrojobb.no. We got our first 100 users by:

1. Telling all of our friends to create accounts and post some 'gigs', so the site didnt look like a ghost town.

2. Going to various forums for bloggers, web developers, part-time entrepreneurs etc and asking them for feedback. (In other word, finding communities that we thought would use the site and asking them for feedback.)

3. Pushing some press releases to local news sites.

Quite straightforward.

At Jungl VPN we do the following:

1) Personally craft a unique, thoughtful reply to every sales question. 2) Use our own VPN ourselves on a daily basis so we can empathize with our customers and improve our product 3) Provide stellar support for our product. For example remotely troubleshooting issues on customers computers or setting up a custom VPN server temporarily if customers are in a pinch. 4) Reward our influential customers by offering a referral fee.


We had a idea for a group messenger tool to bridge teams and their customers (http://peer.im). Then we signed up an advisor to help us on sales and marketing. His is a sales director so he started used this tool in his team. Then we had a media press covered which brings us several dozen of real users who can give us feedback and iterate on features.

I checked out your site. The product looks very promising.

How should I acquire users for classified ads website? I've done this site recently, it's my first personal project: http://oglos.info/

I managed got some ads etc. I will appreciate feedback :) and suggestions related with the site (it's not in english but it's extremely easy so it should be understandable).

I work with a startup that sells education games to elementary schools in Norway. We did a survey, where we sent out 600 forms to teachers and got 154 responses. At the end of the form we had an extremely short description of the concept and a check-box for “yes, I would like to try this product together with my students”. We got 94 signups from that.

With LiberWriter, I targeted forums where our users actually hang out, and gave useful answers to questions, with the URL at the end of the message as a sort of '.signature'.

HN is far, far away from our target audience, so posts here - even on the top of the front page - have gotten me pretty much 0 conversions. That's fine, though.

Me too. I tried hard here, but I dare not to attaché the URL with every post. I got 0 conversations too, even though part of my target users/customers are here.

Putting your URL at the bottom of every comment is actually against the HN guidelines: http://ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html

But yeah, I would think few startups would find the HN community a bullseye.

I know. That's why I only embed URLs when it's relevant to the topic and provide my input to the topic first. I usually got negative points up to -4 which made me so frustrated.

30% from mailing lists where I was already an active member. 30% direct referrals from people I knew in field. 30% referrals from when I would find people not interested in product, and ask them if they knew anyone who was interested. 10% media coverage of product.

Super labor intensive.

How did you get referrals from a mailing list you were a subscriber to? Could you elaborate?

Before launching my first product, I wrote ten articles on related subjects and put up an email sign-up form. The article were static html pages, not blog posts. They were howto's and other reference pieces that had lasting traffic value.

Did it work out (or not)?

Advertising. AdWords PPC and banners on relevant sites. You can use tools like http://mixrank.com/ (YC S11) to see where your competitors advertise and what ads they use.

If you have a project associated with your startup, you can launch it on Kickstarter and get both users and money. That's what I did for Learneroo.com.

Hoe did you find the Kickstarter experience in terms of getting traction and interest with users? Did you promote the Kickstarter campaign elsewhere too?

Who is your customer? You need to go to where they are. Depending on your customer there will be wildly different marketing strategies.

HN got me the first 260 users for http://crushify.org (Reddit was a no show.)

Not post on HN or Reddit, that's for sure.

Thank you. Agreed.

cold called - I hired interns and commission based workers to call people they thought would buy our product. I didn't have to worry about selling it to the customers, I just had to figure out how to sell it to our sales reps. Cold calling worked great, just got tired of the bS that came along with it.

Can you elaborate what you meant by the "bs that came along with it"? Was it mostly setting up the system (getting the right folks, script, etc.) that was hard?

Really interested to hear your experience (and the "pain points") as I know someone who is trying to write a book about this and he's always on the lookout for folks with different perspectives.

Bunkmate.in told a few friends about it in college and . Grew from there.

Thats the holy grail of marketing, and you will not get the answer here.

Advertising on social media and lots of instrumentation.

Reach out to 100 strategic people individually.

you might try your local chamber of commerce. I believe one the mail apps tried that. probably need a general business app.

What kind of customer are you trying to get?

Talk to people. In person.

Told friends, twitter, HN.

I would give a kidney.

I got my first 50,000 users in a few days by posting to reddit. And literally doing nothing else.

If you're trying this hard to market then you're probably making a bad product.

Could you let us know about your product?

Sorry I can't, i'd be revealing my identity.

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