2014-01-07

Co.Labs

How We Got Our First 2,000 Users Doing Things That Don't Scale

So you need a crowd to launch to. Here's the way we got one.



Great products die every day. It takes more than product to build a successful business, yet founders proceed without addressing the important question: how do we get users? No matter how useful your product might be, it isn't a business without users.

With Product Hunt, we focused on user acquisition before we had a product. 20 days after its public launch, we had a community of 2,000 users that we acquired by doing things that don't scale. Here's how we did it.

The MVP

Product Hunt, a daily leaderboard of new products, began as an email list using Linkydink, a tool for creating collaborative daily email digests. Contributors submitted links to products and each day subscribers received an email of new and interesting products. I seeded the community by inviting a few dozen founders, investors, and startup folks I knew. To my surprise, people really enjoyed the daily email and the subscriber base grew organically.

What began as an experiment, quickly grew into something much bigger. Encouraged by the positive feedback from the community, I sought to build the "real" Product Hunt and reached out to my buddy Nathan Bashaw for help.

The "Real" Product Hunt

Over Thanksgiving break, we designed and built Product Hunt. Meanwhile, we reached out to contributors in the MVP and other respected product people, sharing early mocks and gathering feedback. We weren't just doing customer development, we were getting them excited and making them feel like part of the product (and they were, helping guide our design decisions).

The conversation that proceeded helped us better understand our initial user base to build a desirable product.

The Private Beta

5 days later, we had a very minimal but fully functional product. We emailed our supporters a link to Product Hunt, informing them not to share it publicly.

The supporters were thrilled to join and play with a working version of something they had thought about and indirectly, helped build. That day we acquired our first 30 users.

The Quiet Beta

We still weren't ready to share Product Hunt publicly yet. It was buggy and we wanted to ensure people enjoyed the product before expanding to a larger audience. Over the next week we squashed bugs, gathered additional feedback, and invited a few more people to join.

Your first users matter. We knew how important it was to seed Product Hunt with the right people from the start. Initial users form the community's culture and once established, it is very difficult to change. By the end of the week, we had 100 users and felt ready to share Product Hunt with the world.

The Public Launch

I reached out to Carmel DeAmicis, a reporter for PandoDaily. We met once before and the respect I earned guest writing on the popular tech publication helped me land a last minute meeting later that night. We met at Homestead, a bar in the Dogpatch district of San Francisco and I told her our story and vision for Product Hunt.

The next day Carmel confirmed an article would go live the following day. Immediately, we hopped back into our inbox to spread the news to our users.

Early contributors appreciated the note, hearing the backstory, and helping make Product Hunt a success. More than just share the news, our email included two specific asks:

  1. Post a Product: It was important for us to have quality products and a healthy level of activity at launch. We were about to make a first impression for many.
  2. Share the Article: To maximize exposure, we asked early adopters—many who have a large following and influence—to share the article. To make it even easier, we provided a "click to tweet" link that opened Twitter with a pre-created message.

The launch was a success and by the end of that day we acquired our 400th user.

The Drum Beat Beats

Growth was fantastic, but in reality, user acquisition wasn't our primary goal. Engagement and retention is most important at this early stage. If people don't stick around, press goes to waste. Or worse, founders are fooled into thinking they're making progress.

So why bother with press in the first place? The PandoDaily article was strategic—we weren't just trying to acquire more users. The primary goal was to get early adopters excited and prove to the tech community that Product Hunt isn't just another one of my ephemeral experiments. We kept beating the drum.

We reached out to Chris Dannen, an editor at Fast Company. Similar to PandoDaily, I contributed several articles over the past six months, which made connecting easier. I sent Chris a draft of my article, describing the story behind Product Hunt and the "20-minute MVP" used to validate demand for the product. I believed the Fast Company audience would enjoy the piece and so did Chris.

Three days later The Wisdom Of The 20-Minute Startup was published, generating another boost of growth. Soon after, we acquired our 800th user.

The Manual, Slow Growth

Since public launch, we carefully monitored who was signing up, identifying influencers and those that we knew would make good contributions to the community. Tools like Intercom and Rapportive were very helpful, translating nondescript email addresses into identifiable people, surfacing people's Twitter and LinkedIn profiles. Once we identified an influencer, Nathan or myself sent a personal email, inviting them to contribute and linking to the PandoDaily or Fast Company articles, to tell our story. A manual process indeed, but an effective way to recruit good contributors and open lines of communication for future feedback.

We also asked for referrals, emailing people using the product to ask if they knew of other product people that would make good contributions. We could have automated this but at the cost of delivering a less personal and effective message.

Most people had a few friends that immediately came to mind and gladly made introductions. As with getting press, asking for referrals was designed to build a stronger, more engaged community, not just acquire additional users. Product Hunt is more fun with friends, with people our community knows, respects, and trusts. The more one-degree connections, the more people are encouraged to use the product.

Our manual efforts growing the community paid off. 20 days after Product Hunt's private launch and several hundred emails later, we acquired our 2,000th user.

The Uncertain Future

Although we've found early success growing Product Hunt, the future is always murky. Smart and skeptical entrepreneurs ask us:

  • Will people stick around?
  • How will you maintain quality contributions and discussion as the community grows?
  • Is Product Hunt limited to the early adopter, tech community or does it have mainstream appeal?

We think about these questions and will answer them as the product and community matures. We embrace this uncertainty as the best products are often born from polarization. If everyone knew the answer, Product Hunt would have already existed.

Ryan Hoover is the co-founder of Product Hunt. This essay is part of a series of posts where he shares the strategies, tactics, and surprises his team encounters building their product. Subscribe to my blog to follow along.

[Image: Flickr user John Ashley]






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16 Comments

  • Yo Ryan, are you a reader of Ryan Holiday? Sounds like you've executed his strategy for manipulating the media (in an ethical way of course). Great job on acquiring those users, very inspiring to read.

  • awesome awesome article! It was very encouraging to read because I was freaking out thinking that I need to do some huge creative promotional strategy, but it's good to know that these simple techniques still work!.

  • Everybody talks about scale and efficiency for startups (and business ops in general). This is a great reminder that hustle doesn't necessarily scale, in the beginning (and other times). And, more importantly, who cares. Scale is useless if you've got not users (customers, clients, etc).

  • Sounds good, but why all the talk about scale? Learn from what works and keep doing that. Besides, you set a precedent both in terms of expectation and culture. You don't have to scale what one person can do when it comes to community. It's not like you are alone with nothing but some app. The things you are doing do scale.

  • Lauren N. Rosenberg

    These are some great small-scale ideas! I've done with personal outreach myself, and while it's very time consuming it's been one of our more successful marketing efforts. Thanks for sharing!

  • Really interested to see how you reached out to the press, I always struggle with that side of things.

    You seemed to have missed an essential part of your MVP out... how is Producthunt going to make money?

    Without that you have a minimum viable community, not a minimum viable product.

  • Rodney Brackins

    Awesome post that sadly, many folks will ignore. Unless you've got a good deal of corporate backing and funding and have money to blast through and advertise the bejeezus out of a startup, most startups are better off starting out with the personal touch and doing things that initially don't scale too well. When you first startup, your only real assets are that you're a human being, and your competitors are not. Sadly, there are way too many startups out there that think that all they have to do to succeed is use the types of companies listed at http://www.buyfacebooklikesreviews.com to rapidly scale out through social sharing. That doesn't work in the long-run when you don't have a product worth anything. The personal touch, even though it won't scale, is what you use to develop a good reputation in the long run. And it it doesn't work, that's a sign that you shouldn't be wasting more time on the project. Win for everybody.

  • What a great roadmap here Ryan. I think early on with customer acquisition, you should be less worried about scale anyway. Great insights with how you found the influencers and leveraged them as well. Thanks for sharing your story!

  • Hey Ryan: Product Hunt has become one of the most key things I read every day. And every day I find awesome stuff on it, so I'm sure that engagement can be maintained as long as there is cool stuff on there every day, and I don't see that slipping, because there is always something new and cool to reveal. My only regret is that I seem to have missed the window to ask you to post my latest project, a motivational tool for Fitbit users, in your roundup of health and fitness hunts.