Bootstrapping a company is hard: You're married to sales and revenue, you have to produce, and there's no extra runway to save you from mistakes. And then you have one added pressure: organic marketing. How do you get attention for your company without a huge marketing budget? Where should put your already-stretched time—to get the most press, eyeballs, and clients?
The team behind Near Me, an e-commerce platform, knew they had to figure that out fast when one of their first customers challenged their street cred. “We had a potential client come and ask us how we were going to help them build up their business,” says Near Me CEO and cofounder Michelle Regner. “Specifically this guy was doing Airbnb for RVs and he said to us, ‘Look, we really want to have a credible client platform and backend. How do I trust you guys? How do I know that you’re going to be around? I’m going to build my whole business on top of you,’ The credibility around who we were as a company was very important at that point,” Regner says. “We recognized ‘Hey, we need to figure out a way to have some street cred.’”
Creating an image of longevity is one of startup-land's most ironic mandates. The mantra seems to be "fail fast," but only after pretending you're the next Facebook. “There's this pressure in Silicon Valley that you have to go get funding or you won't make a name for yourself,” says Regner. “There's a stigma attached to bootstrapping, like you're tapping your own piggybank. We've been successful before. Still people keep saying ‘No press is going to write about you, no one will care unless you’re backed by a big firm.’”
Regner realized her team had to find creative ways to make a name themselves. Here's how they did it, and how any hustler-startup can follow suit.
One of the first ideas Regner undertook was a pop-up shop near San Francisco's Moscone Center, during conference season—not a normal move for a brand-new startup.
“It was basically a short-term lease for two weeks. Within the sharing economy, we hired 40 Task Rabbits to help draw the Salesforce crowd over to where we were,” she says.
While there is a company called Storefront that does pop-up shops, you can also do it the old-fashioned way and save some bucks. That’s what Regner and her team did.
“We went to Ikea and we bought a ton of desks and chairs,” she explains. “We created a free workspace for everyone at Moscone, because they were all sitting on floors trying to power up. They came in. They got free coffee, pastries, and Wi-Fi.’”
It's key that the shop be strategically tied to your business objectives, says Regner. If done correctly, you can use the passersby to help validate ideas or features.
“We’d just come out of developing the product," says Regner. "It was good to hear what people thought, to demo our product, get their feedback, to speak candidly with them,” she says. “And because the client was there it helped build up that credibility in two ways. Trust from the general public seeing us. And he could see firsthand what we were able to do."
Even for startups, social business is mandatory. For Regner, it’s been the best way to land corporate clients. The way she explains it, from day one her best salesperson has been Twitter. ‘We landed our first big account was through Twitter. Someone tweeted about us. The company followed us—and it was Cisco,” says Regner. “We're also working with W Hotels. They're running a white-labeled Near Me for some of the excess business and conference space in their hotels. The global social media manager is our 'in' there, and that whole relationship was ignited through a conversation we started with her on Twitter.”
New tools like Twitter add-in Leaf, a Chrome browser extension, and Gmail sidebar Rapportive make qualifying leads a whole lot easier. Making a social media hire early can also help. Regner says you should bring that person on board much, much earlier than you might expect.
“I hired the social media person as our fourth hire because I thought that was really important," she says. "We've had so many bloggers write about us.”
It was a new-style business courtship that is particularly telling about how HR works now. “We found Angela, our social media strategist, off of Twitter. I was hashtagging #socialmediajobs and she’s amazing. She saw it and was ready to leave a job in L.A. We met over Skype,” Regner says. “Find your people through Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn. And always check out their profiles. It surprises me how many people don’t keep that up. They’re like, ‘Oh, I have a Pinterest and I’m applying for this social media job.’"
Regner and her team are also obsessive about sharing online tricks, like how to automate email scraping. Her big realization there was that on online marketplace sites where people are looking to buy or sell a particular item, email addresses and potential customers are everywhere. But the problem is: How do you find the right people? How do you get their email addresses? And how do you automate the process of reaching out to qualified leads?
“We decided early on that we needed to validate the market and one way was to invite others from other sites, which is actually really difficult because those sites have all these blockers,” says Regner. “People are doing this but just not in an automated way. We did that, and our open rate is insane. It’s like 53%.”
How they did it is outlined in the visual above for technical types. For everyone else, Regner explains it this way:
“One of my friends was starting a company Tubes.io that was a screen-scraping tool, so we tapped into him. We were the first people to think about [using it] in this way,” says Regner.
“In laymen’s terms, we created 20 support account emails within the company. We used the tools inside that diagram, which include Zapier, IFTTT, Google Docs, and Salesforce. We built it and plugged in all eight tools you see here to have this automated system that would just fire out emails to people [we’d found through the online marketplace],” Regner explains. That process that took about two weeks. “We [would] engage with them; they’d email us back. And then a live person would step in once we engaged with that lead. It became a lead gen for us because our open rates were over 50%. And all of that filtered into our CRM system for sales, which was Salesforce.”
Of course sites might not love practices like this, Regner warns—"there are securities in place with most to block people from using aliases." But she says it is still an interesting, doable hack. And far more importantly, that it was a positive experience for her users, and it gave her business a huge boost.
“The people we reached out to, no one wrote us back ticked off. It wasn’t like ‘How did you get my information?’ Everyone was happy to receive an email from us, because they put postings out there specifically because they were trying to rent their space. It was a good experience," she says. "But the goal was to get their email address. That becomes a more qualified lead.”
How well did it work? “Our signup rates went through the roof,” Regner says. “We went from 500 desk spaces to 12,000 around the world. That was our big measure of success—how many people would convert and sign up. It’s how we built up our supply side of the marketplace.”
Having just hit some big revenue goals, Regner and her team are in good position to keep growing. Especially since they're in the sharing economy space—a whitespace that is still heating up with new events like San Francisco's Share conference, OuiShare in Paris, and most recently, Crowd Companies, which brings together 30 startups and 40 big brands to trade ideas.
“You can do it, you can get there,” Regner says. “You can get to a certain level where you’ve proven out your model and some angle of success where you can then go after VC funding if you want. But they’re not funding on PowerPoint pitches anymore, so you’ve got to get there somehow," she says. "We just chose to do it on our own.”
[Image: Flickr user JD Hancock]