During the first few months of running a startup, you’re a sponge. You soak in advice to find The One: a tactic that is going to help you acquire your first customers.Sometime after the six-month mark, exhaustion sets in. You realise that what worked for all those big companies won’t work for you at your current stage. So what should your growth strategy look like?
The secret is in doing things that don’t scale. And today, I’ll explain how you can use that to create a great growth strategy, and show you how to implement it at your very own startup.
Take your pick.
In my experience, the main problem is using tactics big companies are using instead of implementing a growth strategy that relies on doing things that don’t scale, but work for your startup.
In 2013, Paul Graham, the founder of YCombinator, published an essay related to early startup customer acquisition titled “Do Things That Don’t Scale.”
The idea was simple: you can’t recruit your first 100 users the way you’d recruit your 100,000th user.
In the essay, Graham offers a few important guidelines for startup growth strategy:
Don’t think about scaling the tactics you are using to acquire your first customers. As you build momentum, and as you acquire more customers, your methods will change. By then, they’ll be appropriate and they will help you grow.
Unscalable tactics normally rely on communicating with your early customers. This allows you to get feedback from them, and see how they really use your product so you can create features that fit the market’s needs better.
When you’re small, you get the chance to talk to your customers one-on-one and provide them with a really incredible experience.
Going the extra mile? You should be going the extra thousand miles. Excellent experiences make people want to share the product they’ve discovered with their networks.
If you only worry about growing steadily and doing the next thing on the list, you’ll be more focused. Many startup founders are exhausted managing different marketing initiatives - many of which never take off.
When you do things that don’t scale, you’re focusing on pure growth and immediate results.
Many unscalable initiatives aren’t as costly as regular acquisition methods (e.g. paid advertising), which gives you more wiggle room in your budget.
Doing things that don’t scale requires a hands-on approach. And as you work to delight your customers with incredible experiences during the early days, the customer-centric approach will become a natural part of your process even as you grow.
The Collison brothers founded Stripe in 2010, and they truly revolutionised online payments. However, they didn’t sit around waiting for their customers to find them.
Instead, they asked their customers if they wanted to try Stripe. Once they said yes, the brothers set them up on the spot.
The Collison brothers removed friction and provided a customised user experience to their first customers.
In April 1964, the co-founder of Nike started selling his first shoes the old school way: out of the boot of his car. He drove across the country to track meets, talking to coaches and runners.
Nike’s most successful salesman, Jeff Johnson, kept building relationships by starting up a veritable pen pal network.
Nike sold its first 50,000 shoes thanks to word of mouth alone.
My favourite recent example is Superhuman, which describes itself as the “World’s fastest email’ tool. As the tool relies on keyboard shortcuts and a new way of managing email, they want to ensure that new customers really know how to use it in order to get full value. So rather than being like a lot of SaaS tools and having a self-service process and with basic guides, they took the unscalable route:
To use Superhuman, you have to go through a 1:1 onboarding consultation with their team.
Initially, it was the Founder Rahul Vohra who did these consultations. Vohra had sold his first company for $15 million and could have decided to outsource to a junior member of staff. But such was his desire to create a great experience for his customers, he removed any ego and spoke to every new customer who signed up.
The company is now growing rapidly via word of mouth and has an 180,000 person waiting list to use the service. Doing unscalable tactics like this can help you get to product / market fit quicker and create real advocates for your product.
With tools like HotJar that allow you to get instant feedback, you can easily get in touch with your customers to see what they think.
You can also identify a few customers representative of your audience, and then work closely with them on your product. It will feel like you’re creating the product specifically for them, but you’ll be making an incredible product for your entire audience.
When talking about exceptional customer support, I’m again reminded of Stripe and its founders who fixed bugs as soon as customers reported them. This often meant staying up until 2am.
Today, you can do this by going the extra mile when providing customer support. Instead of just replying to their queries, provide your customers with extra resources and follow up.
Join communities that your audience participates in, understand their goals, and join the conversation yourself.
Some startups are now even joining social media conversations where people look for product recommendations, and then showing how their own products can help.
You don’t have to visit every single company who signs up for your product, but you can provide training and extra support during the first few months.
Sometimes you need a little help to spread the word. And while your first instinct is to email a thought influencer out of the blue, reconsider. Instead, start building a relationship with them. Only collaborate if they truly like your product.
This is the simplest thing you can do right away. The average open rate for welcome emails is 50%, which is 86% more effective than standard emails.
So instead of sending a generic email, introduce yourself to your customers and see how you can help them even beyond the features and processes you’ve already put in place.
Finally, if you’re running an early-stage startup, you should definitely be implementing the following into your growth strategy:
In the beginning, use the “contained fire” approach Paul Graham mentions. Don’t make your product for everyone - make it for a specific set of people that will help you gain traction.
Create a lead magnet that’s highly specific to the niche you’re targeting and then focus on turning every lead into a customer.
Focus groups are a staple of every market research project. Fortunately, you don’t need a big budget to learn what your audience thinks these days.
Just join the communities they participate in, and start providing value. Answer questions, offer your advice, and mention your product only when it’s appropriate.
Your friends and family are going to be your evangelists because you’re the one making the product. Even if they’re not your target audience, they might know someone who is.
I’ve already touched on building relationships with influencers. But you likely have a lot of micro-influencers in your network. Leverage their connections to spread the word. Ask for introductions.
If you’re reaching out to big influencers, make sure you’ve built a relationship with them first. Create unique resources they’ll want to link to. Provide value to their audience.
People buy products because they’re useful, but they become fans because of the experience. Work with your customers, and let their feedback inform your product development.
Sell customers on your future. Instead of just listing the features you’re offering right now, mention what’s coming and how it will help them.
As you grow, doing things that don’t scale will stop being a natural approach to customer acquisition. But it’s always good to get back to the trenches and talk to your customers.
They’ll teach you more about the market than any report ever could.