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How to go from zero to 100,000 users with $0 in marketing

Nearly all early-stage startups have a very limited cash flow, meaning that founders have to be picky about where funds go and why. When it comes to marketing, entrepreneurs are faced with a tough decision: spend limited resources on marketing, or inject funds into product development, following the mantra, “build it and they will come.” Although it is common for founders to feel that they have to choose between these two roads, it’s also possible to implement creative “guerrilla” tactics for marketing in the early days. Here’s how my company attracted 100,000 users in six months without spending a cent on marketing.

Social media tactics

Thanks to social media, it’s become much easier to reach out to influencers and potential customers. However, because it’s that much easier to do, that means you have more competition when reaching out to people you don’t know — so you have to find unique ways to stand out. When we began building our user base, we conducted constant searches on Twitter for topics that might lead us to users or influencers. We searched for “notes” and “online forms” until we found individuals with a strong presence online who were perceived as thought leaders in the industry. From there, we reached out and asked what they thought about our product. It was important that we didn’t make any big asks upfront; we simply offered an up-close look at our early stage product. Many influencers we connected with were happy to write about our product once they tried it, which proved that we had a strong offering  and helped us to reach new users who trusted the influencers who were talking about Transpose.

The pseudo-partnership

Our product has an intricate backend that relies on data mining and sophisticated coding, so we knew that we had to find a more “focused” way of describing at least one thing that we do well to avoid overwhelming early users. To do this, we tried a unique tactic: we carefully attached ourselves to a well-known product, Evernote, even though our offering was much more complex and different. By positioning ourselves as an “Evernote app” early on, we attracted users who appreciate structure, organization, and information storage (characteristic of Evernote’s user base). As we picked up users as an add-on for Evernote, many customers realized that our platform performed just as well as a note-taking solution — but also offered many more capabilities. At one point, we were pretty excited to have Lifehacker mention us as an Evernote add-on, back when we were still Kustom Note (even though it was just in the comment section).

Lifehacker MEntion.png

Warning: adopting this tactic is risky, because it can permanently pigeon-hole your offering or dilute what your product really does. We took the risk knowing that we would have to work extra hard one day to differentiate ourselves from Evernote.

Engineered virality

Virality is always described as a way of broadcasting: Instagram, Facebook, Spotify feeds…when you give your users a way to share information publicly with each other, it’s easier to build buzz and following. We took another risk by creating a public community of users on Transpose. We gave our users the ability to publicize, share, and copy one another’s templates and organization solutions via Transpose, knowing that it was possible that our public community could expose weak points: not enough users, poor quality of user-generated templates, etc. Luckily, our users began creating templates that fell naturally into categories like education or project management, and these sub-categories served users well as they learned more about what Transpose can do. In this way, we were able to build our own virality around shared knowledge and expertise. By allowing our users to share their work, we grew massively across many verticals.

About the author: 

Hussein Ahmed is the founder and CEO of Transpose, a tech startup based in Seattle, WA, USA. Transpose is a smart workspace for business teams to manage projects, collaborate with one another, and conduct various business operations all in one place. Before launching Transpose, Hussein worked for Amazon as a Software Development Manager and has built numerous startup projects including Bondeebo.com, Nastafty.com, and Pikita.com. Hussein has a PhD in Computer Science from Virginia Tech.

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