So, you have a startup idea. It’s going to be big.
You can see it now. Millions of people using your service. You’ve already figured out your mobile strategy. You know the neighboring sectors you’ll expand to first. Your read-write API will hail the transition of your company into a platform company. You’re going to change the world.
The only problem is that your vision is based on having hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of happy users and, currently, you have zero happy users.
If your startup plan is directly based on this vision, you will struggle.
You need a different plan; a plan that doesn’t assume millions of happy users.
You need a first 1,000 users plan. This isn’t just about getting 1,000 users to try out your service. This is a plan about keeping those users.
Unfortunately, looking at how successful startups are currently executing (Facebook, Yelp, Foursquare) doesn’t help because their growth plans are based on the fact that they already have millions of users.
You have to look at their history.
- Focus on a Niche. By focusing on a small geographical area, a vertical or smaller group of people, it will be easier to build up a meaningful user base in that niche.
- Groupon just focused on local deals in Chicago, Foursquare was primarily in New York, Facebook was available just at Harvard College, Yelp launched in San Francisco
- StackOverflow started with Tech Q&A before they launched StackExchange
- Become a Super User. You should shamelessly become the biggest user of your own service. If your service requires user generated content, you should be supplying 10x what every other user is supplying. You need to do this long enough to kickstart everyone else on the site.
- Dennis and Naveen, the founders Foursquare, must have added 1,000 tips in New York. Every time I checked-in, I got a tip from one of them. Obviously, they couldn’t do that for the whole world. But, as an early user in New York, I had a great experience
- Yelp’s founders made all of their friends also become super users
- Scott Heiferman, co-founder of Meetup, started the largest and most succesful meetup himself (New York Tech Meetup)
- Wow Users. Your goal is to get 1,000 happy users and that means you can do some things that won’t work for users after 1,000
- Flickr used to email every user that signed-up to find out what their experience was like
- At Yipit, we personally over-responded to every customer service and unsubscribe (one of those got us featured on CNN)
- Yelp threw ridiculous parties for their first users. They still throw them today for their best users but not for all users
- Even though Foursquare is more about tips and friend-finding, it added a game layer of points and badges so that the early users could use the app even though their friends weren’t on it yet
- Get Their Social Graph. If you only have a 1000 users but they are all friends, that’s enough to get those friends happy
- By focusing on just Harvard college, Facebook’s first 1,000 users knew each other and didn’t care that there weren’t 50,000 people using the service
- Manually Create Marketplaces. If you’re a marketplace startup where you need both sides to come together, you should think about picking one of the sides and manually create it while you encourage the other side to show up
- Groupon started as a platform for getting people together for group benefits. But, they had success, when they manually created the group benefit by negotiating deals with local businesses and only asked that people sign-up for their email list
The common theme in all of these recommendations is to not be afraid to do some things that won’t scale past the first 1,000 users or aren’t part of your eventual vision.
On your way to millions of users, don’t forget you have to get 1,000 happy users first.