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How to Make it as a First-Time Entrepreneur

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Vinicius Vacanti is co-founder and CEO of Yipit. Next posts on how to acquire users for free and how to raise a Series A. Don’t miss them by subscribing via email or via twitter.

Note: This post is loosely based on our experience 2 years ago when TechCrunch covered Yipit’s launch.

You wake up earlier than normal, grab your iPhone which you slept on top of and do a twitter search for your startup name.

Boom. A tweet every 5 minutes.

People are re-tweeting the TechCrunch article covering your startup’s launch. TechCrunch just said you might be the next big thing. You even see a few random people recommending your startup to their followers.

You giddily open your email and you’ve got a bunch of messages from your friends at the co-working space congratulating you on the TechCrunch piece. One of your friends says “you’re famous!” Your parents respond with “Congratulations!” after they read the email where you explained to them that TechCrunch was a really big deal.

You crawl over to your laptop and pull up Google Analytics. You’ve never seen anything like this. Your previous traffic looks like a flat line next to yesterday’s huge 8,253 visits.

After months of toiling away in obscurity, you feel like you’ve finally made it. People know what you’re working on now. People all over the world are now using your product. Paul Graham should have never rejected you from YC.

You then you pull up your event log in SQLPro to see what all these new users are doing.

Hmm. That’s weird. Even though you had 8,000+ visits, you only signed up a little over 1,000 users. “Sounds like we need to do some work on that landing page”, you think.

You start looking at the emails of the users who signed-up and get annoyed with some of the fake emails:, “Ugh. Going to be hard to retain those users since they won’t be getting notification emails,” you mutter to yourself.

1,000 new users is still really good except a bunch of them didn’t really go through the full sign-up process. A bunch of people didn’t put in their interests. How are they supposed to have a good experience without customizing their interests? You run a quick SQL query and the number of users that made it through the sign-up flow: 200.

You send off a quick text to your co-founder asking if he was really sure that sign-up flow bug had been fixed.

And, while you don’t want to do it, you force yourself to see how many people came back today. The answer: 3. Really? Just 3. It’s still early, but can you really expect more than 50 to come back today?

You are happy to see people are still signing-up via the TechCrunch article but way less than yesterday. You do some quick math and then it hits you. When it’s all said and done, TechCrunch, best case scenario, will have given you a grand total of 200 active users.

Was that our big launch?

Why didn’t more people sign-up? Why didn’t people complete the sign-up flow? Why weren’t people coming back?

Now that people covered our startup, how are we supposed to get more press?

Why aren’t our users pushing their actions to Facebook and Twitter?

We got some users to invite their friends but why aren’t their friends accepting the invite?

How are we supposed to get a viral coefficient greater than 1.0 when people won’t share on Facebook or accept their friends’ invite?

Should we try SEO?

Chris Dixon said 10 million users is the new 1 million users. 10 million?! We have 400 active users.

Now what?

Welcome to startups.

Vinicius Vacanti is co-founder and CEO of Yipit. Next posts on how to acquire users for free and how to raise a Series A. Don’t miss them by subscribing via email or via twitter.

Vinicius Vacanti is co-founder and CEO of Yipit. Next posts on how to acquire users for free and how to raise a Series A. Don’t miss them by subscribing via email or via twitter.

The good news is that it’s easier than you think to get 1,000 people to try your site.

The bad news is that it’s really hard to get those people to turn into users, users that create an account, users that come back repeatedly and users that tell their friends about your site.

This post is about how to get 1,000 people to try your site so you can find out what isn’t working, iterate and keep trying to build a site that people, other than your mom, actually come back to. I’ll write a future post on how to retain those users.

Get Yourself a Domain Name and a Splash Page

You should set up your splash page today. Not tomorrow, today. In terms of the domain name, it’s okay if you don’t love your domain name; you can change it later though it’s always easier to pick a good one from the start.

Once you get your domain name, you should use a service like unbounce to create a simple splash page. You don’t need a programming background to create this page.

The goal of the splash page is to collect email addresses from visitors. How do you do that? The splash page tells a user very clearly what problem your site will solve for them. If the user submit their email address, you’ll give them early access to the site when it’s ready. For Yipit, the splash page said: “Get All the Best Daily Deals in Your City”. For Tumblr, it’s “The Easiest Way To Blog”.

Those email addresses become your early test users. When your prototype is ready to be tested, you’ll email a portion of these users and get them to test-drive your prototype. You’ll iterate and invite more users from your list till the product works.

Now, how do you get people to visit your splash page?

How To Drive People to Your Splash Page

There is no shortage of ways to get people to your splash page. The following are things we at Yipit did and things we’ve seen our friends do:

  • Add Link to Your Email Signature. Seems obvious, but most people don’t do this. You should have your value proposition at the bottom of your email with a link to your splash page. For us, it was: “Get All the Best Daily Deals in Your City:”
  • Add Link to All Your Web Profiles. Add a link to your splash page on your Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter and every other account you have. Now you might see why it helps to be a high profile social media user.
  • Create a Demo Video. Even if your prototype isn’t ready, create a demo video of what your prototype will be doing. Dropbox did this and their video appeared at the top of Digg giving them 100,000 email addresses wanting access to their site. You can also add this video to your splash page to help increase conversion of people submitting their email addresses
  • Be Full Entrepreneur. When I went to tech events, friend’s drinks, family gatherings, I would pitch everyone on Yipit. Painful, yes. But, it got me good at pitching Yipit and those people would go home and sign-up to check it out.
  • TechCrunch and other tech blogs. It will be hard to get press for your site if you can’t give the blogger a prototype to use. But, if you do have a working prototype, this the easiest way to get people to your splash page. For all three of our projects,, and, we were able to get TechCrunch to write about us just by submitting it to through their news submission form. If you can give the bloggers some beta codes for their readers, that makes it more likely they’ll write about your site. Just make sure you’re ready for it. If you have a very good demo video, they might be willing to write about you without the prototype.
  • HackerNews. HackerNews is a great community of entrepreneurs who are willing to give you good advice on your startup. You need to have a working prototype and let them look at the site directly, though. Here’s some great advice on how to submit to HackerNews.
  • Facebook Ads and Google Adwords. This is actually really hard and often pretty expensive. We were never able to really pull this off despite several attempts.
  • Start a company blog. The blog should be focused on providing helpful advice on the problem you are helping consumers solve. Kissmetrics, a startup focused on helping websites with analytics, runs an excellent blog on helping startups think through user acquisition. This strategy involves a lot of work so only do it if you have a really good idea for the content you want to create and think that users will appreciate it.

Some final tips and notes:

  • Your list will get stale. The longer you wait to invite people to your prototype, the smaller the percentage that will respond to your invite email. You can try to keep the list active by sending them occasional updates on the product.
  • I recommend you give the users a survey after they submit their email address where you collect information from them regarding what they are hoping your site will accomplish for them. I have heard good things about surveymonkey
  • Encourage users to tweet, share on facebook, or email your site to their friends. One way people have done this successfully is to promise the user earlier access to the prototype if they invite 3 friends.

Now that you know how to get people to your site, I’ll write a future post on what you need to do to make sure those 1,000 people actually stay on your site.

If you have employed any other techniques that have worked well, comment below and I’ll add them to the list.

Like working with big data sets?

We’re aggressively expanding YipitData and looking for:

  • Data analysts (consultants, financial analysts)
  • Data product managers (technical and can work with analysts and engineers to build a system)
  • Data engineers (can build complicated systems to collect and process very large data sets)

Email me personally and we’ll meet up! I’m at vacanti at gmail dot com

Vinicius Vacanti is co-founder and CEO of Yipit. Next posts on how to acquire users for free and how to raise a Series A. Don’t miss them by subscribing via email or via twitter.

Vinicius Vacanti is co-founder and CEO of Yipit. Next posts on how to acquire users for free and how to raise a Series A. Don’t miss them by subscribing via email or via twitter.

From a PR perspective, I like to think of the internet as an ocean full of schools of fish. There’s the TechCrunch school, the NY Times school, Lifehacker school, HackerNews school and thousands of others.

When one of these services feature your startup, their respective school of fish will suddenly and dramatically swim directly towards your startup. And, as fast as they come, they will swim by you even faster.

You are a fisherman, your startup is your net and your goal is to catch as many of these fish as possible.

If your net (your startup) isn’t well-built and ready for them, the fish will swim right by you and they’ll never come back. It’s tragic and a huge blown opportunity. It happens to so many startups and you can see it in their traffic.

But, some startups have built a good net and they overnight acquire thousands of new happy users.

Here’s how we made sure Yipit, a daily deal aggregator, had a good, strong net to catch as many of these potential users as possible.

“Net” Strategy Depends on Your Stage

Startups are generally in one of the following four stages.

  • Stage 0: Visitors Come But Leave
    • They might click around but they don’t activate into a real user. For Yipit, that means they don’t subscribe for our daily email
  • Stage 1: Visitors Sign-Up But Don’t Come Back
    • A visitor will like your site enough to create an account but they con’t come back. For Yipit, they pick their city and provide us their email but don’t open / click on our emails.
  • Stage 2: Visitors are Retained
    • Not only does a visitor sign-up, but they are coming back regularly. For Yipit, they either come back to the site to see new deals or, for most of them, they receive our email recommendations.
  • Stage 3: Visitors Refer Others
    • They either like your service so much they tell their friends or the service itself encourages them to refer others. We didn’t have a great way to track referrals though we could see it with google searches for “yipit” and direct navigation.

Stage 0 and Stage 1: Create Splash Page

Most startups are in stage 0 or stage 1. You should not be actively seeking PR.

Before Yipit pivoted to focus on just aggregating daily deals, we were at stage 1. Users signed-up for our service but they weren’t clicking on our emails, they weren’t using the deals we were recommending and they weren’t referring others.

So, we would direct new visitors to a splash page where they would sign-up for our waiting list. We would then invite them to the site and see if they signed-up and came back. When they didn’t, we would offer them $10 to get on the phone and explain why they didn’t like it.

We got visitors to Yipit in a bunch of different ways: meet people, google ads, facebook ads, some current users would refer new users, friends, people googling us. The fortunate thing is that you don’t need that many users to figure out what’s wrong with the service.

Every startup in stage 0 or stage 1 should build this splash page today. It’s a great source of early test users and, more importantly, you get their emails so you can follow up with them.

I recommend you use Unbounce to build it.  You don’t have to have any technical background to do it.  We didn’t use it because it wasn’t around but would use it today.

Some tips for the splash page:

Stage 2 and Stage 3:  Ready For PR “Launch”

Based on our all our conversations with users, we pivoted to focusing on aggregating daily deals in February of this year.

Right away, we knew we were in stage 2. Our early users liked the new service, we liked it, they were buying deals, they were telling friends. We were ready to launch.

We made a PR push and got TechCrunch, Wired and a few other companies to cover our launch. When those users came, we converted them into our first five thousand users.

The only caveat for not launching in stage 2 is if you can quickly do a few things that will dramatically increase your referral rate (like integrating with Twitter or Facebook). If that’s the case, implement the low hanging fruit before launching since it can potentially double / triple the impact of your PR efforts.

Had we grown impatient and tried to launch before we were at stage 2, we would have crash and burned after launch.

(For more on the stages of a startup, I recommend Dave McClure’s amazing Startup Metrics for Pirates.)

Vinicius Vacanti is co-founder and CEO of Yipit. Next posts on how to acquire users for free and how to raise a Series A. Don’t miss them by subscribing via email or via twitter.

Traffic Bumps via Chartbeat

Vinicius Vacanti is co-founder and CEO of Yipit. Next posts on how to acquire users for free and how to raise a Series A. Don’t miss them by subscribing via email or via twitter.

Last Saturday, we woke up to a surprising alert from Chartbeat, we had a new record for most active visitors on our site Yipit.

It turns out that CNN had run a two minute segment profiling Yipit. By Sunday, they had aired the segment four times and we easily had our best ever two-day stretch across all key metrics including user sign-ups.

Did we get it because we had raised money, crossed 100,000 users or hired an expensive PR firm? No. The following is how it happened.

(If you’re having trouble with the video, try refreshing the page)

Listening to Our Customers

Yipit’s primary product is to aggregate the best daily deals in your city (Groupon, LivingSocial, BuyWithMe, Yelp, Scoop St and 160+ others) and email the best ones to you based on preferences you set.

Since launching Yipit in February, we’ve had a policy to reach out to users that unsubscribe to collect feedback. We send them an email explaining that we’re a startup and offer them a $10 amazon gift card to get on the phone with us for 10 minutes and explain what happened.

I know that sounds like a lot of work, but we actually use a virtual assistant to handle the entire process of setting up the call. We just have to do the calls and everyone on the team does the calls.

In June, we got an unsubscribe from someone with a gmail address. We reached out to him and he explained via email that he had unsubscribed because he lived in Connecticut and didn’t think he would be able to use the New York deals we were recommending. But, he also explained that he was an executive producer for CNN’s Money Unit and wanted to set up a call with us.

Customer Development Process Got Us Profiled

It turns out that he was really impressed with two aspects of how we were running Yipit:

  • We were reaching out to our unsatisfied customers to get their feedback on how to make Yipit better
  • We had pivoted from an overall deals and coupon aggregation service to just focusing on daily deals based  in part on those user feedback calls

After the call, he said they wanted to feature us on a series called “The Turnaround” that focuses on a business that makes a change that leads to more success. As he was telling us about the series, I was thinking to myself that the series really celebrated successful pivots, a key tenet of the customer development process popularized by Steve Blank and Eric Ries. We were getting profiled because we were following the customer development process!

Were We Just Lucky?

Clearly we had been very fortunate that one of the users that unsubscribed happened to be an executive producer at CNN. But, maybe we weren’t as lucky as it seems.

Isn’t the job of journalists to try out new services and report on them to their readers? I would expect that your earliest customers consists of not only early adopters but also a handful of influential tech journalists, magazines editors and executive producers.

In other words, aside from the many benefits of getting feedback from your early customers, yet another reason to talk to customers is an opportunity to have more meaningful conversations about your startup with the journalists who are trying it out. If you have good and meaningful conversations with them, they will probably be more likely to tell their audience about you.

Vinicius Vacanti is co-founder and CEO of Yipit. Next posts on how to acquire users for free and how to raise a Series A. Don’t miss them by subscribing via email or via twitter.