Search is the dominant gateway of discovery on the internet. Because of Google’s dominance in information discovery across every vertical, industry and topic, using their ad products and developing your website in a way that is favoured, and ranked highly, is almost a no-brainer when it comes to advertising your business online.
But this is a problem for startups. Particularly those that are doing something truly disruptive.
If nothing like your product already exists in the market, a latent demand for it simply will not exist. That is - no one is searching for the thing you've built.
If there is some demand there, it’s hardly ever enough to satisfy the lofty ambitions you or your investors have set for your company. Or, the space is so competitive that your new business, with its limited resources and immature unit economics, simply cannot afford to go up against more established players.
But, it isn’t all doom and gloom. This problem applies to almost any truly disruptive startup. Facebook, Airbnb, Intercom and others have all managed to create products that no one knew they needed, and now they’re used by billions. Overcoming this problem requires lateral thinking, the willingness to show grit in the face of adversity and getting closer to your customers than you’d ever feel comfortable doing.
Once you’re on the other side, the experience of doing these things will act as a right of passage: a rejection against laziness, a willingness to do things that challenge your ego and common perceptions are values better built at 0 customers than 10,000.
At some point, there will become a point where growing your startup goes from feeling like you’re pushing a boulder up a hill, to chasing a cart rolling down one. Only when you’re confident that you’ve breached the summit can you start taking relatively good growth rates for granted.
Whilst I strongly recommend that you use the knowledge of your customers and experiment to find your own blueprint for success, here’s a few avenues to get you started.
When you’re growing your customer base, there are a certain milestones that require different strategies to achieve. The first 100 customers milestone is almost always achieved by doing things that don’t scale.
To a lot of people, doing things that don’t scale seems illogical. Paul Graham described it using the metaphor of hand cranking a car before electric motors were a thing - once the engine was going, it would keep going, but there was a separate and laborious process to get it going.
It’s not rare to encounter founders who think that they’re above this type of graft, but the founders of Facebook, Stripe and Airbnb all credit getting their hands dirty in the early days with being an inescapable part of becoming the behemoths they are today.
The long and short of it is that if there's no demand for your product, you've got to go out there and create it. Sometimes that means doing things that don't seem...normal. Facebook, a product used by 2.19billion people every month started by targeting just 1 University. There's no reason you can't beg, borrow and steal your way to 100 users, whether they're searching or not.
Your audience might not be searching for the solution you have, but they are probably already using another product or service. If these products or services are complimentary to your own, then there is potential to form a partnership or build an integration.
Whilst low on capital investment, this does require you to put in the time building relationships or integrations. But since you’re probably not flush with capital, now is the perfect time to start. A great partnership strategy can be more than just a catalyst for early growth. They’ve been the major revenue generators in many of the businesses I’ve worked with.
I often refer to them as the third channel - they’re rarely thought of in the same breath as outbound sales and inbound marketing, but are just as effective and aren’t half as crowded.
Ruler Analytics are one of the first business I started consulting with. I was tasked with finding their traction channel, something that would take them from product market fit to a wider market. We tried a multitude of inbound channels and outbound, but the channel which was a resounding success, contributing 80% of new revenue in a year when it tripled? Partnerships. You can read about how we uncovered that here.
In 2017, Peter Caputa wrote about how the partner channel he grew for Hubspot was worth 40% of their overall revenue. With revenues of $375.6 million that year, that 40% equates to $150m. Not bad for a second thought.
Peter continued the habit of setting up partner programs when he joined Databox as CEO. But unlike Hubspot, Databox has made strategic partnerships the core focus of everything they do. From their blog to their product development, it’s focussed around growing their partner channel. They broke $1m ARR recently.
Most founders seem to be stuck in the motion that they should target a broad demographic. But, by narrowing your target market you’re able to better understand customers needs/benefits, and use that feedback to build a more focussed, differentiated product and hone a marketing message that is more in tune with those audiences.
The only way your product will go access a market of mainstream, pragmatic buyers is first by gaining a stronghold of early-adopter enthusiasts.
Ask anyone what the most important part of building a great business is, and the majority would say something along the lines of “have a great product”. But having a great product doesn’t necessarily mean how the product is built and designed.
A great product is something that is 10x better at solving the problem a market has than the next best available solution.
In fact, I’d go as far as saying this is the single most important thing a startup should be aiming for. But doing that for a large market with limited resources is difficult, if not impossible.
Anyone serious about founding a business must have some domain knowledge in the area you’re launching. You’ve either experienced the problem yourself, or should have a really good idea of someone else experiencing that problem. That means you must’ve built your product with either people like you, or a group of real people, in mind. These should be your first users, because that’s who you’re building the product for.
Once these people are using your product, use the opportunity of only having a few users to speak to them, in person, as much as you can. Find out if it’s solving their problem, find out if the problem you’re solving is a real problem that these people encounter enough to pay for something. People need to be fanatical about your product, and there’s absolutely no better time to engineer that response into your product than now. You don’t have the debt of a giant codebase, customers who’ll complain when you make a change or a big team to feedback and communicate the changes you need to make.
Get the feedback. Make the changes. Measure the response. Rinse. Repeat.
This isn’t only something that can be employed at an early stage either. Inevitably, your growth will plateau. But rather than trying to get each of your markets moving in tandem, sometime it’s better to segment and focus on 1 piece.
When someone gets so much value from your product, then chances are that their experience will propagate throughout their network. I was particularly impressed with Steven Bartlett's diagnosis on Unfold's success, for me this is the a perfect case study of 'how to grow a startup that no one is searching for' in less than 280 characters:
Steven posted this tweet when Unfold had 2.2million users. Just 5 weeks later, they've more than doubled to 5million.
People might not be searching for your product, but there’s nothing more influential in changing people’s perceptions than a recommendation from a trusted friend or colleague.
One of the most obvious and well used methods to amplify this type of behaviour is through referral campaigns, where users are rewarded for inviting other users onto the product.
One of the most famous examples of this type of campaign was conducted by Dropbox. Everytime a Dropbox user invited a new user, the inviter and the invited would receive extra storage space on the Dropbox platform.
But what doesn’t get as much airtime give-and-get campaign - outlined in Drew Houston’s now famous deck - is that their folder sharing features were also responsible for 20% of their growth during that period.
Whilst referral programs are mostly limited to B2C startups, Dropbox’s folder sharing and Slack’s team creation have given enterprise B2B the opportunity to earn distribution via their users actions.
For me, a feature that can be shared is a much better strategy of achieving virality than a reward - it forces you to create features worth sharing, that will benefit the social capital of the sharer because it adds so much value to the person being invited. This is a win-win for everyone.