Growth February 21, 2020

Finding your first users without spending on ads

Channing Allen @channingallen

How do you find your first users?

This might be the most common question among indie hackers — especially those working on their first products with small or nonexistent marketing budgets.

So I asked a bunch of successful founders how they got over this initial hurdle.

From their answers you'll learn that you definitely don't have to burn through your savings or raise cash from VCs to get your first users in the door. This is the good news. The bad news? You might have to work just a little harder (and smarter) than those who do.

Check out their answers below.

Contact potential customers from your current network

👤 Joel Griffith, founder of browserless ($13,400/mo)

The first batch of initial users were developers I had worked with on my previous projects: puppeteer, chromeless, and navalia. Having the first few customers already lined up helped me validate that the idea was sound and motivated me to launch.

👤 Eran Galperin, creator of Martial Arts on Rails ($5,000/mo)

I contacted all the gym owners I'd been working with to develop the initial software and got them to try it out as an actual replacement to what they had. Those were my first real customers. It's a very tight community, so over time they referred others my way.

👤 Clément Mihailescu, founder of AlgoExpert ($40,000/mo)

When we launched our Alpha in April 2017, we had a modest zero users. In our first year, we grew very organically to over 150 users, thanks in large part to my connection to Fullstack Academy (FSA), the coding bootcamp I attended between September and December 2016.

In the early months of our business, we gave the product out for free to FSA students who contacted me with questions about my post-bootcamp journey. We received great feedback from those early users and testers, which helped validate the product. Eventually I started teaching a class on algorithms and giving an evening talk on programming-interview preparation every six weeks at FSA, advertising AlgoExpert in the process. I also did an interview about these topics on a friend's podcast.

Slowly but surely, people started buying the product, enjoying it a lot, and spreading the word.

👤 John Eremic, co-founder of Endcrawl.com ($20,000/mo)

Once the Perl MVP existed, we cobbled together a landing page with a Wufoo form and sent an email blast to my co-founder's filmmaker contacts. That was the extent of our launch.

Early growth was 100% organic. But what we found is that as we progressed, growth got harder — not easier. There is this founder fallacy that as you grow, everything just starts flowing downhill. We found the opposite to be true: once all of the low-hanging fruit has been picked, the real work of selling starts. (The best thing we've ever heard on this topic is Gail Goodman's presentation "The Long Slow SaaS Ramp of Death.")

Cold email (or cold call) potential customers one by one

👤 Jeff Ponchick, founder of Repost Network ($500,000/mo)

For the first six months I just reached out via cold email to artists all day every day, and we eventually hit a tipping point. Now it's all word of mouth — we have virtually no sales team.

👤 Philippe Genois, founder of InputKit ($11,100/mo)

We initially acquired all of our customers through proactive outbound sales. I would call people, send cold emails, send messages on LinkedIn, and offer an in-person demo — anything to try to get the product out there. Within 14 months I did around 40 in-person demos, and used join.me to do more over the phone.

This strategy landed us our first 10 customers. While it helped us validate the idea, it was a pain in the ass and I wish the whole process had taken a lot less time. At this point, we were not relying on our website at all for sales or marketing, and I think this was a mistake.

Contribute to relevant communities in exchange for traffic

👤 Zuhayeer Musa, founder of Levels.fyi ($5,000/mo)

We seeded traffic to Levels.fyi by answering related questions on Blind and other Q&A forums with a link to the site.

👤 Guan Xun Chew, founder of WriteMapper ($1,000/mo)

After the intial wave of visitors from PH, I posted WriteMapper to Reddit's /r/macapps, making sure to share details I thought were interesting, and replied to every comment that came in. As a small subreddit that 1) doesn't get many posts to begin with and 2) typically gets posts with no effort made to either provide a background story or active comments by the original poster, I was able to have my post stay on the front page of the subreddit for quite a while.

👤 Joel Griffith, founder of browserless ($13,400/mo)

I posted on most of the usual culprits: Hacker News, reddit, and on a few GitHub issues. I immediately found out that because the audience for this service was small, larger sites just didn't seem to care much. I made no front pages and didn't get featured anywhere.

What did work was answering people's questions on StackOverflow and Github. Even if it didn't mean a conversion right away, it started creating some backlinks into the site, which at least helps with SEO.

👤 Robin Vander Heyden, founder of ManyPixels ($55,000/mo)

We got our initial users solely via niche Facebook groups of entrepreneurs and startups. I joined many Facebook groups and wrote a post asking for feedback on ManyPixels and our value proposition. My message basically was, "Hey guys, here is what we do, would you be interested in this? Yes/No/Why not?" I also experimented by promising that each person giving us feedback would have a promo code. This worked well — lots of people commented, and this was a small hack that got us a lot of buzz.

I think what we did right here was putting the right product with the right message in front of the right users. I was honest: I told them I was a digital nomad in Bangkok experimenting with a new idea and trying to validate demand. People reacted well to that (even though it was advertising in a sense) and were supportive. I honestly wasn't sure if it would be flagged as spam, but I decided to take the risk nevertheless.

Another advantage was that I was a tech entrepreneur myself. I knew exactly what kind of modern design style people liked, and I knew where online entrepreneurs met and had discussions. (Indie Hackers is one of those places.) I did not have to do a lot of customer research. All my decisions were based on instinct and probably were all very biased. I also got lucky to be in such a field and target a community that's very open to trying new ideas.

My efforts included:

  • posting case studies on reddit
  • being active on Indie Hackers and Hacker News
  • actively contacting companies on Facebook and Angel List. Though my account got banned for a few weeks from these platforms so I will be trying a different strategy.

Build on a marketplace platform that drives traffic to you

👤 Pippin Williamson, founder of Sandhills Development, LLC ($245,000/mo)

Early on, my customers came from two primary sources:

  1. The large existing audience of CodeCanyon.net, the marketplace that I was publishing my products on.
  2. A naturally grown audience I was building through my frequent writing.

The existing audience that Code Canyon offered was critically important to my early success. Back then I had no reputation, no following, and no way to reach potential customers on my own. Leveraging the audience Envato (owner of Code Canyon) provided allowed me to build up an early customer base without having any marketable audience of my own.

Code Canyon helped me to build a small following pretty quickly that I was then able to cultivate into a much larger group through the content I was producing on my personal site, Pippin's Plugins.

👤 Nelson Joyce, co-founder of Tettra ($61,000/mo)

The Slack App directory was a massive source of trials. You get free distribution from the parent platform and a clear target persona you can attract. There's also a whole chunk of functionality that you can essentially "outsource" to the platform. For us, that was authentication, user management, and access to the "work graph". After our experience, I highly recommend launching on a platform like Slack, WordPress, or Shopify.

There are definitely risks involved, but the benefits outweighed the risks in our eyes. Here you can check out more details on why you should launch on a platform from my co-founder Andy.

👤 Tommy Chan, CTO of Altcoin Fantasy ($4,000/mo)

Note: Tommy spent some money on advertising, but I included his answer anyway in order to give a little representation to mobile app products.

As part of our initial growth strategy, we researched Bitcoin games on the app stores. Naturally, I wanted to target Bitcoin game players since our initial product was a game revolving around crypto coins. So for version 0 of our Android app, we literally just wrapped an embedded web browser that pointed to our web app (our web app is mobile-responsive), deployed that to the app store, and threw together ads targeting those users. We were able to buy clicks for less than 8 cents with a 25% conversion rate, and saw some great initial returns from those campaigns.

Choose a product name relevant to the problem you solve

👤 Chris Chen, founder of Instapainting ($32,000/mo)

I was in college, but had already tried several websites before in high school. My strategy up until that point consisted of creating it and letting it sit, hoping users would come. For Like.fm, my first mildly successful free-to-use website venture, I noticed the domain was good enough that it was getting traffic on its own and a trickle of users per week.

👤 Jeff Ponchick, founder of Repost Network ($500,000/mo)

When we started the company I didn't have much money, but I saw that the most commonly searched term for SoundCloud producers was "How do I get more Reposts on SoundCloud?" A repost on SoundCloud is like a retweet on Twitter, so artists want as many of them as possible so their music will get heard.

I thought if I named the company Repost and dominated the SEO on that specific search we could get some free inbound traffic. My assumption worked. I believe if you search "SoundCloud repost" in Google we're one of the top hits, and something like 25% of our inbound applicants come organically.

Get small, relevant blogs to write about you

👤 Chris Chen, founder of Instapainting ($32,000/mo)

For Like.fm, I googled for small blogs covering things in my space and manually contacted dozens of them. One of these small blogs was followed by a CNET writer, and the next thing I knew I had my first major press article: a CNET article written about one of my features. It got me my first 10,000 users and gave me the motivation to keep going and the cred to get to the next milestone.

Nowadays I run an e-commerce startup at Instapainting.com. My first users were acquired by making a post on a small subreddit, where it found some immediate customers. But later I took the same strategy of contacting press to get traffic, increasing SEO, and continuing to put effort and money into press (from small blogs to large publications).

Launch on popular (or relevant) product-listing sites

👤 Nelson Joyce, co-founder of Tettra ($61,000/mo)

Prior to launch, we posted on Betalist and had about 65 people on a waiting list. We also posted to all the typical directories like Stackshare, Siftery, Capterra, and AlternativeTo. Only Betalist and AlternativeTo ended up driving any significant traffic.

We decided to wait to post on Product Hunt until the product was more fleshed out and our sales funnel was working on a small scale. We ended up launching on Product Hunt about six months later and got over 700 upvotes and was the #3 spot for that day. Here's the actual Tettra page we used to plan the Product Hunt launch.

👤 Yoann Moinet, founder of Fenêtre ($550/mo)

I released the app on October 5th in three different places.

I also submitted it to various startup listings that brought very few visits and even fewer conversions. One that stood out amazingly is my submission to Electron's app listing. It doesn't generate that many visits, but the conversion rate is amazing. For 10 visits a day, I get a 20% conversion rate. My guess is that the audience is very specialized and interested in my product.

In this article, I propose a theory I have about the various sharing channels. It explains how you have to adapt your content to the audience you'll most likely reach on different channels.

Reach out to mainstream press outlets

👤 Guan Xun Chew, founder of WriteMapper ($1,000/mo)

I started actively reaching out to mainstream online press outlets that looked like they would be willing to cover a newly released macOS app. I searched as many app news sites as I could within a day, making sure to identify journalists that had previously written about other Mac apps. From there, I was able to create a shortlist of 24 journalists to contact, and sent each of them a short and concise email pitch. This effort got WriteMapper featured on Forbes and Cult of Mac.

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(Photo credit: Mia Ditmanson)

  1. 3

    So many ways to get initial traffic, thanks.

  2. 2

    This is awesome so many great insights, thanks.

  3. 2

    Excellent info. Thanks for posting. I'm now following several of these founders. Thank you also for showcasing those with modest streams as well as those with over-the-top income.

    I did the same thing for crowdfunding and put in my book, "Kickass Kickstarter Gods."

  4. 2

    This is great. Thanks for pulling it together.

  5. 2

    I think for B2B platform, LinkedIn is the best way to reach people to get feedback. Usually if you’re genuine then those people might turn into first user for trial. If things go well then they will become paid user.

  6. 2

    This is such a great resource thanks

  7. 1

    Loved this post. Thank you

  8. 1

    Thanks for the post!

    How did you guys overcome the fear of reaching out into the wild?
    I‘m currently struggling to wrap my head around what i can do to be more comfortable putting my work out there.

    1. 3

      Heya @yCrab,

      Think of your why.

      If your why is big then it will always outweigh fear.

      If your why is to make a difference, to solve a problem. You’ll muster the courage to step into the wild.

      Best