How to Find Your Earliest Users

Looking to find users for your product? Learn by example from dozens of entrepreneurs who share how they drove traffic to their websites and began to build an audience.

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More from Indie Hackers

Photo-to-Painting Service

, Founder of Instapainting ($32k/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. Still, I had tried something new which was to do the cold emailing strategy you always read about. It actually works (with enough persistence).

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. I've learned that SEO is one of the largest sources of organic traffic that I can actually control. You can do press, but even the residual traffic from that comes from search engine traffic, both from it helping your website rank and also from people searching and finding the article itself. Whenever someone goes online to solve a problem, they'll be searching for Google and phrasing it in a specific way with specific keywords that you must target.

For Instapainting 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).

WordPress eCommerce Plugins

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. I was publishing tutorials, tips, and other blog posts several times per week. While my audience started out at nothing, I was able to build this into a pretty significant following fairly quickly.

Through my products and writing, I was able to grow my site's traffic from a few hundred page sessions per month to more than 85,000 sessions per month at its peak. That traffic was critically important to the success of my products early on.

SoundCloud Multi-Channel Network and Music Distributor

, Founder of Repost Network ($500k/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.

Additionally, 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.

We also implemented the velvet rope method (like a night club). At Repost we do not accept everyone. We've rejected close to 100,000 people and only work with 5,000 or so partners all via an application process. This makes our service offering feel exclusive which creates demand.

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Window-Management App for Mac

, 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.

Later on, I started writing an article about my whole experience with the App Store, Electron, and the creation of a native app. I had so much to talk about that it ended up being five different articles.

  • Early stages: covers the conceptualization of the app.
  • Pain & tears: everything related to Electron and developing for Mac OSX that was challenging.
  • Ship it: about signing and packagin the app for the AppStore.
  • Go to market: to cover the sharing and marketing side of it.
  • Post release: the after life of the app, support and updates.

It helped a lot with the conversion and the visibility of my application. It was well received in multiple places like Reddit and Hacker News.

In this marketing-related 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.

I also tried my hand on ads. Only Google and Facebook for now, but the results are already very clear. Google doesn't let you target your audience the way Facebook does. It results in ads being almost useless and never clicked on within the Google network. So I'm still fidgeting on Facebook's settings to have the best target possible. The results are yet to be really conclusive.

WP Plugin for Encouraging 5-Star Reviews

I put up a special "Black Friday + Launch" deal with lifetime licenses and the Webmaster (unlimited) license priced at $99. Then I contacted several sites that were listing WordPress deals, asking if they could list our deal. It was the night before Thanksgiving here in the US. I think only two or three sites actually got the deal listed. I shared it out through some social media channels. It got the most traction from a few Facebook Groups.

In all, it was enough to get about 300 visits the week before and after Thanksgiving. That resulted in 5 awesome individuals buying our Webmaster license! It proved people were interested and willing to pay for what we were offering. It was exciting stuff. Then I got sick...

Months later, with the end of the lifetime deal approaching, I installed WP Rocket on the site and was impressed by the speed gains after configuring it properly. I posted about it on a Facebook Group for people who use the Divi theme, since that's what we used for our site. That got some traffic and attention and I believe a few people purchased it.

Josh Rohrback, a member of that group who runs Magi Web Design, saw that post. He was also a member of the group Lifetime Tech Deals Fans. He mentioned our deal there and almost immediately I started getting new order notifications in my email! I actually had to look at analytics and such to piece together what had happened. Once it was shared in that group it started selling quite fast for the minimal exposure and effort I'd put into it. From Jan. 24 through Feb 3rd, when the deal ended, another 30 people purchased the lifetime deal for a total of $3613 in sales!

Simple Wiki for Team Knowledge Sharing

, Co-founder of Tettra ($38k/mo)

We publicly launched the new product in May of 2016 with a Medium post announcing the "public beta" and our funding.

That post immediately got picked up by the local tech publication Bostinno.

We did a brainstorming session around all the channels we could try out and followed the Bullseye framework to prioritize a few of them. Here's the actual Tettra page where we did the brainstorming.

We did the typical sharing to all social networks (Linkedin, Facebook, Twitter, etc.).

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.

The Slack Platform: Of course another massive source of trials was the Slack App Directory. After our experience, I highly recommend launching on a platform like Slack, WordPress, or Shopify.

There's 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". You also get free distribution from the parent platform and a clear target persona you can attract.

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.

"Emerging" Keywords: We were also lucky enough to jump on the "Slack Wiki" keyword pretty early on an ranked in the top few slots from the get go. There wasn't much competition for that term at the time, and we've been able to maintain the top non-branded Google result for that. All we did was put the term "Slack Wiki" in our website title tags and headers, and that was good enough to rank for a new term.

Bottom of the funnel: Once we got people signed up for a trial, we got as many of them on a screen share as possible to walk them through the product and collected their credit card info right on the phone.

We tried to continue to scale a demo-based inside sales playbook, but after a lot of pushing, we couldn't get it to work. The problem was that the product was simple enough and we were selling to small enough teams that they just wanted to start using the product right way and didn't want to do demos. It was a great way to get the machine going initially, but it just didn't scale for us.

Headless Browser Service

, Founder of browserless ($8.2k/mo)

The first batch of initial users were developers I had worked with on 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. Once I launched 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.

After about a few weeks I started seeing more and more users from those libraries I mentioned buying subscriptions. As a matter of fact the first customer bought the most expensive plan I had, so that kept me motivated to ship. The following days after I started getting inquiries from CTOs and developers, some of which bought a subscription right away, others I just answered questions for. I tried doing ads for a time, which did result in more traffic but was expensive compared to the value being generated. Since then, I've done almost no advertising whatsoever.

One thing I'd like to stress to others is that if the niche for your product is small, don't expect to get a lot of big attention, at least initially. Even now browserless only sees roughly 50 users a day, which is nothing, quite frankly. I think what's important is that it solves a problem these people are facing, so those 50 users are already far into the conversion funnel. Because of this, you don't need 100k users a day to make your product successful (though it does help), you just need to know the problem well and where to find the frustrated users.

Premium Web Design Services

, Founder of ManyPixels ($44k/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.

We are thinking to develop affiliates and referrals next, then work on more content, PR, and ads later as well as partnerships and perhaps even white labeling.

What's worked the best so far? As I mentioned earlier, it hasn't been about the tactics we've used so much as putting the right message with right product in front of the right audience. We had a 25% conversion rate on Angel List outbound emails, which was absolutely ridiculously high. We've had customers from every sales channel we've tried so far.

End Credits SaaS for Film & TV

, Co-founder of Endcrawl.com ($20k/mo)

Once the Perl MVP existed, we cobbled together a landing page with a WuFoo form and sent an email blast to Pliny'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.

If you're at this stage with your company, take heart. It doesn't (necessarily) mean the market isn't there. It just means you actually have to get good at marketing.

The best thing we've ever heard on this topic is Gail Goodman's presentation "The Long Slow SaaS Ramp of Death." It's required viewing.

Online Management Software for Gyms

Since I didn't have a major budget for marketing, my focus was initially on the organic and social channels. I tried generating some press for the launch but it was difficult. I did get it featured on Product Hunt, though it wasn't exactly the target audience.

I created content targeted for gym managers on the company blog, focusing on the digital aspects of running a gym — how to run marketing, do local SEO for gyms, generate funnels to attract gym members, running referral programs and so forth. I contacted many online publications in the fitness and martial arts verticals, and did some guest blogging to generate traffic and links back to my site.

At the same time, I ran a very active Twitter account that was sharing general fitness and martial-arts related content. To gain awareness of the account, I used a Twitter automation tool that is no longer available due to changes to the Twitter API. I was also very active on several subreddits where many gym owners and managers participate (specifically /r/bjj), and did a soft sell here and there without being too aggressive. I had been a longtime part of the community so I knew the right way to approach it without upsetting people. Now whenever someone posts there about gym management software, people usually refer them my way.

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. Surprisingly, merchant account sellers have also been a source of referrals. After connecting with one through one of my customers, we started a cross-referral collaboration, and they referred quite a few new customers my way over time.

I tried AdWords for a little while with a small budget, but couldn't get good results there since it requires deep knowledge of competitive keywords. After a couple of months I started running ads on Capterra, a search engine for business software, where I am now ranked first in searches for "martial arts gym software". This has become my strongest source for conversions. I was initially spending around $180 a month on Capterra, and it's now closer to $400 a month. Currently, Capterra and organic search results are the main acquisitions sources for my business.

Free Crypto Trading Simulation w/ Real Prizes

, Founder of Altcoin Fantasy ($4k/mo)

Unlike a lot of the products on Indie Hackers, we didn't have an official launch — it was very much a work in progress and I wanted to get the initial prototype out before investing a lot of time into it. We started the year with about 300 users and about 500 virtual trades. By the end of March we had about 6500 users, with 70k virtual trades in the system.

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.

Customer Feedback Software

, Founder of InputKit ($1.4k/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.

Free Tools, Resources for Non-Technical Entrepreneurs

, Founder (acquired) of NoCode ($400/mo)

Honestly, I'm super tight (I suppose you call that bootstrapped) and have relied on finding free methods to acquire users.

Initially, as I was creating NoCode I built a quick landing page with an email capture form and a mocked up screenshot of the homepage using Canva.

I then managed to get featured on BetaList where I got about 35 signups. I later used those interested early adopters to test my initial prototypes of the site and get feedback on some of my ideas. This approach proved incredibly valuable information and helped validate some of my early assumptions.

A few weeks after publicly launching the site, I was fortunate enough to get featured on Product Hunt. This provided a huge boost of traffic to the site, providing me with a couple hundred email subscribers and loads of constructive feedback to consider.

Mind-mapping Application for Writers

, Founder of WriteMapper ($1k/mo)

WriteMapper was first launched on Product Hunt, where it was relatively well received, getting featured on the front page and gaining over 500 upvotes. Product Hunt attracted about 1.6k visitors to my website within two days, and my first paying customer came within just a few hours of posting.

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.

It was also around this time that 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.

I then decided to go a little bigger, and post it to /r/apple, which has more than 600k subscribers (compared to /r/macapps's 19k). Besides making sure to stick to the subreddit's rules, I also used WriteMapper's positive reception on /r/macapps and Cult of Mac as social validation that the product would be something of interest to this community as well. That post took off, ending up with 1.3k upvotes and attracting almost 9k visitors to WriteMapper's website.

Cumulatively, these efforts attracted almost 16k visitors within the first two weeks alone of WriteMapper launching, and about 21k page views, which then translated into actual sales.

Interview Prep Website for Software Engineers

When we launched our Alpha in April 2017, we had a modest zero users. Since then, we've grown 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.

In September 2017, our first month actually selling the product, we made three sales. The next month, we made about 15, and our monthly sales have continued to increase ever since. In April 2018, we surpassed 40/month with the help of advertising that we placed on Quora in order to supplement our other marketing efforts.

Cross-company Career Comparison Tool

, Founder of Levels.fyi ($5k/mo)

We seeded traffic to Levels.fyi by answering related questions on Blind and other Q&A forums with a link to the site. Additionally, we've turned the barrage of recruiter emails we get into a chance to spread the word in the recruiter community. Within a matter of days, the community started sharing the site by themselves — that's when we knew we were really on to something. After just a brief period of guerilla marketing, it was super exciting to see our website get picked up by a swarm of online communities across the web. By solving a real problem, we had many satisfied viewers who were willing to share the site as a valuable source of information on their own accord.

With backlinks from other websites, we decided to add a few meta tags to try to get our search results performance up. We briefly looked at Google Trends for some of the most queried searches along the lines of career leveling and added it into our pages. Rather quickly, our results surfaced to the top for any tech company leveling related query.

Using Google Search Console, we were able to determine which queries brought the most traffic to our site, which allowed us to optimize meta tags. This bumped our traffic up significantly and our relevance only became stronger as more and more people linked to Levels.fyi on different parts of the web.

Tool for Measuring the Accuracy of Watches

, Creator of Toolwatch.io ($4k/mo)

The first thing we did was read Traction by Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares. This gave us a lot ideas of traction channels to explore, and we've kept adding new channels since. Here is the full list of what we tried.

PR: As we are in a niche, it is easy to identify to which bloggers we should reach out, especially as we were already familiar with their work as watch fans ourselves.

Getting press coverage is a lot of work and takes so much time, but the exposure can be really big, especially when you are starting and don't have a voice of your own yet.

It can be difficult if your communication relies on PR as you are never 100% sure of getting an article until it's posted and getting a blogger/journalist to commit on a publication date can be a nightmare. Also the lifespan of a press release is very small, 48 hours later it's over!

I would consider it as a nice bonus boost to have and always try to get, but this shouldn't be the core of your user acquisition strategy.

We were lucky to have a nice article when we launched, so I take the opportunity to thank Robert-Jan again for his support!

Social: We are active on a few major platforms.

Twitter, where we relay a lot of material on the watchmaking industry using Sniply to embed a link to our app and Buffer for the scheduling. The results are far from being impressive there, but we have some nice interactions with users so we keep on going.

Instagram, where we post a new watch picture each day. Working in the watchmaking industry, we regularly put our hands on some incredible watches, and it's always great to be able to share them. Hashtagging works well on the platform and allows us to get discovered by new users. Watches are really big on Instagram, and it has been working great for us so far.

We publish all news related to Toolwatch on our Facebook page so we can't say we are very active there. If I had more time, I would probably invest more on Facebook.

LinkedIn is interesting as well for its big organic reach. Posts on LinkedIn can still be visible after a few days. This is a platform where you can get nice results even without investing so much time on it.

Finally we also built a Chatbot on Facebook Messenger, but I guess this was just me having fun and trying new stuff.

Forum posts: As a watch guy I spend a lot of time talking with other enthusiasts on a few watch forums, and I've allowed myself to discuss Toolwatch there. I could have done this on many more forums, but it just didn't feel right copypasting the same message over and over even if a single post would generate tens or hundreds of new users.

I guess it would be worth spending some time on building a legit presence on more watch forums and introducing Toolwatch when it is appropriate. This would be the same with Facebook groups.

Content marketing: This has been huge for us. We started with our own blog, where we would mainly post watch tips. Those article were fairly successful and would also give us food to share on our social channels. By regularly engaging with our users we would know what they were looking for when it came to taking care of watches. And then I discovered Quora!

I knew about Quora, but I had no idea they had a watch section. Instead of answering questions on forums, I would do it on Quora, and in a few months I had almost 3 millions views on my answers and am now the most viewed writer on watch-related topics. Needless to say, this brings a constant flow of new users and authority.

Email marketing.: We are using a lot emails for retention and to engage our users. We use them to spread our content, which then gets reshared, giving them more visibility.

We also include ready to share buttons for our users to share those emails. While this isn't the biggest user acquisition channel, it solidifies the whole ecosystem.

Infographics: Since we measured so many watches, we have enough data to come up with some cool infographics. Those tend to become pretty viral each time we release one.

This is a nice thing to do as an indie hacker as your data is pretty unique and will allow you to immediately stand out.

Built-in virality: We used two critical moments of our experience to try and get our users to spread the word. The first was with our welcome email which included a mailto link with a prepopulated email for our users to share. We hadn't demonstrated any value at that stage of the onboarding, so the incentive for that was a cool infographic with data that couldn't be found elsewhere in the industry.

The second moment where we ask for a share is right after a measurement, when the user has had a full experience of the product and is confident in sharing it.

Speaking of virality, no one shares on Facebook anymore. Messaging apps have way more success. Be sure to include such sharing buttons!

Word of mouth: Word of mouth has been a big acquisition channel, though it can be hard to measure and/or improve it. We find out every day that someone has been talking about Toolwatch on a blog, on a forum, in a Facebook group, on a YouTube video, and so on. This is great of course and shows you that people have a genuine interest in what you are building.

You should try to listen when people are talking about you and then engage with them. On our side, we are using the Notify bot to let us know in a dedicated Slack channel whenever someone mentions us.

Product Hunt: We used Product Hunt when we first released Toolwatch (thanks again Jeremie Berrebi for hunting us!) and later when we launched our mobile apps. While Product Hunt's audience might prefer an Apple Watch over a mechanical one, you'd be surprised by the number of tech executives with nice mechanical watches.

Above that, PH is a great place to instantly get a lot of eyeballs on your project and, most importantly, great feedback. For those interested, I have written an article on what a "normal" Product Hunt launch looks like.

Facebook groups: There are a gigantic number of Facebook groups with watch fans. Some are very specific to a brand and others to a country, but all have pretty large and engaged communities. As for the forums, I was okay sharing Toolwatch on groups I belonged to but reluctant on joining groups just to talk about Toolwatch. However, it always feels great when I see someone in my Facebook feed talking about Toolwatch in a dedicated group.

In the future, I would try to find a way to share Toolwatch on Facebook groups, watch forums, and reddit in a genuine way that doesn't feel spammy. Those are some really large audiences that have shown interest in watches and shouldn't be neglected.

Also, I would continue investing time in content production. When spread on the right channel, this is the most cost-effective strategy.