You just finished writing the last feature for your new bootstrapped app. You take a long sip of coffee, hit the deploy button, and post your launch announcement on Hacker News and Product Hunt. Then you start to wait... wait for thousands of new users to sign up.
And you waited...
And only two sign ups.
No path was beaten to your door today. But this is just the beginning, and this is the part that will set you apart from the other 90 products that also launched on Product Hunt today.
Your app may be so good that it markets itself, but you still need to have a critical group of users to start the chain reaction. As Paul Graham wrote in 'Do Things That Don't Scale', nearly all startups have to go out and get users in an unscalable manner at first.
The good news is how you go about getting those early customers will set you apart just as much as your features and user experience. Creative, cheap, and unscalable methods of initial user acquisition are every bit as inspiring as having a great business model.
The Airbnb Suitcase
Airbnb may be a billion-dollar giant today, but once upon a time, it was just a site with a picture of a San Francisco apartment. The apartment wasn't for rent, but the three air mattresses on the floor were.
The company gained little traction after the initial launch. So to make ends meet, co-founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia created Obama and McCain branded cereal boxes. They filled them with cereal and sold them at parties.
Faced with a deck stacked against them, Chesky and Gebbia traveled to major US cities and sold Airbnb to hosts door to door. They not only met hosts in person but also photographed apartments and posted listings on the hosts' behalf.
Paul Graham remembers their energy:
When I remember the Airbnbs during YC, I picture them with rolly bags, because when they showed up for Tuesday dinners they'd always just flown back from somewhere.
The Tinder Road Trip
Tinder is another household startup name today. Back in 2012, it had few customers and major competitors in Match.com and OkCupid.
To reach a critical mass of users, the company first narrowed down the app's exact target demographic. They wanted to get college students in Greek life on the app.
To reach those users without a marketing budget, Tinder's co-founder Whitney Wolfe took a trip around the country. She gave presentations at selected sororities, and made sure users signed up after her presentation. Wolfe then went to the fraternities. It was easier to sell the app using sorority sisters' profiles.
What Wolfe did on her college trip is the definition of a unscalable user acquisition channel. And it was both cheap and effective. Bloomberg reported that:
Tinder started off with less than 5,000 users before Whitney Wolfe made her trip, and had around 15,000 by the time she returned.
The eBay List
eBay is the premier online auction site today, where people sell everything from PEZ dispensers to ghosts in a jar.
When eBay's founder Pierre Omidyar deployed AuctionWeb (eBay's original name), he posted about it in online newsgroups and "What's New" pages. In a familiar story, AuctionWeb got zero traffic the day it was released... so Pierre had to do his own unscalable user acquisition.
Early eBay growth was very slow, but Pierre persevered. He posted lists of everything for sale on eBay every day on related Usenet newsgroups. Along with their current bid. He did not automate the process, and he engaged with the users who showed interest.
There's no telling what eBay would be today had Pierre not done everything within his power to out-compete his competitors in the early days. Competitors with better marketing and real advertising budgets.
There is no doubt that the act of showing up everyday and posting every item helped eBay gain those first few crucial users.
Now that You Know the Key to Getting Those First 1000 Users — It's Time to Get Hacking
No, not the kind of hacking you do with IDEs and through ssh connections.
Think about your potential users, who they are, what they want, and where they socialize. Go to those places, whether online or in the world, and tell them about your product.
Do it with one, two, five folks at a time and have real conversions. Listen to their feedback and convince them to give your product a try.
The key is to show up and do the unscalable, unglamorous work. And maybe you too will be interviewed by Bloomberg about the difficulties of 'the early days' a few years from now.