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User Growth Advice from No Wait, Duolingo, and Budget Simple

Growing your startup

Last night, I went to the MIT Enterprise Forum hosted at Carnegie Mellon University. For this event, they wrangled three local startups, Duolingo, Budget Simple, and No Wait, and an investor, Sean Ammirati (of Birchmere Labs), to discuss growth. How exactly does a small company grow from one hundred users to one-hundred thousand users? What were the secrets? Did it require a blood oath or could it be they’ve unearthed a marketing strategy so clever that of course they found success?

Getting the first 1,000 users

The first question the panel answered was how they got to their first 1,000 users. This is key, because getting to 1,000 users can be the first step to understanding product-market fit. Which is vital to unlocking the potential of growth. If you know your audience, and you know your value proposition, you can tap into those desires to expedite growth.

So, how did these startups find their first growth spurt?

There was no advertising involved for these companies. It wasn’t due to huge marketing plans. Success was slow cooked and didn’t happen over night.

Budget Simple was around for a while, gathering  five users a day. Solid for a bootstrapped company, but not a thriving business.

Then, Phil, the founder of Budget Simple, noticed a lot of traffic coming from Women’s Day magazine. This print magazine wrote a small blurb about his site which launched a whole new level of growth. Coincidentally, he found out that his main demographic was made up of women.

Duolingo found success when they put up a “sign up for the beta” page and promised folks a free way to learn a language. The sweet-sweet promise of free language was a strong draw. This found its way onto Reddit and soon they had tens of thousands of users to invite to their beta. It took them months to get all the invites out.

No Wait rode the coattails of Bill Peduto, Pittsburgh’s new mayor. When a journalist saw Bill Peduto using No Wait before heading to a restaurant, the story blew up.  Endorsement from a respected local politician and the promise of giving people their time back, was the one-two punch No Wait needed to take off.

Sean Ammirati summed up the panel nicely. “There’s nothing like a good product.” If your product is great, easy to use, and solves a tremendous problem, you’re onto something.

So just build a great product.

Build, Measure, Learn

Once you have a great product, it’s more than just releasing it out into the world. It’s knowing that elusive product-market fit. The panel stressed the importance of understanding how users interact with your app and website. Unlocking growth comes from figuring out what metric drives action. Why do people share your content? Where are users finding your site? Why would a user bounce from your site?

Learning these key metrics will guide you down the path to success.  There’s a reason why Duolingo’s monthly MixPanel bill is over $20,000 a month.

Launch, Re-Launch, and Launch Again

One final note from Sean Ammarati was on the topic of launching a product. He told the crowd about the time he was working on a RSS feed project in complete secret. He finally unveiled it onstage at a tech event which was quite  exciting. Hundreds of blogs wrote about the majesty of this product. Oh boy how it would revolutionize the RSS feed.

Unfortunately, the product didn’t scale which resulted in a sub-par user experience. And because of load issues, the CTO had to reset their servers every four hours for days on end.

Sean’s advice isn’t to launch at huge events. He says, “Events help you create a second trigger of growth. Don’t figure out how to launch before you launch, after you have a nice product, launch again. “

Growth should be a series of launches, and re-launches.

So there you have it. Some insights on startups and their initial growth strategy.

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