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How to Get Users for a Very Early, Bootstrapped Startup

Posted on the 04 April 2013 by Sandislin @ed_republc
There are two questions that you can ask universally of any early-stage startup, no matter the industry or context. (Try it out the next time a friend is telling you about a business idea!)
  1. How will you acquire users?
  2. How will you make money?
If you've shipped a beta product, or have raised a seed round, you probably have the breathing room to run a few experiments with different marketing tactics and revenue models (check out Geekwire's Demystifying startup marketing and Fred Wilson's Web and Mobile Revenue Models for ideas).
But what about the very, very, early stage startups (like Ed Republic), when our primary goal is validating the concept and finding early flickers of product-market fit?
I fully admit I could be thinking about it wrong, but at this stage we're more focused on getting feedback from our first 1,000 users, than scaling up to get our first 100,000. (Though to clarify, I'd be dancing in the streets if 100,000 users suddenly showed up on our MVP site!) Partly because we've chosen to bootstrap to our beta (a decision that's probably deserving of another post on its own), we want to iterate quickly on our MVP and make decisions on whether to raise a seed round, continue to bootstrap, or pivot.
The key question we want to answer is whether our vision is compelling enough with real users. With a goal of getting early feedback and iterating quickly, here's how we're thinking about the first 1,000 users.

Friends & Family

While friends & family are going to be biased in your favor, they're also more willing to help and provide feedback on your Balsamiq mockups, hacky prototype, and buggy alpha. They're also the ones who are likely to kick-start your social media profiles, agree to be interviewed for case studies, not to mention provide words of encouragement on the down days. Online learning is so common these days (an estimated 40% of adults participate) that it's relatively easy to find potential users and get further referrals to their roommates, colleagues, and friends.

Social Media Brand Pages

Choose which social media networks you'll participate on, and start seeding them early so they're not empty when you launch. We plan to blast our family and friends to sign up a few weeks before our beta launch, but in the meantime we've been tweeting and posting to start building a history. Yes, it takes time, but commit to what you can do (even if once a week). Products like HootSuite (free for one user) make it much easier to manage multiple social media platforms.

Social Media Viral Loops

The holy grail of social media marketing is figuring out how kick off exponential growth through referrals. Some products are inherently social by nature (games and photo sharing come to mind), some provide financial incentives for referrals (daily deal sites), some use somewhat shady techniques like auto-posting to Facebook walls and auto-inviting your entire address book. My personal hypothesis is that online learners want to have access to a global community but are less likely to want to share what they're learning with their personal friends. For the minimum product, we've stripped out a lot of our social features anyway (in order to keep laser focus on solving the aggregation problem really well), but we will definitely be monitoring and evaluating feedback on this from our users.


SEO ain't what it used to be. No one really knows what goes into Google's algorithm these days, and it's risky to rely too heavily on this approach (just search for 'panda impact' if you want to learn more about the fallout from a change in Google's algorithm). SEO changes are difficult to assess and can take months to fully develop. I'm guessing that Ed Republic also has a disadvantage from an SEO perspective because we will be aggregating content.
Nevertheless, it'd be a mistake to ignore SEO entirely, particularly for the online learning industry which doesn't have an SEO leader yet. Our plan is to make sure we cover the basics, based on SEOMoz's Beginner's Guide to SEO and Google's SEO Starter Guide (PDF). Writing this blog is also a way for us to get unique content onto our site.

Paid Ads (SEM/Display)

Like SEO, Paid Ads also ain't what they used to be :) Especially in an industry where you're competing with the University of Phoenix at $2-$3+ per click. We've used paid ads on a limited basis to assess interest and drive traffic for small experiments, but right now we probably don't have the budget or scale to find the pockets of keywords and users that will convert well. This might be a better approach for a B2B startup, an industry with lower-priced keywords, or a higher price point at conversion. We'll still consider buying a few display ads in communities where our users congregate, to see if we can drive cheap traffic.


It's always useful to cultivate good relationships with the media and I'd be thrilled to be mentioned by a popular tech writer. However, there's no guarantee that they will cover your startup. I probably haven't spent enough time in this area, and I do have concerns that newsworthy events are typically product launches and financing rounds. So we may be missing the PR boat by hurrying to a beta. Hmm... better add this to the to-do list.


Our minimal product is a free resource and we genuinely want to help online learners find the right courses. In this space, there are a ton of online and offline organizations whose members would really benefit from Ed Republic. For technology in particular, there's a lot of momentum about software programming and learning to code. We've put together a list of these organizations and plan to reach out during our beta to ask if they'd be willing to tell their members about us. It's free, and worst case is they'll say no, in which case we're in the same spot anyway.


Bottom-line, we think there are many ways to be scrappy and hustle to find people willing to try out our site. The much harder part is offering a product that they'll rave about and come back to again and again. Right now, we know enough to believe there's a genuine user need and that our solution will solve the problem. Ultimately, the best startup marketers are passionate users who love the product.

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