Or What I Learned after 2 Months without a User
If you think that you might be interested in starting anything online, I recommend you read my account below. Contrary to the success stories that you can find posted all over the web, mine is a story of complete failure. Two months, $52, and nothing to show for it. I hope that by sharing my experience I will be able to help others succeed.
Starting anything is difficult. If it’s just for you, it could be a new diet, workout routine, or study habit. It takes self discipline and a strong desire to change the way things are. Starting something designed for other people is even harder. To begin, you have to convince them that you not only know of something that has been missing from their lives, but also that you are the perfect person to create it for them. You not only need powerful self-discipline and motivation, but also convincing words and a hungry audience.
I say this because I have experienced the difficulties of starting something for other people — something that I now realize people actually may not want. Two months ago I set out to make something new. I didn’t have a clear idea in mind, but I thought I could change how people read things on their phones. I still think I can, but I don’t know if anyone else believes me.
Two months ago I began working on my idea (called Earlyworm) and I thought I had it all figured out.
“This is such an awesome, kickass idea that everyone will just flock to it. The internet’s a big place, but it’s inevitable that almost everyone will see this product and realize how much of a genius I am for thinking of it. Maybe I’m the next Steve Jobs and this is how I begin getting discovered…”
As you can already tell — I am not yet the next Steve Jobs. No one has thought of me as a genius for my idea. In fact no one has liked my idea enough to take the time to type her name and email and click her mouse. It’s not because I didn’t try though.
You see, 2 months ago I might have thought people would find my site and would just show up. I quickly realized that no one knows my idea yet, so there is no reason for anyone to look for it. This, coupled with being outside the first 10 pages of Google search results for “Mobile Infographic Reader App” told me that I should embark on some serious marketing (I don’t know where exactly it ranked, I gave up looking after 10 pages).
Starting in mid-October, I started writing more on Medium about my idea. I had read that most great startups find a new way to hack growth. I aimed to save money and drum up interest through my Medium posts. At this point, my plan was to create news stories in infographic form and present them via an iPhone app. So I set up a way for people to submit their name and email in exchange for a spot on the waiting list for my app. No one read my Medium stories, and no one signed up (Okay people did read — but not many. The most read story got 30 views). “They just don’t understand — it’s hard to find these stories on Medium anyway,” I thought. To help people find my stories I posted them on Twitter. I used Buffer to post them over and over again using different pitches. This is exactly what the seasoned veterans said to try. Still no one read them. Meh whatever. Recreating News: My Startup Journey Begins We live in a period of technological revolution. The Internet changed the world, and our economy is still settling. We…medium.com
This really flustered me. I started wondering how people ever start startups successfully. What is the key to the first signup? More importantly, what’s wrong with my site that I can’t get people to sign up? I redid the copy, reworked some pictures, and reconsidered my idea. Maybe trying to become a leader in news is too ambitious for a 23 year old who is still working full time. Maybe I should focus on something that would have a little less friction. So, using that fancy Lean Startup speak, one month in I “pivoted.”
I decided to focus on making an app that would host infographics from new and undiscovered bloggers. I myself had been a new and undiscovered blogger about a year ago working on Bamboo Soapbox (I am no longer a new and undiscovered blogger simply because I quit blogging). The competition for blogs is fierce, almost as fierce as the competition for startups. If I could help people discover new talented bloggers, then I could be a facilitator of information spreading and a doer of good deeds for those bloggers. Finally, I had a mission.
Everyone loves reading new things, right? That’s what brought you to Medium today, that’s why blogging is a thing, and that’s really the primary utility of the Internet — to help more people read more things. It’s inevitable that people would like an idea that helps them read new things. Marketing this would be a slam-dunk. Instead it ended up like this:
I decided I needed a more direct marketing scheme. I had done some Facebook and Google marketing while working at Daily Themes, so I was somewhat familiar with these channels. I decided to focus on Facebook first. I set up four ads to run, set a $5 budget to test it out, and all of my ads got banned (I didn’t know you couldn’t have text heavy ads). But before they got completely banned, I spent all five of my dollars. I got no signups. I know conversion on any of these marketing channels is low, but I thought I did a pretty good job of targeting. I picked only students from my alma mater and I focused particularly on those who liked politics and news. I thought these student-types would be most likely avid blog readers as well. Still, in the end I got no signups.
My first FB ad. A call for new bloggers
Second FB Ad. Going with a warm color scheme and almost TV/Netflix look in retrospect.
Yea, this one definitely got banned.
I continued asking people to sign up for a waiting list for my app. I had an awesome idea for how to make people want it — offer 200 beta slots. Just like I would later read in Nirandfar, scarcity multiplies desire. I blasted out Twitter ads, using their new lead collecting feature to ask people to sign up directly on Twitter. I continued picking at my website’s content and pictures to try to make it just right. But what I discovered is elementary: zero multiplied by anything is zero.
About three weeks ago, upon seeing lack of success, I decided to try offering people a newsletter that would contain the content planned for my app. I had read that Product Hunt started this way, so I thought there may be a reasonable chance for me to begin this way as well. Plus, it seems more likely for someone to sign up for a newsletter than just for a beta version of an app. You can already guess what happened next — yes, I got zero signups. In the next two weeks I flipped back and forth between waiting list and newsletter signup options, but neither seemed to work.
My old Squarespace website
One week ago I decided to switch from Squarespace hosting to Strikingly. David Chen had recently visited the Shanghai chapter of Startup Grind and I thought he did an awesome job giving us insight into the company and his story. Plus, Squarespace wasn’t getting me any conversions, so I had nothing to lose. Strikingly let me put a signup area right at the top of the first page, where all the cool tech companies have it. It let me design one really long landing page where I could fully explain my app. I thought this was what I needed; now I would finally get all those signups I so desired. At this point, I was back onboard with my waiting list idea. I continued crafting Twitter ads. I read Daniel Pink’s Everyone Is a Salesman and used his pitch ideas in my tweets. I found that rhyming pitches really do work better, and over time I got my ad engagement up to 2.5% on 5.5K views. Still no signups though.
Yesterday I refined my idea further. I decided to first begin with a newsletter that distributes infographics with information to help startups, bloggers, and anyone else who may need help marketing. I figure that I’m studying this topic anyway, so I may as well share what I learn with others. The infographics will contain key points from various blog posts, letting the reader get a quick idea of the topic of each post. If the reader is interested enough, he can click a link and read the full story where it was originally posted. Yesterday I designed my first infographic — a marketing message for my newsletter. I used it to make Twitter ads and set aside a $7 budget. This morning, I still don’t have anyone signed up, but I continue to persevere.
My first infographic, designed using Sketch.
In the end, I don’t see this as wasted time or money because I am truly passionate about the idea. When I work on making Twitter ads, infographics, or revamping my website I am overcome with focus happiness. This has been my pastime for the last two months, and although I still have nothing to show for it, I wouldn’t change it for anything.
Follow me on Twitter: @c_h_wood