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Here’s how to launch a start-up when you only have 99 dollars

Reuters/Arko Datta
You need more than luck.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

When it was first invented, I can imagine that the press release was an incredibly powerful tool. Write a single document, fire it off to the largest media outlets, and boom—instant press coverage.

If you listen to the voices that say, “If you build it, they will come,” your startup is more likely to turn into an empty parking lot than a field of dreams.

But strategies like this are paradoxical—each time they are effective, others take note and follow suit. And the more they are used, the less effective the strategy becomes. The receivers are inundated with submissions, and so they have to find way to screen faster and faster. The result is that, for the most part, only the brand-name submitters rise to the top, and the press release becomes ineffective for early stage startups.

This trend can be seen in nearly every advertising channel. It used to be that taking an ad in a magazine was as sure as printing money—the same can be said for Google AdWords throughout much of the 2000s. But every advertising success story drew in countless more advertisers, driving the cost up and the resulting revenue down, and today these channels are ineffective for all but the largest and most savvy advertisers.

This is the challenge for small startups without deep pockets—how can you get noticed when the traditional channels are out of reach? The answer, of course, is to find the channels that haven’t yet been overrun by the horde—and I’m going to walk you through the channels that we used to get 5,000 users within ten days of our launch.

But first, a note about launches in general. It’s important to remember that every form of media—from Twitter to Techcrunch—relies on interesting, relevant content to keep the lights on. And so the first step in any launch is building something worth talking about. This is where the vast majority of your resources need to go. But hope is not a launch strategy. If you listen to the voices that say, “If you build it, they will come,” your startup is more likely to turn into an empty parking lot than a field of dreams.

Your launch doesn’t have to be elaborate or expensive—but it does need to be intentional. Spend at least some meaningful amount of time and effort coming up with a plan.

Preparing for the big launch

For context, our startup—Leanflix—is a movie discovery engine. It pulls in all of the movies from Netflix, Amazon, HBO, and iTunes, uses an algorithm to rank them from best to worst, and displays them in a filterable interface to make it easy to find movies to watch. It’s a free service.

As with most startup ideas, the “full description” is a bit of a mouthful—you’ll want to come up with a one sentence summary. Make sure it fits in a tweet along with your URL if you want to make it easy for people to share it (ours was “Leanflix is the easiest way to find movies worth watching on Netflix, Amazon, HBO, and iTunes.”). And if you find that you can’t sum it up in a tweet, you probably don’t have a clear enough understanding of your product.

There are a few other boxes to check before you start your push:

Pre-launch checklist

  • Website monitoring. You’ll want to know if your site goes down. UptimeRobot is a free service, Pingdom if you’re looking for something enterprise-grade.
  • Error monitoring. We found all sorts of bugs that we wouldn’t otherwise have noticed using Bugsnag (paid, but with a free 14 day trial—enough to get you through launch).
  • Analytics. We used Segment to integrate with Google Analytics and Mixpanel. I can’t say enough good things about Segment and Mixpanel.
  • Flexible hosting. Make sure your hosting can handle the traffic spikes (we used Google Cloud). If you’re doing a static beta signup page, this is easy—just configure an Amazon S3 or Google Cloud storage bucket as a website.
  • Issue tracking. A system where you can manage all of the feedback you get through your site/app, on social media, etc. We used Groove (free).
  • Social sign-in. Make it easy for users to sign up. We implemented Facebook and Twitter authentication.
  • Twitter and Facebook meta data. You’ll want to set up Twitter Cards and Facebook Open Graph markup so that any social share includes rich content—this makes a big difference.
  • A place to manage it all. Slack became our mission control center—we set up channels for each integration, giving us a single pane of glass to monitor errors (Bugsnag channel), customer cases (Groove), signups (Intercom), etc. I can’t imagine managing a launch without it.

The soft launch: testing things out

We did a fair amount of internal and alpha user testing, but there’s no substitution for an actual small-scale rollout. In this stage, you’re looking to identify and fix any issue that causes a large drop-off in your conversion funnel.

Our goal was to get a few hundred beta users during a “soft launch.” We would then fix any high-value bugs and implement any new features that were barriers to adoption before moving to the next phase.

We decided to submit Leanflix to Beta List—a platform of 28,000 early adopters who are interested in trying new products and services. Beta List has some mandatory criteria:

  • The product is not yet available to the public
  • The website has a decent-looking, custom-designed landing page
  • Visitors can subscribe to a mailing list to get notified of the launch.

It’s a free service, but it can take a few weeks for your submission to get published. We paid the $99 skip-the-line fee, and it ended up being the only money we spent on launch.

In order to meet their criteria, we built a landing page with a beta signup form—when a user entered their email address, we automatically emailed them a beta invite link that they could use to get access.

We ended up getting just under 450 users from Beta List—well worth the $99 price.

The killer feature: adding what users needed

The initial feedback from this test group was overwhelmingly positive. We saw a surprising amount of engagement on many of our key metrics, such as “number of movies added to watch lists” and “number of movies marked as seen.” But we were surprised to see that we had just a handful of comments on movies—we had built a Disqus-like commenting system and hoped to facilitate discussion on at least some of the popular movies.

We hypothesized that users might be more interested in real-time discussion, so we built a sitewide chat widget—inspired by the cryptocurrency exchange BTC-E and nicknamed the “Troll Box”—that would allow any logged-in user to chat with other visitors. This ended up being one of the most valuable tools we used during launch—but not for the reason we anticipated.

While it did facilitate some movie-related discussion, we found that it became the de facto method for users to submit feedback. We learned about bugs as they were happening and collected dozens of feature requests, and our users loved that we responded to them in real time—in some cases, we were able to deploy bug fixes and implement new features while they were chatting with us. This blew people away and got us some real fans.

The launch

With all the bugs worked out and our conversion funnel optimized, we removed the beta invite restriction and opened the site to the public.

Product Hunt

The launch kicked off with a surprise post on Product Hunt—we didn’t know the person who submitted it and we had no idea it was coming. We ended up getting 700+ upvotes and a substantial amount of traffic, but Product Hunt delivered far more than just signups. We felt that it was our most valuable traction channel, giving us exposure to prominent VC and journalists.

As my friend said: “Mark Suster commented on Leanflix?? That guy’s a BAMF.”

Social media

We had an ongoing joke about our launch strategy—we were going to launch on Product Hunt, get someone like Marc Andreessen to tweet about it, and then figure the rest out from there. As it turns out, that ended up being a fairly effective tactic—thanks to a “napkin” illustration and Marc being a good sport.

I’d imagine that this particular trick would wear out fairly quickly—crossing out Leanflix and putting your name at the top probably wouldn’t work. The takeaway is to reach out personally to influencers in a fun, non-spammy way.

This strategy gets much easier when you find people whose goals align with yours—it makes it a no-brainer for them to pass along your message (as an example, Andreessen Horowitz is an investor in Product Hunt).

With a large Twitter following and a motivation to drive traffic, the Product Hunt team is an obvious ally for any startup. But they sift through hundreds of startups every day—it helps to have some sort of personal relationship. Reach out to a member of their team, give them early access, ask for feedback, and implement their suggestions. As Ben Franklin famously proposed, someone who helps you once is likely to help you again.

Perhaps the most overlooked social media launch channel is also the most difficult to control—reddit. Carefully planned or scripted attempts are likely to cause more harm than good. It’s fair game to ask a friend to post a link, but ask them to describe it casually instead of using marketing speak. Your best bet is to monitor your traffic for referrals from reddit, jump into the comments section with a thick skin and a sense of humor, and try to win over the crowd by being genuine and humble. It can be a brutal experience but a monster source of traffic.

Tech blogs

A few days after launch, we were featured in Gizmodo and Lifehacker—these accounted for a huge percentage of our traffic and signups. I wish that we could say that we carefully executed a brilliant strategy to get these articles published, but the truth is that they caught us completely by surprise. We reached out to a number of writers at other publications with no success, and the authors that did write about us didn’t even reach out for a comment before posting. Go figure.

There is no secret formula to getting journalists to write about your startup. Your best bet is to show up in the places where they troll for content—incidentally, places like Beta List, Product Hunt, reddit, and Twitter. Rise to the top of these channels and you’ve got a pretty good shot at a feature in your near term future.

Final thoughts

The world has never been more eager or enthusiastic to hear about the next startup—the public looks at entrepreneurship as almost a sport now, with loyal fans cheering for (and rooting against) megastars like Elon Musk and Travis Kalanick. The success of shows like Shark Tank is a good barometer of how engaged the average person is in the world of entrepreneurship.

But it’s easy to get lost in the noise. Do something creative. Do something reckless. Just do something. This is your chance to take everything you’ve built and show it to the world. Make it count.

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

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