When researching how to strategize the growth of their businesses, new entrepreneurs have no shortage of articles, explainers, and books offering advice on how to expand at superhuman speeds. Some suggest eye-catching marketing campaigns splashed across social media platforms where target demographics will see it. Others swear by using savvy PR to build hype for the product through media coverage. There are also all sorts of ways to buy or sneak your way onto listservs that give you access to the email addresses of most relevant potential clients in the field. All of these can and do work great for some business. But what founders lose sight of when they focus on the size of the user base is how the user base of early adopters is going to impact future growth, reputation, and potential funding.
The mantra to "Scale, scale, scale," has been so ingrained in founders' minds that it can be easy to lose track of who they want their primary users and customers to be. The impulse to grow as fast as possible is understandable: demonstrating the number of users you have can mean the difference between a massive injection of funding and being left to wonder how you'll make payroll the next week. Not to mention that watching your user numbers climb is an absolute rush! I can only imagine the pulse of excitement running through the veins of every employee who worked on Pokémon GO during those explosive July weeks of tens of millions of downloads. But what do founders do if their product is not meant to attract as many users as possible, but to attract a very specific kind of user?
I launched a publishing platform connecting independent writers to professional editors, designers, and marketers so they can collaborate to make high-quality books that will sell. There was plenty of freelance publishing talent out there, but it was not especially good and it was not all in one place. We needed to get the best talent all in one place. And since I've never been great in front of crowds (even ones behind a screen), email blasts and conference presentations weren't my ideal options. Ultimately, I decided that if I was going to get the users I wanted for my platform, I would have to invite them to it one by one. So I sent connection requests to several top-tier editors, illustrators, and marketers on LinkedIn. My first connection ended up being Jeff Huang, the illustrator behind one of Stephen King's book covers.
I sent him the following message.
Many thanks for accepting the invitation to connect. I'm a founder at Reedsy. We're building a community of top publishing professionals (editors, designers, marketers) to work with authors. Here's an example of a profile.
I'd be happy to send you an invitation to beta test the service. What's your email address? We'd love to have you on Reedsy!
That was it. That was all it took. Jeff tested Reedsy, asked questions, and we remained engaged throughout. He has since become one of our most enthusiastic fans, alongside many other top-tier hopefuls I essentially did a door-to-door sales pitch to. Today, we are able to scale this effort and are getting about 200 applications a week from professionals looking to join our community. Why did it work? I think there are three key reasons.
It Is Easier To Ignore a Product Than A Person
I probably don't have to spout off statistics about the open-rate of emails that have a brand name in the "From" line versus an actual human's name to make clear that people are more interested in engaging on a personal level, using natural language, than with a brand using highly tailored marketing copy. My messages arrived in their inboxes with my face next to them. That connection means a lot.
Invitation To Critique Generates A Sense Of Investment
Asking people to beta test your product can be tricky, as some will see it as you asking for their valuable labor and expertise. And they're right. No one is obligated to test your product and critique it and help you make it better. But when you find the people who are invested in doing just that because they ultimately believe in your mission and your product's basic premise, the trust that you demonstrated in asking for their critique makes them feel personally invested in the product's growth and vitality in a way that a paid spokesperson or external PR firm might not.
Curating A Network Carefully Demonstrates How Much You Value Initial Users
When those first five or ten publishing professionals joined Reedsy, they didn't find themselves in a swamp of any talent we could get our hands on. The lack of users on the platform made it clear that we had selected them because we were aware that their specific insights would be actionable and appreciated. That we recognized their prestige in the industry without over-promising any results we had not yet delivered showed them that this was really about building a strong product that would improve their creative work flows and independence, not just about adding big names to our roster.
Ultimately, attracting major players early on is what helped us grow our professional network as quickly as we did. But more importantly, those early, personalized connections forged relationships with the kind of users we care most about using and enjoying our product, which incentivized us to build a better one. The strategy garnered enough traction to get us the momentum we needed to attract not just more users, but users of similar caliber. Sure, it took a lot of personal messages that went unanswered but, we're a publishing platform, not Pokemon Go. There's no need to catch 'em all.