As an early stage startup, one of the most difficult challenges you will face is getting your name out there and cultivating a loyal customer or fan base. When you're just starting out, it's nearly impossible to compete with larger, more established companies through traditional methods, which means that you need to get creative in order to grow your company quickly and effectively. They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and for startups, that couldn't ring any truer.

The need to reach larger audiences in a short amount of time is what has led to "growth hacking," a strategy employed by most startups in order to attain rapid growth, despite having limited resources at their disposal. Because growth hacking requires a certain level of creativity, critical thinking, and unique applications, certain growth hacking strategies may or may not work for every business. However, despite the fact that every company's attempt at growth hacking will look different, there are certain practices that tend to work for most startups, regardless of their niche, product, or service.

If you're an early stage startup looking for rapid growth of your customer base without having to break the bank, try using these strategies to entice potential customers to patron your business and become a loyal and long-term customer.

Offer Something for Free

People love free, which is why giving something away to new users is a quick and easy way to increase your fan base. Take a business like Hotmail for example. When Hotmail launched it's browser-based email service in 1996, it leveraged a free account to entice its existing 20,000 users to sign up. The company used the tagline "Get Your Free Email at Hotmail" at the end of each existing user's outgoing mail to help spread the word, and soon after the campaign, Hotmail's user base climbed to an astronomical 1 million users in the first six months.

Set Up a Referral Program

There are a handful of companies that take advantage of a referral program to grow their business, and for one reason: it works! Businesses ranging in form and function from local yoga classes to the online storage startup Dropbox have used referral programs in the past, and to much success. When Dropbox was in its earliest days, for example, it offered upgraded storage amounts to each referral party pending their sign up with the service. Once both users signed up for Dropbox, they received an extra 500MB of storage, free of charge. Just by offering this, Dropbox's user base went from 100,000 to over 4 million in just 15 months.

Go With Exclusivity

People always want to feel like they're a part of something that's special, which is why exclusive invitations or offers work extraordinarily well as growth hacking strategy. Look at Pinterest, for example. When Pinterest was first getting started, it was invitation-only, but allowed users to request an invitation if they wanted to join. After requesting an invitation, Pinterest sent out an email to prospective users explaining that the waiting list was quite long, but that eventually, they would be accepted to join. This helped the budding social network generate buzz and made users feel like they needed to be a part of the brand. From August 2010 to October 2013, Pinterest grew from 100,00 users to over 70 million, proving that exclusivity is an incredibly effective way to drive growth.

Try Platform Hacking

Capitalizing on the success of another platform or business is a great way to grow your own. Try to find a way to work with other relevant platforms, businesses, products, or services. That's one way that YouTube got so big, so quickly. In 2005, YouTube looked to "platform hack" MySpace and tap into their growing user base and gain more views and users for themselves and guess what; it worked. At the time, MySpace had 25 million unique users and was at the top of the social media totem pole, but sharing videos was a huge pain point, both for their users and their advertisers. So, YouTube set out to solve that problem by allowing MySpace to embed their videos without having to pay for the service. YouTube took on the costs of hosting in exchange for increased brand recognition and ended up winning out. Today, YouTube enjoys traffic from over one billon users and is without a doubt one of the largest, most successful startups of our time.