It’s easy to love success stories like Instagram or Youtube, but what if your startup is growing much more slowly? What if it’s taking you years, not weeks or months, to reach millions of people?

Allen Lau, co-founder of Wattpad, a cloud-based community of authors and readers, bootstrapped for five years before raising his Series A financing with investors such as Union Square Ventures. Here’s his advice:

Pick the chicken or the egg. Early on, Wattpad faced the classic chicken and egg conundrum: With no users, nobody was writing content. But with no content there was nothing to engage visitors, so they left. Wattpad had to choose - did they need users, or did they need content? They went for content, and uploaded 20,000 stories from Project Gutenberg, a free source for works in the public domain. The content wasn’t unique or exclusive, but at the time Wattpad provided a novel way for consumers to access that content: on mobile devices. That helped get their user base growing.

In hindsight, the decision to pursue content before users may appear obvious, but at the time it was hardly certain, especially in the face of pressure to chase users and drive dramatic early growth. Lau was able to resist that impulse for two reasons:

  • He recognized that product was the content itself, not the app
  • If he pursued users before he had enough to offer, he might drive a short- term spike in downloads, but he’d have to deal with immense churn. And once a user has abandoned a product, it’s almost impossible to re-engage them.

Focus on differentiation. From the start, Lau’s core strategy was to enable users to access content on mobile devices. “Keep in mind this was 2006, before Apple launched iTunes or Amazon launched the Kindle. The ability to read content on mobile devices was a big differentiator,” says Lau. His team worked feverishly to make sure its content was accessible on as many devices as possible. The work paid off: Back in 2006, if a you were to search for “mobile” and an author such as Charles Dickens, Wattpad would have been the first result.

Listen to users. They don’t lie. For consumer products, Lau says, “It’s pretty obvious when users embrace a feature. If usage isn’t trending up after an initial spike of adoption within one to two weeks of launch, we kill the feature and move on. You can’t afford to push a [floundering] feature for nine months; you’ll run out of cash.” Lau recommends tools like Flurry and Google Analytics that help measure a feature’s initial traction, and can help your startup begin to make disciplined, data-driven development decisions. 

Beware venture funding. Organic growth takes a long time, but investors need to generate returns quickly. “The traffic was growing month over month. It just wasn’t generating enough cash to feed my family, let alone please any potential investors,” says Lau. If Wattpad had had venture backing early on, it would have had a shorter time frame in which to generate returns. Instead, Lau and his co-founders were able to fund the business by running a mobile advertising startup during those early years.