Facebook, Linkedin, Zynga… they all had it easy. They all grew on the backs of existing services, spamming users with mass invites and notifications until a loyal following was suckered into using the product. And thanks to the inherent network effects, for every new user, the product was incrementally better for you as well… and thus a flywheel was born (and our inboxes were flooded).
But that was Web2.0. That was back in the days where platforms played nice, APIs were open, and we all sang kumbaya, assuming the internet was a place of open inclusiveness.
Those days are gone.
Today, companies like Facebook, Google, and Apple have their platforms locked down. They’ve built monopolies and pulled up the ladders behind them (the story of this post).
And that’s a big part of the reason we’ve seen such a slowing of massive startup outcomes. What was the last $100B company created? Good luck.
Like Jobs and Wozniak tinkering with hardware to create the Mac (only to ban non-Apple resellers and repair shops later), we’re living in a challenging era of the internet. And there is more money than ever chasing the next big thing, hence the insane valuations and plethora of private unicorns.
But for founders looking to grow without simply blowing billions on Facebook and Google ads, how can you do it? And how is it fair that the companies that today operate as utilities were able to skirt rules and restrictions, ignoring privacy and personal concerns in their unending march of power?
Good luck getting away with that with GDPR.
And Facebook sure isn’t going to help you export your friends’ list or fuel a competitor —they’re operating on a “join us or we will copy you” strategy.
Venture Demands Hockey Stick Growth
You can build a great business without piggybacking, but funding-wise, you’ll struggle. Today’s founders have major hurdles to clear market on a Series A. The problem: VCs are going upmarket, and with a flood of great early-stage companies to invest in, you really have to stand out.
Five years ago, growth was enough. If you were going up and to the right, you were funded. Hit $100k MRR and investors were breaking down your doors.
Today, the dynamic has completely shifted. Not only have companies like Uber, WeWork, and Blue Apron (who scaled before understanding unit economics or the truth about their businesses/network effects) made things harder for companies to raise without proven PROFITABLE (or approaching profitable) growth, there’s also an oversaturation of online ad dollars.
And somehow, you still need to scale. If your business isn’t hitting 10–20% month-over-month grow, forget about it.
So, the question, how do you do it? How do you profitably grow faster than companies of the past without the steroids of super platforms to skyrocket your launch?
Here are a few ideas…
Building in a Blue Ocean
All is not lost. Size has its perks, but so does nimble flexibility. And therein lies the saving grace of startup founders, the up-and-comers. Because, when it comes to growing a business and leveraging networks/platforms, the least policed (and crowded) places will be the ones just getting started, before the network matures.
Think TikTok, Alexa/voice interfaces, AR/VR experiences, podcasts, etc… which channels aren’t saturated that your brand could own/leverage?
And then there are the waters which, once bloodied and gory, have cleared as attention and ad dollars have poured to digital. Things like radio, direct mail, even stickers at Starbucks.
Even Amazon sent me a product catalog this holiday season… a throwback to the Sears days… what world are we living in?
Companies like Warby Parker and Amazon are actually building out retail stores as the rest of retail dies. And it makes sense. Being closer to customers allows brands to more efficiently grow with and understand their customers. And while Snap’s Spectacles failed miserably, their viral real-world vending machines created a ton of buzz until the product cratered.
And real-world buzz creates online interest, and possibly, loyalty. To amplify, you need to increase the viral coefficients of the product or service you’re pushing. (For a more in-depth analysis of the 5 types of network effects and how to hack them, see this post).
Building in a Red Ocean
That’s not to say you shouldn’t play on Facebook’s playground. Just because Zuckerberg will crush you and kick you off the platform, that doesn’t mean Facebook can’t fuel your growth, at least initially, especially if you’re willing to break the rules. Inevitably, either they will screw you, or you’ll screw them. Make sure you’re the one doing the screwing. Here’s how.
- Always assume ANY platform you build on could pull the plug at ANY minute.
- Try to steal customers/users from the platform as quickly as you can.
- Don’t be upset when you get busted.
- Create a new account and start again.
It is that simple. Whether it’s posting in Facebook groups to get people to check out your new service or pulling an Airbnb and listing all your apartments on Craigslist, breaking the terms of service of a platform generally isn’t a big deal. Especially if you plan for it.
Keep in mind, this is a short-term strategy, like lighter fluid. Good luck building a scaleable bonfire with gasoline, but for a quick hit, it works wonders.
Other Strategies for Mass Growth:
1. Push notifications: Ie, the new hack/spam
Push notifications can be an incredible marketing channel. Do you have a phone? Odds are, it’s in your pocket. And, odds are, you get notifications…
Now, if you’re like me, you probably turn off almost all notifications. But for marketers, push notifications can be a godsend. Users/readers/customers literally asking you to randomly ping them with cool stuff.
Emphasis on the word: COOL. And the frequency is important as well. If that guy or gal you’ve been seeing messages you every two minutes, that’s too frequent. If it’s every two months, it’s just as bad.
The same is true for push notifications. How much is too much, and what is really relevant? Those are the questions marketers must ask themselves. And there are lots of posts online detailing strategies. We won’t do that here.
Instead, let’s talk about what users really want. For my blog, users love getting new WSJ-quality articles for free with tips and tricks to grow their business/startup. And for The Disruptors podcast, obviously, it’s the episodes.
But there’s algorithmic gaming to consider as well. For instance, by sending listeners to YouTube rather than disruptors.fm, I can artificially inflate our first-day video views, encouraging YouTube to promote the podcast to a larger audience base. A YouTube sub might not be as valuable as an iTunes or email subscriber, but it allows us to build a bigger base faster.
The same is true of promoting an Amazon product vs. your Shopify listing, and so on. It is a tradeoff between building your audience/customer base and building your own channels. And that’s a tradeoff every entrepreneur must make. (For more on the risks/rewards of building on existing platforms, see this post).
At the same time, I know what you are thinking: push notifications are spammy, and I hate them. I totally agree. They bother me on other sites. But at the same time, if your customers are agreeing/asking for them, you’d be letting them down not incorporating them. And if your competitors use push and you don’t, that’s just one more arrow in their arsenal to beat you.
2. SMS / Text Marketing
Grab your phone. How many unread emails do you have? How often do you clear out your notifications?
A better question, how many unread texts do you have…?
Ding ding ding. If a lightbulb just went off, we’re in business. In the U.S. at least, texting is king. People read almost every one. And plenty of marketers use texting in a similar way to the push notifications described above. As long as users are opting in (and able to unsubscribe), texting can be a major one-to-one communication channel between brands and buyers.
All the points above apply.
3. Referrals Always Win!
Seriously… This is probably the most powerful of all… Rather than rehashing an old post, just check out The Secret Referral Strategy to Boost Sales. Nothing trumps word of mouth.
There are millions of ways to build a business, each one unique to the product and industry you’re serving. And while business success doesn’t repeat itself, it often rhymes. This should set your company up for success. The trick is testing and constant iteration. Find the channels that work for you and your business, and do it as quickly as possible. Your business depends on it.
So, sure, it’s not fair other companies had it “easier” scaling off the backs of unsuspecting giants. The thing is, the landscape’s always changing.
And while yesterday’s “shoulda coulda’s” are always better and easier than today, today is infinitely better than tomorrow.
Get to work, go make it happen. And again, if you’re trying to hack network effects for viral growth, I recommend this article.
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