Biz Features

Startup Stories: How Did They Acquire Their First Users?

by . November 13th, 2015

The big names on the interweb didn’t just grow up overnight.


Photo credit: plewicki

Startups don’t grow overnight. The company that we know today has most likely undergone a drastic change from its planning stage to the actual product or service delivered to its users. Ever wondered how some startups gained initial traction?

Here are the stories of how some startups gained their first users.


If you think about it, the question-and-answer website Quora would have had to answer the chicken-or-egg problem. No users means no questions. No questions means no answers. No questions and answers means no content.


Quora founders: Charlie Cheever and Adam D’Angelo (via Joe Pugliese)

The solution was simple. The creators made it themselves. If you check Adam D’Angelo, Charlie Cheever and Rebekah Cox’s Quora profiles, they have questions which the answered themselves. Quora started as an invite-only site and invited some of their friends to increase the interaction. This explains the Silicon Valley tech questions you can see in their profiles.


Reddit has a similar case with Quora with the initial content problem but they had a slightly different approach. Back then, Reddit wasn’t divided into multiple subreddits. There is only one front page where founders Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman posted content.


Reddit founders: Chris Slowe, Alexis Ohanian, the alien, Steve Huffman

In addition to posting the early content by themselves, they also created fake profiles to post with. They have a special area in their submission form where they could specify the username that would appear. To an unsuspecting eye, it would seem that this new site called Reddit is teeming with active users and would be enticed to do the same.


This one’s different than the previous two. The popular rent lodging website can’t create fake users to get that initial traction and the appearance of an active community. They need real people with real places to rent out.

What they did is utilize an already active platform, Craigslist, and its Vacation Homes section. And by utilize, I meant spam its users with emails. Airbnb tried to convince users to also put their listing in the site using an affiliate.


Airbnb founders: Brian Chesky, Nathan Blecharczyk and Joe Gebbia

Here’s the actual email:

[pullquote]I am emailing you because you have one of the nicest listings on Craigslist in Toronto, and I want to recommend you feature it on one of the largest Toronto housing sites on the web, Airbnb. The site already has 3,000,000 page views a month. Check it out here:[/pullquote]

The tactic was not unethical. It’s annoying. But tell that to the current $24 billion valuation of the company.


Foursquare’s success is a great example of how gamification works. Gamification is the use of game elements such as point scoring, player versus player interactions, and even gameplay scenarios which is what Foursquare did.


Foursquare founders: Naveen Selvadurai & Dennis Crowley

In Foursquare, you had the ability to become the mayor of the establishment you frequently check in. Establishment owners also have the ability to interact with their customers through the app where they could reward customers however they wish.

Recently, Foursquare’s new app Swarm has brought back the mayorship feature.


Paypal as an idea didn’t start as an electronic money transfer we know today. According to PayPal co-founder Max Levchin, it was first a cryptography software and a remittance service via PDAs before finding its niche as a web-based payment system.


PayPal co-founder Max Levchin

Their first users were the geek crowd. The idea of storing money in handheld devices appealed to the more tech-savvy users as the future of technology. The application they made for the PDA got 300 users a day until they created a website for it. The growth of the website exceeded that of the app however and they decided to develop it further. This became the precursor of the PayPal website we know today.


Controversial ride-sharing service Uber might seem too modern an idea. The fact that they are a transport service without actually owning physical transport vehicles attests to that fact. It’s hard to imagine that Uber CEO Travis Kalanick used a more traditional form of marketing—cold calling.


Uber CEO Travis Kalanick

To address the supply side of their business—the drivers—Kalanick googled San Francisco chauffeurs and called existing black car drivers. Surprisingly, it worked.

The demand side has a different approach however. Uber’s initial marketing strategy involves local word of mouth and kittens. They offered free rides during events such as the Boston workers strike. The on demand nature of the service made it a word of mouth phenomenon.  They also partnered with Cheezburger to launch UberKITTENS. Cats, we all know, are the main ingredients of internet virality.


With 10 million daily active users and 9 billion matches made, Tinder is the most impressive online matchmaking site of all time. But starting out in the era where OkCupid, Match and eHarmony dominated the market, they would have to solve the chicken-or-egg problem of no users just like Reddit and Quora.


Tinder co-founders Sean Rad, Justin Mateen, and Jonathan Badeen (via Ringo Chiu)

They started locally. They threw “exclusive” college parties in the University of Southern California where admittance involves downloading the smartphone app. They signed up hundreds of singles in a dense area and developed the app from there. Word of mouth from their perfect demographic target made Tinder grow quickly.

Which startup story would you like to get featured? Comment below!


Kevin is a reader first, a writer second, and a gamer somewhere in between. When not rooting for Tyrion Lannister for the Iron Throne, he's probably writing some morbid short story. He enjoys some surreal art, clever advertising campaigns, and a warm cup of coffee while reading Murakami.