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How We Got 2,000+ Customers by Doing Things That Didn’t Scale

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Some of our growth tactics will never scale. Here’s why we’re okay with that…

“I could tell you what we’re doing, but it wouldn’t help you.”

When I was getting ready to launch Groove, I spent a lot of time talking to other founders. And I would almost always start with the wrong question:

What are you guys doing for user acquisition?

Sometimes, they’d play along and clue me in to what they were up to.

Invariably, they were the types of things that help later-stage companies become very successful: referrals, upselling, advertising. The spectrum was huge, and I was a little overwhelmed, though planning on trying everything I could.

Until finally, one founder graciously called me out.

“Look, I could tell you what we’re doing, but it wouldn’t help you. We have 10,000 customers. You have zero. You need to focus on your first five customers.”

He went on to share some of the things that he did when they were working to get their first handful of users.

I hadn’t heard anything like it in my other conversations.

They scrapped, clawed and fought hard for every single customer in their early days. The founder would spend many hours with every single customer, learning, coaching and making sure that they had a positive experience.

None of it was scaleable, but it didn’t matter. Without it, he told me, they’d never get the chance to scale.

That chat changed the way I thought about growth.

By now, nearly everyone in the startup space has read Paul Graham’s brilliant essay, Do Things That Don’t Scale. And if you haven’t, you absolutely should. He shares some great examples of things that now-successful startups did to get customers in their early days; tactics that would never work for a larger, high-volume business.

We’ve also done a number of things at Groove that are far from scaleable. We now have 2,000+ companies signed up, but our growth approach has been to get one customer at a time.

Below are six of the most valuable non-scaleable growth tactics we’ve used to get customers for Groove:

1) “You’re In” Email

I’ve mentioned this before, but one of our biggest onboarding wins has come from our “You’re In” email.

“You’re In” Email “You’re In” Email

The insights we’ve gotten early on from the responses to that email have been game-changing.

We’ve been able to transform our messaging based on what we learned is most important to new customers, and we’ve been able to build deeper relationships with those customers by helping them with whatever unique goals or challenges drove them to sign up.

I still read — and act on — every single response I get.

Takeaway: Learning why new customers decided to sign up is incredibly valuable. It informs your marketing and makes your customers’ experiences better. This is a lot easier with a handful of customers than with many.

2) Customer Development

Earlier this month, I sent an email to our customers:

A Request A Request

Over the years, there’s nothing that’s been more valuable for us as a growth tool than one on one conversations with our customers.

And over the next few months, I’m blocking off hundreds of hours of time to talk to every single one of them.

I had nearly 30 of these calls last week, and this isn’t the first time we’ve done this. I’ve already gotten some feedback that we’re using to improve the product.

At 2,000 customers, me talking to all of them is probably crazy. At 5,000, it’s practically impossible.

Takeaway: Early on, there’s nothing you can do that’ll inform your strategy better than talking to your customers. There’s no other way to deeply understand their challenges, and get a true sense for their experience with your product.

3) Content Promotion

When we first launched this blog, we built our audience one influencer at a time.

I spent many, many hours emailing people and building relationships to help us get our content into people’s hands.

There’s no doubt in my mind that it was worth it.

Worth It Worth It

And now, with our new customer support blog, I’m at it again, emailing just about everyone I know.

Len, who’s writing the support blog, is doing the same.

The early results look good, but they’re also stalling just about everything else that Len and I need to be doing on a day-to-day basis at Groove.

Still, we’re not going to slow down.

Takeaway: Content promotion is one of the most time-consuming and non-scaleable efforts we do, but the results speak for themselves.

4) Community Engagement

More than once, people have told me that they were surprised that I respond to every comment on this blog.

Sometimes it takes me a little while, but I think it’s important. When people take the time to read what we publish, and post a thoughtful comment about it, I can’t imagine not acknowledging that.

And more than that, it’s helped me build great relationships with some of the readers of this blog. Some of those commenters have turned into customers precisely because I engage with them.

The Value of Engagement The Value of Engagement

We get anywhere from 40 to 200 comments on any given post, so it can certainly be a time-consuming task.

If and when the blog grows and that number doubles or triples, I’m honestly not sure how I’ll possibly be able to keep up.

But for now, I’m not worrying about that.

Takeaway: I’ve gotten massive value from engaging with the readers of this blog, and I suggest that every founder who blogs does the same.

5) Onboarding/Nurturing

A couple of weeks ago, James Altucher published — as always — a deep and introspective post about a entrepreneurs’ event that he went to.

In it, he mentions a point that Joey Coleman made in his talk:

Joey’s point was very simple: he had THE 100-day RULE.

If you hand-hold the client for 100 days, that’s all you need to do. Then they are your client for life. FOR LIFE.

As I read that, I couldn’t help but nod my head in agreement. We’ve found a similar trend to hold true at Groove; when we hold our customers’ hands for the first two months, they’re far, far more likely to stay with us after that time.

So during the first two months of a customer’s time with us, it’s everyone’s job to make that customer happy.

Now, that’s not to say that customers are forgotten about after that. Generally, after that time, we see support requests drop off naturally, so there’s less of a need for the all-hands-on-deck approach. But in the early days, it’s critical.

On top of our regular support, our developers will jump in and help with any technical questions, and I’ll almost always be involved in support during that time window.

Obviously, I wouldn’t be able to do that so easily if we quadrupled our customer base.

But for now, I’m thrilled to be able to.

Takeaway: Getting your customers to “wow” might be a time- and team-consuming effort, but until your product is established enough to speak for itself, there’s no way around it.

6) Scrapping

A while ago, I stumbled on this blog post:

Help Desk Comparison Help Desk Comparison

In the post, Tyler put together a detailed comparison of Groove, Helpscout, Zendesk and Desk.

I was happy about the mention, and then I saw…

The Decision The Decision

Right away, I emailed Tyler.

Here’s the thing: his rundown and his decision were totally sharp and well-reasoned. I respected his decision to go with Help Scout, and I wasn’t emailing him just to change his mind.

I wanted to learn more about his experience with Groove, and what we could do better to start winning that battle.

We went back and forth for a bit, and I was grateful that Tyler was so open about sharing his thoughts. Fortunately, the bugs that cost us Tyler’s business the first time around had been fixed, so I asked him if he’d be willing to give us another chance.

A few weeks later, he published this update to the post:

Tyler Returns Tyler Returns

Is scrapping for every “one that got away” a scalable approach? Absolutely not. But it helped us win a happy customer early on, and to me, there’s no question that that’s worth it.

Takeaway: When you’re an early-stage startup, you’ll lose a lot of customers because you don’t have everything worked out yet. When you do work things out, those lost customers might come back, and it’s worth fighting for every single one.

How to Apply This to Your Business

I’ve talked to a lot of early-stage founders who are struggling to get customers. Many of them are taking the “long view.” That is, trying to use acquisition strategies that they’ll be able to use when they have 500, 1,000, 5,000 or 20,000 customers.

The trouble is, this approach hardly ever works.

Startup growth isn’t as linear or neat as we’d like to think, and there are a lot of very valuable things you can do early on that definitely won’t work later. And that’s okay, because there’s a good chance that without those early battles, you won’t get a later.

And while I can’t guarantee that the non-scaleable tactics that worked for us will work for you, I hope that you’ll try at least some of them.

Or at the very least, I hope that you’ll be convinced to give non-scaleable growth a shot.

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About the Author

Alex Turnbull is the CEO & Founder of Groove (simple helpdesk software for small businesses) who loves to build startups and surf.

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