Have Your Customers Grow Your Start-up For You

You’ve validated your idea and you have your first customers using your product (they might even be paying for it). Now it’s time to grow! This is where the real work starts.

Constantly trying to refill the top end of the funnel can, at times, be an impossibly challenging thing to do. However, as entrepreneurs this is our job. We need to be finding ways to get hoards of new customers coming in the ‘door’. It’s our never ending story – giant flying dog  and all (link provided for those too young to get the reference).

The dangerous irony of focusing too much of your efforts on the top end of the funnel is that you can start to neglect the users who are already actively engaged with your product or service. The reality is that your current users will likely be the ones who fuel the growth of your start-up in the short to medium term. In fact, if you look at many high growth companies, you’ll notice that they focused a lot of their initial efforts on getting their early adopters to spread the word for them. Think companies like Dropbox, Uber and Mailbox. They were all initially able to grow through finding ways to entice their initial users base to recruit new users for them. Although a seemingly simple tactic, it’s exceptionally hard to execute on.

So How Do I Mobilise My Users?

One of the big current trends in this space is for companies to build little talking points into their products. For example, Mailbox built a virtual queue into their initial release which lets users know when they could start using the product. This created huge buzz, with many early adopters tweeting out their number in the line or showing off the fact that’d been given access – and the accompanying zero inbox joy of using the product.

However, building sharable talking points into a product is hard to do. After all, you just never know what people will find worthy of a share. Don’t get me wrong, if you can build some kind of cool hipster viral hook into your product – do it. But the reality is that they fail more often than not. For example, who would have thought that a deli style numbering system would have fuelled early adopters to spread the word about Mailbox?


To this extent I thought I’d just share some dead simple, tried and tested ways of getting your initial customers to spread the word about your product or service.

1. Start With Referrals

Focus on referrals. No matter how you cut the numbers, referrals always turn out to be one of the highest ROI growth techniques you can deploy in a start-up. They offer amazing bang for buck.

If you have a base of users, getting them to spread the word for a reward (or even just recognition) is going to be where you’ll most easily get some added traction. Remember two things, people loving being rewarded, and they love looking like they’re in the ‘know’. Although both are blindingly obvious, both are powerful pieces of knowledge you can use to your advantage.

Start with a simple reward for referring a new user – it could be a discount on a future purchase or even some form of virtual reward like a badge that can only be accessed by a referrer. The incentive needn’t be huge. It just needs to be enough to get them to remember that you exist! Remember, the actual reward is usually only half the story.

It’s usually the case that the intangible value that a referrer receives is worth more to them than the actual discount or reward. Looking like you know about something that is about to be hot, or finding a highly useful product or helping someone navigate an incredibly complex field to find a reliable product or service is a great motivator. In this regard, it’s important to reduce the friction in referring by giving your customers the tools they need to tell their friends about your product.

2. Give Them The Tools

The easier it is for someone to do something, the more likely they are to do it. Simple. So whatever you do, don’t make it hard for your mavens to spread the word – make it super duper easy.

Think about how Dropbox executed on their now famous referral program. They made it drop dead easy to refer a friend. In essence they made the referral program into a product that could easily be used by anyone. Give your friend a simple referral code and POOF you have some extra space in your Dropbox account.

So arm you customers with knowledge (e.g. pre-written emails with all the information the receiver needs to start using your product) and make it as easy as pressing a button. Think about it like it’s a product – how can you make it an amazing user experience?

3. Make Them Feel Part Of a Community

This is one straight out of the Uber play book. As Uber has scaled their operations they’ve found many creative ways to illicit interest in their service. Everything from delivering ice-cream to Uber helicopter rides. However, part of their consistent play book when they expand into a new region is to create a community of users around their service. That is generally why they focus in on tech meet-ups and other high profile events or meet-ups – they’re looking to build their community off the back of other communities!

Inherently, we all want to identify with a community. We all want to feel like we’re part of a community of like minded people who also know ‘the secret’. Therefore, playing to this can really become a powerful way to build an army of people willing to spread the word about your service.

Having said this, building a community is hard, hard work that can take a substantial amount of time and effort to cultivate. However, there are some simple things you can do to seed it.  At the lower end of the community scale something as simple as a forum can work well or if you want to go right into the deep end, having regular meet-ups can be a powerful way to connect your community.

The key to this tactic is to find ways to seed the community and allow it to flourish. This involves slow and deliberate fertilising to ensure it grows. So be patient and devote some time to it because if it takes off, it can be a huge asset that you can leverage for all kinds of things (for example, Uber has deployed their community for legislative change – in aid of their growth plan of course).

Tactical Lessons 

Ok, so here are 3 simple things you can do to leverage your current customers to drive your start-up forward.

  1. Make sure you have a referral system in place. Remember, start small and build it up if you need to. Think about it like a product. What is the minimum viable referral system you can have in place?
  2. Make it dead simple for you customers to spread the word – give them all the tools they need to make it as simple as pressing a button.
  3. Track and reward those who have helped you – rewarding those who help you grow your business creates nothing but awesome karma!

Have a comment or want to challenge me on something I’ve said? Feel free to drop in a comment below. I promise to reply!

As always, if you liked my piece don’t forget to share it – sharers make the world go round!