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Growth Hacking Strategies: How 43 Founders Landed Their First Customers

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Starting a business and launching a product is hard.

Landing your first paying customers is even harder.

Every day, companies with killer products fail. According to the US Small Business Administration, the failure rate for new startups is estimated to be around 70% to 80% in the first year, and only half of those remain in business over the next five years.

No matter what data you look at, or how you look at it, startup life is a grind.

Why do so many startups fail to get traction?

Sometimes it's poor product-market fit. Other times it's lack of funding. Often it's failing to get a product in front of the right people.

Growth Strategies - why startups fail


Whether it's pre-launch or post-launch, failure lurks everywhere, especially in the early days.

So, how did companies like Zapier, Segment, WordStream and Pipedrive not only survive and land their first paying customers, but gain traction and grow into multi-million dollar businesses with hundreds of thousands of loyal customers?

We decided to go straight to the horse's mouth, and find the answer to that exact question. Our team reached out to the founders of 44 successful companies and asked the following question:

What growth strategies did you use to land your first paying customers?

The responses from each company's founder are compiled below. Some of the answers might surprise you :)

But first...

5 Common Growth Strategies Used By The Founders

#1: Do things that don't scale: If you've put a ton of work into a pre-launch strategy, gaining traction will be a little easier. But, this isn't the case for a
lot of companies. In the early days when you're laser-focused on getting those first people using, and paying for your product, you'll need to do things that
don't scale. From coffee and live demonstrations, to sending thousands of cold emails, do whatever it takes to seed your customer base.

#2: Build marketing into your product: Add functionality that forces engagement and makes it easy for people to share and advocate for your product.

#3: Leverage existing communities: Don't try to reinvent the wheel. Find where your ideal audience hangs out, and start conversations.

#4: Find your purple cow: It's harder than ever to stand out the marketplace. Make sure you are building something people actually want or need, and
make sure the experience is incredible.

#5: Let your customers "build" the product: Identify your ideal customers and get them involved in the development of the product. Solicit feedback from potential users,
bring that feedback to life, and sell it to them. Because that audience has a product that meets their exact needs, they'll get a ton of value, and happily share it with their network.

Those are just a few high-level insights from the founders.

Thirsty for more?

Read on...


43 Founders Reveal the Growth Hacking Strategies That Landed Their First Paying Customers


Jamil Velji | Head of Growth at BuildFire

A big path for us was customer development.

In crafting the product that's now BuildFire, we spoke to hundreds of potential customers, trying to understand their key pains related to retaining and engaging customers. In that process, we found a lot of value in a platform that could cut through the noise of what most consumers face on a daily basis - torrents of emails, and ads from competing companies trying to capture business.

From those conversations, BuildFire was born. Thanks to all of the product development conversations, we had a direct line into many of the folks who's dream solution we actually built. That was our initial source of customers for BuildFire.

How did we find the people we spoke to?

It was old school. We tapped into some of the folks we knew. Specifically, our founders tapped into the local network of people they knew in the church vertical as it was one of the key areas they started in. Those connections and conversations led to other connections.

When the local networking hit a wall, we transitioned to outbound emails to open up additional conversations in the church vertical.

It was a lot of hustle!

Christopher Gimmer | Founder and CEO at

Before we released Snappa to the public, we launched a side project called which offered beautiful free stock photos. We knew that a lot of people searching for free stock photos would probably be interested in an easy to use graphic design tool. Once we officially launched Snappa, we started cross promoting the tool to visitors of

This tactic is now being referred to as "side project marketing" or "engineering as marketing".

As content marketing becomes more competitive, I think there's tremendous value in building a tool or microsite related to your main product and then cross-promoting.

Wade Foster | Co-Founder and CEO at Zapier

You don't need a growth strategy to get a paying customer. All you need is to find one person willing to pay.

For Zapier, that was sending emails to people I suspected might be interested in what our product offered. It didn't require any sort of detailed strategy. Just finding the people who might be interested and reaching out.

We looked on forums where people we're begging vendors for native integrations :)

Larry Kim | Founder of WordStream
The two cheapest and most effective early stage customer generating activities were display and social ads using remarketing and email marketing.

Tim Soulo | CMO at Ahrefs

The very first customers of Ahrefs came from our founder being active at different niche forums/communities, and pitching our tool set there.

And because the product was really good, people started telling their friends about it.

From the very beginning our growth strategy relied on "good product" + "word of mouth", and it is still the case to this day.

Calvin French-Owen | Co-Founder at Segment
Honestly for us it was two pieces. The first was blogging. We'd put up interesting content on the founders personal blogs as well as the official company blog. Oftentimes, it wouldn't even be directly related to analytics, but just stories or ideas that we found interesting.
The second was offering a free plan with a lot of open source tools for folks to get started easily. We put up a pricing page for the first 6 months just to set expectations, but didn't charge anyone money until almost 9-months in, when the product had improved a lot and our users were really starting to derive value.

Stuart McKeown | Founder at Gleam

It took Gleam 5 months to reach 100 paying customers.

Getting first hundred customers graph

What did we learn along the way?

The term "do things that don't scale" couldn't be closer to the truth. If you've got a small network, you'll need to do things like cold emailing, cold calling, perform live demonstrations, and attend networking events much more often.

Here are a few things that helped get traction.

1. Asked questions

We emailed 30 businesses that ran contests and asked about their problems. What platforms did they use? What were the limitations? What features could make their lives easier?

These insights were the cornerstone of our MVP.

2. Understand the market

Once you have a product worth beta testing, the next step was to get users on board. We emailed 50 bloggers and offered them each a lifetime plan to help us test. This stage was critical to getting the MVP to a point where people would actually pay cold hard cash for it:

Outreach email

3. Sent 10 emails a day

For two months I sent 10 cold outreach emails every single day to prospects:

I had varying results:

  • Emailing founders: 90% response rate
  • Emailing marketing team: 50% response rate
  • Using contact us/feedback forms: 10% response rat

If the email channel didn't wasn;t working, I found them on Twitter :)

Note: we often used keyword searches on social media sites like Twitter to find outreach prospects:

Twitter growth strategy

4. Used freemiums to create a viral loop

Around 30% of our new signups come directly from branding in our widgets, or from seeing our contests featured on other sites. This brings us a stream of passive leads without having to invest more into paid acquisition:

Andrus Purde | Head of Marketing at Pipedrive

There were three things that helped Pipedrive get it's first 1,000 paying customers:

1. Address the pain
After looking at Dave McClure's brilliant "pain-killer vs. vitamins" slides I realised we realized we could and should have less features compared to competitors as long as our product eased the pain better.

2. Getting the product in the hands of the right people

On month four our revenues barely covered our hosting costs and we were growing a measly 10-20% per month. So, we got the product in the hands of bloggers, influencers and thought leaders who could review and amplify our product.

We tried several other channels, but nothing gave the tangible results of the next two channels:

  • Applying to incubators like AngelPad, YCombinator and Seedcamp to meet people with big networks. We applied and talked to many, got invited to AngelPad in the end and spent three months among entrepreneurs and mentors, most of the time pitching and talking to people.
  • AppSumo deals worked really well for us too.

3. Make signing up as easy as possible

We simplified the homepage and redistributed text to other pages:


These changes resulted in 3 times higher conversions from visits to sign-ups.

Alina Vandenberghe | CEO and Co-Founder at Chili Piper

In the beginning, we tried a freemium strategy that helped us get a few clients in the door, But, that proved less effective.

After that we just went to meet in person with our target audience at events. We asked them if they had the problem we were solving for. And if they were willing to pay to solve it. 3 out of 4 said yes and agreed to a second meeting. Out of every 3 demo meetings we were closing 1.

Almost every customer we acquired referred us to at least another account. Word of month has been the strongest for those first hundreds users.

I'm grateful because those first users had very high standards and as a result our product just got better and better

We target sales people, and because of the social aspect of this persona, events happen all the time!

On, Eventbrite there's lots of them. Then there's Saleshacker, Saastr, Dreamforce (of course), rainmaker, revenue summit.

In our case we started with Saastr

Robbie Richards | Digital Strategist at Royal Jay

As a search marketer, I naturally started with SEO and content marketing. I created a basic SEO services landing page for my agency, and then leveraged my personal blog to drive targeted traffic to the page. I wrote articles around various search topics, and got them ranking top 3 for queries like "SEO case study".

There were a few tactics I layered on top of this:

1. Used Google Analytics to identify pages with the most organic traffic each month. I then added social proof and ad units that linked to the campaign landing page.

2. Built a conversion focused home page that featured social proof from reputable industry experts, and included a clear call-to-action to the campaign landing page.

3. Linked to the services pages from the blog's main navigation.

4. Included a P.S. "hire me" line within targeted broadcast and autoresponder emails so that my services were continually exposed to the almost 15,000 subscribers on my email list.

Basically, I took an established channel and looked for ways to channel existing targeted traffic through to bottom funnel landing pages. To scale, I have now built out a massive keyword-focused content calendar to drive more organic traffic, grow my email list, and scale lead generation.

This simple strategy has generated over 80 leads, and helped skyrocket agency revenue in just 6 months:


Tom Piamenta | Co-Founder and COO at WiseStamp
In the early days of WiseStamp the most effective growth strategy was, surprisingly, a rather manual one.
We searched Twitter for questions relevant to what we did (e.g. people asking for advice on how to promote their business) and we responded with a suggestion to use their email signature as a potent solution.
We repeated this process for different verticals and industries, but in all of them, we tracked pains of users that our product could solve and encouraged them to give us a go.

Jordan Edelson | CEO and Founder at Appetizer Mobile LLC
Partnering with brands and social medial influencers in our industry was effective in landing our first paying customers. By working with influencers, we’ve been able to organically spread the word about our apps and services.
Additionally, by creating viral-loops within our apps, and have grown by word-of-mouth to the point where we trend in the app stores.

Anurag Shah | CEO & Co-Founder at Aureus Analytics

Aureus is focused on the Insurance industry and since it’s an enterprise sale it usually works best if driven top-down.

We identified a couple of consultants & advisors who had good industry networks and connected us to a few CEOs. We managed to convince one of the CEOs to give us a pilot, converted to a full contract when it was successful.

Paul May | Co-founder at BuzzStream

The strategy for acquiring our first paying customers was all about relationships and "co-development."

We identified a handful of customers that we felt would have a need for our service, and worked directly with them on the spec for the solution, and they naturally turned into customers when the product was ready.

The one risk this carries is that you have to take care to ensure that you're building a product that will have value to a broader audience.

After launching, we relied heavily on blogger outreach and digital PR. We identified influential bloggers and publications in our market and ran a fairly traditional product launch campaign. It resulted in both niche mentions/links (TopRank Blog, SearchEngineLand, PRWeb) and placements with big publishers (TechCrunch, Mashable, etc).

This drove of a lot of referral traffic.

Brett Owens | CEO & Co-Founder of Chrometa
Real marketing did the trick. We spent some ad dollars on a sponsored review and that helped us get the ball rolling, bringing in our first 15-20 customers or so! TechnoLawyer was the publication. In our case we were targeting small law firms, so we were looking for newsletters and blogs those professionals were reading.

Vijay Khandekar | Product Growth at SERPed

I launched a low-priced ebook of high-quality teaching SEO, with case studies and example sites that showed those sites making money. To sell it, I set up a dedicated landing page, approached all the top promoters of SEO products in the industry and arranged a launch.

To keep the promoters motivated, I paid 100% commissions on sales. Then, whoever bought the ebook, offered them a 'founders membership' to a minimum viable product of SERPed.

I used the user feedback to improve the system, get testimonials and intros to their contacts.

Later we grew a bit by acquisition, purchased a low priced, old membership site that was still getting traffic and turned it into a lead magnet. I rewarded users who shared the word of that site with a free upgrade.

This allowed for low priced, targeted leads that I could then funnel into SERPed.

Vinay Patankar | CEO at Process Street
We actually had a landing page up for a few months before we released the product. We promoted that landing page to our internal network and on, and got a few hundred signups.
When we launched the product we promoted it to the list we had collected and were able to close a few of our first customers directly from that list.

Chris Dreyer | CEO at

I landed the first client for my company ( by leveraging my sphere of influence. I sent messages out to my entire network on LinkedIn as well as my friends and family.

Marketing a new business to your network is a common tactic for a lot of companies and sales professionals just starting off. The people that are close to you are often the easiest people to convert because they already know and trust you.

Getting clients in this way also helps you get your feet wet. You get the experience of “pounding the pavement” to drum up new business, and you also get practice in selling yourself to your potential clients.

The second part of that strategy was offering my services at a discounted rate or free introductory services. In the beginning, I did a ton of SEO work for no charge to earn the trust of the client.

It's not typically a good idea to price your product or service below market value however if you are just starting out it's a good strategy to build up your name. I offered discounted services to friends, family, and acquaintances. I also marketed things like ‘Free Consults’ as foot-in-the-door offers to potential clients.

These tactics helped my business on a lot of levels. By offering incentives and lower rates in the beginning, I was able to more quickly build a solid reputation for the company. It knocked down any barriers that may have been in the way of making a name for myself.

The business quickly grew once people witnessed the reliability of the company and the high quality of the services I was offering.

Offering the free consultation gave me a chance to get people on the phone and showcase my knowledge. Even if you manage to get someone on the phone for a sales presentation, it can still be a challenge to get them signed up. If you offer something of value like a free review of their web presence, it takes the pressure off of you and them.

That allowed me to feel comfortable showing them what I know and it enabled them to give a thoughtful appraisal of my services without being pressured to buy.

Nick Persico | Head of Growth at

Here are some thoughts on how we got our first customers when we launched back in 2013:

Find prospects that agree with your worldview. We built a CRM that prioritizes communication. So we only targeted prospects we knew agreed with our philosophy through how they conduct themselves in their sales process.

Have an opinion. We believe people buy from people, regardless of what technology is out there. Impose your opinion / worldview on your prospects instead of just agreeing with everything they say.

Help first, sell later. Our qualifying process centers around their sales process and what they are trying to improve. We try to add value by helping them first. That will increase the likelihood they will believe your product is part of the solution.

Scot Wingo | CEO and Co-founder at Spiffy
In the early days of Spiffy, we found that the App was too 'virtual'. So we started doing demonstrations of our washing capabilities at office parks and when we did that people could see the physical/real-world side of our service and that really connected the dots for them.
They now understood and 'trusted' that when they pressed the 'book now' button in the app, a real-world service would occur. It's kind of like that first time you ordered a book from Amazon and it showed up 4-5 days later, that was kind of amazing, or the first time you Uber'd. Once people had that first experience it was off to the races.

Ajay Goel | Founder at GMass
I optimized my positioning on the Chrome Web Store by asking the makers of competing mail-merge extensions that were no longer maintaining them to remove their listing. Most said yes! If they were above me in the search results, that moved me up.

Mark Somol | Co-Founder & CEO at Zeal
Simple answer for us. Networking, networking, networking!
We have a product in a new category that takes some evangelism. What works best is live discussions with people, so they can feel our passion and excitement. That means we go out, speak at events, meet people and convince them to give us a try.
Of course, this style of selling is not scalable, but it has been an effective way to get the first customers in the door.

Mike Kawula | CEO Social Quant

Here at Social Quant we ate our own dog food and used our tool to get our first few customers and continue to do so 18 months later.

The strategy: Twitter marketing.

Our company helps businesses get more Twitter followers, so it makes sense to fish where the fish are – on Twitter.

We followed these three steps that will work for any business:

We optimized our Twitter profile. We set up a good Twitter cover, bio, profile picture and, most importantly, a pinned tweet. A pinned tweet stays at the top of your feed on your profile so it’s the first tweet someone see’s when they land there.

We made this tweet a link to an opt-in page to download a free eBook: The Ultimate Guide to Get More Twitter Followers (see what we did there?).

We used our own tool. We used Social Quant to follow business accounts on Twitter who were actively engaging with influencers we knew had an audience likely to be interested in our tool.

BuzzSumo is an extremely helpful tool to find those influencers. By following this strategy, 10-20% of those we followed came and looked at your Twitter profile.

And since it was optimized as described in step 1, they often followed is and clicked on our Pinned Tweet (a landing page for an opt-in to build our email list).

That said, you don’t need to use a tool to follow this strategy. Twitter Advanced Search is a great feature to find discussions taking place about your niche and find relevant users to follow on your own. Doing this 20-30 minutes a day will consistently get you relevant, engaged Twitter followers.

We tweeted – a lot. Consistently sharing content on Twitter will keeps us in front of our Twitter followers. We share content every 30 minutes, 24 hours a day. This drives us over 20,000 visitors to our website each month.

Not sure if sharing that much data is for you? Data shows that those who tweet more than 50 times a day receive exponentially more traffic compared to those who tweet less than 10 times a day.

Following this 3 step process built us a list of more than 25,000 emails over the last 18 months!

Once in our email system, we invite them to a Webinar to learn more about Twitter marketing for entrepreneurs or to a Free 14-day Twitter Marketing Challenge to help them optimize their Twitter performance.

Both of these offers lead people into our free trial. And at the end of a trial they receive a coupon to use our service.

This process can work for any business. Bonus, most of it can be automated so you can work on other growth strategies like influencer outreach, content marketing, cold email and dozens of other effective techniques.

Alex Yumashev | CEO/Founder at Jitbit Helpdesk Software
SEO was the most effective. To be precise - side-project marketing, content marketing, linkbait-posts, etc. Takes a lot (!) of time and sweat, but was the most effective.
Also, 10 years ago we were kinda early to this party (SEO).

Ravi Parikh | Founder at Heap
We reached out via cold email to some product managers or engineers who worked at companies we thought would be ideal fits, and asked them for feedback on what we were building. A few of those initial conversations helped us shape the early version of Heap and also turned into our first customers.
Early in 2013, we were in Y Combinator, which was another factor in our early growth. A lot of folks in the accelerator with us ended up trying out Heap.
After this initial base of people, a lot of the growth came through word-of-mouth. Even today, almost 80% of our new leads and revenue comes from word-of-mouth. Build a great product and people will talk about it.

Brian Hamilton | Co-Founder and Chief Revenue Officer at RealWear, Inc

TAS or Target Account Selling is a methodology which was effective in defining the pathway to securing some of the first orders at RealWear.

TAS methodology was instrumental in understanding the ecosystem of partners and end customers, and is a platform we are focused on implementing across the organization for our sales and marketing teams as we look to scale our business.

Linda Souza | Marketing strategist at Deep 6 Analytics

My advice:

Work your network. If you’ve built a solid reputation, nurtured your professional relationships, and been generous with your time and advice (within reason, of course!), people will want to help you.

Ask for introductions. A warm introduction will save you weeks or even months of time and get you much further ahead faster.

James Vecchio | Co-Founder, President at EpiAnalytics
We focused on developing a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) that delivered Verifiable Business Value (VBV) for a problem that a business customer would spend its money and resources to solve.
We built our first app on the SFDC appexchange.

Sam Hurley | #1 Global Digital Marketing Influencer

Twitter and LinkedIn truly rocketed my growth, gained me recognition in the marketing industry and resulted in clients recurrently paying for influencer promotion.

Automation is the key to rapid presence. Think Edgar, IFTT, Buffer, Crowdfire,, Sprout Social and Crate.

It just doesn’t make sense to try to run everything manually, especially across multiple platforms.Who the hell has time for that? That only prevents growth. What I do make time for is engagement! And you should too.

Here are some stats from my Twitter account:

Sam Hurley Twitter growth

Michael Cheng | Co-Founder at Sniply
The most effective growth strategy for landing our first paying customers for Sniply was engaging and interacting on forums and online communities. For Sniply in the digital marketing space, we spent a lot of time in online communities like, reddit, product hunt, and hacker news.
Beyond just growth and customer acquisition, being part of communities where your target audience spends their time will help you learn a tremendous amount about the market and how your product fits in the industry.

Yulia Khansvyarova | Head of Digital Marketing in SEMrush

A problem-oriented approach works best. People don’t know anything about your product yet. It's too early to tell them about all amazing product features. You need to use another strategy.

The best strategy will be gathering relevant keywords (those which are typed in search engines by people who need to solve a specific problem). Make a lot of step by step guides, that can explain how to resolve the problem with your product.

As for marketing channels used to attract first paying customers, i’d say it depends on time and money you have. If there is a plenty of time and lack of money, you can choose SEO, but if you want quick results, choose paid advertising on Google and other search engines.

Michael Cole | Co-founder & CEO at Picniic
Picniic's best growth strategy to date has been a carefully crafted PR approach that targets specific verticals to help gain initial traction and momentum.

Connell McGill | Co-Founder & CEO of Enertiv
We acquired our first customer in 2011. At that time, we leveraged LinkedIn to identify close friends and family members that had relationships with the customers types we were targeting. This was a pretty effective approach to get the ball rolling. We would ask our contacts to introduce us directly.

Tim Lawton | Co-Founder at Frontier7

I would say the number one thing that landed our first few clients was networking. My co-founder and I relied heavily on our personal networks and relationships to get meetings and to have people vouch for us.

I would imagine any entrepreneur is starting something they have experience in and by default know people that will be valuable to that endeavor. It's not what you know it's who you know!

People helping people. Powerful stuff.

Mathan Parasuram | CEO & Co-founder at ReIntent
For the first few customers, we found the best strategy was to talk to every friendly in our network. Buy them coffee, ask them if they know anyone that might find our product valuable. This strategy ended up landing us some key initial customers and helped us practice our pitch.

Gil Allouche | Founder at
For the first few clients of Metadata, we reached out to our own network and found our buyer persona and pitched them our product. Then we used those first few successful customers to advocate us within their own network.

Blaine Bertsch | CEO & Co-Founder at Dryrun
SEO has actually been the biggest contributor, even early on. Despite a lot of ‘grassroots’ hustling, we still landed many of our first customers when they found us via search.
Initially, we based our keyword selection off competitive research, talking with potential customers and defining keywords that described our strengths and unique value proposition. We then wrote blog articles that were keyword rich, but most importantly, were also in-depth and enjoyable to read.
We’re constantly evaluating our core segments, conducting further customer research, and adjusting our content strategy to better target our core market.
Even though we’re actively exploring other channels, we still dedicate resources to improving our online exposure as it continues to provide solid leads every single day.

Yoav Shalev | Founder & CEO @ Clkim
Two years ago as we were getting started we made a couple posts to relevant groups on social media about our service that were keyword centric, but provided meaningful information about our offering.
I believe that, along with getting listed on relevant directories and resource sites were fundamental in laying down the preliminary infrastructure on which we've built more assets that are pointing our way.

Ilan Kasan | CEO & Co-Founder at
Chatbots for marketing is a new industry. So, I decided to reach out to my network and engage in conversations with relevant thought leaders in the industry. I came for advice, and got my first customer.
I used linked in premium account to search for relevant people based on industry and job title. Then, I reached out directly to them.

Raul Garreta | Co-Founder & CEO at MonkeyLearn
Inbound marketing in particular with content marketing is our best source for leads. We believe it is the best way to start the relationship with a potential customer. .
We provide free content to let people learn more about Natural Language Processing and Machine Learning technologies in the context of particular use cases for different industries.

Mada Seghete | Co-founder at Branch
For us, engaging with potential customers at events like our mobile growth community events, or small group dinners, has helped build relationships and close our first paid accounts.

Nick Edwards | CEO & Co-Founder at Boomtrain
The first paying customers (that we didn't have a prior personal connection to) came from a "predictable revenue" style targeted outbound email marketing campaign.

Cindy Le | Director of Digital Marketing at RageOn!
To land your first paying clients, it’s key to understand who your target demographic is, and find out who is most likely to purchase from you.
If you have the funds, and depending on the market you’re in, Facebook ads will be your best growth strategy. At least, from our experience.

What growth strategies will you implement?

There you have it - 43 growth strategies from some of the most successful companies on the planet. Hopefully you've come away with plenty of action items and mountains of growth inspiration.