The hardest stage of a community and content-driven application is day one. How do you compel people to create content within the community when very few users and very little content exists?
It has to start with what I call the “white-hot coal” approach to establishing early adoption. You don't want to "get rich quick" with 1 million users because you pulled strings at TechCrunch and hacked together a waiting list, etc. Instead, aspire to the "white-hot coal" launch.
A big top-of-funnel doesn't mean you have product-market fit and people love your online community. You create your own false narrative with the big bang launch. Think Viddy with their Facebook open graph integration or Jelly when it launched to compete with Quora. Both were big bangs, but didn't have product-market fit. The "white-hot coal" approach advises the opposite: intentionally constrain growth until PMF is clear and the only thing holding it back is more oxygen, i.e. public launch. Quora and Instagram spent 1-2 years iterating on the product and hand-selecting the first few thousand users.
Taking this slow—but steady approach—gives you time to understand WHY it works, and for WHOM it works, before opening up adoption. It requires an uncomfortable level of patience. In return, you gain the insights necessary to make quality decisions when scaling it from 1 to N. Marketplaces commonly make this mistake when launching in more cities before they establish repeatable playbooks for supply and demand acquisition. Online communities make this mistake by opening up for broad adoption before understanding the engagement mechanisms and establishing an initial pattern of high-quality, repeated usage.
Once you've established the white-hot coal of a small but deeply engaged customer base, opening it up must also be done at the "right" pace. Too broad/quick of a launch can create a backdraft i.e. quick inflow of oxygen leading to a superheated fire that burns out quickly. The startup equivalent of backdraft is rapid expansion followed by contraction. It's incredibly difficult to know what the "right" growth rate (i.e. "oxygen") is. It's case-dependent, but I do know that all else is futile without that white-hot coal.
Think small at first. Very, very small. In the words of @paulg: "Do things that don't scale" for as long as possible and only consider a big bang launch after the white-hot coal is established. Hand-pick your first users. Know all of them by name and listen to them daily.
To make things more concrete, here are the broad strokes to follow when solving the cold start problem:
Let’s take it from the top.
You won’t find high-quality early adopters for a new content-driven application by running Facebook ads. If your startup is already doing this, stop immediately. Buying early adopters is the path to burning money and learning very little about who the community is ideal for.
Another issue with paying to acquire early adopters is the lack of a personal relationship with them, which means you have no influence over how they use the product. You want your early adopters to be fully bought into your vision for how it should be used and you’ll want to guide them down that path. What you want from early adopters of your community is high-quality participation and you’re more likely to get that with hand-holding.
I commonly meet founders who want to take their product to market with paid marketing. I don’t know where this method came from, but it is disastrous for startups. When you first launch your product, you’re still in hypothesis mode. Do I have the right product and have I built it for the right person? Answering those questions requires proximity to your users. You need to be so close to them that you can tell what kind of deodorant they use. How else can you validate if you’ve built a product that people care about and if you’ve delivered it to the right type of customer? This is Product Market Fit 101. It can’t be done from a distance. It must be intimate.
Establishing early traction starts with manual labor. Get out an excel spreadsheet. Write down the names of people that you know the best and can lean on to be your earliest testers. Or, if you’re building a product for a user type that you don’t have direct access to via your personal network, hop on Reddit, Facebook Groups, and any other niche network you can find and start building relationships with the people that may eventually become your early adopters. This approach has worked for LinkedIn, as well as for WhatsApp. Don’t avoid doing this work simply because it’s tedious and doesn’t scale.
In the early days at Quora, each beta user of the product was a close friend, family member, or former colleague of the original employees. By appealing to them as a close connection, we could provide structured guidance (and subtle pressure) to ask them to act as role models in the app. For example, we did not want Quora to be like Yahoo Answers because the content was terrible. The information shared was very low quality. It was a mile wide and an inch deep, so-to-speak. We wanted Quora to be about finding the most interesting and relevant information that couldn’t be found elsewhere. If we were successful at that, then people would come to Quora because of its unique basket of human knowledge.
To that end, we set a very high content quality bar. If you were an early user of the product, we expected you to contribute unique questions and write thoughtful answers. Did Einstein’s descendants inherit his level of intelligence? Well, you can find a fascinating answer to that. For history buffs, you can find an incredible collection of WWII photos. I even wrote a detailed answer about what it’s like to go to Mount Everest. Nearly all early employees acted as prolific creators on the platform to demonstrate the expected behavior.
Quora was a block of clay and we all had our hands on it to ensure we shaped it in a particular direction. Several of the early employees, friends, family, and colleagues we brought into the alpha and beta versions remain as some of Quora’s all-time best contributors.
And, because of our personal connection with all of the earliest users, they felt a sense of responsibility to use our new application in the way that we were using it ourselves. For Quora, that meant exceptionally high-quality questions and answers based on someone’s experiential knowledge. In other words, we wanted them to write about what they knew best. That also explains why Quora became known in the early days as one of the best repositories of Silicon Valley knowledge— thist was intentional.
Jason Lemkin has become a central figure in SaaS venture investing and company building at least in part because of his use of Quora. He has well over 3,000 answers and 45,000,000 views and growing. He was an early adopter and continues to share his expert insights.
Every startup wants to storm Paris. But the question is, what is your Normandy? You have to have a precise and almost comically constrained beachhead of early adopters and early content creators.
For us, it was our Silicon Valley connections who wrote excessively about Silicon Valley insider knowledge. What we did with Silicon Valley content on Quora is the software equivalent to what Tesla did when they came to market with their first car, the Roadster. It was intentionally designed for a small, but exceptionally engaged and enthusiastic audience.
Assuming that you’ve kept your focus narrow and managed to ignite a flame with a paltry, yet passionate base of early adopters, you’ll eventually want to expand adoption. But how should you do it? Honesty, there isn’t a perfect playbook for this. But one option to consider, especially if maintaining content and engagement quality is important (which it commonly is), is to allow your early adopters to invite and onboard other users into the community.
Superhuman has taken an extreme view of this approach and it has worked out incredibly well for them. An alternative is to enable invitations, but with frequency caps. For example, each early adopter can invite a maximum of 3-5 new users. The scarcity forces the user to think through who they believe would be a great addition to the content network. In my early days at Quora, I invited a few of the best company builders I knew because I wanted them to provide answers on topics I was interested in.
A seed-stage startup I invested in is taking this approach right now. Each early adopter will be able to invite a few people to join, but not more than that. It will allow them to grow by 3x - 5x organically based entirely off of invitations. You may ask why they would intentionally limit their growth? The reason is they want to maintain a high engagement and quality bar, which I’ll discuss in more detail in the next section.