You want to learn how to get users. (What we call “growth”.)
That means you need to learn two things: tactics and strategy.
Tactics are how you actually work on stuff.
For example, they’re how you properly interview users, set up digital ads, scrape emails, build landing pages, and so forth.
You’ll execute tactics every day. Here are some tasks from a real backlog (i.e., to-do list) we used with a client. Each task requires knowing tactics.
It’s a bad idea to learn tactics without first having a strategy.
Strategy is how you think about what to work on first.
Sure, you could run ads. Or reach out to influencers. Or write a blog post that goes viral. There are a lot of shiny objects.
But what if you say the wrong things in the ad? What if your users only buy stuff at conferences? What if your blog posts get people to sign up but not pay?
Good strategy means you work on the right things first. It’s how you come up with a good backlog.
We’ve worked with over 1,000 startups. Some companies had sexy strategies that didn’t work. Some had dumb strategies that did. Some are now worth over a billion dollars.
This means we can pattern-match. We have good intuition. We know what systems work. And you get to avoid a lot of beginner mistakes you’d otherwise make.
On that note, people get basic things wrong about how to get users. Click the arrows to see each one.
We call this the “Field of Dreams” error. Even if you have the best product in the world, people still have to hear about it somehow.
Founders get misled because they launch on, say, Product Hunt or Hacker News, and get a flood of initial users. They expect those users to be so excited about their product, word will naturally spread when new features come out.
Some features do lead to new users. For example, if you build a referral program, some users may refer friends when they wouldn’t before. But don’t expect people to tweet about you just because you added an integration.
Some products are so great, they do spread through word-of-mouth. For example, if you stay in a stunning AirBnB, you might naturally mention it to friends. But, in practice, these startups put in a lot of legwork to grease the wheels.
Here’s a story from a real client.
Them: “We need to grow. Let’s run ads on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.”
Us: “OK, but we really should come up with a growth strategy first. Ads may not work.”
Them: “No, we need to move fast. Here’s tens of thousands of dollars in budget. Just test them and see what happens.”
Us: “OK, if you really think so...”
One month later…
Us: “Well, ads are getting super cheap signups (ten cents a signup), but they’re in the Philippines, and no one is actually using the product.”
Them: “Ten cents per signup? That is cheap! Let’s spend more. You probably haven’t cracked the right messaging, have you tried [very similar messaging]?”
Us: “Technically no, but…”
Them: “Sorry, gotta run, just run more ads. Here’s a hundred thousand dollars to spend.”
Three months later…
Us: “So, signups are still super cheap and we’ve tapped out most of Asia, but we only have a few active users, and they’re not really sticking around…”
Them: “Amazing! Let’s spend more.”
Eight months later, the company finally realized they weren’t getting actual users. Half the team got laid off and budgets tightened. They panicked — and finally started to do real growth work.
The crazy part?
This story isn’t just about one client. It describes three clients we’ve had in the last two years.
Millions of dollars (and years of time) went down the drain because they over-focused on ads.
We get it. Paid ads are tempting. They feel like a fast way to get users, and if they work, you can quickly spend money to get even more users.
That sometimes happens. But not usually.
Ads fail when they don’t fit your user. For example, most software engineers don’t even see Facebook or Google ads because they’ve installed an ad blocker. You probably shouldn’t bother running ads to them.
Ads are one tool in the toolbelt, and other tools may be a better fit.
(We’ll cover those in a bit.)
Startups have come to us bragging about how they found a massive list of 10,000+ emails, usually from some public directory, that they blasted with an email pitching their product. Others figured out a recipe for thousands of likes on their LinkedIn or Instagram posts.
They expect us to come up with clever-sounding “hacks” like these.
In practice, hacks rarely work. And when they do, they don’t work for long.
Why? They focus on the wrong goals. Most of these startups get tons of likes, or lots of signups for their waitlist, but they don’t get people who actually use their product.
Beyond that, they risk alienating potential users. People write them off as spammy before realizing how great the product really is.
Some hacks work, but when they do, they sit on top of an intelligent, intentional strategy.
Acquisition channels are ways users hear about you, such as SEO, paid ads, word-of-mouth, cold email, etc.
In practice, what happens after someone hears about you (your funnel) is as important as how they hear about you. If someone clicks your ad, but never buys…your job isn’t finished.
Beyond that, acquisition channels have a habit of tapping out — they run out of users. The best companies think in terms of compounding growth loops rather than individual channels and funnels. (More on these later.)
How to approach learning growth
Learn strategy first, then learn tactics as you go. There are too many tactics to learn all at once.
For example, it takes 1-2 weeks, minimum, to learn how to run Facebook ads properly. That’s a big time commitment, so don’t learn Facebook ads until you need to run them. Instead, learn the thing you need to work on right now.
Think of tactics as tools to add to your toolbelt over time. We’ll mentor you in the tactics when you’re ready for them.