How Airbnb, Dropbox and Reddit Got Their First Customers

Even when you think you have a brilliant idea, it can take some convincing to get others on board.

Just ask some of today’s most successful founders. Airbnb, Dropbox, and Reddit are just a few companies who used some far out-of-the-box strategies to get their very first customers before becoming household names. Learn from their examples. Will they work for you?

Creating a viral moment that targets a specific community

Sure, they aren’t easy to pull off, but viral moments can be crafted with some strategy and dedication. When  Dropbox launched in 2007, the cloud-storage company had a hard time bringing in new users. It ran a Google AdSense campaign, but it barely made a difference. So, co-founder Drew Houston, 39, decided to show, not tell. He made a video to demonstrate exactly how its storage worked, and posted it on the news aggregator Digg. Users on Digg quickly up-voted the video, and by the next day, the site had 70,000 new sign-ups, according to Dropbox, which noted that the Digg community of avid internet-users was an ideal target.

Still, Houston says that it was important for the company to keep innovating for the company to gain new users. One standout strategy: Dropbox ran a campaign that offered users 128 megabites of storage, in return for sharing a referral link on Facebook and Twitter. Within just 30 days, Dropbox users sent ouf 2.8 million invites, which greatly bolstered the site’s user base

Pulling from another company’s user base

Poaching customers from another business may sound like playing dirty–but it’s often a reality of business. When developing their apartment-sharing platform, Airbnb’s founders thought about what alternative a prospective short-term renter might use without their service. The answer: Craigslist. The founders were confident that they could make the rental experience more pleasant for everyone involved, but they knew that, before they started any kind of customer outreach, they needed to find people who were looking for renters. So, co-founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia, both 40, developed a software that allowed them to extract the contact information of property owners on Craigslist and ask them to advertise their property, according to a case study that Thales S. Teixeira and Morgan Brown wrote for Harvard Business SchoolWhat’s more, it launched with a feature that allowed users to simultaneously list their property on both Airbnb and Craigslist.

While property owners leaped at the chance to advertise their properties on both Craigslist and Airbnb, the latter company wanted to bring in even more value to sway them. For early listings, Airbnb hired professional photographers to help photograph the rental spaces, easing the burden for property owners and making the listings far more appealing to potential renters. While this tactic wasn’t financially sustainable in the long run, launching the site with well-photographed listings established a precedent that other property owners would follow as the site grew, Teixeira and Brown report.

Creating the illusion of an already-existing audience

When it comes to growing a social media platform, users are critical–it’s far easier to convince people to join a site that already seems popular than it is to get them to sign on to something completely new. That’s why Reddit’s co-founders found a way to make it seem like their website already had an active user base, even when it had only just launched.

Co-founders Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian filled Reddit with submissions under fake usernames, which made the site seem more popular than it really was. “Users like to feel a part of something,” Huffman, now 38, says in a video for the online learning platform Udemy. “If they showed up to the website and the front page was blank, it just looks like a ghost town.”

They also launched the Reddit in a more simple form than exists today. There was no categorization for the links, and no comments on the site. Starting simply helped the founders get their platform out in the world without having to spend a ton of time explaining the nuances of different threads. After a few months, real Redditors had arrived and the site took off, allowing the founders to stop backfilling submissions. 

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