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How did the big consumer apps get their first 1,000 users?

Considering every startup confronts this question at some point, I was surprised by how little has been written about it. Particularly anything actionable. So I decided to do my own digging. I spent the past month personally reaching out to founders, scouring interviews, and tapping the Twitterverse. Below, you’ll find first-hand accounts of how essentially every major consumer app acquired their earliest users, including lessons from Tinder, Uber, Superhuman, TikTok, Product Hunt, Netflix, and many more.

My biggest takeaways from this research:

  1. Just seven strategies account for every consumer apps’ early growth.
  2. Most startups found their early users from just a single strategy. A few like Product Hunt and Pinterest found success using a handful. No one found success from more than three.
  3. The most popular strategies involve going to your user directly — online, offline, and through friends. Doing things that don’t scale.
  4. To execute on any of these strategies, it’s important to first narrowly define your target user. Andy Johns recently shared some great advice about this.
  5. The tactics that you use to get your first 1,000 users are very different from your next 10,000. A topic for a different post.

If you have any additional insights, stories, or feedback to share, don’t hesitate to DM me. Otherwise, let’s dive into the strategies.

Go where your target users are, offline

Key question: Who are your early target users, and where they currently congregating offline?

College campuses — Tinder and DoorDash

Whitney Wolfe and Justin Mateen would basically run around USC pitching Tinder to sororities and fraternities. The hook of seeing other single people on campus for the first time (and knowing if they’re interested in you) went viral. — Jeff Morris Jr.

The very first iteration of DoorDash was a website called paloaltodelivery.com with PDF’d menus of restaurants in Palo Alto. Tony and the team printed a bunch of flyers charging $6 for delivery and put them all over Stanford University. He and the team first wanted to see if there was demand. That was how it all started. A website with PDF menus and flyers. — Micah Moreau

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