On September 24, Kstartup hosted their final Fireside Chat for their fourth batch, this time on the increasingly hot topic of growth hacking. For this session, we had the chance to hear from Jennifer Lu (@jenlufer) from ZowPow, Julie Zhou (@jyzhou) from Hipmunk, and Jason Festa (@typeoh) from Built In Menlo, all experienced growth hackers who had unique backgrounds and stories to share with us.
As Buzzvil’s Brand Marketing Manager, I was especially interested in this topic of growth hacking and I was eager to bring back some valuable nuggets of knowledge to the rest of our team. I’ve highlighted some of my key learnings below in nine helpful tips!
This piece of advice may or may not be helpful depending on what stage your startup is in, but it was mentioned at least twice so it stood out to me. Both Jennifer and Julie emphasized this recommendation by Paul Graham of Y Combinator. The ideal situation is to make something that many people love, but as that may be difficult, most startups are faced with two choices: make something that a few people love, or make something that a lot of people think is just ok. Paul Graham says to go with the first option. Why? Because it’s easier to grow the number of people who love your product than to increase people’s satisfaction with the product.
This was another tip that came up more than once. “The biggest mistake most startups make is to launch too slowly, meaning we try to make everything perfect, ” Jennifer said. “We try to add so many features before we even launch… and we realize a lot of the features that we built no one really liked or used. So we spend a lot of time and money doing things that were a waste.”
Julie added, “If you don’t [launch], you don’t know if you’ve reached product/market fit. You can tell whether you have product/market fit, even if you don’t have your final product yet.”
This growth hacking tip goes hand in hand with the previous one. Jason shared an interesting way of getting direct feedback from potential users by making friends with them and messaging them to share product ideas instantly. “Sometimes I’d have 10 different phones around me, talking to different users,” Jason said. In this way, he was able to get direct feedback about what users thought about a certain icon or a feature and even share screenshots. “I learned very quickly and I could impact the product without actually building it.”
“Geek out on talking with users. Be as passionate about that as the product.” — Jason Festa
Jason added, “Engineering is difficult, great design is difficult, but talking to users, if you’re friendly, is actually easy and you get a lot of feedback.”
Our team at Buzzvil wholeheartedly agrees that talking to users to get product feedback is critical for success, which is why we hosted FGI (Focus Group Interviews) with our Honeyscreen users in August.
This was a key piece of advice from Jennifer: “If you have users that love your product, they’re going to be evangelists and tell people about it.”
She gave the example of Facebook: “Mark could have gone out and opened Facebook for anyone to use, but he made it exclusive for Harvard and made sure that the user experience was amazing for Harvard students. Those students loved it and told people about it.”
“But Facebook wouldn’t be Facebook if only Harvard students used it,” Jennifer went on to say. “So the next step after making something a small group of people love is to expand that group,” which goes right back to tip #1.
“Having the better product doesn’t always win. The product that has more customers wins.” — Julie Zhou
Julie says that the question you should ask yourself every day is “How can I get more users?” In this chat, Julie gave an overview of AARRR (Acquisition, Activation, Retention, Referral, Revenue), which was originally created by Dave McClure, also humorously known as “Startup Metrics for Pirates.” There are already plenty of great resources that go into detail about this method, but Julie focused on the first four stages and gave examples of how her team at Hipmunk implemented each of them.
“As a growth hacker, your job is to understand how this funnel works for your product,” Julie explained. “Are you bringing in lots of people, but not activating them? Do you get a lot of first time users but they never return? You figure out where the weak point is and then you come up with all sorts of creative means. Rinse and repeat and start all over again.”
Julie also emphasized in the Acquisition stage that there are ways to acquire users without spending money, but this doesn’t mean that it’s free:
“There’s no such thing as free marketing. If you’re not paying with money, you’re paying with time.” — Julie Zhou, Hipmunk
Jennifer pointed out that an important aspect of user acquisition is knowing your metrics, particularly for paid user acquisition. You need to know how much your user is going to make so you can determine how much you can spend to acquire them. Jennifer shared the different ad networks and tools she used, such as Facebook, Chartboost, and Flurry, and said, “we were able to spend that money because we knew our lifetime value of our users was greater than the cost of acquiring them.”
Jason added to this point with his observation that “apps are shared and consumed just like content and memes – from friend to friend,” and word of mouth is a powerful tool. But how do you track word of mouth conversion?
While users are hesitant to click on a randomly generated link like bit.ly/1uXREXp, they would click on CTAs like “invite me” or “tap to install.” “So we bought a bunch of vanity URLs like kik.appinvite.me,” Jason said.
Then, how do you track this? “We used TapStream, which will track the conversion for you from tapping to install.”
Another great resource for growth hacking as a startup is to build partnerships with bigger companies. “That’s one of my favorite strategies as a startup,” says Julie. She shared an example of how Hipmunk created a great relationship with Google to boost their user acquisition.
Hipmunk had been featured for iOS in the App Store without their knowledge, and this spiked their downloads. “We knew we had to repeat that same magic on Android, and we found the right person to talk to in Developer Relations at Google,” Julie said. “We told them, ‘We think we’re the best Android app ever. What do we have to do to make you believe that as well?’ They said, ‘if you can, in two weeks time, show us a product that is optimized for tablet and follows our guidelines, we’ll see what we can do.'”
“This was right before Google I/O  where they were releasing their new tablet, so they needed an app that looked good,” Julie shared. “They gave us two weeks, we did it in one. This was not free. It took a lot of time, and our developer was very dedicated.” Well, their hard work paid off, because Google gave Hipmunk a booth at Google I/O and also placed them in a feature spot on the front page of the Google Play Store. Thanks to the high quality placement, Hipmunk saw great results for their daily active users on Android.
“There was nothing secret about what we did. We knew what the partner wanted, we showed that we would stop at nothing to do it, and they rewarded us.” — Julie Zhou, Hipmunk
Jennifer agreed with this tip and shared how she built partnerships with other game developers with similar users and how they teamed up to exchange traffic for free. “You need to leverage what you’ve got,” Jennifer said. “Sometimes, you don’t have much to spend on user acquisition. What we had was a few million users, and we used that to team up with other developers to grow our user base.”
Julie shared another one of her favorite acquisition strategies that doesn’t cost money, which is earned media: getting press and getting bloggers to write about you. “As a startup, you compete [with companies that have massive PR agencies] with your personality… Just by the nature of being a startup, you already have a story to tell that your competitors can’t match. You can connect on a personal level with journalists that your competitors can’t match.”
Julie told us a great story about a blogger who once compared Hipmunk with Kayak. “He was a very good writer, but I didn’t think it was a fair analysis [of our features],” Julie said. She asked her CEO, Adam, to talk to this blogger. He called this blogger directly and ended up having a 1-hour conversation with him to discuss different features in their product. Following this phone call, the blogger published two new posts that highly recommended Hipmunk. “All it took was one hour of our CEO’s time to connect on a personal level to this blogger.”
“There’s a lot of talk about going viral and creating self-sustaining viral loops,” said Julie, “but this happens very, very rarely, in fact. It’s a rare company that can grow purely from users inviting their friends over and over. That’s because there are very few companies that are inherently social, meaning, does a user’s experience improve by inviting more people?”
“If a user doesn’t get a better product experience with the more people they invite, it’s unlikely that you will be able to create a viral loop.”
— Julie Zhou, Hipmunk
“If your users don’t see a clear benefit for inviting their friends, the viral loop stops,” Julie said. “It’s still well worth creating a referral program, but keep your expectations realistic.”
She gave the example of Dropbox as a product that was inherently social. They use a two-way rewards program, where if a user invited a friend, they both got free space. It’s great for referral and also great for retention, because the more space users have, the more likely they’ll continue to use Dropbox.
So, what do you do if you’re not Dropbox?
“If you’re not inherently social, welcome to the other 99%” Julie said.
“What we needed to do was to think of ways you can create more sharable moments. People only need to search for specific flights two to three times a year, but they always dream of traveling more. We figured out what prevents people from traveling more was price, so we created a video of how their dream trip price changed over time.”
Hipmunk also used fare alerts to remind users to keep their travel plans in mind and to show them how the cost of their dream trip changed. “People loved to be the ones to share with their friends how they got a great deal [on a trip],” Julie shared. “This was self-sustaining. We didn’t have to do any marketing around it, and fare alerts created steady retention.”
I found this session very helpful, especially with all the practical examples, and I hope other growth hackers out there will also benefit from these tips. What are some growth hacking strategies that you’ve tried? We’d love to hear from you! Please feel free to share with us in the comments below.
Thanks again to Jennifer, Julie, and Jason for sharing their expertise with us, and to Kstartup for hosting their Fireside Chat series. Our team is looking forward to more great events to learn and connect with the startup community in Seoul!