For most startups, the most difficult part of your user-acquisition phase is finding money to buy ads and getting the interest of press/media. A lot of focus these days is on growth hacking, viral marketing and so forth but when you actually live through the humble beginnings of any startup, one thing becomes clear: You always need a core group of early users who become your “foundation” on which you build a brand. These are always the most difficult to find.

Depending on what industry your company is in, you may have to spend longer hours and work a lot harder to get the numbers you want. The next step involves organically growing out those numbers using the already existing user base as a vehicle – this is where viral marketing, referrals, promotions etc come into play.

Some startups will naturally be able to enjoy more success from viral marketing than others, and for companies like that, generic methods of growing a user base become ever so important i.e. Partnerships, Advertisement and Press. Unlike what we all stumble across on TechCrunch daily, more than 80% of startups aren’t funded enough to consistently include advertisements in their marketing plan, and when you’re a new company, getting partnerships is often extremely difficult - you’re not credible enough just yet. This leaves you with press.

I read this article by one of my favorite founders Rahul Vohra of Rapportive a few weeks back about how the company went viral and if you follow their model, you’ll see how heavily they focused on getting the “initial core group of users”. However, Rapportive is well funded as well as a Y-Combinator company, and as such when they launched, they did so to a fanfare in front of many journalists, covered by many blogs and retweeted by thousands. This is not the case for the average startup, in fact no one knows when you’ve launched until you tell them in person. In his story, he mentioned how “you may get 70k users” from press when you launch. The bad news is that this is rarely ever true for most people.

Over the past few months since Symcat launched, we’ve focused a lot of our early strategy on creating great content, not only for search engine purposes but also educational purposes for entrepreneurs and just about anyone curious about their health. We have also focused on Press and media coverage quite seriously. I’ll share some things that have worked well for us.

1. Be creative. The best way to get anyone’s attention is by telling a compelling story, writers aren’t different. Also find out places where people in your industry hang out. A few months after launching Symcat, we created an infographic showing how different people used the app to check their symptoms. We explained some of our findings and shared it on HackerNews – we know most startup-minded people tend to spend some time browsing it. The story did well and got a good number of comments. A few months afterward we did a blog post and referenced this infographic, again, it was well received. A few days afterward, a reporter reached out and wanted to do this story.

2. Build Relationships as you pitch. I don’t imagine there’s anything more annoying as a reporter than receiving the same pitch over and over again, perhaps because the sender thinks you “must not have received” the last 4 or 5 they sent over. As someone on the other side however, I do see the need to keep my pitch fresh on the mind of the reporter. Depending on the size of the publication, most reporters get hundreds of pitches per day, it’s extremely difficult to get their attention, and so things do get lost in the process but the best way you can go about getting a reply is by standing out. Your title needs to stand out and grab attention, your pitch needs to be short and concise, and your follow-up emails need to be creative. When we got covered on Mashable, it took a number of tries. After sending out a few e-mails and not hearing back, we got creative and decided to update the writer on every big change we made. At one point, we had started letting people create a digital health record that could be printed out for your Doctor’s appointment, and this must have been the turning point. We got a reply minutes later and a story the next day.

3. Create interesting content. One thing we do very well at symcat is educate. We like helping people understand their health, ways to stay healthy, how to keep a good medical record and so forth. Besides the stories we write on our blog, and articles we share on our Facebook, we create content for article hubs and try to push a few every other week. Keep in mind that there is a difference between creating random content for SEO purposes and creating articles to educate people. We focus heavily on the later. Symcat helps people keep track of their personal health and so it’s most likely not going to “go viral” with people sharing things they’ll rather keep private. We understand this and so we’ve given them other things they can share - well written articles anyone can learn from. We got covered by a popular international publication because of these stories. Besides article sites, consider pushing stories to Slideshare - again, they must have an educational purpose. Remember to add your e-mail and contact information, you never know who would like one of your presentations and reach out for a story.

4. Take advantage of Social Media. Make a list of your favorite writers, not just people you want to eventually pitch, and start to interact with them. If you like a recent story they wrote, tell them why and make a comment or ask a question about it. Eventually they know who you are and are more inclined to read a pitch from you than if they have no clue who you are. Even if they don’t plan on a story at that point in time, somewhere down they line they may be looking to do a piece relating to your industry and reach out to you. That’s exactly how we got into this article.

While ads and big launches are usually the best/quickest way to get you to your first several thousand users, nothing beats the brand awareness and credibility you could get from a great media coverage. People often get carried away by the allure of sites reaching 100k users in their first year and what not, in reality, very few get to that point. Retention is even harder. Take a look at this graph:


Depending of what industry you are in, growth is subjective. Some ads are worth buying (if you have the money), and sometimes, steady but assured growth could be almost as helpful. How do you define growth?

- Tolu