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3 Lessons I Used to Acquire 454,0000 Sign Ups with No Product

This post was originally published by on Jan 15, 2020. You can read the original post: Click Here!

It’s The alarm is buzzing quite obnoxiously. One eye opens in a fuzzy daze. I’m getting ready to hit snooze, but I remember that I’m a fan of Mel Robbins, so I count backwards from five.

Five…four…three…two…one…I rocket launch out of bed. My mouth is ultra-dry. My eyes are crusty. I can barely move. Today is the day and it’s paralyzing. It’s the day we say “goodbye” to what we thought PeduL was. We’ve completely rebranded and we’re ready to launch our new landing page. We have absolutely no product in-hand. Not even a minimum viable product, or what we like to call in the startup world, an “MVP.” We know, however, that this was the start of something undeniably brilliant.

When we first started our company, we imagined taking the world by storm through crowdfunding. We wanted to give students the opportunity to raise money for school in a simple and secure way, while assuring their benefactors that there would be no misuse of the funds. What we didn’t know, in the beginning, would ultimately lead to our product’s demise. We failed to challenge our most basic assumptions.

The most critical assumption that could devalorize our entire product was that every single student could successfully raise money for school using our technology. I’ll take responsibility for the carelessness of such an assumption. Over the course of eight months, we were obsessive about collecting customer feedback. What we deduced would ultimately change the course of our company as we knew it.

Crowdfunding, at its core, is innately elitist. It not only validates that virality is irreplicable, but it also assumes that the fundraiser has access to a network with capital. Unfortunately, that’s not everyone’s reality. We had over 2,500 students raise a total of $100,000, only to find out that most of these students came from upper middle-class families with access to uncles, aunts and organizations with discretionary income to spare on altruism. Although we were genuinely thrilled to see how our technology impacted the students who harnessed it, we were disappointed to learn that our impact was limited by a variable we could have changed if we had done our research sooner.

This is exactly why I’m such a fan of Eric Reis’ Lean Startup. Scientifically validating a business concept before spending time, energy and money is one of the most brilliant concepts I’ve ever discovered. Since digesting and living this methodology, PeduL has completely changed its approach to data. Now, we are hyper-focused on learning fast and pivoting faster. We’ve thrown away what doesn’t work and channel in on what does, especially as it pertains to our individual and collective strengths as a team.

After we went back to the drawing board and asked the right questions, we deduced what types of entities not only have the capital, but also have an incentive to invest in our target demographic. We finally cracked the code. We would launch a universal application for scholarships that would make it easy for anyone to find, apply to and build scholarships. We would then encourage corporations to use scholarships as a tool to build brand awareness and a pipeline of talent. How would we monetize this? We would charge a commission or SaaS fee to the scholarship providers.

Now that we’ve learned from our previous mistakes, we knew it was critical to get a pulse on the demand. We created a landing page for this “universal application for scholarships.” We started posting it in public Facebook groups, LinkedIn groups, and mom-blog forums. We messaged our friends at NBC, Complex and other media outlets to secure features. We reached out to universities, guidance counselors and organizations to be distribution channel partners. Little did we know, the demand on the student side of the marketplace was unanimous. In less than a month, we had over 15,000 sign ups to the waiting list….with no product.

Lesson 1: Obsess over data

We harnessed the power of customer feedback data to inform our next step, however, we knew we needed to dig deeper. There was clear value here. The real question was, “how could we continue to build interest around this product while we’re figuring out how to massively scale it?” We didn’t need to think too hard. The answer is often an easy question. Who is our target demographic? Students between the ages of 15-25. What do they all have in common? They like to share. As two co-founders not too far removed from college, we knew what tasks we had to conquer. We had to create shareable content and growth hack social systems.

Lesson 2: Content is King

One month after our landing page came out, we posted our first viral video, a parody of Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road. It went viral overnight. We knew we got something right. If we could just continue pumping out quality content, we could continue to grow our brand and build “hype” around a non-existent product. That’s our secret sauce. In less than 8 months, before our platform went live to the public, we acquired over 454,000 signups to our waitlist…through shareable content.

Lesson 3: Context is God

The greatest takeaway for a business to consumer (“B2C”) startup, struggling with acquiring users, is to obsess over data and model your content curation and distribution strategy after companies doing it right. There are so many case studies out there about generating content that converts. We happen to be two recent college grads and journalists with a strong pulse on the type of content that drives audiences in our target demographic to act. I encourage every startup entrepreneur with a B2C component to get obsessed with employing and engaging with people who identify with the audience you’re trying to acquire.

Content is king, but context is God. That’s how marrying data, growth hacking and quality shareable content helped my company acquire over 454,000 signups with no product. If we can do it, so can you.

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