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AJ Nelson: It doesn’t take money to find your users, make them happy

AJ Nelson headshotFounder Friday is a weekly guest post written by a founder who is based in or hails from the Silicon Prairie. Each month, a topic relevant to startups is presented and founders share lessons learned or best practices utilized on that topic. September’s topic is how to market your startup without a full-time marketing department. 

About the author: AJ Nelson is the co-founder of clusterFlunk, a virtual meeting place for college students to collaborate on assignments and prepare for exams.


Running a startup is pretty insane when you don’t have money. You really are forced to focus on what matters.

It’s not spending money on Facebook ads, Google AdWords, mobile app install ads, outsourced firms, email marketing—it’s none of that. There’s no silver bullet here that is going to build you a great company.

At clusterFlunk, it has cost us, on average, 9 cents to obtain every user we have. That was before we raised any money and it’s still true today.

No, we didn’t spend months finding the perfect growth hack. So how did we do it?

It’s a lot of hard work, and there’s no way around it. Growing our company is something that we still struggle with every single day and are always looking for ways to do better. First, you need to figure out your customers and users on a personal level. What are they doing every day? Where are they? Who are they? How do you reach them? And what are you doing to help?

It’s not easy. It actually kind of sucks. You need to try X, Y, Z and more and then more and then even more.

Once you find who your customers are, the rest is easy.

But how do you get there? Shift your mindset to this equation that we use for every single thing we do at cF (trust me; you can ask Joe, Brent, Jon, Danielle, Collin or Taylor):

G = C + OP – MM

Growth equals content plus other people, minus marketing messages.

The simple analogy here is that your customers’ and users’ words are a lot more powerful than your own.

If one of your friends tells you how awesome an app is, you’re probably going to go and download it. But if you get served a Facebook ad for that same app, you’re probably less likely to go download it. It’s that simple.

You need to focus on value. How do you make someone’s experience so awesome that they will tell a friend about it? How do you provide them with enough value, that they’ll want to make sure people close to them get that value too?

Embrace that mentality. Make it your mission to make a few happy first. Then once you make them happy, take their quotes, tweets, Facebook posts and anything else you can find to start showing other people how much your users like your product. This crazy thing called social validation goes a long ways.

All you have to do is please a couple users and then let them speak for you. Once you see they’re speaking for you, reward them. Send them a T-shirt in the mail with a handwritten note, give them your personal time, do the little things.

Make them feel like they’re a part of a cult. A cult they have so much say in, they feel like the company is theirs. Because it is.

Ask them what features you need, what ways you should market and give them access to things no one else has. Introduce them to the other power users and let them be friends.

It’s an insane feeling to have users who are addicted to your product, to look at a community you’ve just created out of nothing.

Initially, you don’t need money to market your company. I can tell you with 150 percent confidence that you don’t need money (or at least very much of it) to do the things I talked about above.

Once you’ve found your most active users, you’re done with step one. The rest is just a numbers game. If you’ve found people like them already, statistics tell us that there are more out there. Now you just have to go find them. And that’s where we are with cF today, somewhere in step two and trying to find those users around the country.

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