It’s hard to imagine successful companies struggling to acquire customers. We see the successes with their hordes of fans and we think, “Wow, they’re so lucky. They have it good.”

Yet every single behemoth in existence once had to court its first customer.

In this post, we feature some of these stories. You’ll find in them a generous mix of grunt work, guts, and genius.

1 & 2: Tinder and Alibaba – physically traveled to their first users

Tinder went from 5,000 to 15,000 users by getting sorority girls to signup on the spot

Wolfe at the Headquarters, before she was removed as co-founder.

Crucial to Tinder’s success was then-CMO Whitney Wolfe’s ideas for building an early user-base. She planned a tour that would take her to prominent college campuses around the country.

  • She would go to chapters of her sorority, do her presentation, and have all the girls at the meetings install the app.
  • Then she’d go to the corresponding brother fraternity—they’d open the app and see all these cute girls they knew.
  • Tinder had fewer than 5,000 users before Wolfe made her trip. When she returned, there were some 15,000.”

Alibaba “brute-forced” its success by visiting factories one by one

Back in the early ’00s,  Jack Ma sent out a large sales force to fan out across the country, visiting factories one by one to show them how they could use Alibaba and Taobao to sell stuff online.

Back then, a large number of factories in China weren’t used to working with other people online, and sometimes didn’t even have computers or Internet.

It was hard work, but companies quickly flocked to Alibaba and its holdings. This allowed them to get an edge over eBay.

3 & 4: Quora and Reddit – seeded their sites with their own content

Founders solved the chicken-and-egg problem by contributing the bulk of early content themselves

One of the first questions on Quora by Adam D’Angelo.

The answer to the above question!

Quora and Reddit are two of the largest online forums in existence today, but they were once ghost towns with the chicken-and-egg problem of “empty site = no users / no users = empty site”.

Quora co-founders D’Angelo, Cheever and Cox wrote most of the earliest questions and answers themselves. The first employees and beta testers then continued this trend, until the platform generated enough activity for them to stop.

Reddit did the same, but it also created fake profiles. According co-founder Steve Huffman, it took several months before the front page would fill up organically without their submissions.

5 & 6: Threadless and Dropbox – the biggest believers in word-of-mouth

Dropbox launched shared folders and a massive referral campaign

The canonical example of a dual-sided-incentive referral program.

The canonical example of a dual-sided-incentive referral program.

The Dropbox empire was built on referrals.

  • With its massive word of mouth campaign, Dropbox grew its user base by 40 times – from 100,000 to 4,000,000.
  • In April 2010 alone, Dropbox users sent 2.8 million direct referral invites.
  • But on top of that, Dropbox itself was designed to encourage sharing. They introduced shared folders, a nifty feature that encouraged users to invite others to share access to folders.

Threadless let its community run their own initiatives

A Threadcakes winning submission. During Threadcakes, bakers made cakes based on Threadless tee shirts.

One of Threadless’ crucial early moves was to start a massive word-of-mouth campaign.

From the get-go, Threadless supported community initiated “rogue contests”(spontaneous, themed tee shirt contests).

In turn, its community is insanely creative, and also fiercely loyal brand advocates.

7: Lolly Wolly Doodle – feedback on Facebook essential to product design and marketing

Founder Brandi Temple decided to set up a Facebook page to sell her hand-made dresses, where customers just had to leave a comment with their email address, size, quantity, and customization request to make a purchase.

This allow her to react quickly to customer preferences, and riff off the most designs that were getting the best responses.

The social feedback loop on Facebook also did her marketing for her – customers’ comments on the Facebook News Feed showed up on their friends’ News Feeds, and the community grew organically.

Temple sold more on her first day on Facebook, than she had in the previous month on eBay.

8: Black Milk: Fashion + Fandoms = Great Success!

Black Milk’s Star Wars swimwear

The clothing store achieved its impressive growth by milking fandom for its worth. It didn’t stop at making pop culture-inspired apparel – it established serious legitimacy by getting official license for all their geeky wear.

It’s also made its Facebook page a fandom watering hole. Over there, dedicated “Sharkies” can connect with like-minded fans.

There’s even a Black Milk-approved group where girls can swap, buy, and sell their purchases with each other.

9 & 10: Evernote and Yammer – Freemium and “product as its own marketing”

Evernote used “free” to acquire customers cheaply

Evernote’s Referral Program


Evernote did Freemium out of necessity, but also because it was well-suited for the model. Founder Libin had studied Evernote’s earliest adopters and noticed that the longer customers used the service, the likelier they would pay for it.

And it makes sense – the more data I put on Evernote, the more I need Evernote.

Of course, Freemium won’t work for every company. But it certainly could work for those who can retain customer loyalty and make their service more valuable over time, while driving down costs.

Yammer baited customers with free basic

Yammer’s landing page

“Any employee in a company can come to our website and sign up for Yammer, thus creating a Yammer network for his/her company. That is how we have gotten into 90,000+ companies and organizations in just over 2 years,” says founder Sacks.

The freemium approach has worked for Yammer – it converts 15% of customers from the basic version to a premium option.

11: OKCupid – legendary content on OKTrends averaged 4,222 tweets per post

A compelling graph.

The content on OKTrends was so mindblowingly insightful that people actually despaired when it was discontinued. Who wouldn’t want to read and share this post titled “10 Charts About Sex“? (Do it, it’s worth all your attention.)

From August 2010 to April 2011, OkTrends posts averaged a staggering 32,500 Facebook likes and 4,222 tweets.

Co-founder Rudder says, “Honestly I think the blog–one way or another–has driven a lot of our growth. Certainly, it has driven brand awareness. It’s been the only thing we’ve ever done, other than making a great dating site, that has gotten us out there into the world.”

12: Etsy – harvested interest by reaching out to target communities before launching

Etsy founders used to run a web design shop and were working on for one of their projects, during which they discovered the need for a marketplace for handmade crafts.

So, while they built Etsy, they reached out to the craft community on and, which had an even larger user base.

By the time they launched, they already had a lot of interest generated among the two platforms, and that helped get the required inventory and start off transactions on Etsy.

13: Buffer – got to 100k users primarily through frequent guest blogging

One of Leo’s 150 guestposts.


Co-founder Leo Wildrich wrote 150 guest posts in the first 9 months of running Buffer, and he swears by it. That’s 16-17 posts per month, or more than 1 every two days!

“Relationships are actually the most valuable things that you gain from guest posting. At the end of the day, if you do a lot of guest posting you simply make a lot of friends. I’ve got great friends over at Treehouse, Social Media Examiner, SocialMouths, and other great sites. You provide someone with free content, that’s a great favor if you think about it, so it’s a great opportunity to make friends with these awesome people.”


Here’s the recap:

  1. Physically travel to your target user base [Tinder, Alibaba]
  2. Populate your site with your own content to get other users on board [Quora, Reddit]
  3. Design your campaign to encourage word-of-mouth [Dropbox, Threadless]
  4. Facebook can be a great product feedback loop – and marketing tool [Lolly Wolly Doodle]
  5. Delighting fandoms yields high returns [Black Milk]
  6. Freemium isn’t for everyone, but it’s cheap and powerful [Evernote, Yammer]
  7. Write legendary, jaw-dropping content [OKCupid]
  8. Harvest interest from target communities before launching [Etsy]
  9. Guest blog like crazy [Buffer]


UPDATE: Check out our followup post:
How 8 (More) Successful Companies Fought For Their First Customers: ASOS, Uber, Yelp and More!