There’s no such thing as a foolproof startup growth hack. There's lots of talk about some of the most famous growth hacks, but they’re usually not repeatable because everyone needs to find their own magic formula: a combination of foundation-building, customer focus, timing, and luck.
While there’s, unfortunately, no fast track to hockey-stick growth, there are some foundational best practices that can put you a step ahead of the competition, the VCs, and even within your entire category.
Getting those unsexy things right at the outset helps startups propel themselves to that next level. Take it from three founders—folks who’ve been there—featured on the Sit Down Startup podcast. Their top tips:
- Keep your eye on the prospect—VCs will follow
- Ruthlessly prioritize the problem you’re solving
- Get creative about getting in the door
Keep your eye on the prospect—VCs will follow
Carrot, a Y Combinator company in 2017, hasn’t deviated much from its initial mission: fertility care for everyone. Today, it has approximately 300 employees serving 400 customers and a million members.
“We got a lot of nos from a lot of VCs,” Carrot Founder and CEO Tammy Sun says of the early days. “The thing that we really hung onto was that while investors were saying no, all of our potential customers and HR leaders and benefit leaders couldn’t stop wanting to talk about this topic.”
She estimates going almost 18 months where not a single person, be it an HR leader or Chief People Officer, said no to a meeting. While not everyone became a customer, people were eager to talk. While she recalls not feeling prepared for that level of rejection (and at that rate), pairing a sense of resilience with the core mission of the company kept her going.
“Keep your eye on the prospect—the VCs will follow.” Tammy Sun, Carrot Founder and CEO
There’s a fine line between staying motivated through the ups and downs and losing touch with reality. Here, that foundational work comes into play.
Sun says she would read medical publications and go to conferences where she’d be the only non-doctor there—all in an attempt to understand her category inside and out, as well as how it was changing every day in relation to the market. She’d find medical experts and just ask them to talk to her and share knowledge. She’d do cold outreach on LinkedIn, she’d chase down introductions, and she was always willing to see someone in person for the meeting, to go the extra mile.
“Ruthlessly prioritize” the problem you’re solving
Modern Health was another Y Combinator company that, today, is a platform that aims to make mental health resources more accessible as an employee benefit. The 400-person company is still solving the same problem—access to mental health resources—but they approach it differently, says Modern Health Founder and CEO Alyson Watson.
A number of different stakeholders use the product: employers, employees, their dependents, therapists, and other providers. They were originally very focused on the employer experience, then realized they needed to build a great experience for all the stakeholders in their ecosystem—payers, providers, employers, and members—which Watson says is one of the biggest challenges of the digital health space.
Watson recalls the prevailing startup wisdom of doing just one thing right vs. several things, as it was thought to increase your chances of success. But the success of the platform hinged on answering the needs of all those groups really well. You can do a few things well if you know where to make investments, which happens when you’re “ruthlessly prioritizing” and asking difficult questions: Are we looking for consumer growth? Retention? Overall growth? Especially as VC dollars become harder to come by and startups must do more with less, asking difficult questions about priorities will be an important skill to develop as leaders within the business.
We know you can grow your customer base by taking a customer-centric approach, and that was a big priority in creating an experience that resonated for everyone in the Modern Health ecosystem. Ruthlessly prioritizing involved a lot of brainstorming sessions, user research, and talking to existing and potential customers. In the pre-pandemic days, that meant inviting people to the office in person to navigate the platform to observe how they engaged with it.
This upfront work placed the company in a better position to answer the call when demand for mental health resources skyrocketed at the start of the pandemic, and as mental health became less taboo to speak about openly.
Get creative about getting in the door
Jeremy Parker, CEO and co-founder of Swag.com (which recently sold to CustomInk), advises getting creative about getting in the door. For him, that meant “logo hunting” early and knowing who really holds the swag purse strings within a company.
When he started the business in 2016, he wanted to streamline the entire experience of buying promotional products. Companies in the space tend to target marketing teams flush with budget and opportunity (trade shows, conferences, etc.), so Parker focused on the unsung purchasing hero: office managers.
He spoke with hundreds of office managers to understand their pain points. And he determined that if an office manager at a company had a great experience, that would be their Trojan horse into a company.
“Our strategy from the get-go is: get in the door, and then expand, in any way we possibly could,” Parker says.
Facebook was their first customer and big-name logo. He recalls laying out swag on an empty conference room table (without permission) and started talking to people coming by to check it out. Facebook placed a small order that day that resulted in a tiny profit margin, but Parker says it didn’t matter because Facebook was now on the customer roster. They then secured WeWork and Bravo, strategically going after logos that would resonate with a Millennial office manager.
None of it was easy, he says, having served as everything from “head intern to delivery driver.” But that hustle to get the product into the front door and around that first big office opened more doors. Once they understood who the buyer was, Parker and his team turned their focus to tailoring their platform to meet those needs. Promotional products are one part of their value-add: the upsell is the distribution platform, integrations, and logistics that come with doing business with their company.
Their self-service machine is still a strong element of the ecommerce business. In fact, they hired their first sales rep only a year ago and, most recently, their first account manager.
“Don’t worry necessarily about margin and making money at the beginning,” Parker says. “It’s all about getting your name out there, it’s about understanding your customer, and that was our only focus in the first year.”
Though all these founders’ experiences are different, their growth hinged on prioritization and understanding their customers’ needs. For Carrot, that meant truly knowing their customers and their category. For Modern Health, that meant ruthlessly prioritizing to create the best experience for all customers and end-users in their ecosystem. And for Swag.com, it meant getting their name in front of the right audiences and then demonstrating that they could uniquely meet their needs and demands.
Knowing your category and your customers’ needs like the back of your hand might not be the fastest way to grow, but our founder guests prove that it’s an effective one.