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From startup failure to 10,000 users in 10 weeks

Andreas Roettl’s “journi” about hard work, doing things that don’t scale, experience with Product Hunt and why getting thousands of users and making them happy, doesn’t happen overnight.

About two months ago we started a service called journi. An iOS app that makes sharing and remembering travel moments super easy and beautiful.

When we launched it I read two interesting posts which inspired me to share our own experiences. A post from Ryan Hoover about how his team managed to get the first 2,000 users on Product Hunt doing things that don’t scale and the post from Morgan Brown about “Ten things I learned researching ten of the world’s fastest growing startups”.

Over the last two months we started to add more and more users and lately reached the 10,000 users mark on journi. If this wasn’t enough to celebrate, Apple reached out for a featuring. This made me reflect about what we did to get there and build our first crowd to get journi off the ground.

The prior startup that failed

Every startup has its history of failure and so do we. About two years ago Bianca, Chris and I decided to quit our well-paid jobs and start an online marketplace for itineraries. We were under the impression that people no longer trusted traditional guidebooks and mainly got their information online. But instead of browsing through the web and filtering all the relevant information, we thought it would be nicer to have a library of personal but qualitative travel guides available.

The service was called miavia (which is Italian and stands for “my way”) attracted 800 users on the creator side in 10 months. We tried a lot to get more users, but miavia wouldn’t get off the ground. We couldn’t really nail the creator’s side to get more content.

Growth is nothing without the Product

So we stopped all our growth activities and focused on the product again. It was clear that we had to do something for the creators to make it easier to generate travel guides. Nobody is going to put in hours of work for a few bucks.
Everything pointed into one direction: Getting mobile.

The pivot – A new MVP

While miavia sounded very reasonable and other travelers frequently told us about the same troubles again and again, we overlooked or basically had not learned three things:

  1. Whether we solve this or not, it wouldn’t change anything about the fact that journaling and documenting a trip sucks. In the case of miavia it means that it simply took too long to create a guidebook and users would earn too less for their efforts.
  2. People would actually prefer recommendations from people they know well instead of getting recommendations from the crowd.
  3. People really love to have memories of their own trips in a neat form like a photo book to remember and share their travel moments, but why should they create a guidebook for someone else?

Looking more carefully into how people were using miavia we saw that our users were mainly documenting their own trips and only sharing them with friends and family instead of publishing it on our marketplace to earn something. So we decided to pivot and concentrate on the issue of journaling or actually capturing whole trips in a more automatic way.

We quickly tested the idea with a few users and the positive feedback was overwhelming. So we decided to start building journi.

The decision to focus only on this particular problem, instead of figuring out two sides of a marketplace also made it possible to focus on a specific niche. The target user was super clear for us now. Andy Rachleff once said that being laser-focused on a niche early, is one of the most important things to achieve growth. Our niche are people who have the need to make travel moments unforgettable, age 20–35, smartphone users, mainly women.

The Private Beta

Having miavia in place with 800 users, was a huge opportunity for us to create journi in a way that would perfectly serve travelers’ needs. So back in February this year we decided to reach out to our 100 most active users and convince them to help us build journi together.

The early prototype was not fully functional. We added the features step by step and tested each of them separately so we could figure out whether it was worth to integrate it. This was an ongoing process for almost 3 months. It also helped us understand what their issues were, what they needed and how we could communicate our solution in the most effective way.

With our test users we really created a family environment. They felt super important and honored to help us. In fact they got really excited about the new product and were feeling like a part of it.

The real journi and the public launch

In May we were ready to fix our launch date and started preparing for the big day. End of May we released a final test version that included the set of features for the public version.

To make this last test as effective as possible we made a game out of it. Each test user who would find an issue that could be replicated earned one Schnaps, served at our launch party. This game totally paid off and made us find every tiny bug.

By then we also started to communicate the upcoming changes to our existing miavia users. We wanted them to be the first to know about what’s coming. We addressed each of our users with a personal email explaining why we are doing this and what’s going to happen with the user accounts and the content. In two other emails we reminded them that the launch is coming closer and that miavia will be taken down. As a little extra we revealed parts of journi to give them a feel of what it will offer and how they will benefit from the new service. Finally we managed to turn almost all miavia users into journi users.

In the middle of June we were ready to launch and bring journi in the Apple App Store. By then our test users, the miavia users and all the others who had heard about journi were already super excited and curious.

Do things that don’t scale and do it as a team

For the launch we decided to focus on Vienna (our home city) where most of our test users and early miavia users were from. It was actually the last week in Austria before the team would leave for the US, so we wanted to make sure that the majority of the people in Vienna would see or hear about journi. And as growth is a team sport, every team member helped!

The night before the launch a group of people (don’t know who) managed to tag our logo and URL with chalk spray on streets and walkways all around the city. It seemed to work pretty well as we heard people talking on the streets and posting pictures on Facebook and Twitter.

In the early morning of the launch day we sent out an email notification to our test users and miavia users presenting the final app. We kindly asked them for a rating on the App Store and to share journi with their friends. By the end of the week we got 40 five star ratings in the App Store.

Everyone started the day with targeting their own social media channels.

In the evening we invited our entire test user group, community and friends to a big launch party at a club, to celebrate with us. The next day the whole team was around tourist hot spots and hostels handing out flyers and talking to people.

With a nice email we also managed to get featured on all the info screens in the public transport system in Vienna. And after the first week we got our first 1,000 users.

Then it was time for us to move to San Francisco because we managed to get selected for the Plug and Play Tech Center accelerator program. The program is run together with the Austrian Trade Commission. It gave us the ability to get closer to the US market and connect with the local startup scene to pitch and learn.

Get your analytics right

After we arrived in San Francisco, one of our first tasks was looking into analytics very carefully and find out how the first 1,000 people used the app, where they hang out and where they have issues. We defined some important questions like: “How many users use feature x?” “How many of the users we added last week invited friends?” “How is that changing from week to week?” “How active are they?” and so on. This was important to get some standard metrics along our funnel and monitor the user behavior.

Analysing the first results, we quickly realized that the referrals didn’t seem to work as we expected. It was to hard for users to invite friends. Fixing that became our number one priority on the design and development side.

Paul Graham once said:

“Do things that don’t scale and build things that do.”

And so we did.

Start building a community

On the marketing side we decided to work closer with our current user base and start building a community. Instead of getting more people into the funnel, we wanted to engage users and learn how they use journi.

So Carina started to engage our users on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram and our blog with topcis including feature presentations, team news, travel quotes or user featurings etc.

At the beginning we covered all channels and tried to figure out what are the most important ones for us to communicate to and eventually also acquire new users. Now we mainly concentrate on Facebook, Twitter and our Blog.

Another important way of building our community and showing respect to our early users was personal emails. Whenever we got a feedback mail one of our team members would answer within 24 hours.

Wherever we could we offered a feedback channel. At the end of each email users receive from us, we remind them that they can contact us by just hitting reply. In the settings of the app we put a large feedback button and also in some particular events we actively ask for feedback in the app.

In addition to that we actively reached out to very active users for featuring their public trips or if we saw that we got an email complaint, we asked why this happened and if there were any issues.

Beside that, the team members regularly went to startup and travel events like couchsurfing, pub crawls, expat meetups, etc. to be in touch with the local travel scene.

Success doesn’t happen overnight

We knew that reaching our next milestone (10,000 users) wouldn’t happen overnight and that there was lots of work lying ahead of us.

In Europe, when I ask startup folks, how they gonna grow, they often seem to be chilled. They refer to social media campaigns, viral videos, ads, or the one guy they are going to hire, who knows everything about marketing and will take care of growth. The majority of Europeans are excellent engineers but they are really bad in selling and distributing things.

Nailing the product is one thing, building it for the user is another, but bringing it to the user is a totally different thing.

Growth isn’t something that just happens over night. Whether you look at Angry Birds, Twitter or Airbnb they all worked their asses off to become successful. It often took years before they succeeded. Here’s a list of great examples and their stories.

 Find your growth engines

Growth is actually one of the most complex tasks in a startup. The things you have to do in a startup to get early traction are far away from what you learn in your marketing classes at uni.

As Morgan already mentioned in his post, it’s more about finding growth engines without investing tons of money in traditional marketing. But getting there is nothing like running a single social media campaign, creating a video, putting it on youtube and waiting for it to get viral or spending tons of money into ads.

People have to understand that there is nothing like the one single growth engine. Successful companies apply a selected mix of them or different ones at different growth stages.

Ian Hogarth, a YC alumni and co-founder of Songkick recently talked about the main techniques a startup could use to grow: Here you can find the video from YC startup school in London. He mentioned four main growth engines:

  1. SEO
  2. PAID
  3. API/WIDGET
  4. WOM. (Word of Mouth)

The only thing I was missing, or maybe he put that under the paid section is “(incentives for) referrals”. Airbnb is a good example for a startup that applied all of these techniques.

Ian also mentioned that Growth doesn’t necessarily happen when you focus on growth only, startups also have to provide a good product and in order to survive, they need to find a way how to make money.

Launch multiple times – Our experience with Product Hunt

While back in Austria journi was steadily growing because of the things we had done during the launch week, we almost had no traction in the States.
So we launched our app in the US a second and with the new release in August even a third time.

Thomas Schranz a friend from another Austrian Startup blossom.io and one of our early test users introduced us to Product Hunt in May and offered to feature journi once we are ready. So reached out to Thomas again and we agreed that he posts on Wednesday early in the morning PST, as this seemed to be the perfect time to attract lots of people. I also prepared a first comment to share some more insights with the users.

Our launch on PH was amazing. journi was upvoted best product of the day. Not only did we get a lot of feedback, we got 1,000 sign-ups within 3 days. With the featuring we also got a lot of additional coverage in smaller blogs and as one of the ten best weekly products we were covered in the PH weekly newsletter again.

Second release and manual growth

By now journi had about 5,000 users and we had only one and a half month left to reach our goal. But first we launched the second version of our app. With making referrals easier, this version should even help us to accelerate our growth.

To test the changes in the app we had to get new people into the funnel and start our growth engines again. In order to grow faster we combined multiple growth engines:

  1. Do another launch. This time on Hacker News. We managed to be on the front page of Hacker News for about 4 hours and on the Show HN section for about 2 days. Hacker News didn’t bring as many new users as Product Hunt, yet they seemed to be more active from what we saw in analytics.
  2. Bianca also published her design work for journi on Behance. Where we got featured a few days later in the category “App Design”.
  3. This was also the first time we actively reached out to various blogs and got a lot of media coverage in Austria (e.g. derstandard, horizont, futurezone) and in the travel scene (e.g. skift and tnooz).
  4. Last but not least we started to post in various Facebook Groups (Exchanges Students, Au pairs, Backpacker Groups, Travel and Work, etc.). This turned out to be a total success. We added hundreds of users each day. The key here was definitely the wording, which was very personal. We also included our email addresses for feedback or in case anybody just wanted to say “hi”.

Also the changes that we made in the app finally had an impact on user growth. The referrals increased by over 120% per week.

One more thing… The power of Design and making Apple happy

We knew that there are probably two growth engines which are going to work best for us in the long run: One is App Store Marketing. Getting featured by Apple is like pure gold for a mobile startup. And the other one evolves around referrals and incentives for referrals once we can offer a premium service.

To do the first one right, we would have to build the app perfectly for the user AND for Apple. So this was always something Bianca carefully considered when designing the app.

And I actively reached out to Apple the first time in June shortly before we launched, inviting some Apple guys to Testflight to try the app. Out of 10 emails only one guy responded and showed some interest. But in the end he never tried the app.

With the second version being ready I send him another email. I told him about our progress and that we would be happy about feedback on our iOS8 features.

Surprisingly I quickly got a response and he connected me with the guys in charge for the App Store in Europe. They really liked the app and were curious about our upcoming plans for the next release in September and what iOS8 features the app is going to support.

We quickly outlined our road map and answered their questions, including some screenshots for the next release. After two weeks we received the one official email that we were hoping for: An email from Apple App Store, concerning a featuring of journi in the App Store.

What’s next? — The uncertain future!

Growth and the product are never done, right?! Over the past two months journi has evolved into a better app through each of the two releases and grew week by week to a user base of about 10,000 users.

Soon we are going to launch our third version, which will apparently be featured on the App Store bringing thousands of new users.

We haven’t yet reached our tipping point. There’s still a windy road ahead. Some smart and skeptical entrepreneurs shared their concerns:

  • Will people stick around?
  • Does it have mainstream appeal?
  • How will journi establish itself in the crowded travel / journaling market?
  • Is it a must have?

While we don’t have a clear answer to all these questions, we do know why we started journi: We saw that people who travel don’t want to share everything on Facebook, they don’t want to be online all the time, they don’t want to have all the troubles that come with running a blog.

They want that remembering and sharing is as simple as taking a picture and feels so beautiful and valuable like a photo book. People are willing to pay for a service like this.

And we do know that we have had an amazing launch so far and we do know how to grow it further. Over the last 2 months, the service attracted about 10,000 users. And the run has not yet stopped. We keep adding new ones and see users being super engaged, using the app in so many new ways we would have never thought about. And with every moment created on journi they seem to love it more.

 Yet, it is interesting to see that journi is also polarizing and standing out of the crowded market. journi makes people interested and they talk about it. And we hope it will go on like that, as some of the greatest products of our time were born this way.
Journi app
Journi has definitely captured the attention of the early adopters in the travel scene, but we believe there is even a bigger opportunity there.
The time has come to use modern technology that helps us in creating and managing travel data more efficiently. And our vision is to build these products and services with the goal of creating a better travel experience for billions of travelers.

Feel free to reach out to me on twitter. Happy to hear your thoughts!

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