How Holger Seim Scaled Blinkist from 0 to 1 Million Users in 4 Years

How Holger Seim Scaled Blinkist from 0 to 1 Million Users in 4 Years

How Holger Seim Scaled Blinkist from 0 to 1 Million Users in 4 Years

Abhik Shome

Founder and Editor-in-chief
The Starting Idea

From exchanging school book notes in High School to using that same idea to build a phenomenal 1 million users strong B2C SaaS company, Holger Seim has seen and done it all.

Holger Seim
Founder of Blinkist

But what will strike you most about the cerebral founder of Blinkist is his willingness to share his vast ocean of knowledge with people who are just beginning (much like his blockbuster knowledge product), a quality amply highlighted with his belief of urging people to take the plunge and getting things done.

Sure so, he was kind enough to sit for a Skype chat with me, where we discussed all things under the Startup Sun, right from the now proverbial ‘How do I Start’ to Growth strategies, social media hacks, business model selection, backend processes, mindset tips to even his insights on dividing equity. He also explained in detail term which has now become synonymous with his Startup, the organisational concept of ‘Holacracy’.

After this interview, I felt I just excavated a goldmine of knowledge and so will you.

Abhik: What is Blinkist?

Holger: Blinkist is all about inspiring people to keep learning.

Nowadays it has become harder and harder to find the time to read a book or to listen to a podcast, to read along through an article, to take time and really dedicate it to learning.

We are distracted by social media, by news out there, we are busy with our lives.

We have acquired new reading habits. We read in a shorter amount of time on our digital devices or we listen to content.

A lot of learning content, for example, non-fiction books, has not really adapted to those new reading habits. Since we (at Blinkist) have faced this problem ourselves, we wanted to read more, to continue to learn after graduating from university as much as we learnt in the university, but didn’t find a way to do so.

Hence, based on having this evident problem at hand, we decided to fix it and Blinkist is what we came up with.

Blinkist offers key insights from non-fiction books which you can read or listen to in 15 minutes.

We at Blinkist take the gist of the nonfiction book and transform it into a format which we call ‘blinks’ as you can read it in the blink of an eye.

If you like them, you have much higher motivation to go on and read the full book.

Alternatively, if you don’t like them or you think it is interesting but not enough to commit 8 hours to, then you save time whilst getting some good food for thought coupled with inspiration.

That’s Blinkist in a nutshell.

Abhik: What are the processes which go behind creating these Blinks?

Holger: We try to stay true to the book, so we try to use examples which a book author himself has used in the book.

This is because the authors themselves are experts in what they write about.

We just want to give users an authentic insight into what the book is about.

Examples used in certain books are a part of this insight. What we do not take from the book, is the language. We use the Blinkist language.

Having said that, there are some books which do not have vivid examples, so we have to come up with our own as examples are indeed an important part of retention and understanding.

But overall, books are doing a great job with backing up their arguments with examples.

Abhik: What was Blinkist’s starting idea?

Holger: The problem that Blinkist solves, we were facing that problem ourselves. So initially we built Blinkist for ourselves.

We are lifelong learners but we found it harder and harder to keep learning and keep reading. So we started building a solution for this.

Our goal is NOT to replace books. We do not want our users to stop reading books and only read blinks. We could never replace the value of the whole book in 15-minute blinks.

But what we can do is make it easier for the reader to get started. We can lower the barrier to engage with book content and it can bring books or other learning content in front of an audience which is not used to reading books anymore.

The way we started was we had this problem, following which we analyzed how people read nowadays, we looked at other reading apps and what are people used to when they read on a mobile device and started to develop some formats.

We started to read books and think of ways or test ways on how we can distill the key insights, so they can be read on mobile devices.

We started to iterate. We took some books, wrote them in blinks of a different format. Simultaneously we also scribbled some app screens. Then after everything was prepared, we went to real users, to people who didn’t know us and asked them to go through this prototype.

We asked them – “Can you please read this PDF and tell us what do you think?”.

We used this feedback to fine-tune our product which led to release of our first app.

Once the app was out there we continued to reach and read users, continuing to test with them more. We reiterated on app features, on user experience and also on the format.

Abhik: Tell us about the initial MVP of your product?

Holger: Maybe I can tell you in hindsight what I think could have been the perfect MVP for us.

Perfect MVP for us would have been an email.

Signing up for MailChimp, creating a WordPress powered website, attracting people who are interested in this content, learning how to market to those people, learning if they are willing to pay for it, basically learning more about the format using the newsletter format.

Then once we got core user base and understood its dynamics, then it would have been the time to develop an app.

This only shows how you always learn in hindsight that you should have done things differently.

Now coming to our actual MVP, it was a basic app existing only in German language which gave users the opportunity to read books in blinks.

We didn’t have audio, in the beginning, it was only a reader.

It had a mode to discover books in blinks, but really basic, just one stream, we didn’t even have categories back then.

We had a library where you could add books and see your readings.

Having said that, the core of the Blinkist MVP is what you will still find in the newest version of the app, but now it is more sophisticated.

There is more content so we need to figure out ways to organize it in a better way, how to make it easier to discover.

Abhik: Why did you decide on the Freemium Business model? Any other business model you had in mind or plan to change to?

Holger: We tried various business models in the beginning, from single purchases per book-in- blink to a fully paid model without a free option.

In the end, our current subscription-based model with a free offer worked out best.

Abhik: Can you shed some light on the Logo design and its meaning?

Holger: The dark blue center of our logo symbolizes a drop, which stands for the essence that is delivered by our content.

The green shape around the drop is a metaphor for our team and everything we’re doing, forming a filter that distills the signal from the noise around us.

Blinkist
Logo

Abhik: Does Blinkist need a buy-in from book authors?

Holger: It is important to point out that we do not need a buy-in from book authors.

We are not infringing copyright. We read books and then we come up with our own reviews.

It is our own language and even if we used copyright protected materials we would not need a buy-in from book authors but a buy-in from the publishers.

That’s because most authors, 95% of them skip their rights to the publishers, so we would have to talk to publishers, not to the authors.

We are still approaching publishers. We have partnership agreements with some publishers who would allow us to use original book cover, because they are protected by copyright law.

Apart from that, we have publishers who would also allow us to use original quotes and make us their partner while others are waiting a little bit longer to see how much Blinkist can grow.

Not all the books we have on Blinkist are covered by a partnership with publishers but we are open to the industry.

Abhik: Does Blinkist face any reservations from book authors and publishers regarding the revealing nature of the blinks which gives out a lot of core content of the original book?

Holger: If someone says that we are able to give out all the book content in 5 pages when the book has 300 of them, then this shows what this person thinks of the book.

There are authors and publishers who are skeptical or afraid that after reading a book in blinks, users would not be interested in buying and reading the whole book anymore.

I always tell them that if you think that a 5-page product can compete or replace a 300-page product, then you certainly do not believe in your product and you better start innovating on it by starting to write a better book if it is really what you believe.

We do not believe so. We think books have a lot to offer which a few Blinks can never match.

For us, it is not about replacing books. A Book offers differentiating viewpoints which balance arguments and counter arguments in a better way.

Their readers can dive deeper into examples, case studies and they have repetitions which are better for retention.

What Blinkist does, is that it gives a good overview which includes key insights, but not in such a depth that it will stop people from reading books altogether.

It would rather give people a good idea what the book is all about, give them some food for thought and so on. Because let’s face it, there are people who will never read a book about politics if they are not interested in politics enough.

But maybe they are interested enough to try out and read a 15 minute version of a book to get some thought, some inspiration, some new perspectives which might create a new drive and an interest.

So this is what we do. We make it easier for people who are interested enough to dig deeper.

We make this process easier and make reading more targeted. Coz if you start reading without knowing what you want to get out of it, you read less consciously and you retain less.

If for example you read a book called Getting things done [by David Allen] you already know that you really want to learn more to make your system useful, to be more productive in your day to day activities.

You want to learn about a proper system, how to organize your inbox with “getting things done”.

So you will read it much more consciously, so there you go. It adds another value. It is about the conscious discovery of books and about reading more efficiently.

Abhik: What were the hurdles Blinkist had to face in its initial stage?

Holger: Hurdles which we had in the beginning and which we still have is something which comes inherit to every company:

  • To stay focused on the right things.
  • To not to do everything at once.
  • To always be aware of what are the most important goals and milestones to reach as a company so to make it to the next level, whatever this next level is. And then really focus on them.
  • Learn to say no to other things.
  • Learn to say no to opportunities which come in your way or other ideas you may have. Especially when you are a really small team, in the beginning, there is only so much we can do. You need to take some time to think what is really important and what should I focus on and dare to say no to everything else. This is still relevant, it is one of the key challenges, key levers to grow business sufficiently.

Apart from that, the whole team was consisting of first-time founders.

None of the team members ever developed an app, been a product manager, or a digital marketer. Nothing.

When we started, we started from scratch. We had to read on how things should have been done, for example, how to manage products, how to grow a business through head acquisition, how to do PR.

Just to learn everything from scratch was itself a challenge. We had to learn and iterate fast because you are always working against time.

You have funding which lasts a certain amount of months or years and when it is gone you have to be ready for the next round of funding.

You need to find an investor who is willing to invest and fund you and they will be willing to fund you only if metrics are good if they see you are growing.

Better learn fast which of those metrics are relevant and how to make them go up, basically.

Abhik: When did the Founders decide to look for investors?

Holger: Pretty early on. We are a team of four founders but we knew that in order to really develop a meaningful product, we can’t do it all on our own.

We had an app developer, we needed support in writing the content and also eventually support in marketing it.

As I stated earlier, we could have done an email newsletter product, which could have been done only with the four of us for first 6 months but since we didn’t have this idea back then, we decided to get an app developer and an additional person for contact creation on board.

Due to this, we needed funding early on. We also needed base salary ourselves to survive.

But we said there is always this factor about the window of opportunity.

The app ecosystem was still young back then and we thought if we don’t do it right now and grow it aggressively then others may have the idea and do it.

We decided that venture capital will help us to grow this faster, more aggressively, be the market leader before others have the idea to copy it or do it on their own without knowing us.

It is also something we see right now. This hypothesis has been validated. We have been quite successful, we have grown over the past couple of years and others started to notice us.

We see companies copying us right now which is fine and a proof of a thriving market.

So far the competitors we have seen are too much of straight copycats.

We like competition, it is what gets us going but we would like to see more innovation, more added value rather than just copying.

It is nothing which scares us, on the contrary, it motivates us. We are sportsmen and women and we take it as a challenge.

Competition makes us going and makes us ambitious which is good.

Abhik: Give us details about the user onboarding strategy used by Blinkist?

Holger: We’re constantly experimenting with onboarding strategies, so there is not the one strategy that I can give you details about.

We currently focus on providing users with one free book after they signed up because we found that less choice makes it easier to get started and try the product.

But as I said, we’re constantly testing, so this may be updated soon.

Abhik: What growth hacking methods did Blinkist apply initially to grow subscribers?

Holger: There was not one growth hack but a lot of small things.

At the beginning, we focused on a lot of PR, because it is more of an aggressive approach.

We wrote stories on our own, pitched them to journalists, trying to make them see why is it relevant to write about us.

We also had contacts in the ecosystem which we tried to leverage to get early adopters base.

Next, for having good marketing, we started to implement reliable tracking. What I mean by this is an attribution on mobile and web so that when someone clicks on a certain link or a campaign and then comes to the app store through that link, lands on your website and signs up to your email marketing, you can actually see and ascertain from where this person came from and learn which of your marketing activities attributed valuable users and which did not.

This technology was something new back then and before this, it was all foggy and blurry for us.

After implementing this, we started to see what actually drove users.

Apart from this, there are also your classic social media channels: Facebook, Instagram, Adwords, paid content, etc.

In general content marketing is important for us as we are quintessentially a content company. We are also blessed with a good word of mouth ratio.

When people read things on Blinkist, it is quite natural for them to share it with their friends and colleagues.

You see, when you learn something which sticks with you, which resonates with you, there is a high probability you will talk about it at some point in time.

In your job or at home you will say: “Hey! I’ve read this, it is a really cool piece of advice”, and a lot of times people will be curious where this person read it.

To be honest, whenever we invested money in paid acquisition, we saw these acquired users brought more users along with them through word of mouth.

Abhik: You mention the use of Social Media for Growth Hacking. Can you share some of the social media tips which gave you great results?

Holger: The creative is one of the most important factors, so you need to find the right one.

The creative consists of image or video and the message that comes along with it.

You need to find the right message with the right image or video which resonates with your users or brings the right users.

It is easy to launch a clickable ad. If you post a sexy image then you will get a lot of people’s attention and they will click.

But after this, they will not install your app because they clicked on the image not for the value or for the message.

You should test it, find the right messaging and image to attract the right users, to set them in the right mood so they are willing to test your product and are willing to subscribe in the end.

Targeting is obviously important. Facebook allows you to target really to the nitty gritty of a said target group. You can choose age, gender, nationality, interests, etc.

The most important thing is to test. Test hypothesis, different targets and find out which targeting and combination to use.

Even if you find something which works, unfortunately, you have to change it frequently as people get bored very fast, get blind on ads very soon, and then they do not react to them anymore.

You need to change it frequently to keep people interested.

Abhik: How does the backend work process look like at Blinkist?

Holger: We have people who screen the book market every week.

They see how certain books are reviewed on certain sites, are they recommended by journalists, by experts, are they part of listicles and articles.

Then we see what are our user requests. We have user’s wishlist features. Users can request books too. We get a lot of release notes from publishers with blurbs.

Based on all this data while having in mind what our users usually like, we curate a list of books we want to publish.

We have a big pool of freelancers who are experts in their respective fields. We check who is available to distill the key insights to write blinks in the end.

On our end, we do quality management. We read books along.

We have 12 people who skim books alongside in pairs to make sure we look at the book with two pairs of eyes at least.

After editing, blinks are ready in their text format.

Then we pass it on to the Audio group which records them in the said audio format.

For this, we have an audio producer and a couple of narrators.

The last step is publishing the book so our users can enjoy them.

Abhik: How much time does it take to create blinks?

Holger: It depends on how fast we want to have them.

If we need the blinks very fast, we ask our readers to speed up the process, or we pick a reader who has time and can read it very fast.

We can move from decision to publishing within one working week.

Sometimes when we have more time, we can work around the schedule.

Since our freelancers are experts in their respective fields, they also have other jobs.

We find it quite important to have people who also practice their knowledge. It enriches them with different perspectives and adds quality to their work.

As a consequence, we need to work around their schedules. Sometimes they need two weeks to read a book or even three, to find time to read it.

But usually, we do not need blinks so urgent.

Abhik: Being a highly successful international Startup founder, what do you think worked in your favour?

Holger: One thing which still works in our favor is a trend.

We are lucky enough to have put our bets on right trends. We see that people are more and more overwhelmed by information overload.

We are trying to solve this.

People are more willing to pay for mobile subscription services.

It is normal to have music or video subscriptions which also works in our favor.

We see that informal mobile learning apps are gaining more attention, attracting wider audiences.

With services like BabbelMindfulnessHeadspace or brain training, people are turning more and more towards apps and mobile experiences to learn and grow professionally.

Last but not the least, there is an increase in audio adoption with the boom of podcasts.

People on the go are listening to content more than music. All these trends are working in our favour.

What we learnt early on is to always be aware of what we should be focused on, what are our core metrics which we need to look at and what keeps us focused on the right things.

Since our engine of growth is paid acquisition, we learnt that we need to focus on customer acquisition cost and work on things which will make customer acquisition cost be kept at a sustainable level or improve them to scale further.

The awareness about what to focus on helped us a lot.

Abhik: What are some of the big mistakes Blinkist made?

Holger: I think we launched too complex a product at the very beginning.

It could have been made much easier and much faster, using lesser resources.

We also did too much at the beginning. I guess we needed to learn the hard way to focus.

We wanted to tackle too much and at the end, tackled nothing at all.

I would also say, when during the first 9 months when we were in beta and did Blinkist only in German language and targeted only German market, it would have been better to launch in English right away and use this time to get more feedback from a bigger early adopter audience.

But when looking back, I never think that we could have done this differently.

Everything is part of a journey. You need to make mistakes to learn from them and build up experiences.

On a more experienced level, we would have probably talked to people in early days and would have tried to learn from them prior to making mistakes. You know we still make them.

Sometimes a person finds right words at the right moment and then you act upon the advice and sometimes you do not act upon it.

You think business is different or you were just not very perceptive at it. But it is OK.

As I said, It is part of the journey. Sometimes it is also good to not to listen to advice because, in the end, you know your business best.

I think one thing which is good to learn is to differentiate good advice from bad ones.

Not to do everything others tell you to do but also still listen to others and try to pick things which are relevant to you.

Finally, one needs to try to avoid those mistakes.

Abhik: Whenever we read about Blinkist in the press, the concept of ‘Holacracy’ comes along with it. What exactly is Holacracy?

Holger: Holacracy, in general, is an operating system for an organization which puts a lot of emphasis on self-organization and tries to remove managers.

When we started Blinkist, we started with a classical hierarchy structure that we learnt from companies we used to work for.

But then at some point, we saw the shortcomings of such organizations. Workers were less motivated, then us founders would always be a bottleneck because we would always need to take all the decisions and sometimes we were not experienced enough or we did not have the right information to make the smartest decisions.

We also faced politics coming our way.

We weren’t happy with this classic organization anymore and we did some research on what else is out there.

How could we not only build innovative products but also be an innovative organization for which people want to work for?

The result of this search was that we found Holacracy and we were very excited about it.

The promise of management free organization, which works much more sufficiently, makes people engage with employees in a deeper way, we bought into it.

We took some things which we liked and which we believed could solve problems that we faced.

What we implemented was an organization explicitly structured in circles where each circle has roles again. Each role can be energized by a person. As one person I have one or more roles and these roles are explicitly described somewhere.

The advantage of this is that there are no implicit expectations and also this provides a lot of clarity regarding everyone’s role in the organization.

With the implementation of this system, as a person I know this is what I am accountable for, this is my domain and I am allowed to make my own decisions within the purview of this domain.

While defining respective roles and circles, this has also helped to empower people to make their own decisions because they now have more clarity about what they are responsible for.

We also have a person who coordinates the various circles, someone, who is more experienced and helps people by coaching them.

Also, it is not a team leader who takes all the decisions but decision making is centralized among roles.

The main thing for us is to empower people to take their own decisions and to let them organize themselves.

The second thing we took from Holacracy was its meeting structure.

Each circle has a tactical meeting every week which has a clear, structured agenda which makes sure that we meet everyone every week and all the relevant information flows for the purpose of achieving transparency.

For taking the right decisions you need to have full information, be able to see the bigger picture.

These tactical meetings ensure the receiving of right information from everyone and put pressure on circle leaders shoulders and put it on the organization by having certain routines, so you do not need to have them in your head all the time.

Each Circle has its own tactical every week, then super circles have them too which helps to create transparency for everyone.

These two concepts are the most important and had the greatest impact on us.

We also recently wrote an article about it in our magazine where we stepped a little bit away from Holacracy.

We realized that when saying that we work by Holacracy and our company is inspired by it, our employees and people from outside were getting a different interpretation of this system.

When different interpretations exist, it is hard to follow the consistent approach.

So we decided to call it Blinkist’s operating system.

We wrote down the core guiding principles and around it the processes and guidelines which would cover things we find important for implementation of this system.

This created much more clarity among people.

The core values allow employees to make their own right decisions and make them feel confident that they can make such decisions freely because it is line with our values.

Abhik: What are some tips you can share on starting a Startup?

Holger: The first step is to take the plunge and just get started.

If there are people who have an idea and they are not sure whether they should do it or not, I think a lot of times it is easier than you think.

Sometimes just be confident and get started.

If you have a good team, a good idea, you believe in it, then make it happen. It is a lot easier than you think.

As a complex problem, it is challenging. It takes a long time but it consists of a lot of steps which you can easily take.

In that matter, how do you eat an elephant?

Step by step, piece by piece and that’s how you build a startup. The overall elephant seems to be very big and hard to eat but if you eat it piece by piece, it gets manageable.

Just get started and break down challenges to small manageable chunks would be one tip.

Then to focus and make sure you always know which piece to take on next.

Get advice from experienced entrepreneurs and look more for them than for investors or corporates.

Because investors will also give you advice and some of them are good, no doubt. But if those investors have not built a company before, then you will not get a lot of practical advice.

Sometimes they can help you on a strategic level but what you really need are more pragmatic ones which you can get from experienced entrepreneurs.

Dare to reach out to people via LinkedIn.

A lot of times people are nice enough to take 30 minutes to answer some questions.

Then learn to filter those pieces of advice.

Learn what is applicable for your business and what is not.

Abhik: Here is a burning question that a lot of Startup founders are faced with. How to divide equity?

Holger: This is hard to generalize.

It depends on specific situations.

Does everyone in a founding team have the same experience, do they invest the same amount of time, money, etc.

There are occasions where you have one experienced founder and more junior people, so in this case, it would be fair to give more equity to the experienced one.

There might be a situation where despite bringing intellectual acumen one also invests in a company while others don’t.

This can again become a factor to balance the division of equity.

There might be a situation where people join the company while the other founders already have worked on it.

So it is really hard to say.

What is important is to have an honest discussion about it with all the founders and find a way to please everyone and make it fair.

If you notice that from the beginning there is someone who feels that they have been treated unfairly, then this little seed of unhappiness will grow into a big conflict at some point.

Try not to start building your company with a conflict.

Talk about it with everyone, find a fair split, look each other in the eye, shake hands and go together.

Never revisit it and be happy with it.

Abhik: What are your favorite Blinkist books?

Holger: I love Mindset by Carol Dweck as it opens up a whole new perspective.

A lot of times people feel like they don’t have the talent and that’s why they did not achieve what they wanted to.

This book calls this thought a static mindset where you believe more in talent than in practice and growth.

On the contrary, the growth mindset teaches you to approach this problem differently.

It says you can be good at everything If you have had enough practice in your life.

So overall this book really helps you in understating these concepts and being reflective because in some situations you will have static mindset and in other ones, you will have a growth mindset.

What is important and helpful is to notice that when you approach a problem with a static mindset and then try to turn it into a growth one.

It can really move mountains. It motivates you to go through this problem or challenge head on.

I also love the book Losing my Virginity by Richard Branson.

It is really inspiring and tells an amazing story, both the blinks and the book.

Right now I keep my focus on books for entrepreneurs, for example, Ben Horowitz’s The Hard Thing About Hard Things.

This book is totally worth reading as a whole but also at the same time it is a book written in blinks.

It is actually a mix of blog articles, so you can read any chapter in about 15 minutes at most and rewind chapters everyday.

The book is full of practical advice with many stories which are very inspiring and interesting.

These are the three books I would recommend.

Abhik: What lies in the future of Blinkist?

Holger: Growth.

A lot of growth.

Our ambition for Blinkist is to become the leading destination for lifelong learners.

We want to be the brand people turn to when they want to learn something new but don’t know where to start with.

We want to be the entry point.

In order to get there, we need to continue to grow our brand, make it renowned, make more people use the app.

A lot of marketing challenges await us as we keep innovating our product.

Like I already said, our competitors are coming up, user behavior is changing, so we need to keep the product at the edge of what we can do.

We have a lot of ideas too, there are beta features, so stay tuned.

A lot of exciting things coming up soon.

Abhik: What is the life mantra you go by?

Holger: When it comes to professional life, the mantra I go by is Richard Branson’s:

“Screw it, let’s do it”

Just be pragmatic, don’t overthink.

Think about things but don’t overthink them.

Trust your gut feeling, take some calculated risks, just do things.

Be pragmatic.

Rather fail now and then learn from it than not do anything at all.

You think about it too much and then end up doing it too late.

In my personal life, there is an insight from The 7 habits of highly effective people.

Make time to sharpen the saw.

You won’t be a successful entrepreneur or happy person if you work seven days a week and only focus on your work because there is so much more in your life.

Try to balance it and try to focus on friends, family, leisure time, stuff which makes you happy beyond work, whether it is sports, music, etc., but make time for it.

Building a company is not a sprint.

It is a marathon and you need stamina for it.

Sharpen your saw, get some time off now or then and focus on work life balance.

Especially in early days, it is stressful.

It is not a 4 hour work week but having said that, do not make it a 72 hour work week over a long period of time, because chances are you will still not have a sustainable business.

It usually takes 7 years till a business becomes successful, till the exit, where you can successfully retreat.

So take a step back and have other people take some of the responsibilities to take pressure off your shoulders as this will make sure you work to make it to 7 years or longer without burning out.

So there you have it.

Basically, me and Holger spoke about every aspect of growing a sustainable business while being innovative and adaptive in the business approach.

Have a question for Holger or me? Write to us at abhik@thestartingidea.com. We are waiting!

Most importantly, share this article with a friend who is working on a startup.

Abhik Shome

Abhik helps entrepreneurs shorten their path to online growth with conversion marketing. He is a leading conversion marketing expert and online marketing thought leader. As CEO of Brand Bridge Solutions, an online marketing agency, Abhik's content has been featured in mainstream media outlets like Inc Magazine, Business Insider, Inc ASEAN, YourStory, and Influencive among others. Abhik is the Founder of The Starting Idea, a business growth magazine focused on giving fast-paced actionable marketing strategies to the modern day entrepreneur. He is also the founder of Product Know, an exclusive library of business software and resources. He has recently authored the book The Growth Toolbox covering 210+ tools to grow every aspect of a modern day business. Get it for FREE here. His blogs and articles have been shared and appreciated by top industry experts including Larry Kim, Founder of Wordstream & Mobile Monkey.

12 Best Growth Hacking Strategies and Examples of All Time

12 Best Growth Hacking Strategies and Examples of All Time

12 Best Growth Hacking Strategies and Examples of All Time

Abhik Shome

Founder and Editor-in-chief
The Starting Idea

Here are 12 innovative growth hacking strategies startups can use to grow exponentially in 2020. These are the same growth marketing strategies used by now iconic startups before they were famous.

We have arranged these startup growth hacking examples based on sheer ingenuity and unorthodox marketing creativity that made these startups first explode in the market.

But first, let’s tackle some basics.

What is growth hacking?

In simple words, growth hacking is an innovative and unorthodox way to get massive results fast while bypassing old-established processes.

In marketing terms, growth hacking means to implement non-traditional marketing strategies that are driven by creativity and data to get massive results fast, all the while spending little to no money on getting these results.

Growth hacking is often used by early-stage startups that are bootstrapped for funds.

What is the goal of a growth hacking strategy?

The ultimate goal of a growth hacking strategy plan is to get as many customers and leads as possible without spending too much money. That is why growth hacking is the go-to marketing response for an early-stage startup.

Now that we are clear on what exactly is growth hacking, and its goal, let’s dive right into some actionable strategies to grow your startup in 2020.

Read on to get a point by point breakdown of famous startup growth hacks along with the software and resources you need to execute the strategy yourself.

1. The YouTube Growth Hack

One of the no.1 growth hacking strategies for new startups is to grow a brand on YouTube.

YouTube is one of the biggest channels for content consumption. A long term strategy to grow your brand here can give you a far bigger ROI than buying ad space on television or billboards.

When you consistently post valuable content, it builds trust, reputation, and makes your brand trigger specific associations that can benefit your product greatly.

One of the best examples of a famous startup using YouTube to growth hack its brand is the camera company, GoPro.

GoPro used YouTube effectively to showcase its overall product experience by posting videos captured through the device.

After demonstrating its high-definition video experience and building a fanbase, it doubled down on brand building by asking its users to post their videos and tagging GoPro.

GoPro would then go on to post the best fan-made videos on its official channel, thus giving acknowledgment and exposure towards its fanbase.

This led to massive relationship building and brand loyalty for GoPro among its fans.

All of this led to increased views on YouTube, and ultimately more loyal customers for the brand. GoPro is currently at 7.93 million subscribers and counting.

Imagine how much it would have cost the company to reach out to such a massive audience with paid ads?

Another great example of YouTube growth hacking is Red Bull.

Being an energy drink, Red Bull has its brand revolving around an active, high adrenaline lifestyle.

They effectively promote this lifestyle by posting videos about daredevil stunts and athletic feats, thus living the values of a high energy brand.

The channel has over 8.95 million subscribers and has done wonders for Red Bull’s brand association.

How to apply this growth hack for your product?

To implement this for your brand, you need to start a YouTube channel and start posting consistent content around a topic.

The best idea for content creators right now will be to post consistent content on a specific niche and create videos giving solutions to all the problems in that niche.

You can use a growth hacking tool like TubeBuddy to grow your YouTube channel in a fast and strategic way.

It will give you critical insights, like search volume, ranking difficulty, related keywords, and tags.

All of this can help you optimize your YouTube SEO and help you strike YouTube gold by making your videos rank high in your niche.

The nifty tool also comes with other creator-focused tools like thumbnail generator, end screen templates, and canned responses.

A must-have tool for all YouTube creators.

2. Product Integration

Why build a user base from scratch when you can leverage the product in front of a beloved platform with tens of millions of highly engaged and active users?

This growth hack is called the platform integration hack and has been made famous by Airbnb‘s use of Craigslist‘s platform to grow their user base substantially.

Though Airbnb was a much more sophisticated and verifiable platform than Craigslist, it lacked the Craigslist user base.

So in order to build its own user base, Airbnb implemented a platform integration hack by listing all the listings in their platform simultaneously on Craigslist.

Any user searching for vacation rentals ran into a barrage of professional listings with Airbnb’s name inviting clients to click on it.

Side by side, Airbnb also used an email campaign to inform people who posted on Craigslist about how much more easy and convenient it was to post on Airbnb too.

How to apply this growth hacking strategy for your startup?

You can implement this startup growth hack by first figuring out the platforms that have a large amount of your user base.

Think about the sites and places your target customer frequents and then create tie-ups with these companies and properties to promote your product.

The tie-up can be monetary, where you offer them a certain amount of money in exchange for the placement.

Alternatively, you can offer to make them your affiliate where you pay them a certain percentage per sale made through their platform.

If you are a SaaS startup, you can tie up with a site like AppSumo to get the initial sales and user base for your product.

AppSumo is a SaaS marketplace with almost a million subscribers. They run lifetime deals on software and effectively market new SaaS startups to generate sizeable revenue.

As a startup, you can tie up with them and offer your product on their platform.

3. Build Virality into your product.

Once a product has virality built into its functionality, the user base can skyrocket fairly quickly.

Take the case of WhatsApp. Once you started to use the product, you felt encouraged to invite your friends and family on to the platform so they can interact with you via free calls, messages, etc.

As they came on board and started using it, they felt the same encouragement to invite people in their own network so they can use the product to its full potential.

Thus virality was built into the very functionality of WhatsApp thus led to its massive popularity. Most platform based products have virality built into them.

Some other examples of platforms with viral factors are FacebookCraigslist, and LinkedIn.

How to apply this growth hacking strategy for your startup?

To implement thisstartup growth hack, you need to provide a certain value (with WhatsApp it was free calls on the internet) which is exclusive to your platform and can be availed when other users get on the platform with you.

4. Have a fairly simple homepage.

Having a very simple homepage helps to make a decision-making process much simpler as it removes confusion or over thinking amongst the minds of potentials users/customers.

Some companies which have had great success implementing this are QuoraTwitter, and Dropbox.

How to apply this growth hacking strategy for your startup?

To implement this startup growth hack include one headline highlighting the value proposition of your startup along with a simple and clear CTA.

This makes the users understand what you and your startup are all about in a very quick, simple, no-frills way.

Clear and concise information allows them to take action fast.

5. Implement gamification into the product

Implementing gamification (point scoring, giving ranks, creating competition with other users, having rules of play) is a much-overlooked marketing technique which can instantly hack growth of a product.

Human beings by nature are competitive and by creating the atmosphere of game playing with rewards for better performance can lead to instantly high graphs of engagement in the product.

The company which has mastered this the best is LinkedIn.

LinkedIn users are prompted to fill their profile, unlocking various levels of achievement, based on how much information they upload on their profiles.

The levels of achievement are marked with names such as All Star, expert, advanced, etc., which act as great social proofs in a user’s professional network.

Another employment of gamification is the endorsement feature where LinkedIn users can be endorsed by each other for particular skillsets.

Each skill shows the number of times it has been endorsed by other users with their profile pic showing next to the skillset.

Profiles with endorsements are 13x more viewed according to LinkedIn.

How to apply this growth hacking strategy for your startup?

To implement this growth hack for your startup business, use a tool like Vyper to implement gamification, and get your users engaged with your content.

Use their gamification widget tool to give points to your users when they complete an action (for example, submit their email to access a product).

Next, as they get the access link via their email. You can offer more rewards that the user can unlock when they gain more points.

These points can be gained by doing other actions like subscribe to your YouTube channel, follow you on Twitter, etc.

6. The Branding hack

It basically means getting your brand and its USP featured within the operations of the product as a free advertisement.

This hack was best used by Hotmail in 1996 when it had around 20,000 subscribers.

It opted to market its service directly to the friends, family, and colleagues of its users by adopting a fairly simple strategy – Put a clickable tagline at the end of every mail sent from its platform saying, “Get your free email from Hotmail”.

When the recipient of the email clicked on this tagline, he or she got directed to the signup page of Hotmail.

This growth hack alone skyrocketed the company user base to 1 million users within 6 months of its implementation. 

Implement it by featuring heavy to light branding within a freemium business model.

Your branding is featured when the user uses the free plan of your product.

How to apply this growth hacking strategy for your startup?

To implement this growth hack for your startup business, create a coming soon landing page with some exciting copy that incentivizes the user to sign up for launch updates.

Once they sign up, make them re-direct to a viral waiting list page. You can use Vyper to get this done. On the waiting list page, show them their position on the waiting list.

Next, incentivize them to climb higher on the waiting list by offering rewards for people who will be on top 10 or top 20 of the list on the product launch date.

These points can be awarded when the user does an action like your page, share your blog post, or follow you on Twitter.

Also, make sure that the rewards on offer connect with the problem that your main soon-to-be-launched product solves.

It can be giving upgrades in personalization, swifter delivery, or complementary products to make the original product more impactful.

All this will make your channels grow while making your users highly engaged and excited about your product launch.

7. Create a viral waiting list.

Another very interesting growth hacking method filled with the vitality quotient is a viral waiting list.

Typically when you launch a product, you will create a landing page to describe it to a wider audience.

The hack here is to make use of this landing page one step further and take advantage of it even before the product launch.

How to apply this growth hacking strategy for your startup?

The idea is to turn your landing page into a viral waiting list.

To implement this growth hack for your startup, you can use a tool like Vyper or ReferralHero.

What it does is it places your subscribers into a queue, which enables you to create a rewards-based program.

So suppose a user gets enticed by your offering and signs up for your launch updates, he/she will be displayed the position they are on in the waiting list.

Here, you can create a rewards program and announce whoever is on the top 10 of the waiting list, will get a special reward (the reward can be a webinar, an exclusive ebook, exclusive add-on, whatever corresponds and resonates best with your product).

The rules for climbing the waiting ladder will be to share the page on Facebook, tweet about the product, etc.

This will create virality and popularize your product message, thus increase its hype and curiosity before the launch.

The end result will be higher customer/user acquisition even before launch.

The app will turn them into your brand ambassadors.

British growth hacker Vin Clancy used this growth hacking method prior to launching his book, Secret Sauce, thus creating the most successful Kickstarter program for the niche of growth hacking.

This growth hack was also used by Mailbox.

After downloading the Mailbox app, you would be told exactly which number in the queue are you.

8. The Referral hack also known as the ‘Dropbox hack’.

This is a highly effective hack and though Dropbox did not invent this method they surely are one of the most famous examples of this hack, as they successfully increased their sign ups by 60% by using this simple hack.

Anyone who signed up for Dropbox got an option to increase their storage space by inviting their friends to try the product.

The minute the referred friend signed up for Dropbox, the original user received more storage.

But what were the incentives for the referred friend to sign up?

Dropbox offered extra cloud storage to the referred friend too if they signed up using the link given by the original user.

As mentioned, this increased the sign ups dramatically and generated viral demand for the links among friend circles.

How to apply this growth hacking strategy for your startup?

This hack is perfect for SaaS companies which work on some sort of credit per month basis and can be implemented by using a tool like EarlyParrot. One key point to Dropbox’s success is the deep integration of their referral program within their SaaS.

9. The Data fuelled growth hack

Ask any growth hacker and they will say data analytics is by far one of the best resources they can have at their disposal.

This is because seeing the correct data can tell you a lot about what is working in a business, what is not, and what needs to be done. 

Twitter used data to solve an onboarding problem it faced early on in its life.

Twitter found out that a new sign up will likely become a core user if it follows 30 or more people.

Following this, Twitter started to focus on suggesting new users an option to import contacts in order to hit this number.

How to apply this growth hacking strategy for your startup?

To implement this growth hacking strategy, start by studying your analytics and data.

Use the freely available Google Analytics to study how your users are interacting with your website and what pages are most popular.

Next, you can go pro by using a freemium heatmap tool like Hotjar to study the aspects of your site where users are most engaged and also the areas where they are dropping off.

Also, you can use Hotjar to create user feedback surveys, asking people to rate various features and aspects of your site, and inviting them for suggestions.

All of this will give you enough ideas to optimize your product for growth.

10. Seed the initial content.

A lot of famous companies and products used this technique to generate Initial user interest and eventual traction.

Create as much content as possible internally and put it out there on your website.

This method is especially useful for platform based websites which rely on user generated content.

The founders of Reddit used this tactic to fill their UGC based site with the initial content which acted as an incentive for other users to start creating their own content on the site.

How to apply this growth hacking strategy for your startup ?

You can implement this growth hack if you are mainly a content-based company.

For example, if you have a blog, you can start by publishing a bunch of articles initially and promote them through cheap FB and Twitter ads.

Below the article, you can have Call-To-Action inviting readers to write for your blog with a link taking them to your “write for us” page.

On the “write for us” page, you can list down all the requirements and invite the user to submit their content piece for your site.

11. Create exclusivity around your product.

People seek exclusiveness and rewards.

Hence, one way to make your product sought-after by many people is by restricting its access and not giving it to them too easily.

If you can make prospective users perform a certain task or work in order to “earn” your product, then they start seeing your product as a reward and thus position it as such.

Another way is to restrict access and create an ambiance of “inner circle” built around your product so that one can get access to it only through an invitation. 

Gmail used this approach by letting only invited individuals to sign up and use its product.

This ‘entry by invitation only’ approach created a huge curiosity and demand for the product as it was not accessible to all.

Another famous startup which skyrocketed through this growth hack was Pinterest.

Exclusivity fuelled desire and led to explosive growth for the social media platform. 

How to apply this growth hacking strategy for your startup?

To implement this strategic growth hack for your startup, think of aspects of your product that you can make gated with VIP access.

Think of a secret plan, or a higher than premium plan, which is only available for access once a year.

This kind of exclusivity will create intense demand for your product.

12. The ‘Tinder’ growth hack

This is a very interesting hack which involves first targeting the right network (most preferred users who will drive other users) and then installing an incentive tactic as a method to get these preferred users involved with the product.

After this is done successfully, the presence of the preferred users will drive more highly engaged users into the product who will now see the product at a higher value.

Tinder used this interesting tactic to grow its initial base of most preferred users.

They organized exclusive frat parties at colleges and allowed entrance to only those students who downloaded the application.

Once these hip and influential frat users were onboard and started using the app, it attracted other users towards the platform to interact with them for hopes of finding a match and so on it spread across the United States.

Tinder targeted sorority girls as its early adopters. They would go to sorority chapters, give a presentation and have all the girls in the meeting install the app.

After that, they would go to the corresponding brother’s fraternity and make them open the app to see a platform filled with cute girls, which got them interested in using the app.

How to apply this growth hacking strategy for your startup?

You can implement this growth hack by targeting your most preferred users (users whose onboarding will increase the value of the app and bring more users which in a dating application’s case are female users) at places where they are likely to be and incentivize them in some way to come onboard.

This event will trigger the network effect to take shape and bring in more users who will now see the platform having a higher value and thus engage more with it.

Another way to apply this growth hack can be to distribute your product to influencers in exchange for an honest review or shoutout.

The influencers will then post on social media about your product or be seen using it by their large fan base, thus leading to mass promotion and reach for your product.

And with this point, we finish our list. As you can see, growth hacks by design invoke creative, unorthodox tactics as means to achieve growth. 

 A lot of them are not conventional, but I guess that’s what makes it all the MORE FUN!

Tell us what you think of these growth hacks and SHARE these famous stories behind them with your friends.

Have a famous growth hack story which you would like to share and get featured for? Share it in the comments section.

Abhik Shome

Abhik helps entrepreneurs shorten their path to online growth with conversion marketing. He is a leading conversion marketing expert and online marketing thought leader. As CEO of Brand Bridge Solutions, an online marketing agency, Abhik's content has been featured in mainstream media outlets like Inc Magazine, Business Insider, Inc ASEAN, YourStory, and Influencive among others. Abhik is the Founder of The Starting Idea, a business growth magazine focused on giving fast-paced actionable marketing strategies to the modern day entrepreneur. He is also the founder of Product Know, an exclusive library of business software and resources. He has recently authored the book The Growth Toolbox covering 210+ tools to grow every aspect of a modern day business. Get it for FREE here. His blogs and articles have been shared and appreciated by top industry experts including Larry Kim, Founder of Wordstream & Mobile Monkey.

10 Heroic Entrepreneurs Who Achieved Success Late in Life

10 Heroic Entrepreneurs Who Achieved Success Late in Life

10 Heroic Entrepreneurs Who Achieved Success Late in Life

Abhik Shome

Founder and Editor-in-chief
The Starting Idea

We all love and adore stories of those young 20 something entrepreneurs who come to the scene out of nowhere and build a startup worth millions of dollars in valuation. It is quite inspiring indeed. But not everyone’s luck and destiny works this way.

In fact, for most of us, it follows quite a different narrative filled with years of struggle, failures, and rejection to pivot into what people refer to as success.

As Janet Fitch rightly said, 

“The phoenix must always burn to emerge”.

The idea to persevere and never give up always strikes a cord with us due to the heroic phoenix-like quality it embodies in itself.

Indeed, this struggle and the hustle to get there and to make it has formed some of the most romantic and intriguing stories in the history of entrepreneurship.

We at The Starting Idea bring you a collection of our favorites.

Enjoy reading.

Ray Kroc

The story of Ray Kroc for which he will be forever remembered as one of the greatest businessmen of all time did not begin till he was 51 years old.

In 1954, being half a century old, Kroc was struggling to make ends meet as a multi-mixer salesman, when he came across Richard and Maurice McDonald’s hamburger shop in San Bernardino, California.

Always curious about finding new business opportunities, Kroc became increasingly inquisitive when the McDonald’s brothers ordered eight of his mixers.

The McDonalds brothers focused on a few items: hamburgers, cheeseburgers, milkshakes and french fries.

Kroc was impressed by the efficiency and popularity of the restaurant and saw a huge opportunity in the business.

In one of the greatest success stories of all time, Kroc took a small but successful California restaurant and expanded it to what it is today, a worldwide chain of 400 thousand employees, 22 billion dollars in revenue and a logo which is globally recognized.

To know more about Ray Kroc, read his official biography here.

Reid Hoffman

Photo by Joi, distributed under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

After graduating from Stanford, Reid Hoffman wanted to be an academician but fate had other plans for him, gigantic plans to be precise.

He joined Apple Computers where he worked on a project called eWorld, which was more or less an early version of what we now associate and understand as a social network.

Post Apple, he created another social networking platform by the name of SocialNet.

Reid kept on inculcating his learnings and thus at the ripe age of 35, he used all his past failures as the building blocks of his mega success – LinkedIn.

His net worth is estimated to be 3.2 billion dollars. Rest, as they say, is history.

Robert Noyce

Photo by Intel Free Press, distributed under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 license.

Obliging to the trend and thus making it a hattrick for the letter R, comes our next great icon in Robert Noyce.

Noyce found success at the age of 41 when after working in a number of technological ventures, he finally achieved his life-changing success when he founded Intel with the great Gordon Moore as his co-founder in 1968.

Robert Noyce’s estimated net worth is 3.7 billion dollars.

Stan Lee
Photo by Gage Skidmore, distributed under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 license.

Who better to break the trend of letter R, then the father of Marvel himself.

He achieved his first major success at the age of 39 when he wrote a comic book, ‘The Fantastic Four’ in 1961.

Teaming up with Jack Kirby, Lee went on to create many iconic characters who are now part of pop culture psyche.

Stan Lee’s estimated worth is said to be around 50 million dollars.

Chaleo Yoovidhya

Image credit: Bangkok Post.

He might be one of the lesser known entrepreneurs in the list, but wait till you find out what he founded.

After years of struggle in a poor farming family, he shifted to Bangkok and started his own company, TC Pharmaceuticals.

A chance to meet Austrian businessman, Dietrich Mateschitz was going to change the script of his life.

They decided to market Yoovidya’s tonic drink to international markets which resulted in achieving his success at the golden age of 61.

His net worth was estimated to be 5 billion dollars.

What was this said drink which made Yoovidhya so highly successful?

Well, It is known to give you wings. Redbull.

Henry Ford

Refusing to work on the family farm, Henry Ford left home at 16.

He got himself employed as a machinist in Detroit, thus starting out on a path which will eventually lead him to establish Ford Motors, at the age of 40.

Though the rumored Nazi party links make him a very controversial character, he does fit the bill of an entrepreneur who achieved the heights of success very late in his life.

His net worth was estimated to be an astonishing 199 billion dollars.

Tim Westergren

Photo by David Shankbone, distributed under a CC BY 3.0 license.

Tim Westergren was a failed musician, a nanny, and a hippy.

In 1999, he founded his first company Pandora at the age of 35.

At the beginning, it was a hardware company which allowed stores to play music.

It took Pandora another 2 years to become an online radio channel during which Westergren convinced his fifty employees to work for him without pay.

In 2010, Time Magazine listed him as among the 100 most influential people in the World.

The company went public in 2011, reporting 138 million dollars in revenue for that fiscal year.

Jack Ma

Photo by Natalie Behring, distributed under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 license.

The first time Jack Ma used a computer was in his 30s.

He failed his college entrance exam three times.

He applied for almost thirty different jobs but was rejected again and again.

In 1995, at age 31, Ma started his first company called ‘China Yellow Pages’. Within three years, his company had made 5 million Chinese Yuan which was equivalent to 800 thousand dollars.

Later, at age 35, he founded the company he is famous for today, Alibaba.

Jack Ma’s estimated net worth is 28.3 billion dollars.

Fun fact, Jack Ma has never written a line of code in his life.

Peter Thiel

Photo by Dan Taylor, distributed under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

Before he was one of the most successful tech investors, Thiel was a law school graduate from Stanford Law.

In 1992, he got a job as a lawyer at a Manhattan Law firm, a place he utterly hated and described as “from the outside everyone wanted to get into, but on the inside everybody wanted to leave”.

After working 7 months in the firm, Thiel left and joined Credit Suisse as a derivatives trader, BUT his life calling was still 3 years afar.

In 1999, he co-founded PayPal and served as CEO of the company until its sale to eBay in 2002 for a whopping 1.5 billion dollars.

He will later go on to make an irreplaceable mark in business history by being the first professional investor in a then little known social media startup called ‘Facebook’.

Peter Thiel’s estimated net worth is 2.7 billion.

Harland David Sanders

Photo by Edgy01, distributed under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 license.

And we have saved the best for the last.

Col.Sanders has a story which by no means follows the common path of entrepreneurship.

Witnessed his father’s death at an early age, he lost multiple jobs which included losing his position as a lawyer after a courtroom brawl with his own client.

But Sanders had a will made of steel, and never gave up, which eventually became the trait which led him to mega success.

Sanders had a special chicken recipe which gained massive popularity while he worked at a service station in Corbin, Kentucky.

When a fire destroyed the entire station, Sanders rebuilt the location as a motel and a 140-seat restaurant.

Thus, at age 62, when others conclude their professional lives and lead a life of retirement, Sanders franchised his ‘Kentucky Fried Chicken’ for the first time. Rest, as they say, is business history.

Today, KFC has over 18,800 outlets and is available in 118 different countries and territories.

So, what you think of our list? Whose story appeals to you the most? Did we miss out on anyone of your favourites? Let us know in the comments section. See you on the next one.

P.S. If you feel inspired SHARE this with your friends. 

Abhik Shome

Abhik helps entrepreneurs shorten their path to online growth with conversion marketing. He is a leading conversion marketing expert and online marketing thought leader. As CEO of Brand Bridge Solutions, an online marketing agency, Abhik's content has been featured in mainstream media outlets like Inc Magazine, Business Insider, Inc ASEAN, YourStory, and Influencive among others. Abhik is the Founder of The Starting Idea, a business growth magazine focused on giving fast-paced actionable marketing strategies to the modern day entrepreneur. He is also the founder of Product Know, an exclusive library of business software and resources. He has recently authored the book The Growth Toolbox covering 210+ tools to grow every aspect of a modern day business. Get it for FREE here. His blogs and articles have been shared and appreciated by top industry experts including Larry Kim, Founder of Wordstream & Mobile Monkey.

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