Entrepreneur-ing In Public: Journey Log #16
Audience still trumps everything
I teach entrepreneurship at Duke and I’m publicly growing a company — Autopest — from $0 to $100k/year in revenue in order to help entrepreneurs better understanding the process of building startups. Learn more about my journey here.
In my most recent attempts to build an audience for Autopest the past couple of weeks, I’ve had a big success and an epic failure. The big success is that I got a record number of new signups. The epic failure is that none of those signups were a result of my direct efforts to promote Autopest.
So what happened? And, more importantly, what lessons can we all learn from my strange week?
Let’s start with some context setting. As I shared two weeks ago, I decided to execute a cold-emailing campaign to see if it would be a viable strategy for driving Autopest signups.
I was confident in the strategy. After all, prior to teaching entrepreneurship, I spent the better part of a decade executing cold email marketing campaigns for my previous SaaS businesses. I know how to create good email lists, I know how to write effective email cadences, and I know how to use the technologies necessary to send large volumes of email. What could possibly go wrong?
As Murphy’s Law famously reminds us, anything that can go wrong, will go wrong, and that’s pretty much what happened…
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It all started with a bad choice I made when I chose my bulk emailing platform. As any of you know if you’ve ever sent large volumes of cold emails, the only practical way to do so is by using an email drip software. Unfortunately, having been out of the game for a while, the platforms I previously used have all matured and now cost hundreds of dollars a month.
I wasn’t willing to spend that kind of money on this experiment, so I cheaped-out and found a budget email drip software built by what appears to be a small startup. My email campaign ran smoothly for 10 days. After that, the software somehow lost its sync with my email and stopped sending the email sequences properly. By doing so, it triggered my Gmail sending limits and then got the special domain I’d purchased for sending email campaigns flagged as SPAM.
Let’s call all of this Lesson #1: Cheaper isn’t always better. Sometimes, the first result on a Google search is the first result simply because it’s the best. Don’t get cute and try to save a few bucks on the cheaper, unproven options at the expense of hours of debugging, fixing, and screwups.
I’m not going to name the software I used because it’s clearly a young company trying to improve. But I also won’t be giving them a good Yelp review. (Incidentally, do people still use Yelp?)
However, before the software completely fell apart, I managed to email nearly 1,000 people at least a couple times each. It’s not a huge dataset in the cold emailing world, but, in this case, it seems informative enough. Of the 1,000 people I emailed and approximately 2,000 emails I sent, I got a grand total of…
…drum roll, please…
Zero Autopest signups!
Clearly, that’s no good. Even one new signup would have been fine. One new signup would have at least given me some baseline data. It would have told me for every 1,000 people I email, I could at least expect one new user. It would have meant if I emailed a million people, I’d get 1,000 users. Sure, emailing a million people would be expensive and time-consuming. But it’s a real number.
In contrast, getting zero signups tells me nothing. For all I know it means emailing a million people would get me zero new users.
To be clear, I’m not mad or upset about anything that happened. This is how entrepreneurship works. Heck, it’s why I’m doing this entire series of entrepreneur-ing in public. I’m being a real entrepreneur showing all the f-ups and oh-crap moments so you know they happen to everyone. As entrepreneurs, we test things, we fail, and we keep iterating until we find something that works. That’s the job.
But there’s more to the job than just perseverance. Entrepreneurs also have to be nimble and adaptable because sometimes something else comes along and points you in a different direction.
That’s exactly what happened to me this past week, and it brings me to my “big success.” As I mentioned, I had more signups — including paid signups — for Autopest this past week than any week prior. It clearly wasn’t because of my cold emails. Instead, it was because one of my Medium articles went crazy viral with more reads in a single day than even my most popular articles get over a lifetime.
The viral Medium article drove hundreds of signups for my Entrepreneur Office Hours email that contains an ad for Autopest. That ad got lots of clicks, and those clicks led to a bunch of new Autopest users.
For reference, on an average day Autopest gets 5-6 free signups. The day the article went viral, it got 35, which is roughly 6x. In addition, three of those signups have already become paying users at $15/mo.
Let’s summarize all of the above as Lesson #2: audience is still more important than anything else in entrepreneurship. If you have thousands of people looking at something, you can market to those people, and marketing has value.
To be fair, this isn’t a new lesson. I feel like I’ve been screaming it from the rooftops for years.
It’s also not a particularly actionable lesson. Yes, we all know that having large audiences matters, but that doesn’t mean we can turn around tomorrow and magically get thousands of people looking at our startups. So how does this lesson impact my work going forward with Autopest or your work going forward with whatever startup you’re currently building?
At the very least, let it be a reminder of what I’ve written before and what I’m sure I’ll write again:
You can have the greatest product in the world, but, if nobody knows about it, it doesn’t matter.
In other words, whatever you’re focused on or obsessing about with your startup, make sure some of your brainpower is going toward building audience and creating awareness. The bigger the audience you can reach, the better your odds of success.