What we learned growing Winnie’s network of parents from a small private beta to a booming national community.

Acquiring your first 100k active users is an art, but a messy one—especially if you don’t have a lot of money to spend on marketing and paid acquisition. Winnie crossed this important milestone earlier this year, so I wanted to share some insights about how we did it, with a special focus on strategies that work for almost any product and cost no (or very little) money.

What We Built

Simply put, Winnie is an app that helps parents find the information they need to be successful. This information can be local (e.g. nearby daycares with open spaces) or it can be topical (e.g. help with breastfeeding).

Almost all of this information is crowdsourced, which makes Winnie a network-effect product — every user we acquire increases the value of the product to other users, primarily through the content they contribute but also through their engagement with other users. Products like this have certain natural advantages when it comes to growth, but they also have a tough uphill climb in the early days when they may suffer from empty room syndrome or lack the data that early adopters are seeking. So how do you get started when you have very few users and kickstart the flywheel that delivers long-term organic growth?

What Worked

Grow even before you launch

Pre-launch startups often run a private beta with friends & family. This is a great practice, but it’s important to make sure that you have some growth mechanism for that beta, whether through invitations or simply making the beta public. Think about it—your goal with a beta is to test the effectiveness of the product, but shouldn’t the ability of that product to grow be one of the most important things to test?

Winnie’s private beta grew from 10 to over 400 people in 3 months, driven almost entirely by invitations and personal referrals. Not only was this core group of early adopters extremely helpful to us, they also gave us confidence that this was a product people wanted and would grow on its own.

Go big or go home

It was very tempting to keep Winnie hyperlocal and just focus on one or two markets to start, but that approach cuts you off from a huge number of acquisition channels where you can’t target by locale (most notably for us, the App Stores). It’s also problematic to limit growth when one of the product theses is that it gets better the more people use it.

So while we were ramping up for our v1 launch, we made the tough call to launch Winnie everywhere, even in regions where we had almost no data. We gave these users a different onboarding flow, where we allowed them to unlock the product by contributing reviews. And it’s a good thing we did, because Apple featured Winnie on the front page of the App Store immediately after we launched. Without the Early Access flow, we would have been turning those users away at the door; instead, we used the opportunity to bootstrap valuable content.

The Early Access flow from Winnie’s v1 launch.

Do run ads — but use them to test value propositions

It’s very hard to grow if you don’t know how to position your product effectively. Luckily, we have the benefit of self-service advertising platforms — in particular Facebook and Google—to help you very efficiently test ideas and creative with different demographics. With even a very modest spend, you can try a ton of ideas and see what performs the best. This can also give you good data about what people are looking for; in one test we found that people responded especially well to “find places where kids eat free” so we invested in the content and it’s now one of our most popular features.

Do the work to get featured by Apple & Google

App store featuring is the closest thing we’ve had to “act of God” growth — it can give you a huge influx of new users, but you have little control over when it happens. That said, Winnie has been featured several times in both stores, largely due to the fact that we’ve done the work to make ourselves eligible and attractive for featuring.

I could write a whole blog post about how to get the blessings of the app store gods, but here are the high level points:

  • Ignore the siren song of “build once, deploy anywhere” and build native apps that are responsive, stable, and showcase the power of the platform.
  • Both Apple & Google have extremely detailed design and UI guidelines — respect them.
  • Invest in a unique and beautiful app icon, as well as striking promotional art assets.
  • Incorporate platform integrations when you can, for example building in Apple Pay support when Apple is heavily promoting it on the store.

Remember that sharing is also about communication

Framing sharing as a communication action increased social sharing 300%.

Providing affordance for sharing your content or product is certainly important, but it turns out the way you frame that action can make a big difference in adoption. Early on, we had a Share button on every post, but noticed that it wasn’t getting a lot of usage. Instead, our users were asking us for ways to save posts to revisit later—along with an easy way to share those bookmarks with their spouses and partners.

It occured to us that some users may not see themselves as “sharers”, but nearly everyone uses a communication product of some kind to coordinate with friends and family. So we removed the Share button and replaced it with a Save button that then prompts you to share the post. This prompt is framed more around communication than around broadcasting the content, and it worked astonishingly well—social shares shot up over 300%.

Always start with demand

From the very beginning we imagined Winnie as a place where parents could not only connect with one another but with the businesses, service providers, educators and medical professionals that they rely upon to raise their children and care for their families. However, such a vision relies on the successful development of a two-sided ecosystem, an extremely daunting task for any startup with limited resources.

Winnie’s (magical!) daycare & preschool search started as a data project and grew to be one of our best acquisition channels.

We decided to approach this problem by starting with demand — the consumptive audience of parents looking for information — and creating the supply ourselves. Many of our early growth initiatives were actually data acquisition projects, such as creating fully-researched listings for over 5000 daycares and preschools in the Bay Area. This turned out to be a good move, as this valuable data brought on a loyal audience of parents that now organically attracts businesses to provide that content themselves. (For further reading be sure to check out Ben Thompson’s Aggregation Theory.)

Stop optimizing the product for the audience you already have

As a product designer, one of the things I have to be very disciplined about is not overly focusing on the current iteration of the product. At first, Winnie was a very useful app for parents of babies and toddlers, as it could help you find restaurants with high chairs and parks with changing tables. However, it had very little to offer parents of older children in those early days.

We knew that in order for Winnie to work we needed it to be as big as possible, so instead of doubling down on making our app a great changing table finder, we opted instead to build features that unlock new cohorts of users. One example is daycare & preschool search, which brought on a slightly older group of parents with 3 to 5 year olds. Another is topic pages, which allowed us to build relevant content around special interests including teens & pre-teensblended familiessingle parents and more.

What Didn’t Work

In-person marketing events

While these are great for branding and can be a good way to cultivate a sense of community among your users, events are extremely time-consuming. Especially for a team of all engineers, the ROI was almost never worth it for us compared to larger-scale growth projects we could spend our time on.

Being mobile-only

This was probably the biggest mistake we made early on. While we correctly sized up our target market (millennial parents) as heavy consumers of apps, when it comes to growth the web is still hugely important. These days the lion’s share of our organic growth comes from web traffic in the form of organic search, social shares and word of mouth. Mobile-first is great. Mobile-only is not.

Relying on push notifications alone

Another common mobile-first error here. It’s tempting to think that if you have an app installed on someone’s phone, it will be easy to reactivate them because you can use push to bring them back into the app. However, just because push is an option doesn’t mean you should neglect more traditional channels like email. Email is still very important — don’t neglect it!