It was the year 2016.
After my first failed attempt at building and growing a startup, I started looking for the next idea. I lost all my savings in the first startup and was broke, but I guess I still had the itch that I need to build a startup. When I told my intention to build the next startup to the guy who helped me develop the app for the first startup, he said that he wants to be my cofounder. That was a good sign as he ran a software dev company and was agreeing to fund a fixed amount for the first-year expenses. I struggled a lot with hiring the right tech folks in my first startup, so having dev folks from day 1 was a big respite for me.
We shortlisted a few ideas but after analyses, none of them could make it. Gaurav, my to-be cofounder, did a weekend project around a year back (in 2015) which was received really well on Product Hunt and Reddit. He didn’t pursue it as he was focused on his software services company. We decided to work on that product as the idea seemed to be liked by potential users. The idea was to build a programming community to find the best online courses. A community like StackOverflow and Reddit where users will submit the programming courses/tutorials they liked and other folks of the community will vote on the courses they liked. Over time, the best courses bubble up to the top of the page. The product was named Hackr.io.
We spent a long time (around 2 weeks) deciding on the equity split. As I would be working full-time for the startup and my cofounder was putting in money and providing his tech team, there was some back and forth on what should be the right equity split. Finally, we agreed to do 50-50. After jotting down a basic cofounders' agreement in Google Docs, we kickstarted the journey.
As MVP was already running, we could focus on growth from day 1. The goal was to keep building features (including paid features) and keep growing the product.
Building features journey
Initially, we focused on building new free features and functionalities to improve UX and grow the product. One feature worth mentioning was finding a local programming buddy. Learning to code alone is tough, and people drop out from online courses/MOOCs in large numbers. We thought that learning to code in a group/cohort will increase the probability that a learner won’t drop out. Via the programming buddy feature, we connected learners with other learners hyperlocally in their neighborhoods across the globe. This feature got a good response from the community but didn’t survive in the long run as the engagement was pretty low after a few weeks.
We built several paid features. Features worth citing are on-demand paid debugging assistance and launching instructor-led Hackr online Bootcamp. None of the paid features worked, so we were back to the free (ad/affiliate supported) product.
User growth journey
I gained some marketing and growth experience in my first startup, so we decide to go full throttle in increasing traffic (marketing term for website users/visitors) to the website. For a free product, revenue is mostly proportional to the traffic. More traffic means more affiliate and ad revenue. With this in mind, we double down on increasing our website traffic.
We tried every possible trick in digital marketing to grow the market:
- I went to various offline programming events/conferences to promote Hackr.io. (When I didn’t get a chance to be one of the sponsors in an event, I fixed my promotion material outside the event and was chastised for that)
- We sponsored hackathons and tech-college festivals to get some visibility.
- Social media marketing: we hired and tried many freelancers to grow our users via social media organically.
- One time, we hired around 200 interns across 100+ colleges in India to promote our product in their colleges.
- Sent t-shirts and hoodies to super-users and contest winners.
- Influencer marketing: paid tech influencers to create videos about Hackr.io and promote Hackr to their followers
- Started a blog and focused on content marketing and SEO.
- We reached out to various programming/tech publishers/blogs and wrote a ton of guest posts.
- Am sure that we tried tons of other growth hacks as well. One thing I realized is that the best growth hack is to try every possible growth hack on the internet. Means, it’s a lot of hard work and not any particular growth hack that will work in the long run.
The best growth hack is persistence. Consistently find and try growth techniques.
After various experiments, we found out that SEO worked best for us. So we went full throttle on SEO. We started a blog because we realized that content is the king for SEO rankings. Our website traffic kept growing slowly and steadily. We focused on affiliate income as our primary source of revenue, as I didn't like ads and found them intrusive. Our dogged perseverance took traffic on Hackr to more than 1 million pageviews per month.
We always stayed a tiny team of 4-9 folks (with help from tons of freelancers) may be because a free product can’t sustain a big team. After growing Hackr for close to 5 years, we sold it to VentureKite in 2021. After my first failed startup, now I could say that I founded and exited:)
- Having a dedicated tech and growth team is a must for a product to iterate and grow.
- The best growth hack is persistence. Consistently find and try growth techniques.
- A free product can be a lifestyle business, but it never becomes a mega success. Don’t work on a free product.
- A startup is: having the guts to start up and then eternally struggle to iterate faster and survive. One fine day, you might feel that you survived. There is nothing glorious about a startup when you are doing a startup. It might be wonderful/jazzy to outsiders. (Maybe it’s a different feeling when you are a unicorn).