EPISODE 2... Interview with StartupDigest founder Chris McCann28 JUL
Interesting Random Facts:
- His house, where we interviewed him, is four blocks from Mark Zuckerberg's.
- He ate a hotdog with him once. This was presumably before the "I will only eat what I kill" declaration by Zuck.
- Right before our interview, he came from a meeting with David Weekly - founder of PBworks, who called StartupDigest the "purveyors & arbitors of startup culture." (possibly because their house has an uncanny resemblence to the one in movie The Social Network).
User Growth by the Numbers & Methods:
0-1000 users: Nov 2009 - Jan 2010
- Sent email to friends -> friends forwarded to their friends
- Attended events and promoted newsletter on stage
1,000-10,000 users: Jan 2010 - March 2010
- Featured in Techcrunch (brought 3000 - 5000 users)
10,000-30,000 users: March 2010 - August 2010
- Partnerships & promotions with Inc. Magazine, Fast Company, Business Insider, etc.
30,000-100,000 users: August 2010 - December 2011
- StartupDigest launches in more cities through local "curators"
- Kaufman Foundation decides to sponsor them
100,000-250,000 users: January 2011 - August 2011
- Kaufman press release
- Leads to being featured in Yahoo Finance
- More Techcrunch features (including international TC coverage in Europe)
- StartupDigest is in more than 65 cities
Here is the summary of the interview. For the full transcript please watch the video.
1. How did StartupDigest get started? What were you doing before?
“I moved to Silicon Valley in June 2009 after I graduated from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. I put all my stuff in my car after graduation and drove up here. I literally didn’t have a place to stay that night. I ended up staying on this guy’s floor that I knew – the only person I knew in town.
StartupDigest launched in November 2009. From June to Nov 2009 I was largely by myself. Brendan our co-founder, officially came on as a co-founder later. We knew each other from before. We got together and just wanted to do something cool. We didn’t know what that was... we were doing this Twitter job board, this Craigslist thing, a whole bunch of random ideas. StartupDigest was one of them, a side project. We didn’t think this would be the one to take off.
When I first came here I started going to a lot of events – meetups, hackathons, etc. – to meet people and get connected. I found these events through Meetup, Eventbrite, Plancast and these comprehensive calendars but none of the sources were curated based on what people were interested in. So I just started picking the best events for myself and started to go to a lot of them to see which ones were good. My friends thought it was a good idea and they started to request for the list as well."
2. How did you grow from there ?
"So in November 2009 I sent 1 email to 22 people with a curated list of the upcoming events that week. Ours was literally a minimal viable product. We sent an email through Gmail. We managed the list through Excel. And we didn’t even have a site. To sign up you literally had to email me or tweet me that wanted to join."
3. What happened after you sent the first email? What did you do for growth?
"We didn't really do any marketing, it was mostly word of mouth. The first week we sent it to 22 people and the next week we were at 44 people. We got excited even though it was just 44 people, it was like WOW we doubled!! I used to work out of an incubator, Plug and Play Tech Center, down in Sunnyvale. A lot of people in the incubator heard about it and wanted to join. It naturally spread through the incubator and we were probably up to a couple hundred a week or two after.
I was attending all of these events we would include in the newsletter. A lot of the event organizers were pretty impressed with the number of people we were sending so they allowed us to announce ourselves at the events. We’d go up on stage and pitch our product for a minute and get a bunch of new signups.
We were still very lean. Basically everyone interested had to physically come up to me after the event or tweet me to sign up. So from word of mouth and pitching ourselves at these events, we grew from a couple hundred to low thousands. Mid-December we also opened up StartupDigest in New York City.
December was when we launched our website. It was literally hard coded in HTML. We had StartupDigest in just plain text. And then we had one field where you could enter your email address. We literally didn’t even tell you what you were getting. It just said “StartupDigest signup”. This was when when we met with a Techcrunch writer who wanted to do a story on us. But they told us our website looked terrible and that wouldn't write about us until we fixed it. That’s why it took from late December to January for Techcrunch to write about us. We launched our Wordpress site, used Wufoo for the signup forms, and Media Temple for our hosting.
That was a big turning point for us. When Techcrunch wrote about us, we got about 3,000 - 5,000 signups that day. We also had a huge surge in people interested in starting StartupDigest in their own cities."
4. Did you do any marketing after the Techcrunch article?
“No, and even now we don’t. The cool thing with events is they’re inherently social. So if you go to an event and talk to people, it’s easy to get on the topic of StartupDigest. People tend to talk about how they discovered the event. We do small things though for marketing. At the end of the signup process – you can share it by tweeting about it – but that’s about it. And that was actually Hiten Shah's idea, we didn't optimize for anything.
Going from zero to a thousand users it has to be organic. If you’re forcing that, you probably have a bad product. People have to go out of their way to join. It should look terrible. It should feel terrible. That’s hard."
5. How did you grow from the tens of thousands to hundereds of thousands ?
From thousand to ten thousand users, yeah you’re probably doing some social stuff on the side and using referrals. It becomes different when you’re going from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands and then to the millions. That’s a much different marketing equation."
6. Can you explain the nature of these partnerships? How did they help you grow?
"We did a partnership with Inc. Magazine when they did this "30 under 30 campaign" to find the 30 best entrepreneurs under 30 years old. The way this partnership worked is we would promote that campaign for them in StartupDigest and simultaneously they emailed all of their subscribers telling them about StartupDigest. Everytime we’d do a partnership like this we would get from 10,000 to 30,000 signups.
Also, when we started doing these partnerships, we had about 30,000 to 40,000 subscribers. You have to have size at that point, if you only have like 100s of subscribers then a publication like Inc. Magazine won't want to partner with you. When you have a sizeable audience though - where you can promote one of their campaigns - then they'll give you something in return and discuss a partnership. It only works much later down the road though.
We did about one partnership a month in the summer of 2010. Most of them reached out to us since they'd heard about StartupDigest and would request doing partnerships."
7. These partnerships took you up to 100,000 users. How did you get from there to where you are now - 250,000 users?
"We reached 100,000 users in January 2011 - which is a year after we launched. By then we were growing enough where we got another mention in Techcrunch. In fact we've had a total of 6 writeups in TechCrunch with 4 being in Europe.
We also got a partnership with the Kaufman foundation at the end of January 2011. They became our exclusive sponsor for all the US cities we're featured in and gave us $200,000 in funding. We were in discussions with them about the sponsorship for about 8-10 months before it became official, so it was a very long process. They did an official press release. As a result we got featured again on Techcrunch and got picked up by Yahoo Finance.
The Yahoo Finance article, the Kaufman press release and other press articles launched us up to 200,000 users. That’s also the point where things start to compound upon each other. We were in more than 50 cities by that point. We started to do verticals. We had a lot more social integration. StartupDigest was also spreading strongly through word of mouth. So at that point there were much different factors contributing towards growth than when we were going from 0 users to 1,000. We had to look at marketing through a much different lens."
This part of the interview only correlates to their traction, click here for the complete video.