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How to grow a business without money

Published onAugust 23, 2023

I’ve been part of a community called SaaS Friends for a few months. It consists of community members helping each other with SaaS-business-related things.

I posted in the group that I was planning to launch a new project together and asked whether someone knew a great guide on growing a new business. I got some replies and links to some articles, but none really hit the spot.

Since I am launching a new business anyway, I decided to document my growth/launch strategy and create my own guide for everyone to use.

I know there are quite a few of you out there who want to start a business, but the marketing aspect is holding them back. I hope this will help you to be on your way.

Let's get in!

Table of Contents

Background

Before we start, just a little background on me. (It will help to understand some sections better)

My name is Iron, and together with Adriaan, I own Simple Analytics, a privacy-friendly Google Analytics alternative.

We have a little Indie Hacker office in Amsterdam (feel free to come chill). Here we met Dries. We partnered with Dries and started another business: UniHosted.

Simple Analytics is currently doing 22K MRR, and UniHosted has only just launched.

Okay, now let's get started!

*Little disclaimer: Some of the tools I use do cost a few bucks. For most free versions are available. Also I'm not an affiliate of anything.

Growing your business

 In my view, there are two parts to growing your business that require a different focus. When you launch, you need to get traction. You need to make some waves to find early customers who want to try it out.

To get those, you will need to do different things than when you have a solid base of customers who love your product. This is the second phase.

Let me explain our growth strategy and all the channels we’re going after.

Phase 1: Traction

We are now here with UniHosted.

When you launch, nobody knows anything about your product. Your goal is to discover your target customers and find out how to reach them.

I don’t like the word hustle, but it comes close to what you should do here. As Paul Graham says, “Do things that don’t scale.”

This phase is not about finding a growth flywheel or big marketing campaigns. Those are only useful if you find a repeatable process of getting users to buy your product. Where not there yet.

Phase 1 is about traction.

It's about creating a hypothesis and testing it. Create a hypothesis on who your target customer is and where they hang out.

And I don’t mean this nonsense

And I don’t mean this nonsense

Once you have an idea of your target customer, there are possibly tons of channels you can use to reach out to them to give your product a spin.

Create a list of channels worth going after and define a strategy.

These are the channels I will explore in the coming days/weeks, and this is my strategy.

Reddit

It's notoriously difficult to crack into Reddit with a new product. Make one mistake, and the Reddit crowd will kill you.

Still, I believe there are a few avenues worth pursuing. There are a few subreddits that allow for submitting your new product. Those are general channels, and I don’t expect much sales from them, but at least you’ll get a few eyeballs.

If your product is a more general tool that benefits a wider audience. This might work. Here is a list of subreddits to go after.

Secondly, you should find subreddits relevant to your niche and enter the conversation. You can use tools like Gummysearch to find subreddits and discussion topics relevant to your niche.

Reddit is about engaging. Help people out. Learn about their problems and help solve them. Stay away from blatantly promoting yourself.

Just provide help, and only add a link to your product if it really provides a direct solution (and be transparent about it).

If you do want to submit a post about your business directly, make it as personal and relatable as possible.

  1. Don't be anonymous
  2. Be transparent
  3. Only post when you find a community with a problem you can solve.

This is the best Reddit ad ever. Take note.

Reddit Ad

Reddit Ad

Hackernews

HN falls in the same category as Reddit. Self-promotion = HN jail. However, there is a section called “Show HN.” You can use this to showcase your project.

Make sure you use a title that stands out. You only have one shot and one line to tell the community what you are building. Make it compelling and relevant to the audience.

Mind you, there is another way to stand out on Hackernews without promoting your product. We’ve done this in the past for Simple Analytics. It's about creating “HN-relevant” content.

I wrote an article on Indie Hackers that explains all the steps: How to Hack Hackernews.

It’s a repeatable strategy applicable to almost every business.

Lastly, there is F5bot. This is relevant for both Hackernews and Reddit. If you take only one thing from this post, let it be F5bot.

You can add as many keywords around your niche to track.

F5Bot

F5Bot

For example, for UniHosted, I’m tracking mentions for “UniFi controller.” I will receive an alert in my mailbox with a link to the conversation. You can add as many phrases as you like and its completely free.

For Simple Analytics, I track the phrase “Google Analytics alternative.” Once I get that notification, I’m always the first drop a link to our website.

Adriaan even connected the F5Bot with Telegram. This way we get our alerts directly and coordinate with each other who is doing what. Here is how he did it.

Telegram mentions

Telegram mentions

Quora

I’m kind of following the same strategy here as I’m doing on Reddit: Engage.

Find topics in your relevant niche and solve problems by helping people out. Whenever your business solves a problem, drop a link to your business. Please provide some context and explain how it solves it.

There are two ways to optimize this strategy and use your time more efficiently.

Firstly, answer Quora questions with lots of views but few answers.

Fellow builder Davis Baer from OneUp wrote about this on Indie Hackers. You can use this query in Google to find questions in your niche with many views but few answers. That’s where you ultimately want to be!

site:quora.com keyword "1 answer" "k views"

Quora

Quora

Secondly, answer Quora questions that are indexed by Google and have search volume.

You can also use a keyword tool like Semrush to identify Quora questions indexed by Google (and receive visits). If you answer those questions and become the top-rated answer, you don’t even need SEO to be found in Google.

People with a problem use Google to find a solution and then navigate to the Quora page, where you provide the answer.

In Semrush, check the “positions” tab for the domain “Quora.com” and filter with a keyword in your niche.

Semrush with Quara

Semrush with Quara

Communities & Directories

Submitting your business to communities can generate more exposure as well. Adding a new product on Indie Hackers and submitting your product to Betalist is definitely on my list.

The chance of getting lots of traffic is minimal, but so is the effort, and you only have to do this once.

An additional benefit is the fact that some directories will provide a backlink to your website. It’s not the best quality, but receiving these backlinks can be quite valuable if you are just starting.

This legend provided a list with 400+ websites to add your startup (I couldn’t find out who this is. I would love to give credit).

Twitter

Twitter only has a direct marketing purpose if your target customers reside here. I’m part of the little “build in public” bubble on Twitter, and for Simple Analytics, this has resulted in new users.

By sharing our story, we got more eyeballs of people who actually wanted our product.

For something like UniHosted, Twitter might not have a direct impact. However, I will be sharing updates here as well. In addition, I will try a different Twitter strategy as well.

You can search for questions about your niche using the advanced search function on Twitter.

I’ve set up a company account to engage in relevant conversations. This is the same approach as the engagement approach I will use for Reddit.

For building in public, use your personal account. People like to cheer for people. For business exposure, use your company account.

If a company account replies to one of my tweets, I’m always checking out what they do.

I’ve heard some stories about Twitter DMs working well, but since I don’t like to receive those myself and our target customers do not necessarily hang out on Twitter, I’m skipping those for now.

Email

Socials are often the preferred channels to launch a business. “Direct” channels like email, LinkedIn outreach, and Calls are less preferred but can be super valuable if you do it the right way.

Everyone has been on the receiving end of a cold email. It's annoying as hell. So, I’m not taking that route.

I will email to reach out to companies, in general, and ask about their scaling issues with UniFi networks.

Using LinkedIn Sales Navigator, you can create a list of Ideal Target Companies.

LinkedIn Sales Navigator

LinkedIn Sales Navigator

This is a random search

You can export this list using a tool called phantombuster and add it to Hunter.io to retrieve the general company emails.

Now, write a compelling email. Make sure to do your research and be relevant.

Linkedin

Yes, I know LinkedIn is a social channel as well. But it's much more important for direct outreach than for distributing your blog posts.

  • Find target customers in your niche
  • Make a relevant introduction
  • Be genuine and transparent

Not everyone will be interested or ready to buy our solution instantly, but by opening a conversation, you’ll get a chance to talk to your target customer.

Now comes the magic.

If you keep doing this, you’ll notice that your network will expand over time with potential customers.

If you now start posting valuable content on Linkedin for your niche, you will nurture the relationship with your target customers.

Once they are ready to find a paid solution for their problem, you’ll be the first they think about.

Lastly, you can post your product in different LinkedIn groups. This is also true for Facebook, but I won’t spend too much time on that.

If your target customer is active on Facebook. Just apply my Reddit approach there.

Call

This is probably the most frightening way to contact target customers. It’s also something I don’t like to do. But it can be incredibly invaluable, especially if you are still validating whether your target customer really has a problem.

Don’t intend to sell anything on a call. Call to learn. Not all calls are sales calls.

If your target customers are SMB companies, it is definitely worthwhile to visit their website and look for a number of a representative of the company.

Just give them a ring, tell them who you are, and ask them a few questions to understand their problems better.

Test your hypothesis. Is it really a problem? Are they looking for a solution? Do they want to pay for it? Do they have something else that is way more important to solve?

Speak to at least ten target customers before you quit.

There are many channels to get some initial traction. Go after it and get some traction!

In the best case, it will lead to a small pool of paying customers who have their problems solved using your product.

Once you get to that, you are ready for long-term growth.

Phase 2: Long-term Growth

Once you’ve established a solid customer base that loves your product, it's time to scale and focus on long-term growth.

You might still apply the strategies that have worked during phase 1, but your focus needs to shift to long-term growth. “Do things that do scale” - Not Paul Graham

For me, that’s:

  1. SEO
  2. SEO
  3. SEO

SEO is the foundation on which durable businesses are built.

At Simple Analytics, it got us from 1k to almost 7k monthly visitors per month from Google over the course of last year.

Simple Analytics traffic from Google

Simple Analytics traffic from Google

The beauty of it is that SEO works compounding. It's like investing. Invest a lot in quality content once and see it grow and attract more and more users over time.

The only downside of SEO is that it takes time to see results. The first few months will seem like you are working hard without getting any return.

It's only relevant to start doing this when you are sure your business solves a problem and people want to pay for it. You figured this out in phase 1.

Where do you start with SEO?

SEO can be anything. From writing a “how to” blog post to optimizing your website speed or building backlinks to your homepage.

It can be quite overwhelming to start with SEO, especially if you’ll only see results quite far in the future. The feedback loop on whether you are doing something right or wrong is long.

Answer questions

The easiest way to start thinking about SEO is to answer questions relevant to your niche and target audience. Don’t overthink this.

Show people how to solve their problem in a blog article. Then, explain how your business can do this for them at the end of the article.

Want to find relevant questions to answer?

Look for “how to” questions relevant to your niche.

“How to” questions are actionable (people are looking to solve this) and most often long-tail, meaning there is not a lot of competition.

In Semrush, navigate to “keyword magic tool” and search for “how to.” By using your keyword as a filter, you’ll get a list of relevant “how to” questions to answer.

Semrush questions

Semrush questions

Alternative pages

There are three types of content: TOFU, MOFU, BOFU, or top, middle, and bottom of funnel content.

Initially, you want to focus on the bottom of the funnel content. You’ll write content for a very small group of users ready to buy your solution.

Don't focus on getting website traffic if you are just starting with SEO. Focus on conversion.

You’d rather have ten website visitors, of which two convert, then 1000 website visitors, of which none becomes your customer.

You want to go after BOFU content.

A great example of this are “alternative pages.” This is especially true if you are in a crowded market. Use Semrush to find out if people are looking for an alternative to your competitor. (Because that's you!)

For example, for Simple Analytics, there is a lot of search volume for “Google Analytics alternative” but also for smaller ones such as “Hotjar Alternative.”

If you create blogs outlining why you are the best “Hotjar Alternative,” you will start to rank for this search query, and people actively looking for a “Hotjar Alternative” will find out about you.

Alternative pages

Alternative pages

For UniHosted, I’ve created a “HostiFi alternative,” “Hubox alternative,” and “Cloud UniFi alternative” page.

It doesn’t stop here.

What about “Pricing + {CompetitorName}” and “Review + {CompetitorName}”.

Check search volume for those as well and create pages. Someone looking for a review of your competitor might also be interested to read what you offer.

Backlinks always sound like this vague thing you need to rank in Google.

You can never have enough backlinks, but at some point, acquiring more is not worth the effort. In addition, the difference between quality and regular backlinks is also blurred.

However, there are some rules of thumb you should follow. When you are starting, Google knows nothing about your website. By including a few backlinks from websites with a high “Domain Authority,” you can improve your rankings quite fast.

Using Semrush, you can also check the domain authority of your competitors. This is the ballpark where you need to be.

If you search for a specific keyword, you can also see the domain authority of the websites that rank for this keyword. This will give you an indication of how many backlinks you need to start ranking.

Backlinks competitors

Backlinks competitors

The best way to get backlinks is by writing quality content. If you write content that helps solve a problem, people will start linking to your solution on their website.

In addition, it might help if you have a list of companies willing to link to your website. Just to get that first push.

For UniHosted, I’ve created a list of domains I know will link to us (mostly friends). I will be sending out some emails to ask them for a backlink.

You can also “hunt” for backlinks by looking for broken links on websites relevant to your niche. However, this is time-consuming and has a low success rate. I would not spend time on this.

I don’t want to go too deep here, but you should know that getting some backlinks as early as possible is important to improve your search rankings.

Want to know more? Check out Backlinko. Brian Dean is probably the most skilled person on backlinks I know.

Programmatic SEO

This one is not really straightforward and does not apply to every business, but at least you should evaluate in what way it might work for you.

Programmatic SEO is the art of creating scalable content. It requires creativity since applying this is different for every business. You need to think about variables and base content.

Let me explain.

For Simple Analytics, we have created 100 pages from a template text that answered this question: “Is Google Analytics illegal in {Country X}?”

The country is the variable here. You can recycle the template text and change the country variable (Please do check if the content is still accurate).

By creating a page for every country, you will start ranking for search queries about “Google Analytics + country.”

Google Analytics countries

Google Analytics countries

My first business was a website for students to find internships. Here we created hundreds of pages that looked like this: Internship + {job category} + {City}

For example: “Internship Marketing Amsterdam”

There are 1000s of combinations you can make here.

For UniHosted, we’ll create articles on “Best Wifi for {situation}.” Where the variable {situation} changes from “long-range” to “camping” to “Universities,” etc.

Quality tops everything

To conclude the SEO topic, there is one thing you should always keep in mind: Quality above all.

What does quality mean?

I read this tweet from Jordan O'Connor that hit the spot:

SEO is incredibly simple:

Produce helpful, specific content Designed for a specific persona For a specific purpose That is unique and objectively excellent Which also attracts links from other authorities

But that's not easy.

Simple ≠ Easy

Google (apparently) does not seem to care whether it's AI content or not or if it's 1000 or 2000 words.

You just need to serve the search query in the best possible way.

Final Thoughts

Since this article is called “How to grow your business without money,” I’m not covering any type of ads

Honestly, I haven’t used ads at all for any of my businesses. They work in many cases, but they require a budget.

I will try to keep this article updated if I find new ways to grow, and I’ll also add which strategies have worked well and which have not.

Maybe I’ll create a new blog to do a ‘before and after.’ I’m not sure yet.

Hope you liked it. Remember that It’s not a silver bullet; these are just my experiences.

Follow me on Twitter and check out what we are building at Simple Analytics & UniHosted.

Cheers,

Iron

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