7 Marketing Strategies That Don’t Scale (But We Did Them Anyways)

Marketing strategies that don't scale

Growing up, I was a really small guy. So after I finished high school, I was eager to hit the gym and pack on some muscle.

As I began lifting weights, I found myself surrounded by people way bigger than me. So in an effort to speed up my progress, I tried to lift as heavy as I could. I also started taking a bunch of supplements I didn’t need. I kept trying to get big fast.

My initial results? Abysmal.

Then a friend of mine said something that changed everything.

Chris… just focus on adding 5 more pounds to the bar every month. If you can do that, you’ll be able to lift 60 more pounds than you can today.

He was totally right… Within less than 2 years, I brought my bench press up from 65 lbs to 135 lbs.

Believe it or not, this same thinking works wonders when applied to business. Getting one new customer a day doesn’t sound like a lot. But when you stack that up over an entire year, you’ll have 365 people paying you money.

So rather than thinking about how to get 365 customers, start by just getting one. Then another. Then another.

Doing things that don’t scale

In one of the most influential articles written about startups, Paul Graham advises founders to do things that don’t scale.

While a lot of would-be founders believe that startups either takeoff or don’t, Paul argues that startups takeoff because the founders make them take off.

'Startups takeoff because the founders make them take off' - Paul Graham Click to Tweet

To illustrate, let’s look at the monthly recurring revenue (MRR) of Buffer – a startup you’re probably familiar with.

Buffer monthly recurring revenue

Notice that they didn’t take off like a rocket ship the month after launching. Instead, it took 6 months to add $5,000 of MRR. 4 years later, they’re doing $740k in MRR.

I’m sure that in the early days, they weren’t thinking about how to add thousands of paying customers. They were probably focused on just adding a few more each day.

And when you start thinking about how to gain traction in ways that aren’t scaleable, you suddenly have way more strategies available at your disposal.

In this article, I wanted to share 7 things we’ve done that don’t scale. In addition, I’ve provided some great examples of other entrepreneurs who’ve done the same.

#1 – Speaking

Most internet companies forget that you can actually acquire customers and promote your startup offline. And a great way to do this is by speaking.

Speaking is a powerful strategy because it gives your startup instant credibility. Credibility comes from the fact that an event’s organizers have trusted you to deliver value to their audience.

Most organizers will go further than just implied respect. They may explicitly endorse you and your startup with a glowing testimonial.

Now when most people think of speaking gigs, they think of massive conferences like Inbound. While speaking at an event of that calibre would bring you a lot of exposure, it may be pretty tough to land that kind of gig.

If that’s the case, try shifting your focus to some local events or meetups in your city. The easiest way to do this is by heading to Meetup.com. Here you’ll find plenty of meetups ranging from tech all the way to arts & culture.

Meetup groups

When I went on Meetup, I found a local meetup dedicated to online marketing. And since many online marketers are using Snappa to create images, I thought it would be the perfect group to do a talk for. So I messaged the organizer and asked if I could give a talk on content promotion strategies. He accepted.

Marketing meetup group

As a result of this, I was able to give a talk to 60 people from my target market and expose them to our company.

Not only that, event organizers will also send out messages about the event to all of the group members. You’ll notice that there are 919 members in this particular group who would have all been notified about the guest speakers and seen the description of the event.

There’s also one more benefit you might not think of… a backlink from a high authority domain. As you can see from AHREFs, Meetup.com has quite a high domain authority.

AHREFs meetup

When all was said and done, we got a bunch of signups as a result of that talk and three people ended up becoming paying customers when we officially launched the platform a month later.

More importantly, I made some great connections that have been impactful in other areas of the business.

#2 – Live Demos

In addition to speaking, I also found a great opportunity to give a live demo of Snappa to several entrepreneurs and tech enthusiasts. That’s because my city has a local Product Hunt Ottawa meetup (which is also on Meetup.com)

Before I asked to present, I went to a few of the meetups beforehand to introduce myself. When I told them what I was working on and the traction we were getting, they invited me to give a demo of the product.


Giving a demo of Snappa at a local meetup

While this is a great way to give a demo of your product, you certainly don’t need to find a meetup in order to give one. It’s still highly effective to do them one on one, which is exactly what Nathan Barry did.

If you’re unfamiliar with Nathan, he was having a lot of success selling courses and info products. Then on January 1, 2013, he announced that he was going to start a SaaS business with the hopes of generating $5,000 in MRR within 6 months. That business ended up being ConvertKit which is email marketing software for professional bloggers.

Nathan ended up coming a little shy of that goal hitting $2,480 (which was still fantastic). However, by October 2014, MRR had fallen to $1,207 because he was still running the business part time and not focussing on it 100%.

At that point, Nathan made the decision to go all-in with Convert Kit and hire full-time employees to work for the company. His growth since then has been nothing short of amazing.

ConvertKit Monthly Recurring Revenue

But here’s what I love about Nathan’s story. He didn’t see tremendous growth by doing things that scaled. In fact, it was the total opposite. He single handedly wrote email after email to professional bloggers he thought could get value from his product. And if they were interested, he would give them a live demo.

What’s more amazing is that over a period of about a month, Nathan flew to San Francisco, New York and San Diego just to meet with potential customers and give them live demos. This truly defines what Paul Graham said about startups taking off because of founders making them takeoff.

'I 100% recommend direct sales to other SaaS entrepreneurs' - Nathan Barry Click to Tweet

If you’re interested in the whole story of how he grew ConvertKit to $125k+ MRR, I highly recommend this post on the WP Curve blog.

#3 – Emailing Users

In the initial stages of a business you have a lot to learn. The more you can learn the better

So what better way to learn about your users then to ask them why they signed up? This is something that Alex from Groove asks each and every customer that signs up for their software. Here’s the exact email that he sends.

Why did you sign up for Groove?

So when we launched our beta for Snappa, I did the same thing. In fact, this is one of the most important lessons we learned going from 0 – 4,000 beta signups. Based on the answers, we were able to determine the common reasons why people were signing up.

Common reasons for signing up

What we found is that above anything else, our users wanted something that was easy and efficient. They didn’t want an overcomplicated product that could do it all.

Armed with this information, we were dead-set on making the easiest graphic design tool there is and changing all of our messaging to reflect this.

Snappa homepage copy

#4 – Talking to Customers

What’s better than emailing your users?

Talking to customers.

It’s one thing for someone to sign up for your beta and tell you what they want. It’s another thing for someone paying you money to tell you why they love your product and what could be improved.

In an effort to truly learn what was resonating with our core customers, I set up a bunch of Skype calls with them.

By doing this, I was able to learn more about the types of people that were using our product, what they loved most about it, and what they thought could be improved. This information has helped our positioning, marketing efforts and product development.

Because this is such an important lesson, I’ll be writing an entire blog post about this soon.

#5 – Email Outreach

If you haven’t read our post about our content promotion strategy, email outreach is one of the tactics we use to promote our content. It’s certainly not scalable, but I believe it’s absolutely necessary.

The less of an audience you have, the more you’ll have to rely on promotion. Otherwise, you may be writing content for nothing.

The good news is, there’s smart ways of reaching out. The most successful tactic we’ve found was to email people you’ve mentioned in your post. More often than not, they’re happy to share the post with their audience.

Email outreach

Beyond people you’ve mention in your post, there are 3 other groups of people where email outreach can be highly effective for promoting your content.

  1. People who linked to similar articles
  2. People who shared your previous articles
  3. Influencers related to your topic

We also wrote an entire post on strategies for engaging with influencers.

#6 – Attending Conferences

Depending on your budget, attending conferences is another great way to market yourself offline.

The best thing about conferences is that they’re typically centered around one particular topic. This means you’re getting immediate access to your target market.

Back in March 2007, a small micro-blogging startup paid $11,000 to setup various flat screen TVs at the South by Southwest conference to market their startup. Coming into the conference, the startup was handling 20,000 messages a day on their platform. By the end of the conference, they had tripled to 60,000. The name of that startup was Twitter.

Twitter at South by SouthWest

Twitter at South by Southwest (2007). Image Source: Flickr

Now, you might not have $11,000 to dish out on one of the most exciting conferences in North America, but there are likely plenty of paid events in your city that cost much less.

In my own city, I’ve attended a few Startup Grind events which helped me spread the word about Snappa and allowed me to meet some really great people. The price of the tickets were $15. Pretty good ROI if you ask me.

#7 – Joining a Community

Last but certainly not least, joining a community is another great strategy that doesn’t scale.

When I first started doing business online, I joined a community of location independent entrepreneurs. At the time, my goal certainly wasn’t to promote my startup. In fact, I joined a year before I even launched Snappa.

But now that I’ve been part of this community for the last two years and I’ve made some great friends, several people were happy to sign up for paid Snappa accounts when we launched.

Another entrepreneur who leveraged this same community was Dan Norris from WP Curve. If you’re unfamiliar with his story, back in 2013 he had just lost $60,000 on a failed startup and was 2 weeks away from getting a job.

With one last shot, he bought a domain, a WordPress theme and threw up a website offering 24/7 WordPress support. When the site went live, he posted a special offer in the private community. Even though several people told him it was a bad idea just a week earlier, 3 people signed up right away. By the end of the week, he had 10 customers.

Dan Norris Quote

In the beginning, Dan was certainly not concerned about scale. Instead, he focussed on getting his first 3 customers.

Today, WP Curve is a 7 figure business.


When we’re on a conquest to takeover the world and get our product in the hands of every person we can, it’s hard not to think about scale.

But as we’ve seen this entire post, most successful startups (even those as successful as Twitter) have all started out by doing things that don’t scale.

So if you’re still trying to discover the next ‘growth hack’, maybe it’s time to start thinking about how you can add just one more lead, subscriber or customer. Who knows, you might just have a 7 figure business on your hands just a few years later.

About the author: Christopher is the co-founder of Snappa – the fastest way to create graphics. Get started for free.

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