Cold emails didn’t work: How we got our first 10 customers in two weeks

About three weeks ago, Patrick McKenzie of Stripe published an article on how to get your first ten customers. My co-founder and I had just launched our video editing website, Kapwing, and were looking to attract our first paying customers around the same time. We took McKenzie’s practical advice on sending cold emails, identifying early adopters, and pitching to potential clients to heart. We reached out to hundreds of creators/digital marketers…and got almost no response.

Now, three weeks after launching the paid offering on Kapwing, we have sold 15 monthly subscriptions. Our clients include digital marketers from Chubbies, Fuse Lead Marketing, and Sea Life Aquarium. In this post, I’ll share how we got to that first SaaS dollar.

Our Stripe dashboard: Small, growing MRR

Our approach

We went after our first customers brute force style, throwing things at the wall to see what stuck. We tried cold outreach, paid advertising, social media, getting press, leveraging our networks, and offering discounts.

As expected, most things didn’t work. I wanted to share my learnings for other first-time entrepreneurs trying to make their first buck on the internet.

The two-minute summary

Tl;dr is that all 15 of our first customers found Kapwing through Google. We learned that, for our product, SEO is king. When our users have a meme concept in mind, Google is the first place they look for advice, instructions, and software tools. To win customers, we need Kapwing to show up at the top of Google results for queries like this:

Even though both Eric and I used to work on Google Search, we were basically clueless about the importance of SEO until we started promoting our own startup. We did some reading and started trying things to get Kapwing to rise up in organic rankings.

Things that really worked

We built irrelevant cool stuff: We brainstormed ideas to drive traffic to the Kapwing.com domain, even if they had nothing to do with making video memes. Our goal was to make a tool newsworthy enough that people would blog about or share it. These initial links from other sites gave www.Kapwing.com some authority.

  • Firemap: We stumbled into an idea when Eric’s parents evacuated Santa Rosa because of fires threatening their neighborhood. We made an interactive web app that helped evacuees search for their home in satellite images. The tool was genuinely useful and cool. We shared it on our social channels, posted it on neighborhood forums, and tweeted some journalists. The webpage - hosted on the kapwing domain - got featured in several local newspapers. Although this was completely unrelated, it (surprisingly) helped our Google rankings quite a bit.

We started this blog about our startup learnings on the Kapwing domain and shared new posts on relevant internet forums. One post about our payment flow went semi-viral on Hacker News, and hundreds of random bloggers and news sites linked to it. Almost 75% of the links on the internet to Kapwing.com point to this article, giving us a serious boost on Google.

Things that sort of worked

Registered Kapwing on startup sites: HackerNews, AngelList, Crunchbase, AlternativeTo, Beta Page, StartupRanking, NextBigWhat, GetWorm, BetaList, F6S, and several other sites allow founders to post a free profile on their startup (with a link!). Because we authored the descriptions ourselves, the links were all highly relevant to the queries we were targeting.

Left comments on relevant questions on Quora and Reddit

Made how-to guides and videos on Medium, YouTube, and Snapguide

Some of Kapwing's free profiles on the web

Cold outreach to bloggers and journalists: We searched for articles about meme makers and contacted the relevant writers. I tried dropping a “tip” on hundreds of news sites and experimented with a lot of different email tactics to see if reporters would cover or mention Kapwing. But I got almost no response :( Early one, one blogger from Try Modern wrote about Kapwing, and that single article gave us enough Google juice to rank on page one for “video meme maker.” Another happy user mentioned us on Medium. Overall, the outreach was 99% unsuccessful.

Things that didn’t work

Viral video on Facebook: We shared some of the video memes that were made on Kapwing. We had one video go viral with over 5M engagements! But sadly it didn’t convert any Kapwing customers. Our users have told us that the videos they made on Kapwing with a “Kapwing.com” watermark have also gone viral with millions of views, but we didn’t see any noticeable increase in traffic from our own posts or from our creator’s posts. Make sure that your audience is also your customer.

The most viral post on Kapwing's facebook

AdWords: I started a campaign to target adjacent queries like “GIF meme maker”, “how to make a video meme”, and others. For about $3.30, we get ~50 clicks to the website daily. Tbh, I this the Adwords product/user experience sucks for a small business owner. Advertising on Google was expensive, confusing, boring, and less fun than trying to rank organically. On the bright side, Google gives you $100 in ads after your first $25, which is a great deal.

Duplicating our landing page: Once we supported GIFs, we copied our “video meme maker” landing page, tweaked the text to optimize instead for GIFs, then relaunched on Hacker News. Although Kapwing got a few retweets and upvotes, the new landing page didn’t rank for “GIF meme maker”. It seems that topic authority is something you build up over time on Google; textual relevance is less important than the relevance of your links, and all of Kapwing’s links referred to a “video meme maker” Feedback from people in the media industry: I chatted with many experts in video or social advertising (mostly through my University alumni network). I had some great conversations, but nothing that really helped with growth.

Talking with domain experts in video advertising

Asked our free users to add us to their websites/blogs: Since our users are content creators, we emailed our non-premium users asking them to help us out by linking to Kapwing.com. The email included a code snippet. But no one linked to Kapwing; there was no incentive behind our request.

And lastly: Cold outreach to potential customers. Following McKenzie’s advice, we tried a lot of different ways to get Kapwing in front of social media managers and content creators. Our outreach got essentially no response and took way more time and emotional energy than our SEO efforts.

  • Twitter: I followed, messaged, and tweeted at people from the Kapwing account, but didn’t get much engagement. Twitter doesn’t allow you to DM many people because they have to follow you back first, and tweeting at people can seem spammy.

  • Instagram: I sent messages to content creators and meme makers from my personal IG account, but got very few responses. I learned that influencers frequently get spam from bots in Instagram Messenger, so they ignore the messages.

  • Mining email addresses from the internet: I found email addresses online for people who might need Kapwing and emailed them asking for product feedback. Got a couple of lukewarm responses (maybe 2% response rate), but no conversion.

  • Posted a fake job posting on Craigslist to get leads: Our target customers are people that manage social media channels for brands and agencies. To get a list of emails for social media managers, we posted a job listing with a high but reasonable salary offer. We got a lot of emails from people that are exactly our target user, but it feels unethical, and the promotional emails we send to them about Kapwing (from an unrelated email address) don’t have a great conversion rate anyway.

  • Posted in Facebook groups full of our target users: I joined Facebook communities for content creators and posted an intro and link to Kapwing, but no conversion. It’s hard to find the right groups that allow you to promote your product to a large, involved community; most groups are either too spammy, too small, or too anti-promos.

Takeaways

Growth is only important if you start with a good, useful product: Kapwing is growing steadily because users like the product and we have a high return rate.

Focus on organic discovery by trying to get more links and rank for more broad queries. Our goal is to stay positive, think creatively, and keep trying to write and make things on the Kapwing domain (like this post!) that are cool enough for people to share and talk about online. Now Kapwing shows up on page 1 for higher-volume queries like “video memes” and “meme maker.”

Other than that, we’re not really sure yet what we’re doing right. We’re trying a lot of things and hoping to get there, little by little, with happy users and a little press coverage.

Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for more updates and stories as Eric and I continue growing Kapwing to ramen profitability.