Last winter our team started off on a mission to build a mobile-first banking platform for Canadian businesses. Regulation in Canada is a slog and we desperately needed to show market fit before we even built our product. So while we built our MVP and navigated the choppy regulatory waters we launched an early access waitlist – and we needed that thing to grow. 8 months in we’ve now had more than 1500 startups, freelancers and small businesses sign up (🤘45% Month Over Month growth🤘).
Everyone we talked to ahead of time spoke about how hard growth was in FinTech. Don’t get me wrong, most of our journey so far has been a serious grind but we were able to grow because we weren’t afraid to try things and improvise while creating a plan cobbled together from what we saw working well for us. This was our playbook to weaponize what we had at our disposal and fuel growth for our early stage startup.
Start With Stuff That Doesn’t Scale
The biggest challenge for us was that we had so many ideas and needed to narrow down where to start. We decided that we needed to aim for low hanging fruit first. Sure it wouldn’t scale and would take up a lot of our time but we’d avoid falling into the classic “growth hacker” trap – thinking that we would discover one magic channel that would explode our growth. Instead, we decided to try a whole bunch of tactics that everyone on the team could help with and see what stuck. These are the tactics that resulted in the most meaningful results:
• Ask: Talk to everyone you know. Message them on Facebook, send them emails, text them, call them, take them out for coffee. We reached out to anyone we knew who fit our target audience and asked them to sign up. We asked each of these people for an introduction to someone else who might sign up too.
• Learn: We also tried to talk to as many people as we could to get feedback on what we were building (we’ve now done more than 150 of these interviews). People were excited to be a part of our process. They were touched to know how impactful their feedback could be.
• Teach: We gave workshops to groups of like-minded businesses about anything we knew. If we believed we could teach something of value, we offered it to anybody that would listen. We were fully transparent in explaining that we wanted to give before asking for sign ups, and even then would only encourage it as an afterthought to the lesson.
• Connect: We answered an endless number of questions on Quora and Reddit with links back to our website. We also made it a priority to add people on Twitter, LinkedIn, and wherever else we could so that they would potentially visit our site after we added them.
• Communicate: We set up live chat on our site so that our team could answer questions and ask visitors to sign up. We also started writing about what we were building and why on Medium.
Our first batch of users signed up and before we knew it we had a few hundred entrepreneurs who wanted to get their hands on our product. Logging into MailChimp and seeing a 3-digit number where there had been a big goose egg not too long ago was totally crazy for us. Sure we had set targets, but we didn’t totally believe we’d actually hit them. It had been a grind but seeing our waitlist grow felt great. With our targets getting bigger every week we had to find a way to get more signups from the same amount of effort.
There are two key things to learn at this stage:
1. Find out which customer profiles you’re getting traction with, and
2. Find out what type of messaging is most effective.
We tested everything as part of this process. Different styles of brand voice, changing our logo and brand colors, testing as many channels as we could. We also analyzed everything we were doing by looking at which sources and campaigns brought in the most signups – and if those signups lined up with our target customers. We weren’t worried about being spammy since we were so small and unknown that we figured no one would remember an annoying cold email that came from us. For us, growth mattered more than warm and fuzzy feelings about our brand.
Weaponize What’s Working
The general census seems to be that keeping rapid growth going in FinTech is a kind of a unicorn. Big banks solve for growth by spending massive budgets on awareness and branding while also spending the most per click on digital platforms like Google AdWords. Many of the FinTech startups we talked to kept telling us that to compete we needed to roll out something unique that took into account the special nature of the finance industry. We decided to challenge both of those approaches and treat growth as if we weren’t constrained at all and were trying to scale up a SaaS or eCommerce user base. To do that we hitched our strategy on three ideas: drive as much traffic to our site as possible, make it stupid easy for people to sign up, and squeeze every drop of value out of every single signup.
• SEO: We moved all our blog posts from Medium to a blog on our site. Like lots of other startups, we started publishing on Medium for visibility and distribution but didn’t even think about the impact that had on our site’s SEO since we didn’t also post it on our site’s blog (whoops!). This move increased our site’s SEO score and let us push people to a page we owned instead of a third party service. We ended up being able to gain momentum on words we were ranking for and climb our way up to the top of the first page.
•Product Marketing: Our team created a few tools that we decided would be useful to startups, freelancers, and small business owners and act as lead magnets while also providing value to potential customers.
• Incorporate In Canada allows Canadian entrepreneurs to incorporate their business in less than 10 minutes and doesn’t cost a penny beyond government fees.
• Startup Financial Health Checklist is a resource to financial basics and essential tools for small business founders that are forced into finance.
• Social: We automated a lot of our social adding with tools like Tweepi to be able to build our audience without needing to invest too much time into targeting and adding accounts.
• We also posted our blog posts and tools to platforms like Reddit and Product Hunt. There are already lots of awesome guides to using those platforms and I won’t try to condense them but check out: The Marketer’s Guide to Reddit and How to Launch on Product Hunt 🚀.
• PR: These tools gave us a reason to talk to journalists who wrote about us. Each article generated a spike in traffic for us and gave us an SEO boost as our domain authority increased.
Make It Easy To Sign Up
• Turns out we weren’t awesome copywriters after all. Our initial CTA copy “Request Early Access” got split tested against a slew of others and wasn’t even close to the top converting option. “Get Early Access” ended up increasing our conversion rate by 20% and worked the best for our site while the classic “Get Started” performed the worst.
• We also added scripted behavior that caused the lightbox to display if the visitor was leaving the site. This was a major change from our old site UX as we shifted from a pull to push experience. Spammy? Maybe a bit, but it worked. Once we launched this feature our conversion rate increased by more than 30%.
• Instead of posting links to websites that we didn’t control, we posted them through a URL shortener that would insert a sign up for NorthOne on top of whatever content we posted. If you’ve clicked on any of the links in this article you’ve already seen it in action.
Get Value Out Of Every Signup
• When someone signed up, we knew they were excited about our project. We needed to focus that excitement on getting them to give us even more. Sure, they might tell their friends about us but without a system in place we’d have to hope and pray that they’d actually do that. Worse yet, we had no way of measuring anything. So we installed a referral system into our sign up flow which would ask people that signed up to post about what we were building and invite their friends in order to move up our waitlist. This proved to be super effective and referrals now make up about 12% of our customer acquisition mix.
• We also added that same thinking to our email strategy by sending out an email to people a few weeks after they signed up. This gave them another shot at sharing our message with their friends.
• We started surveying people that had signed up to learn more about them and were able to build a detailed profile of our most engaged users. We also learned which banks people were currently using, the features they liked most and least about their current bank, how much they were paying in fees, and their satisfaction levels.
By this point, more than 700 businesses had signed up for early access to our platform and we were realizing that early stage FinTech growth wasn’t a special and unique unicorn after all. Sure, we were still pre-product but our plan to try a whole bunch of stuff, measure everything, and obsessively test was actually paying off. The machine was churning away and we were hitting our targets week after week 🎯 and sometimes even blowing past them. High-fives were getting passed around regularly and we felt like we had cracked the code that stumped so many other startups. Our biggest issue (and the elephant in an otherwise happy room) was that we needed a continuous feed of content and tools to keep things moving. That was the critical flaw in our growth strategy so far – it was spiky.
I’ll talk about how we moved forward and avoided plateauing in How Our SaaS Startup Got Our First 1500 B2B Signups (Part 2) next week.