In my last article Rohan Gilkes shared how he used a combination of influencer marketing and viral contests to build an email list of over 50,000 pre-signups for his new company, Innclusive. Today’s interview is with the David Schneider, founder of Ninja Outreach. He and his team have bootstrapped their CRM for influencer outreach from 0 to $300,000 a year with a combination of influencer outreach (duh, they’re experts at this) and content marketing. Like Rohan, Dave is super open about what’s worked and where he and his business partner failed in the beginning.
Some of their mistakes almost killed their company, but their tough persistent entrepreneurs and they now have a thriving business.
What’s your story?
We launched back in January 2015 out of Beta but if you count all the time we spent working on the product we’ve been in business for about two years. I was a guest on my business partners podcast, and we were both thinking about our similarities, our complementary skill sets, and what we wanted to do next. We’d both spent time in the growth marketing game and he’d built a desktop application for influencer outreach.
We saw a lot of resources and software for content marketing but not a lot on the market for outreach. We thought there was a need for some sort of influencer marketing CRM.
We did some early validation and ended up deciding to build a single tool that we could use to do all of our prospecting and outreach from.
How did you get your first 100 customers/users?
It’s a really good question. I’m working with a friend on his business with some advice and thinking of “How did we get this going” so my mind is going back to how we started this business.
We focused on trying to find the balance between short-term (less scalable) wins and long term strategy. In the beginning, we used direct sales via Instagram, twitter, email, and LinkedIn to prove out our sales process and pricing.
Long term we had to think about traction channels that would drive more sustainable growth. Longer term things like SEO and building relationships with influencers.
We immediately started a blog about blogger outreach and influencer marketing.
Competitor research showed us some ideas for growth too. We looked at our competitors and reverse engineered how they were getting traction.
One of the most effective strategies for us has been influencer outreach. Specifically, we did a lot of what we call “Expert Round Ups”.
An expert round up is when you pick a question or topic that you’d like to write about. Then you make a list of about 100 experts whom you’d like to speak to the topic or answer the question. Finally, we used our software to manage our outreach and manage who responded.
It’s a great way to put together an article that is authoritative because it has a bunch of people who’s opinions matter and you have a ton of content (thousands of words) and these people will share it when it’s live.
Here are some things you need to keep in mind when doing an expert roundup
- The first thing you need to do is put together a question that you want to rank for.
- Make a list of influencers in your niche that you would want to ask the question to. We often use a google form and get the following info:
- Contact information
We do this for everyone and do follow ups. Something like 20%-50% of people writes back when you write back. I always answer these because it gets my name out theirs.
- Put the post together. Make sure it’s pretty. Use lots of info graphics.
- Once it’s published go back to your influencers and ask them to share it.
- Add it to Inbound and Growth Hackers or some other community that is relevant to your niche
Here’s an example of one expert round-up that we sent out had over 400 shares. That post has gotten over 4k visitors since it was published. I do not know the ROI of an individual piece of content. If you say that website visitors convert at about 1%, that’s 40 sign ups. 30% conversion rate to customer * LTV of $300 would estimate at $3600 LTV since it was published last year.
What steps/advice would you give to other entrepreneurs to achieve success in this channel?
Lots of people wonder how to do this. It’s about building relationships with people!
How do you go about building those relationships? Getting yourself known?
It starts with GIVING!
In expert roundups, we have something to gain from traffic and shares, however, we do have something to give by writing the article, linking to them and helping them build their brand.
You’ve worked with a ton of entrepreneurs, where do you think most fail with regards to Growth and customer acquisition?
A lot of our early adopters we gave free accounts to our product. In the beginning, you have to give as much as you can.
We had nothing two years ago, what’s the big deal when you’re starting from 0 you might as well as give something away for free if it can drive you more sales in the long run.
How do you connect with the influencers in your niche and give to them early to build up some relationship karma? Later on, when others had opportunities to feature us they did, they thought about us because we were on their radar.
Niel Patel has linked to us several times. We’ve never actually had conversations with him but he’s seen relevant opportunities to link to us. I believe this is a direct result of us giving to others early on.
What’s one question you never get asked in interviews but wish you’d been asked?
Someone asked me on a podcast about what’s something that you’ve never told anyone before.
The thing I feel like people rarely ask me about how much work it really takes to get a business to the size of Ninja Outreach (we’ve hit 300k in revenue). The reality is that’s a pretty small amount of revenue.
That’s over two years in the making if you count time in BETA plus 10’s of thousands of dollars in investment.
It’s a ton of effort to grow these businesses and I can’t stress it enough because it’s important to set expectations.
A lot of people come to Ninja Outreach and can get frustrated with their traction. It just takes a long time to get any type of traction that will move the needle. Our software makes it so much easier to do the outreach and manage those relationships, but you still have to work hard and give a lot.
If you’re bootstrapped or self-funded you have to prepare yourself for things to go slowly.
I did a podcast about some of the mistakes that we made early on.
- We used only PayPal as our checkout card. People could only use PayPal. I thought everyone had PayPal and so many people said that they didn’t have that. We didn’t have a way to accept a credit card and we turned away so many people because of that.
- The first thing that we came out with was a desktop application for Windows only. I know people will say “I can’t believe you would do that”. Our MVP was a desktop application and there was some functionality in the way it would run searches that would have been better as a desktop application. The fact that it was a desktop application was a big turn off and half the people couldn’t use it. This caused every other sign up to be canceled immediately.
The lesson for both of these is really about market research. Find someone who’s running a software business if you’re just starting out and ask them what they use. If we’d asked enough people we would have avoided this issue.
The idea of doing your research works for content marketing and influencer outreach as well. Trying to understand those things will help you save with your limited resources.
A note from Alex: Sharing where you’ve failed takes guts. While it may seem obvious not to make the mistakes that Dave and his partner made, they’d never built or run a software company, so to them, it wasn’t obvious. I can’t stress enough how important talking to your customers and asking questions that you’re afraid to ask is. If you fail to do this, you’ll build the wrong product and it could kill your business. As I mentioned in the intro, the fact that Dave has been able to survive and build their business speaks to the tenacity and persistence of his team.
I’m a customer of Ninja Outreach and happy to answer any questions you guys have about how it works. I’ve been using it to get leads for my founder and growth marketing series. I’m interviewing successful founders and growth marketers and sharing how they’ve driven traction for their businesses. If this is you, go ahead and you’d like me to write your story, feel free to contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
As part of this series, I’m giving away free access to our first product ActionPages. It lets you create and launch viral referral contests and pre-launch campaigns in just a couple of minutes.
Just sign up, share it with your friend (please!), and message us via intercom saying you read this article.
We’ll comp your account asap for pro features!