Startup Tips: How I grew a waiting list of 20,000+ at Part I

June 3, 2008 - Get free updates of new posts here

Recently I got a question asking

“I was curious what methods you used to build a 20k pre-beta email list, and what were the conversion rates for those emails?”`

I love and if you are not using them for your personal finance then bleh. Anyways, I think for many new startups the largest challenge is distribution (outside of fb apps) to get people to use their service. Many rely on a Techcrunch post or the hope of a Digg article, Mint was rewarded with those but I think it’s even more valuable to have the right audience checking out your site from the beginning.

1- Figure out your objective. You are a promoter at a party and want the right people in line. No ugly people. For Mint that meant we wanted a waiting list of personal finance interested people in different segmentations. As well, we wanted to have a lot of personal finance people aware of us for trust reasons, the longer you know about something likely the more you’ll trust it.

2- Where are these people? This is not hard, they are reading personal finance blogs, searching for help on Google, listening to personal finance gurus, at Credit unions, in schools, etc…

3- Acquisition. Okay this is the good stuff:

a) Email Collection. duh. However, we did this with multiple landing pages. Amazingly done by Jason Putorti. We a/b tested many types of messaging and such to see what was the most compelling. Do people want Mint for savings, tracking, notifications, etc…New idea: Why not get their phone #? These are your customers, this is your livelihood, ask for their # and call them when you launch. That’s freaking memorable.

b) VIP? We allowed people to recommend friends and post badges to their blogs for earlier access, “I Want Mint”. Xobni, took our idea to a new level and was able to track those refers and have them compete.

c) Sponsor. We found smaller bloggers with passionate readers and sponsored their blog for periods at a time. Great relationship builder with influential writers. Thanks PStam for helping.

Important: We tracked all the cost / conversion to see which keywords, sites, methods were the most effective. Make sure you do this ALL THE TIME so you are not burning money if you are a start-up.

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Part 2 later. Leave your own idea and the top three will get Ori Brafman’s new book Sway, about how people make irrational decisions.

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34 responses to “Startup Tips: How I grew a waiting list of 20,000+ at Part I

  1. Dave Reply

    A relatively cheap way of encouraging sign-up is to do a give-away. Heck, this thread is even proof that that’s a good way to get sign-ups with the free book give-away. Offer something for free, and just spread info about the giveaway to the myriad of Deals/Coupons/Freebie websites on the web. You may get a mixed-bag of users depending on who your target audience is … but people like free stuff.

    Second concept is to offer an “early adopter” bonus. If you’r site is going to charge some sort of fee, offer a discount or free access to either the first # users, or a # of random users from those that sign-up for the waiting list.

  2. Erik Peterson Reply

    Speak of predictable irrationality, my suggestion to grow your waiting list is to begin to talk about the size of the waiting list ASAP. It’s surprising how many people let everyone else do their thinking, and merely stand in the longest line.

    So, talk about how you have the longest line. Serve your line refreshments, helpful blog posts on finance to keep them interested. Ask them their biggest frustration, what do they hope your offering will do for them?

  3. Noah Kagan Reply


    we were initially and had the opportunity to get aaron, the founder spend many months to acquire it and we finally got it. we pretty much knew it was going to be a great name.

  4. Steven Kovar Reply

    An idea I think is great would be posting fliers of some sort around college campuses. Most have massive bulletin board systems in place that students see multiple times a day while walking to class.

    Make it interesting enough and even people like myself will stop and check it out, At schools with large populations this could be a VERY cost effective means of getting a handful of young enthusiastic potential users who will more than likely spread the word before and after release.

    College kids love saving money, finding deals, and learning they can actually do something to prevent from getting screwed over by banks. More beer money, right?

  5. marissa louie Reply

    whoa, cool. what was xobni’s method of tracking refers and having them compete in terms of seo and sem strategies?

    oh yeah, i’m sure you’re vip in line. wait, you don’t have to wait in line since you’re the party promoter! 🙂

  6. Bob Reply

    One Idea that I thinks work well is constant interaction with the community you are trying to foster. Although you may get people to sign up for a service, people will forget if you do not constantly remind them about it, especially if you have to sign up for an invite. Twitter has recently gotten praise because they have opened up discussion about downtime and problems, and Zappos has fostered their community of tech-savvy women by their own participation in Social Networks. People will support a system if they believe that they are somehow a part of it, and they will equally defend that system since they feel they have added to it.

  7. Sam Reply

    Another technique for gaining an overwhelming number of interested visitors, is to sponsor a Flash game. In your case, a themed game such as “The Economist” would help you to appeal to a particular segment. You could potentially reach millions in a short time period, and these games stick around forever–a permanent ad, per se.

  8. Andrew Baber Reply

    Hey Noah,

    This obviously wouldn’t have worked on a smaller budget but maybe now….

    You could make a deal with BofA to put an opt-in button in a select 5-10% of their ATM transactions or in daily email balance summaries.

    ex. “Having trouble keeping track of it all? Try — effortlessly integrated secure tracking & budgeting blah blah”

    Could be a win/win if mint recommends their “business cash back” stuff.

    [I wouldn’t try this with wells fargo — I can’t see mint hustling plush ponies…]

  9. Simon Reply

    hi there,

    we work on product/ market fit in our german start-up.

    You say:
    We tracked all the cost / conversion to see which keywords, sites, methods were the most effective. Make sure you do this ALL THE TIME so you are not burning money if you are a start-up.

    What tools did you use?


  10. KennS Reply

    I had to ask Noah how long did the alpha beta tests lasts? would you ever say you could have gone without either alpha or beta? or were they both critical to mint’s success?

  11. Eric Reply

    This has to be one of my favorite blog postings ever! I love to know the real truth behind successful ground up “kick butt” stuff! Noah is the best because he is as real as they come! Genius and always always ahead to the dang curve by years…really 🙂 Think about what he was doing back then? Damn, people today still don’t do these freaking awesome things!

  12. Mike Thompson Reply

    29k is a lot for a waiting list but i am getting ready to try. I’m learning a lot. i’ve been in advertising and online marketing for a while now but software is a little different animal.

  13. JC Reply

    Hey Noah,
    Great article… Just wondering in 3c how did you find and qualify the blogs to sponsor… What did the sponsorship look like and what did you get out of it in terms of distribution?

    Thanks for the awesome posts all the time!

  14. Christian Jespersen Reply

    I am writing a book (e-book only, at the moment), and I will copy what Hotmail and Gmail to get more users.

    On the aboslutely final page, which of course I need to make sure people get to, I will write something like:
    Did you like this book? Recommend it to another, and give them 20 %.
    As a reward, you get to exclusive chapters I excluded from the book, (only available through here).

    The goal is to create a win-win situation the reader and the soon to be reader.

    P.s. Thanks for a fantastic job writing these mails. I learn a great deal from them

  15. Michael Tan Reply

    Dear Noah,
    Your article is pretty succinct. I would like to learn more though. Before you build a waiting list of users you can choose from, how do you generally inform people before you choose your target audience? Are you displaying your product to a wide and diverse group, and then you choose who to hit the most, or do you only reach out when you know who to send to. Thanks, Michael