Crowdini case study: focus on value before growth

Can I get your advice on how to grow our customers?

This is most frequent question entrepreneurs ask me. Whether it is day #1 of your startup or the night before your IPO, the challenge never ends: how can I find more customers?

Most of what is written about Customer Development concerns the very beginning days of a startup, but the real work begins when you build a product, have a couple of customers and then suddenly realize you need to grow.


Crowdini has a product, users, and is wondering how to grow

This is the situation for Crowdini, a startup that booked some Startup Help time with me through SoHelpful. This was a very enjoyable call for me and I’m sure you will come away impressed with with what Jason and Komra are doing.

Call summary:

Crowdini runs a game/contest where users answer a daily email question to win a prize (the particulars of their product are not important for our purposes). They have a few thousand users and asked me for advice on how to grow users. I try to steer the conversation away from growth – and towards learning more about the underlying value for users and their business.

For the first 11 minutes we talk about them, the product, what they’ve tested. Around minute 11 we start getting into the details of the value to users, and around minute 17 they identify what – in just my opinion – is the most interesting part of their business. Let’s walk through it.



(Incidentally, If you’re expecting entertainment, this isn’t it – this is what life is like working in the tough, confusing early stages of a product company.)


Lack of growth is the symptom – we need to find the cause.

Have you hit product/market fit and now need to scale? Congratulations, you’re ready for growth hacking. If not, you’re still in discovery mode. So when people ask me about “growth” I try to steer the conversation towards “value”.

This is exactly how my conversation with Jason started. For the first 11 minutes we talked about page views, monetization, and business models. You’ll see that Crowdini’s challenge isn’t going from 1,000s of users to 100,000’s of users – it is trying to find the real value in what people are doing on Cowdini.

Then about the 11:00 minute mark we start seeing some light.


Make a better X a better User of X

The key to uncovering value when you’ve got a small number of users is to figure out what problem you’re solving for them. Or as my friend Kathy Sierra puts it…

Don’t make a better [X], make a better [user of X]

Her point? Instead of measuring the quality of our products, measure the degree to which we’re helping users (a) solve a problem, or (b) satisfy a need.

So what’s our challenge with Crowdini? To dig deeper and find out what value we’re creating for the people using the platform. When I re-watched the video I was struck by how much more animated Jason became around the 11:15 mark – when he started talking about the users of his product and the value they get out of it.

Here is what customers tell him:

“I wake up in the morning…I open the email…and it makes me start thinking”

Now we’re getting somewhere. Jason is just starting to learn the “job” Crowdini is doing for people – the problem it is solving or need it is satisfying. But learning is tough, tough work as Jason and I discuss. It isn’t easy getting your users to get on a call or meet you, but I promise it is the best use of your time. Survey are wonderful but nothing beats the non-verbal feedback you get from face-to-face interaction. If you try to grow before you understand this you’re just wasting your time and money.

This is the primary point of this post so I’ll restate it:

Learn the value you are providing to users before trying to get more of them. Yes…it is very tough to get their attention and get the answers – but you absolutely must, must, must figure out a way to do it.


We see sparks of value

Right around 17:31 we start hitting paydirt. Jason and I dig a little deeper and learn that a good percentage of the people using Crowdini keep using it – keep opening the emails, keep playing the game.

Upon review what is most interesting is MY reaction. After working with thousands of entrepreneurs I know that it is really, really difficult to keep users engaged with services like this. Here is what is going through my mind…

I don’t completely understand this service and I’m a bit skeptical about these metrics, but it sure sounds like Crowdini is on to something.

Companies use sweepstakes and prizes as incentives because they get a relatively high amount of consumer engagement for the cost. So what do I see?

  • A startup with a new way to run game/contests that…
  • Attracts 18–24 year-olds…
  • And a segment of the users stay engaged for months.

Of course there are more unknowns than knowns, but somebody besides me is going to find this interesting as well.


Understanding this underlying value is more important than growth

My advice to Crowdini was to dig deeper and learn more about who and why people keep playing and to begin engaging brand/marketing managers about what they are learning. This is vastly more important than getting to X number of users, building more features, or raising money.

This is hard, tedious, boring, frustrating, unsexy (get the point?) work. If you find yourself in a similar situation you’re doing everything right. You won’t find the answers in Techcrunch, at your next meetup, by talking to investors, or at “growth hacking” conference. I don’t know the answers, Jason and Komra don’t know the answers, and the users themselves probably can’t articulate it.

But I know how to find them – by spending months engaging users and understanding their problems even better than they do.


Have some feedback for Jason and Komra?

I have a lot of respect for Jason and Komra – they’re (1) smart enough to ask for advice, and (2) care enough about helping others to record the call and share it.

If you have questions or advice for them you can schedule a call with Komra, tweet at @crowdini, or email them at In particular if you are a brand or marketing manager who runs campaigns or sweepstakes, please take a moment to reach out to them.


Epilogue – I get coaching advice from Gale Stafford

This is one of the first Startup Help calls I’ve recorded. I have no formal training in coaching, mentoring, etc., so I booked some time with Gale Stafford on SoHelpful to get his advice.

Gale helps people become better leaders and coaches, so he watched my conversation with Jason and gave me some feedback. We also recorded our call and Gale gave me some feedback on what I did and didn’t do well. I also had some basic questions about the differences between counselors, coaches, and mentors.



Summary of our discussion:

Counseling vs Coaching vs Mentoring

  • Counseling is more clinical
  • Mentoring is about providing specific direction
  • Coaching is about having a partnership discussion, working together through a problem.

So I guess what I’m doing falls somewhere between coaching and mentoring.

Feedback for me

  • Paraphrasing and asking for clarity is good.
  • When doing Hangouts, either mute my mic or don’t keep saying “ummmm…okkk” because the video keeps shifting.
  • I should work on being even less prescriptive: Offer ideas and wait for feedback. (I’ve been working on this – hard when our time is limited).

You can also get coaching & leadership help from Gale, website design, marketing, and e-commerce advice from Komra, and Startup Help from me.

Photo Credit: Martin LaBar (going on hiatus) via Compfight cc

One Comment

  1. Jason Allen January 23, 2014 at 4:07 pm #

    We starting interviewing players this week. I am hoping to interview at least 2 a week until we feel like we fully understand our players. Thanks for all the great advice!

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