An idyllic and empty white sand beach, with palms viewable in the distance.

A journi of 10,000 followers begins with a single step.

About two months ago, we started a service called journi, an iOS app that made sharing and remembering travel moments super easy and beautiful. When we launched, I read two interesting posts that inspired me to share our own experiences. Ryan Hoover wrote about how his team managed to get the first 2,000 users on Product Hunt doing things that don’t scale, and Morgan Brown discussed “Ten things I learned researching ten of the world’s fastest growing startups.”

Over the last two months, we started to add more and more users and lately reached the 10,000 users mark on journi. If this wasn’t enough to celebrate, Apple reached out for a feature. This made me reflect on what we did to get here.

The startup that failed

Every startup has its history of failure, and so do we. About two years ago Bianca, Chris, and I decided to quit our well-paid jobs and start an online marketplace for itineraries. We were under the impression that people no longer trusted traditional guidebooks and mainly got their information online. But instead of browsing through the Web and filtering all the relevant information, we thought it would be nicer to have a library of personal but qualitative travel guides available.

The service was called miavia (which is Italian and stands for “my way”). It attracted 800 users on the creator side in 10 months. We tried a lot to get more users, but miavia wouldn’t get off the ground. We couldn’t really nail the creator’s side to get more content.

Growth is nothing without the product

So we stopped all our growth activities and focused on the product again. It was clear that we had to do something for the creators to make it easier to generate travel guides. Nobody is going to put in hours of work for a few bucks.

Everything pointed into one direction: Getting mobile.

The pivot—a new MVP

While miavia sounded very reasonable and other travelers frequently told us about the same troubles again and again, we overlooked or basically had not learned three things:

1) Whether we solve this or not, it wouldn’t change anything about the fact that journaling and documenting a trip sucks. In the case of miavia, it meant that it simply took too long to create a guidebook and users would earn too little for their efforts.

2) People would actually prefer recommendations from people they know well instead of getting recommendations from the crowd.

3) People really love to have memories of their own trips in a neat form like a photo book to remember and share their travel moments, but why should they create a guidebook for someone else?

Looking more carefully into how people were using miavia, we saw that our users were mainly documenting their own trips and only sharing them with friends and family instead of publishing on our marketplace to earn something. So we decided to pivot and concentrate on the issue of journaling or actually capturing whole trips in a more automatic way.

We quickly tested the idea with a few users and the positive feedback was overwhelming. So we decided to start building journi.

The decision to focus only on this particular problem instead of figuring out two sides of a marketplace also made it possible to focus on a specific niche. The target user became extremely clear. Andy Rachleff once said that being laser-focused on a niche early is one of the most important things to achieve growth. Our niche includes people who have the need to make travel moments unforgettable, age 20-35, smartphone users, mainly women.

The Private Beta

Having miavia in place with 800 users was a huge opportunity for us to create journi in a way that would perfectly serve travelers’ needs. Back in February this year we decided to reach out to our 100 most active users and convince them to help us build journi together.

The early prototype was not fully functional. We added the features step by step and tested each of them separately so we could figure out whether it was worth it to integrate them. This was an ongoing process for almost 3 months. It also helped us understand what user issues were, what they needed, and how we could communicate our solutions in the most effective way.

With our test users, we really created a family environment. They felt super important and honored to help us. In fact, they got really excited about the new product and felt like a part of it.

The real journi and the public launch

In May, we were ready to fix our launch date and started preparing for the big day. At the end of the month, we released a final test version that included the set of features for the public version.

To make this last test as effective as possible, we made a game out of it. Each test user who would find an issue that could be replicated earned one Schnapps, served at our launch party. This game totally paid off and made us find every tiny bug.

By then, we had also started to communicate the upcoming changes to our existing miavia users. We wanted them to be the first to know about what was coming. We addressed each of our users with a personal email explaining the changes and what was going to happen with user accounts and their content. In two other emails, we reminded them that the launch was approaching and that miavia would be taken down. As a little extra, we revealed parts of journi to give them a feel of what it would offer and how they would benefit from the new service. Finally, we managed to turn almost all miavia users into journi users.

In the middle of June, we were ready to launch and bring journi into the Apple App Store. By then our test users, the miavia users, and all the others who had heard about journi were already super excited and curious.

Do things that don’t scale and do it as a team

For the launch, we decided to focus on Vienna (our home city) where most of our test users and early miavia users were from. It was actually the last week in Austria before the team would leave for the U.S., so we wanted to make sure that the majority of the people in Vienna would see or hear about journi. And as growth is a team sport, every team member helped.

The night before the launch, a group of people managed to tag our logo and URL with chalk spray on streets and walkways all around the city. It seemed to work pretty well, as we heard people talking on the streets and posting pictures on Facebook and Twitter.

In the early morning on launch day, we sent out an email notification to our test users and miavia users presenting the final app. We kindly asked them for a rating on the App Store and to share journi with their friends. By the end of the week we got 40 five star ratings in the App Store.

Everyone started the day with targeting their own social media channels. 

In the evening, we invited our entire test user group, community, and friends to a big launch party at a club to celebrate with us. The next day the whole team was around tourist hot spots and hostels handing out flyers and talking to people. With a nice email, we also managed to get featured on all the info screens in the public transport system in Vienna. And after the first week, we got our first 1,000 users.

Then it was time for us to move to San Francisco because we managed to get selected for the Plug and Play Tech Center accelerator program. The program is run together with the Austrian Trade Commission. It gave us the ability to get closer to the U.S. market and connect with the local startup scene to pitch and learn.

Get your analytics right

After we arrived in San Francisco, one of our first tasks was looking into analytics very carefully to find out how the first 1,000 people used the app, where they hang out, and where they have issues. We defined some important questions like: “How many users use feature x?” “How many of the users we added last week invited friends?” “How is that changing from week to week?” “How active are they?” and so on. This was important to get some standard metrics along our funnel and monitor user behavior.

Analyzing the first results, we quickly realized that the referrals didn’t seem to work as we expected. It was too hard for users to invite friends. Fixing that became our number one priority on the design and development side.

Paul Graham once said: “Do things that don’t scale and build things that do.”

And so we did.

Start building a community

On the marketing side, we decided to work more closely with our current user base and start building a community. Instead of getting more people into the funnel, we wanted to engage users and learn how they use journi.

So Carina started to engage our users on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, and our blog with topics including feature presentations, team news, travel quotes, user features, and more.

At the beginning, we covered all channels and tried to figure out which were the most important ones for us to communicate to and eventually also acquire new users. Now we mainly concentrate on Facebook, Twitter and our blog. Another important way of building our community and showing respect to our early users was personal emails. Whenever we got feedback mail, one of our team members would answer within 24 hours.

Wherever we could, we offered a feedback channel. At the end of each email users received from us, we would remind them that they could contact us by just hitting reply. In the settings of the app, we put a large feedback button and also in some particular instances we actively asked for feedback in the app.

In addition to that, we actively reached out to very active users about featuring their public trips, and if we saw that we got an email complaint, we asked why this happened and if there were any issues we could resolve. In addition to that, the team members regularly went to startup and travel events like couchsurfing, pub crawls, and expat meetups to be in touch with the local travel scene.

Success doesn’t happen overnight

We knew that reaching our next milestone (10,000 users) wouldn’t happen overnight and that there was lots of work lying ahead of us.

In Europe, when I ask startup folks how they’re going to grow, they often seem to be very laid back. They refer to social media campaigns, viral videos, ads, or the one guy they are going to hire who knows everything about marketing and will take care of growth. The majority of Europeans are excellent engineers, but they are really bad at selling and distributing things.

Nailing the product is one thing, building it for the user is another, but bringing it to the user is a totally different thing.

Growth isn’t something that just happens overnight. Whether you look at Angry Birds, Twitter, or Airbnb, they all worked hard to become successful. It often took years before they succeeded. (Here’s a list of great examples and their stories.)

Find your growth engines

Growth is actually one of the most complex tasks in a startup. The things you have to do in a startup to get early traction are far away from what you learn in your marketing classes at uni. As Morgan already mentioned in his post, it’s more about finding growth engines without investing tons of money in traditional marketing. But getting there is nothing like running a single social media campaign, creating a video, putting it on YouTube, and waiting for it to get viral, or spending tons of money into ads.

People have to understand that there is nothing like one single growth engine. Successful companies apply a selected mix of them or different ones at different growth stages.

Ian Hogarth, a YC alumni and co-founder of Songkick, recently talked about the main techniques a startup could use to grow: Here you can find the video from YC startup school in London. He mentioned four main growth engines:

1) SEO

2) Paid

3) API/Widget

4) Word of mouth

The only thing I was missing, or maybe he put that under the paid section, is “(incentives for) referrals.” Airbnb is a good example of a startup that applied all of these techniques.

Ian also mentioned that growth doesn’t necessarily happen when you focus on growth only. Startups also have to provide a good product and in order to survive. They need to find a way to make money.

Launch multiple times

Back in Austria, journi was steadily growing because of the things we had done during the launch week, but we almost had no traction in the States. So, we launched our app in the US a second time and with the new release in August a third time.

Thomas Schranz, a friend from another Austrian startup, blossom.io, and one of our early test users, introduced us to Product Hunt in May and offered to feature journi once we were ready. We reached out to Thomas and agreed that he should post on Wednesday, early in the morning PST, as this seemed to be the perfect time to attract lots of people. I also prepared a first comment to share some more insights with the users.

Our launch on PH was amazing. journi was upvoted best product of the day. Not only did we get a lot of feedback, we got 1,000 sign-ups within 3 days. With the feature, we also got a lot of additional coverage in smaller blogs and as one of the ten best weekly products, we were covered in the PH weekly newsletter.

Second release and manual growth

By now, journi had about 5,000 users, and we had only one and a half months left to reach our goal. But first, we launched the second version of our app. By making referrals easier, we hoped this version would help us to accelerate our growth.

To test the changes in the app, we had to get new people into the funnel and start our growth engines again. In order to grow faster, we combined multiple growth engines:

1) Do another launch. This time on Hacker News. We managed to be on the front page of Hacker News for about 4 hours and on the Show HN section for about 2 days. Hacker News didn’t bring in as many new users as Product Hunt, yet they seemed to be more active, from what we saw in analytics.

2) Bianca also published her design work for journi on Behance, where we got featured a few days later in the category “App Design.”

3) This was also the first time we actively reached out to various blogs and got a lot of media coverage in Austria (e.g. derstandard, horizont, futurezone) and in the travel scene (e.g. skift and tnooz).

4) Last but not least, we started to post in various Facebook Groups (exchange students, au pairs, backpacker groups, travel, work, etc.). This turned out to be a total success. We added hundreds of users each day. The key here was definitely the wording, which was very personal. We also included our email addresses for feedback or in case anybody just wanted to say “hi.”

The changes that we made in the app also had an impact on user growth. The referrals increased by over 120 percent per week.

The power of design and making Apple happy

We knew that there were probably two growth engines which were going to work best for us in the long run. One was App Store Marketing. Getting featured by Apple is like pure gold for a mobile startup. The other one revolves around referrals and incentives for referrals once we can offer a premium service.

To do the first one right, we would have to build the app perfectly for the user and for Apple. This was always something Bianca carefully considered when designing the app.

I actively reached out to Apple in June shortly before we launched, inviting some Apple guys to Testflight to try the app. Out of 10 emails only one person responded and showed some interest, but in the end he never tried the app. When the second version was ready, I sent him another email. I told him about our progress and that we would be happy about feedback on our iOS 8 features.

Surprisingly, I quickly got a response, and he connected me with the guys in charge for the App Store in Europe. They really liked the app and were curious about our upcoming plans for the next release in September and what iOS 8 features the app was going to support.

We quickly outlined our road map and answered their questions, including some screenshots for the next release. After two weeks we received the one official email that we were hoping for: An email from Apple App Store, concerning a feature of journi in the App Store.

What’s next?? The uncertain future!

Growth and the product are never done, right? Over the past two months, journi has evolved into a better app through each of the two releases and it grew week by week to a user base of about 10,000 people.

Soon, we are going to launch our third version, which will apparently be featured on the App Store, bringing thousands of new users.

We haven’t yet reached our tipping point. There’s still a windy road ahead. Some smart and skeptical entrepreneurs shared their concerns:

1) Will people stick around?

2) Does it have mainstream appeal?

3) How will journi establish itself in the crowded travel / journaling market?

4) Is it a must have?

While we don’t have a clear answer to all these questions, we do know why we started journi: We saw that people who travel don’t want to share everything on Facebook, they don’t want to be online all the time, they don’t want to have all the troubles that come with running a blog. They want remembering and sharing as simple as taking a picture, and with a result that feels beautiful and valuable like a photo book. People are willing to pay for a service like this.

And we do know that we have had an amazing launch so far and we know how to grow further. Over the last two months, the service attracted about 10,000 users. And the run has not yet stopped. We keep adding new ones and see users being super engaged, using the app in so many new ways we would have never thought about. With every moment created on journi they seem to love it more. However, it is interesting to see that journi is also polarizing and standing out of the crowded market; journi makes people interested and they talk about it. And we hope it will go on like that, as some of the greatest products of our time were born this way.

journi has definitely captured the attention of early adopters in the travel scene, but we believe there is even a bigger opportunity there. The time has come to use modern technology that helps us in creating and managing travel data more efficiently. And our vision is to build these products and services with the goal of creating a better travel experience for billions of travelers.

This post originally appeared on Medium and was reposted with permission.

Image via Steve Olmstead/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)