How OnlyFans, Canva, Reddit, Pinterest, Slack, Buzzsumo, Whatsapp, and Snapchat got their first users
(8 min read)

In this article you will see how the billion dollar companies like OnlyFans, Canva, Reddit, Pinterest, Slack, Buzzsumo, Whatsapp, and Snapchat got their first users.

There's an expanded version of this article with over case studies of 48 billion dollar companies! click here to read

How OnlyFans got its first users

Make use of your previous experience

The founder of OnlyFans is Timothy Stokely. Previously, he had similar startups, like GlamGirls, GlamWorship, and Customs4U.

All three of them were websites with adult content. They were basically porn sites. They gave Stokely an experience (and networks) in the world of content for adults. The first creators on came from the adult industry, especially from Customs4U. Stokely reached out to adult industry influencers and encouraged them to move to OnlyFans.

Twitter integration from day 1

OnlyFans accounts had automatic Twitter integration. The creators could share their referral links easily on Twitter. Their fans could see it immediately. It worked seamlessly since day 1 of OnlyFans and generated a great boost to the traffic.

Loose censorship

OnlyFans got so popular thanks to its loose censorship policy. Adult movie stars were able to post their content that would get quickly banned in most of the other places like that. That feature attracted a certain number of users.

The psychology behind it:

  • Exclusivity - people tend to attribute a higher value to things that are somehow exclusive or limited. works largely on exclusivity.

How Canva got its first users

Canva MVP

Canva started as Fusion Books, an MVP founded by Melanie Perkins and Cliff Obrecht. Schools could design and create high-quality yearbooks for students. During her studies, Perkins was teaching students about design. She noticed that students had a huge need for a simple graphic design tool. She wanted to make the process of creating visuals much easier and simpler. What the market offered then (Adobe and Photoshop) was for more experienced users.

Perkins and Obrecht made some cold calls to schools to pitch the idea of Fusion Books. Obrecht modulated his voice when the schools wanted to speak with the project manager. They have reached 400 schools thanks to this method. They even sent some free samples of the designs to be even more convincing.

Spreading the word through conferences and people

To promote Canva, Perkins kept going to as many conferences and meet-ups as possible. She attended conferences for bloggers, designers, and social media marketers. She pitched Canva to the attendees.

Perkins and Obrecht reached out to popular designers and graphic design influencers. They asked them to talk about Canva and recommend it to their followers and fans.

Building a waitlist with the help of a high-profile tech influencer

Perkins and Obrecht built a community around Canva with their efforts. They had people, so they could build a waitlist. It was all before Canva even started. Their waiting list gave the couple their first users.

50,000 users have signed up on their waitlist before Canva's public launch. It got to 150,000 pretty fast thanks to Guy Kawasaki, a tech influencer. One of Kawasaki’s employees was using Canva and made the influencer get interested in the app. Kawasaki supported Perkins and Obrecht when they were building that list.

The psychology behind it:

  • Occam’s Razor - sometimes the simplest solution is the best solution, and Canva really stayed with that rule. The program even guided inexperienced users through the process of graphic creation.

How Reddit got its first users

Reddit Faking traffic

The team would put $500 worth of stickers all around Boston to tell people about Reddit and make it more visible.

Reddit founders had a “chicken & egg” problem. When you have no users, you have “no site.” The founders were faking traffic to attract real users. Soon, several fake accounts started posting various links. They kept doing this for months until they got some real traction.

Once the first real users started joining Reddit, fake accounts began disappearing. People reported their “odd activity” and the fake accounts got phased out.

Users created their own content

3 years after the launch of Reddit, users could submit their own subreddits. This feature attracted new people. It gave steady growth at the beginning. Until at least 2012, subreddits made Reddit grow rapidly.

Making it look bigger

When the number of people was too small to form subreddits, Reddit’s creators put all users in one place. It was a trick to create a “feeling” that the platform is more “crowded” and popular. One group with 100 users looks much better than a group with 10 people. “No users” is generally “no website.”

The psychology behind it:

  • Bandwagon effect - people do something because many other people do the same. Fake traffic helped Reddit get its real traction and first users.

  • Simplicity - people tend to choose simple solutions. Reddit’s simple UI was a big advantage over their competition and provided them with their first users.

Got Pinterest got its first users

Pinterest Word of mouth and first users

The first Pinterest’s users were from the creator’s hometown, Des Moines. The founder, Ben Silberman, was organizing meet-ups at local boutiques and handed out invites to the attendees. The word spread further within smaller groups and clubs. First 3,000 users appeared within 3 months, thanks to word of mouth. The most interested people were those involved in some DIY and handicraft stuff.

Pinterest Invite-only

The founder’s friends and his network were the first to hear about Pinterest. He sent a couple (100-200) emails to ask people to check out the app. In those emails, he said that Pinterest had an exclusive (small) community, and that he would be happy to have the reader on board.

In less than one year after Pinterest went beta, there were less than 10,000 users. Silberman contacted about half of them directly to invite them on the platform. He left them his phone number, so that they could call him any time. People felt appreciated. They accepted the invitation to return the “favor.”

The psychology behind it:

  • Social proof - people tend to follow what others do. The word-of-mouth “marketing” worked here because people wanted to check out that platform the rest was talking about.

How Slack got its first users

Glitch BEFORE Slack

First, there was an online multiplayer game, Glitch. The game had an internal chat system. This feature became very popular among the players, but the game itself failed.

Butterfield's team noticed the popularity of the chat system. They decided to make it a separate project.

Word of mouth with Twitter

Slack’s founder, Stewart Butterfield, was also the creator of Flickr (a video/image hosting service). He was widely known by various communities. His Twitter accounts had thousands of followers. He tweeted a lot about Slack. The word spread pretty fast among people. 8,000 users signed up on Slack's day one.

Focusing on good PR

Butterfield reached out directly to the journalists. His team informed them about a new project “from the author of Flickr.” It gave Slack a boost - about 20% of Slack’s user growth was because of media.

The psychology behind it:

  • Social proof - people follow the actions of others, and since the app was “advertised” by so many, a lot of people simply decided to trust that trend.

How BuzzSumo got its first users

Buzzsumo Influencer marketing

BuzzSumo focused on influencer marketing. People with expertise in the industry of SEO and content marketing supported the app.

The founders reached out to highly popular marketers and similar communities. For example, names like Larry Kim, Ian Cleary, or Lee Odden were there on their list.

Buzzsumo Organic growth

Organic growth was important for BuzzSumo in the beginning. The creators focused on developing the product itself. Then, they asked the audience. It was a loop of getting feedback and fixing the product. Finally, they had an awesome thing that everybody talked about and shared.

The psychology behind it:

  • Authority bias - people have more trust towards individuals and groups who that are somehow authoritative (influencers are a good example here).

How HEY (email) got its first users

Personal brand and Twitter

Jason Fried and David Heinemeier, the founders of the Hey email app, had already been popular before launching it. Their previous startup, Basecamp (a project management tool), helped them build their personal brands. The founders had hundreds of thousands of followers on their Twitter accounts when they came up with Hey email.

They tweeted about the app before they launched it, and kept gradually letting people onto their waitlist.

HEY email Waitlist

The waitlist method has worked for many businesses. Fried and David used it to pump up the hype around Hey email. One week after the app's launch, they already got more than 100,000 people.

The psychology behind it:

  • Authority bias - people trust more if they hear something from someone authoritative. Fried and Heinemeier’s personal brands made building the waitlist much more efficient.

  • FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) - people are afraid they would miss something important. That’s a frequent effect observed in waitlists. They sign up to make sure they won’t miss it.

How WhatsApp got its first users

First users among friends

Jan Koum, WhatsApp’s founder, attended weekly meetings at his friend’s place. There were a lot of local Russians, and Koum pitched WhatsApp to them. It gave him the first dozens of users.

WhatsApp abusing App Store loopholes

App Store didn't have many apps at that time. Koum discovered that the “What's New” section got a bug. That could be easily abused by making small changes to the name of his app.

Koum kept changing the name of WhatsApp on App Store. It keep the app at the top of the App Store's "What's New" list. This little cheat made WhatsApp stay there for as long as the bug didn’t get fixed by Apple. It was enough to collect the first 1,000 users.

The psychology behind it:

  • Bandwagon effect - the more people do something, the more of them join. Keeping WhatsApp at the top of the App Store list made it more attractive for the users (it meant that it must have been so popular).

How Snapchat got its first users

Pitching the app

Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy, the founders of Snapchat, pitched their app (called then “Picaboo”) in their community:

  • they handed out flyers,

  • they were giving tutorials,

  • they were talking to people 1-on-1 about the app,

  • and even reached out to some journalists.

It didn’t get them much popularity, though. They got only 127 users, and all of them were their friends.

Available for iPads

Snapchat started to grow when Spiegel and Murphy made it available for iPads. The target audience was teenagers and students. But, not many of them had iPhones at that time. iPads were more common.

Murphy took a job as a coder in a company selling iPads and learned their system. So, he thought Snapchat should be available not only for iPhones but also for iPads. That slowly took the user count to 1,000.

Tapping into high schoolers

Evan’s mother told her niece about Snapchat - she liked it. The girl was at Orange County high school, which distributed free iPads for their students.

High schoolers fancied the app’s disappearing messages feature. They used it to take pics of notes for school tests. It was easy to get rid of evidence when the photos disappeared.

The holiday season doubled the user count as many teenagers got iPhones. By the end of that year (2011), Snapchat had more than 2,000 users. January 2012 saw it at the level of 20,000, and by April it was already 100,000.

The psychology behind it:

  • Social proof - people follow the actions of others and tend to listen to their opinions. Snapchat got popular through word of mouth among high schoolers, so the social proof effect was the foundation of its initial success.

There's an expanded version of this article with over case studies of 48 billion dollar companies! click here to read

Get your
"oh sh*t, this might work for us!"
moment in the next 5 minutes

Viral marketing case studies and marketing psychology principles that made hundreds of millions in months or weeks

In the first email:

  • a step-by-step strategy that made $0-$30M within 9 weeks with $0 marketing budget (case study)
  • cheatsheet (PDF) of 10 biases in marketing used by top 2% companies

Other than that:

  • weekly original content that helps you STAND OUT by providing more perceived value with less work

(You won't find it anywhere else)

We take your privacy seriously. No SPAM.
See our Terms & Privacy

Explore Cognitive Biases in Marketing

You cannot copy content of this page