I met or spoke with hundreds of startup founders last year. In coffeeshops at SXSW, mentoring at accelerators like London Business School, MassChallenge and IncuBus, and after giving talks around the world. If they sought out my advice and were building an app (e.g. dating) or social community, I would always ask “Are you going to create fake profiles?”. This is a very telling question. Implicit in that question are the following questions:

  • Have you studied the way many other platforms like Reddit and TheStreet.com started out, creating thousands of fake profiles and creating comments/content etc for about the first six months?
  • Are you prepared to get stuck in and hustle?
  • Do you have a winning at all costs attitude?
  • Are you prepared to carry out potential high-return strategies even if you’re not sure they’ll work?

Entrepreneurs love to post memes about the hustle, but when it comes to the above, how many want to follow through and do things that may make them deep uncomfortable, but could bring massive returns? I’m by no means saying every company in that mould should do this, or that this is a substitute for a great product/value proposition. Nor am I saying this should be the only or main strategy. Tinder’s strategy of manually signing up sororities and then frat houses on the same campus meant all humans matched on day one of their app (awesome). But it’s worrying when you hear a startup founder not doing something and presuming their users will love them for it.
Users want activity on a platform. 90% of people who download an app will never use it after the first week. The fix to that is to have an AMAZING on boarding experience. If you join an app/community and it’s a ghost town, why would you ever return? As an extension of this, if you have smart coders who can build bots, you can then start to brainstorm how to duplicate such strategies on other platforms where your target audience is currently (i.e. Airbnb auto-posting their apartment to Craigslist, where people were searching for apartments). Some examples:

  1. I’m on a new dating app talking to my ideal match (in my case, attractive girls)- I talk to lots of them but don’t manage to cement a date, so keep trying for a few weeks OR I sign up, no-one in my local area/to talk to, so I head back to Tinder or Happn and never use your app again.
  2. I’m on a new social network for entrepreneurs. Every day there is fresh content for me to read, and I’m amazed that every comment I write gets replied to at least twice within 30 minutes (as behind the scenes the founder is getting a notification on his smartphone and replying instantly from 2 or 3 fake accounts) OR I see the same content on the front page 3 days running, and abandon it and go back to Reddit, soon unsubscribing to your emails trying to get me back to the graveyard that is your website.
  3. I find a marketplace for selling my consultancy services over video chat. I sign up and get lots of replies interested in using my services, but don’t actually close a deal-most tell me they want it in a month and to email them then, so I make a note in my diary OR I sign up, get no enquiries and literally forget the site even exists within a week. (i.e. the founders are making fake enquiries).

Of course, while the above interactions happen, (say over a period of 4-8 weeks), you’re building up the REAL users through various channels, so soon the real blends into the fake and you can take a step back from being chained to your laptop to reply to everything as it comes in, and let the real users talk to each other.
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It always amazes me how few people know the tactics all of the big companies used, piggybacking off other platforms, grabbing users every quick and dirty way they can. Don’t see them as above you- they were where you were once, and they hustled using tactics like the above. You’re already likely shutting out the possibility of time with your partner, a stable job, and time with your friends to run your company, so why not go all the way?
I find parents are the BEST people to pitch my new startup ideas to. If they can’t understand it, you can’t pitch it. And in reference to fake users, let me throw a scenario at you: It’s Christmas day 2016. They ask you how your business is coming along (with the implicit notion that it’s going to fail and you should get a proper job, as parents do). You can say one of two things:

  • Well it hasn’t progressed too much and we might have to shut it down, but we have been ethical, unlike some of our competitors. I might need to borrow some money soon also.


  • Yeah, we’ve had to do some…crazy things, but it’s going really well! Thousands of users, raised a huge chunk of money…

Push through the fear. If you feel it in your stomach that this would work for your company, you know what you have to do  . See the world as it really is, not how you’d like it to be.