Karthik Sridharan


How Side Projects Can Become Marketing Departments

… and even their own companies

Let’s describe the state of most early-stage startups. Very little money in the bank. Don’t just need clients, but also need them quick. Sure, content marketing is great, but also requires patience for quite a while before one sees quality return on it.

This is a familiar story for many entrepreneurs. At Flexiple, we too were looking for some inspiration to boost relevant traffic on our website. That’s when we came across three interesting cases: Website Grader by Hubspot, Unsplash by Crew.co and BetaList by Openmargin.

What is the concept?

The concept is straightforward: offer something on the side to your potential clients and subtly market your startup through it. Sounds simple enough, but each of the above companies made some really smart choices in execution and few that serendipitously worked for them, which resulted in their initiatives being successful. Let’s dive into each of these cases, to understand them in more detail.

Website Grader by Hubspot

Source: https://website.grader.com/

1. What is Website Grader?

It evaluates a website’s online marketing performance based on various parameters.

2. What is the story behind this?

Back in the day, when Hubspot was a small setup, its co-founder, Brian Halligan, would often ask his co-founder, Dharmesh Shah, to review a few websites for their inbound marketing potential. The latter would have to manually go through the source code of each of them.

Finding this cumbersome, he created a nifty tool that automated the process. Realising that this would be really useful to others too, he launched Website Grader, as a free tool.

3. What is/was the impact?

Of course, lot of love from potential clients. Also, over three million websites have used it and it continues to generate a major portion of the 50,000+ leads that Hubspot receives each month.

4. Learnings

  • Make a simple product that is easy to build
  • Consider what your target audience will find useful

Unsplash by Crew.co

Unsplash’s website on $19 Tumblr theme; Source: https://medium.com/who-what-why/how-side-projects-saved-our-startup-a83a80f3b3ae

1. What is Unsplash?

A website that makes it easy to acquire high quality stock photos.

2. What is the story behind this?

While creating the homepage of their website, they were unable to find a good quality stock image that was also affordable. So, they hired a photographer to click a few photos. SInce, they just needed one, the rest would likely be unused.

Recognising that even others must face the same problem, they created a simple website (using a $19 tumblr theme) and uploaded ten photos, with the promise of “10 new photos every 10 days”.

3. What is/was the impact?

It began generating 11 million unique visitors each month and became the main referral source for Crew. Dial forward a few years, Crew was sold to Dribble, as the founders decided to instead focus entirely on Unsplash!

4. Learnings

  • Leverage your existing resources when building a new product
  • Build cheaply and quickly

BetaList by Openmargin

Betalist’s website when it was first launched; Source: https://stories.betalist.com/how-i-tricked-techcrunch-into-writing-about-my-startup-248083eb0c34

1. What is BetaList?

A place to discover upcoming startups and get beta access to them.

2. What is the story behind this?

The founder, Marc Köhlbrugge, was finding it tough to get beta users to test his product, Openmargin. He figured getting published in TechCrunch would give him those users — clearly, easier said than done.

To achieve it though, he created a basic prototype (again on a Tumblr theme), that contained a list of a few Beta startups (including Openmargin). The sell: “Be the first to discover and get access to the latest internet startups”.

3. What is/was the impact?

The clincher in this case, though, was the mail(s) to TechCrunch. Marc’s bet worked out and TechCrunch published an article about BetaList. Even Forbes, went on to write an article about BetaList.

Of course, Openmargin got the beta users it needed. Interestingly, once again, the founder instead started pursuing his entrepreneurial passions through BetaList, given the immensely positive response to the product.

4. Learnings

  • Once again, build cheaply and quickly
  • Have a good plan to market your side project beforehand

How did we use these learnings?

We built Remote.tools.

1. What is it?

Remote.tools, is a curated repository of tools for remote teams.

2. Why did we build this?

We decided to apply our learnings. To summarise, they were:

  • Choose something relevant to your target audience
  • Use resources (tangible or even, basic knowledge) you already possess
  • Build a simple product that doesn’t require maintenance
  • Plan marketing of the side project beforehand
  • Common across all: Market your core product subtly

a. Target audience:

At Flexiple, we offer handpicked freelance developers and designers to tech companies. Our talent are typically remotely located when they work with companies. Hence, our clients are usually remote companies or at least those that are comfortable with remote working.

b. Resources:

We have a fully-remote tech team and experience challenges peculiar to remote teams. To address each pain point, we used to research a tool that could help us. This was pretty time consuming and we were surprised that there wasn’t a single repository of tools for remote teams to leverage.

Given, we had already done the requisite work, we decided that we just had to organise the data for other teams to leverage.

c. Simple product:

We initially were tempted to create a product that would have user engagement features, such as upvotes, comments, etc. However, we decided that the first version of the product, should be a simple repository of tools that provides comprehensive information. Only, if we saw significant user interest, would we build further.

d. Marketing:

Before the product was ready, we worked on the following:

  • Preparing a list of Facebook & Slack groups that would find remote.tools useful
  • Drafting mails to be sent to tech blogs
  • Reaching out to moderators of popular tech forums on social media
  • Creating our Product Hunt page

e. Subtle marketing of Flexiple:

Flexiple’s brand was placed at the footer of each page. While promoting on various forums, we explained the story behind making it, which also brought Flexiple to the fore. Finally, we also placed it in the “Hiring remote talent” category.

3. What was the impact?

Immediately after launching remote.tools, we received huge interest on Product Hunt and started trending on it. Within a couple of days, we received ~500 upvotes and a lot of positive reviews.

This resulted in over 10,000 visitors to our product. Even adjusting for the bounce rate, ~5000 users were spending good amount of time on it (~2 mins).

The best stat: we were able to close 4 client deals, where the clients stated the lead source as remote.tools. We had already made 10 times the money we had invested into the product!

Now it did make sense for us to work on new features and engage our users.

Closing thoughts

Not all such initiatives taken up will be successful. Not as successful as the three examples shared above anyway. However, with finite resources, we need to experiment with alternate methods of marketing our product. Building a side project is surely one that promises immense return soon!

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