I recently received an email asking me how we got initial traction at Sketchfab. The answer depends on the product, but you can find some patterns and I thought I would share here some of my notes from the answer I made.
It may sound silly to start with this, but I’ll do it anyway: it helps a lot if your product is truly unique and different. This is getting harder and harder, because you can be sure someone has thought about your idea before. The uniqueness of your product can be on small things though, typically UX/UI is often a key differentiator today. In our case, we were pretty much the first platform to let you easily publish 3D files online.
Removing friction to creation matters immensely in getting initial traction. We, internet users, are lazy. Only easy to use products will stick. On the 1st version of Sketchfab, there wasn’t even a signup button, just an upload button. When we added signup, there was only twitter connect. We waited 2 years to add categories, tags and a lot of things that are necessary today but not at launch. The good news is that removing friction means your mvp can be more barebone, which means you can ship sooner.
A good name
You need a good, catchy and memorable name, with a dot com domain. Before Sketchfab was Sketchfab, it was called paste3d dot net, and then showwebgl dot com (yes, with 2 Ws). I spend 10 full days working on this to come up with Sketchfab, which was available everywhere. Great essay by Paul Graham on this topic: change your name
ProductHunt and TechCrunch definitely help for a launch, but for many products who are less consumer oriented, very targeted and niche blogs can be more effective. For us it was a post on blendernation.com, the main news site for the Blender community, the largest open source 3D software. The post crashed our servers and got us our first 1,000 users. Fun story: Bart who wrote it at the time is now our Head of community :)
Finding ways to distribute your product in a scalable and “automated” way is key. For us it was our exporter and embed strategy: make sure we get integrated with all 3d creation tools and publishing platforms. Two good examples: we are native in Photoshop giving us access to their 5m users, and native in Facebook letting us reach 2bn people. This strategy works great for us because when we get integrated, our partners promote us to their user base.
The beauty of a web product is that you can iterate all the time (less true with apps) and have direct access to your users. Make sure to speak frequently with your first users to a/ show them you care about them b/ listen to their product feedback and c/ iterate on that. I was the one doing user support at Sketchfab for the first 2 years of the company, until it wasn’t scalable anymore. I learned so much by doing that.
This list is not exhaustive, it is just my top of mind when remembering our early days and thinking about initial growth at Sketchfab.