Hear the story of how the Riddle.com team grew Riddle to be a leader in the quiz marketing space – with no marketing budget, no sales team and without a dedicated support team. It’s all about having a killer product!
Episode 20 – How to scale a startup – with zero marketing budget
Welcome to The Quiz Makers, a podcast from Riddle.com. Join our weekly chat about all things, quizzes, marketing, and everything in between. We’ll speak with entrepreneurs and marketers to get their quiz secrets. Plus share our story, the highs and the lows of scaling our successful startup since we launched way back in 2014.
Hey, Boris, welcome back for another episode of our Quiz Makers podcast. Thanks for coming along.
Hey, Mike, how you doing?
Great. And welcome to all the listeners out there.
When we started this podcast, we called it The Quiz Makers because that’s what Boris and I specialize in. That’s what riddle.com as a quiz maker does.
However, there’s also a story that we like to share about how you can grow and scale a startup.
Now obviously, every startup is different. But we also want to pass on some of the lessons that we’ve learned.
And so Boris, you and I were talking just this morning about some of the conversations you’ve had since you were mentioned as one of Entrepreneur.com’s “Top 20 tech founders in Europe to follow”. Could you brief the listeners on some of those conversations and kind of what’s come about come from?
Yes, one of the the key topics actually, when I talk to people, they want to know how to do do you make that list?
The honest answer is, I have no idea.
And then the next question is, “How did you manage to find all these cool customers? I’m seeing Riddle quizzes everywhere from the BBC to the NFL, Red Bull, all huge brand names.”
So they always ask, “What’s your sales tactic? How big is your sales team? How much you spend in marketing? Can you guys be profitable, and still get all these customers?”
That seems to be a common thread of what people are most interested in when we talk about Riddle.
Perfect. And this is one of the things I love so much about working at Riddle, the answer is also quite fun. What’s the answer you tell them?
Right – the answer is that the sales team is zero. We don’t have any sales guys, which is usually met with complete disbelief.
Then they’re like, well, then you and your co-founder, Mike – you’re probably all day on the phone and on LinkedIn, trying to get these customers. Honestly, how much time do you spend like a day trying to find new leads?
Oh, well, that’s also easy.
Yeah, so generally, I will answer lots of questions on our support chat. Those will lead to product demos for people who are interested, but we have the luxury of people reach out to us and talk to us because they’re interested.
And that’s a totally different proposition versus calling, messaging, and pleading with people to try our product.
So that’s the simple answer to the question.
Next? “How much marketing budget do we spend to get inbound leads?” It’s the same answer.
As for the sales team question, we spend no money on ads.
Well, it’s actually that’s wrong. We dabble in a little bit of Google ads for about $5 or $10 a day. You know, mostly just to test some things out. But you can’t really attract any any meaningful traffic was that kind of ad spend. So we really don’t do anything.
Then obviously the next follow up question is “Well, what do you guys do, right?” “How do you get all these customers?” And I think it all starts – you have to have a good product. If you don’t have a product that people like, no tactic for sales or marketing are ever going to be long-lasting.
I guess if you’re an amazing marketer on social media, or on TikTok, you could probably sell something crappy to a lot of people exactly once. And then you’d be done for.
But for repeated success, you have to have a good product. (I’m actually thinking that we didn’t always have a good product.)
No, that’s very true.
Actually, I wanted to take that one step further. I would say not even just a good product. And this is going to sound slightly egotistical, but your product needs to be a great product. You need a product when people discover it, start to use it and love it so much – they want to spread the word about it.
For an average to good, people will just use it. That’s great but not enough.
But you really need that those brand evangelists, those brand ambassadors to really do that. And yeah, as you mentioned, like any startup, we made some missteps. We made some mistakes early on.
Yes, we used a lot of our initial funding rounds to build a product that we or our investors believed would be an amazing product. So we talked to a lot of people, who told us that our idea is amazing.
And we spent a lot of time and money building on our beliefs, launching something, and then realized in just seven days with heavy investment in marketing and sales people (we used to have salespeople) -returned, I think it was $10 or $12 in revenue.
Yeah, that was not one of our finer moments, was it?
No, that, that was fairly frustrating.
But you know, as a good team, we didn’t despair or fight over it, we just took action, which was to kill the idea and try something new.
And the new approach was to not listen to ourselves so much – or to our investors about what they wanted to see.
Instead, talk to the customers and ask them, you know, “What do you really want? What would you buy?”
And also asking them for their credit card and say, “Well, would you buy that now?”
You know, we had the basics of that, and we made it better over time. That’s become the Riddle you see today, which focuses on just the best tools to build quizzes, polls, personality tests out there. And building them was heavily informed by feedback from our most important customers.
You know, that’s probably the second thing that we do after finally arriving at a product that is really, really good. At least as good as everything else out there. (I would say better, but because it’s our company.)
The next thing is to listen to customers by talking to them on customer support. And you’re probably leading that effort, Mike. So we’ve already done an episode on customer support before but just give us a 30 second pitch.
Essentially, when we started, we tried several different approaches, we tried several different pricing models – freemium, offers, all sorts of things.
But what we kept hearing was that people kept asking questions – and wanting a certain subset of our features. And because of our backgrounds from work at Tickle.com and then a whole bunch of other quiz marketing startups, we thought “Look, let’s just focus on that.”
But a key part of this cycle is you’ve got to hear from your customers, especially early adopters. So Boris and I started using this really cool software called Intercom and answering all support messages. I’m sure many of our listeners have probably seen them on other web sites, there’s a little chat box windows that pop up. And normally a live person will say, “Hey, how can I help?”
The downside is that this approach does hurt your work life balance a little bit, because we’ll be answering messages from the pub, or I answered messages while hiking up in the Himalayas, where we actually had a WiFi or data connection. So I would answer messages really quickly. But by having a good product, and then being really active on customer support, you get the cycle of people who find us, we help them, they are happy, and they spread the word.
But we’re also learning about what they want and what they need.
So many of our requests on our roadmap, 80-90% of our features come from our customers. For example, “You guys should have a quiz timer so people have a set time limit on the quiz.”
And we built that.
“Hey, you guys should have a background color picker.” Or “You should have more flexibility for lead gen.”
Yes, yes, and yes – you’re absolutely right. And off we go to build them.
So that’s the whole cycle. Great product, really active customer support from the founders, devs, and engineers – get everybody involved with customers in less than 30 seconds.
If you’re listening to this and you’re starting a company – you might think “Oh, I always listen to my customers. I’ve been trying to build what they want, and it never works.”
That is true. In a lot of cases, you have to be careful who you listen to, and how much mass appeal some feature gets. So if you only have a very small set of customers and you build what they want, you may end up building something extremely niche and highly specialized.
You know, our job as founders of the company and managers is really to look at all the these requests, find a common ground, and bring all these requests down to what is absolutely necessary, what can we build really fast, that will give them 80% of what they asked for.
And probably never everything because the remaining 20% will take too much of your time, as usual.
Also, check who you are talking to, you know, there’s a big difference in types of users. In our case, are we’re talking to someone at the BBC, who is very familiar with using online formats, quizzes, interactive games, has done this all his life, usually talks to an audience of millions, and knows what he’s talking about? Or are we talking to a 14 year old kid who’s just trying to build something for his friends on Facebook.
If you treat all these requests equally, you’re going to end up with a crappy product. So don’t listen to all the customers – find out who you’re talking to… that’s the big, big takeaway here.
And there’s also the ‘squeaky wheel’ problem. You know, we have a wonderful, positive, encouraging community at Riddle, and they’re so appreciative, and we just love learning from each other.
However, when we started, especially in those early stages, there were a couple customers who were super particular, they needed highly specific features.
And they said, “This is so, so important!”
Boris – you and I took a step of considering “How popular among the whole community is this little feature that they think so important? How is it going to move the needle in sales and retention and all that?”
That’s what you have to stay focused on.
And the core job you, as a CEO or founder of a company is to look at all these distractions, because that’s what they are, right?
Everybody wants something, everything becomes important. And keep everybody on track and create traction of what’s important.
The only thing that’s important is something that serves the most users, something that has mass appeal, and that will generate money and new subscribers. That’s what you need to focus on.
Okay, to tie this all back. So you know, we said we have no sales team, we don’t spend on marketing, we just focus on really, really good customer support. We focus on word of mouth.
Is that working in? Yeah, you can look at our website, you can look at our customer showcase. You see all the amazing customers – we have some nice anecdotes, right?
Oh, yeah. This actually happens so often which is brilliant. It’s so encouraging.
We’re now really widely used in the NGO/nonprofit and non-governmental organizations space, they all talk to each other. So on support, we’ll hear “Oh, hey, I found you through <these guys>. They said you should try them.”
My favorite one, though, has to be after we started a trial with the BBC Children’s division (CBBC). And they’re said “Hey, you know, your quiz software is really good for engaging our kids or children’s audience, right?”
Then after they started using us, one evening at 10 o’clock / 10:30pm my time in the UK, I got a message from this guy over in Chicago in the US. He said “Hey, I’m a British expat and I saw you on the BBC. I work with the NBA’s Chicago Bulls. So we started chatting, and the Bulls started using us.
Now the NFL’s Chicago Bears and the Chicago Bulls, they talk to each other. And so the Bears started using it. And then the NFL saw what the Bears were doing and said, “Oh, hey, wow.” And so they signed up.
So that’s how we went from the BBC to the Bulls to the Bears and then the NFL.
These types of chains happen a lot.
And it all came about from – first, that really good product. But second was the fact that I quickly answered at 10:30 at night. Sure, I might have had a beer or two on a weeknight, but I got that last customer support message. So that’s the whole cycle.
And when you want that to happen, you need something that people that makes people talk about you.
You’re probably not going to go and talk to someone you know about “Oh, I’m using this new email feature”, you know, if it’s boring or whatever.
You may be talking about new music you discovered on Spotify that’s not on Apple Music – that gets someone to try out Spotify just for that one song that you rave about.
So it has to have nice talking points.
Now “I built this quiz” probably is not such a great talking point. But this is – “Hey, you know what, I’ve used this new software, I ran into an issue. And guess what, you know, it was 10 o’clock at night. I hit them up on chat, not expecting an answer. One of the founders came up, he’s this really funny guy, he was chatting to me from a pub, I think he had a beer or two. And he was able to solve my issue. How great is that?”
Now that’s a story that people tell. And if you look at our reviews on on Google and Capterra, a lot of these review sites, people say things like you expect like it’s a really good quiz builder, I generate a lot of leads, and opt in rates are amazing. But the the main topic – everybody starts to review is Riddle’s support is so amazing.
Yeah, that’s, that’s super encouraging. I would definitely go with that. And it’s, it is a distraction. And we have had to balance things – we’ve gotten our entire team involved just to keep things under control, because as a founder, you also maintain and balance your work life and energy.
If you’re answering messages at three in the morning for, let’s say, folks in Japan because of time zones, that’s probably not sustainable.
One other question, though. So oftentimes, as startups, you’ll have a fixed bucket of money from your founder and investors. And you’ll say, “Okay, well, we need a marketing strategy, we need a proper PR strategy.
How would you address using marketing, PR, and advertising to help grow your start up business?
And obviously, all depends on your product, right?
So if you have a product with a B2B focus, as we do, you probably only you talk to very specific people in an organization that need lead generation, and want to do lead generation through quizzes or need higher engagement through interactive formats.
It’s fairly expensive to reach them through banners and through traditional forms of advertising, that costs a lot of money.
So early on, we decided we have to reach them by word of mouth – we needed to get people talking about us. So that was our approach to support. And we needed really good SEO. So you know, we spend a lot of time writing articles.
And we also need mentions in other publications. So the only expense on marketing we have is we hired a PR agency. I’m happy to mention them. They’re Publicize.co.
Again, we took a very unusual approach. We didn’t hire an agency in London, as many would. We hired an agency from Medellin, Colombia.
I met the founder of that agency, Conrad Egusa, at South by Southwest. We were standing in line trying to get into a talk and just started chatting. And I just loved his approach. It was so close to what we were doing, you know, building a scrappy startup in an interesting location that no one thinks about, which was meeting and attracting top talent.
So you know, the people that work with us on our account, they’re expats. They’re Americans, they’re British people that moved there. They used to work in jobs at Google and other amazing companies but wanted to live in a sunny place.
(Not saying that England isn’t sunny, but probably not as warm as Columbia.)
Hey, we have at least three days of sunshine!
Yeah. So that was one approach. And that really worked for us. And we’re getting a lot of articles published, a lot of PR, but that is still our only marketing strategy where we spend money other than writing content.
And of course, doing podcasts like this.
Oh, yeah, I’m doing a podcast. That’s an experiment. We don’t know how that’s working out, right?
It’s hard to track – but if we’re still doing this in the year and you can still download episodes in a year… you can tell it’s been working.
Basically, to kind of wrap this episode up – because we do try and keep these short and punchy.
Essentially, you know, you need a killer product, it’s got to be really good. If people aren’t going to be wowed by your product, you are in trouble.
Invest in customer support, get your entire team to do it. Learn from your customers, but also keep that focus and not get distracted by every little request. Keep that general product train moving in the direction that’s going to move the needle for the widest percentage of paying customers.
And then be smart and strategic with your resources. Maybe paid marketing, at least in our case wasn’t required. But great SEO, investing in a good PR agency, but not on expensive retainers as a very effective use of our resources.
That’s the cycle. And that’s why we’re very flattered to have some of the people and customers that are using us.
Well, thank you for tuning in. I hope you learned something. Again, if you have follow up questions, want to know more details. We’re fairly open about everything we do, just hit us up on support chat on Riddle. Just ask for Boris and Mike, after all.
Oh, I’ve got to tell you, if you’re listening, we have a monthly competition, especially between Boris and I, on who answers the most chats – there is beer involved. So I’m going to be first to reply to you because I’m competitive and I like beer, as this podcast has already told you.
So yeah, I look forward to hearing that. Thanks a lot for us, and we’ll talk again soon.
Thanks again for listening to this episode of the quiz makers. And don’t forget, check out Riddle.com – the quiz maker used by the BBC, Shopify and thousands of other companies worldwide. Our quizzes are fully accessible and they’re GDPR-compliant. So try our free full-featured trial for 14 days – no pesky credit card required. And until next time, happy Riddling!