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🐠 Fishbowl: journey to 1M users
+ Customer acquisition strategies for consumer social founders
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Many professional social platforms today serve as a directory rather than a social platform. They have plenty of information on people’s professional backgrounds but fail to facilitate genuine interactions or dialogues among their users. Don’t get me wrong… platforms like LinkedIn fill a big need for many people, from finding a job to stalking your friends’ professional status. However, the social norms of LinkedIn make it incredibly difficult for professionals to have candid conversations in public since everyone’s hiding behind that perfect professional facade.
This is also an observation that Matt Sunbulli had when he founded Fishbowl in 2017, the most popular anonymous social app for professionals that just recently got acquired by Recruit Holdings and joined its family of companies including Glassdoor and Indeed. Today’s story is a case story on how Matt built a social product that grew to have more than 1 million users.
Matt is no stranger to the social space, though mostly on the B2B side.
His first startup, Social Amp, became one of the first third-party developers to join Facebook’s PMD (preferred marketing developer) program. Social Amp offered Fortune 500 e-commerce brands tools and APIs to make their websites more social and interactive for their visitors. This gave Matt a unique insight into how users behave on different platforms such as LinkedIn.
In 2012, Social Amp was acquired by Merkle Inc, one of the largest privately-held customer relationship management (CRM) companies at the time. In the following three years, Matt stayed on at Merkle to build integrations and expand on the social features.
Around that time, Matt noticed a couple of interesting things:
There was a void within the professional social space. Unlike other social networks, LinkedIn was not an interactive platform and produced the least user-generated content (UGC) comparatively. There were opportunities to disrupt it.
Mobile apps were taking off (which brought real-time interactive use cases to social)
Demand testing and MVP
The lack of interactivity he saw on professional social platforms and the mobile trend got Matt to think more about opportunities in the space. One hypothesis he had was that if he could create relevant networks based on people’s vertical industries (e.g. consulting, private equity, etc) and leverage the mobile interface, it could facilitate more genuine interactions among professionals.
Similar to many founders I have talked to, Matt first tested demand for this idea by using emails and ads (FB and Google). The click-through rate in emails and ads is a good proxy for how interested people are in the core value proposition. The demand experiment worked with a solid click-through rate, and it was clear that there was a demand for this product.
The initial product was an iOS app that allowed people from the same niche industry to interact with each other. It was like a combination of LinkedIn and Reddit; people could see each other’s names & where they worked and interact with each other’s posts.
The first major setback the team faced was a big content liquidity crisis. Without people creating content, it was hard to crack the initial chicken and egg problem for the social platform to get people to stick around.
To understand the root cause of the content liquidity problem, Matt and his team reached out to users and found that the reason people were not posting content and speaking up was that their professional brands were holding them back. People were treating it like another LinkedIn.
“The motivation to enhance one’s professional brand is baked into platforms like LinkedIn, for example, and this can serve as a disincentive for users to speak openly. LinkedIn represents the ultimate directory of professionals. There are so many expert nodes on the network, yet people do not use LinkedIn as a crowdsourcing platform to get answers to their questions. Professionals on LinkedIn are expected to have the answers… so they're not comfortable asking questions. It's all user psychology.” - Matt
That key understanding of this nuanced psychology helped shape, arguably, one of the most important product decisions in Fishbowl’s history: making the platform semi-anonymous.
However, unlike purely anonymous platforms where everyone could join, Fishbowl has a verified anonymous model. This unique model does not only encourage people to speak up more, but it also keeps people accountable because you have to prove that you are who you say you are during the signup process (e.g. consultant at McKinsey).
This singular change helped them to crack the content liquidity issue.
First 1000 customers
According to Matt, in the early days of a company before product-market-fit, the most important goal for a consumer app founder is to optimize for the stickiness of the initial cohorts of users (even if the initial segment of users has a small TAM). To get anywhere, you have to figure out what really motivates them and build a product that sticks before expanding to the broader market.
The initial segment that the Fishbowl team laid their eyes on was management consultants. The hypothesis was that consultants tend to be more extroverted so they could be great initial users for the platform.
It was technically true and this segment was indeed the perfect fit and continues to drive user growth for the platform. However, it was a good fit for a completely different reason - loneliness.
Consultants can be the loneliest people in the world due to the nature of the profession and constant traveling, especially before the pandemic. They turned to Fishbowl for camaraderie, gossiping, supporting each other, and giving advice on various topics related to the profession.
First 100K customers
One of the key growth principles at Fishbowl is adjacent word-of-mouth.
Virality has a certain velocity, which includes both a spreading speed and a vector aka the direction of the spread. After studying the spread, the Fishbowl team realized that virality tends to spread the fastest within the same company and also across adjacent industries (management consulting and tax accounting). For example, once a management consultant at PwC in the New York office starts using the app, many of their colleagues would also hear about it and download it. People on the tax accounting team at PwC will also hear about it since they share the same building and have several overlapping relationships.
Another principle at play here is the magic number of 5%. One insight they learned is that once they penetrate 5% of a firm, the speed of word-of-mouth spread tends to accelerate dramatically. They have used many different tactics to get to that initial 5%.
One of those tactics is making targeted invite UX flows. For example, they show people an in-app popup that tells them how many people in their companies are also using the app, with a button to add their colleagues. It plays to the psychology of social proof. People are more inclined to invite other people when they see there are other people using the app as well (so it’s cool).
Another in-person tactic they have experimented with was sending interns to different offices to pitch Fishbowl (not a consistent tactic due to scalability issue). They were constantly iterating with different tactics to get to that magic number.
First 1M users
Today, word of mouth contributes to 50%+ of the new users they acquire. On the paid side, the team at Fishbowl has figured out an effective playbook around influencer marketing, sponsoring different influencers on different social platforms.
“You have individual professionals on different social networks creating their own content about their domain. Every profession has its own set of influencers within a vertical. Teachers have their own influencers, the same for accountants and lawyers. We’ve been able to identify and partner with the influential content makers across each of the verticals that we operate in.” - Matt
For example, in the management consulting industry, many of the consultants follow different consulting meme accounts, such as Consulting Humor. Fishbowl frequently sponsors their Instagram stories which have proven to be a great acquisition channel. In fact, this has worked so well that Fishbowl has started its own consulting meme page called Fishbowl Consultants.
Today, five years after Fishbowl’s launch, there are now over 1 million users and 11,000 communities. Communities on Fishbowl represent a diverse group of professionals across industries having the sort of conversations you can’t have on other social networks. There are discussions like what a fair salary is for a specific role, what a company’s culture is actually like behind the branding, or how to adjust to a new job as a person of color. Users speak candidly, unmotivated by self-promotion, and without their professional brand impeding on what they say.
That’s it for today. Check out Fishbowl!
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