How One Company Exponentially Grew Its User Base Two Years in a Row

01/30/2017 01:42 pm ET

When it comes to 10Xing user growth, Owler knows a thing or two, because they’ve done it – two years in a row.

Owler, a crowdsourced competitive intelligence platform, has more than one million active users. Over the course of the last year, Owler’s member community has grown ten times in size, and Owler is now the second largest active business community after LinkedIn.

What is Owler?

Numerous types of business professionals, such as CEOs, recruiters, and marketers use Owler daily to gain actionable, competitive insights from Owler’s intelligence set, which includes over two million community contributions. Every 8.64 seconds, Owler members are adding their own insights to help other members.

The company can deliver data from 15 million company profiles that offer competitive insights as well as introduce business professionals to new companies in their respective spaces.

What does 10X growth really mean?

If you set out to grow your business by a factor of ten, there are going to be skeptics. However, this is mainly because people don’t know what 10x growth really means.

If you think of 10x growth in terms of city populations, it’d like growing the city of Denver to the size of New York City in one year. And to do it twice would be like growing from the population of Denver to almost the size of the entire country in two years. You can’t fake that type of growth, and you can’t do it from scratch.

So how do you actually accomplish this growth?

I sat down with Owler’s Chief Operating Officer, and Chief Product Officer Jeremy Bellinghausen to learn how and why business professionals use with the competitive insights found in Owler, and how Owler was able to grow their business 10X two years in a row.

Here are the five steps I distilled their process down to, with Bellinghausen’s comments on each:

1. You have to have product market fit.

“It starts with having a demonstrable small base of users that you have really figured out,” Bellinghausen says. “You understand what they need, and how they are using your product. This initially doesn’t have to be a huge number; even if only 10 users, you have to be able to show the value they’re getting. A lot of companies try to skip this step. You can force growth by spending a lot on marketing, but it’s so much better to instead build a small community of fully devoted users, then start telling the world about it. If you don’t have that, it’s like you’re always in quicksand.”

2. Think about ways to expand, and obstacles to expansion.

“You have to plow the road ahead of you. Traditional obstacles to growth are databases or a website that can’t scale with increasing traffic. Now, 70% of Owler users are US based, there are still huge opportunities to expand in Europe in Asia, and also to non-English speaking languages. Our goal at Owler is to provide a fantastic daily experience for all our users. That means when we expand to Europe and Asia, we first need to have great content in these regions. We have to prepare the ground for the future.”

3. Have an “element of delight” to drive virality.

“In SaaS, there are a lot of useful tools, and tools people like, but there has to be a little bit of magic. With Owler, our focus on the product side was to create a product that did two core things:

1. Right out of the box, it feels like Owler understands you, and sings to you. When you sign up for Owler, by simply registering with your work email, we know your employer and immediately provide value for you.

2. We wanted to make it fun. Our mascot is an orange Owl. We wanted to have an element of playfulness that makes our brand feel special.

Also, we incorporate that element of fun within our product. When a user rates a CEO’s approval they can select a smiling face, neutral face, or unhappy face. That community dynamic doesn’t exist in many other places. At Owler, business professionals are genuinely delighted to participate, to not only make sure their own business is accurately represented (which is the way most business communities are used), but also for companies they follow.

That’s the beauty of it; Owler community members each help contribute to benefit other members of the community. In fact, each week we tell our community of how many people they impacted with their contributions. We’ll tell you, your contributions helped out 15,000 other people this week. We tell you the companies and places people work that you’ve helped. That’s pretty fun -- our community members really love those emails.”

4. Make it fast, quick, and easy to do everything.

“We wanted to make a great and easy user experience, and then get out of the way. There’s an incredible amount of intelligence under the hood of Owler. Our users don’t need to see all of that, they just have to hit the gas and go. It’s easy for a user to signup; all they do is enter their work email address. We don’t need a big, arduous setup window. With Owler we learn from users’ behavior and constantly improve the user experience. And, we made it easy for Owler community members to share Owler with their colleagues.”

5. Each 10X in growth requires a completely different strategy.

“To achieve 10X growth, you need to do something totally new. It’s really a sombering thought that what got you here, won’t get you there. You have to reinvent yourself each year, it’s scary, but exciting at the same time. The strategies that worked so well for you will ultimately fade in the background and become less effective.

For us at Owler in 2015, onsite registration which took us from 10,000 to 100,000 users was our primary growth driver (nearly 100% of registrations came this way). But in 2016, we saw people referring friends and colleagues, and more organic growth. Now onsite registrations account for 10% of our growth (previously 100%). So, what’s working well today may only be 10% of future growth, so you have to invent the next 90% for next year.”

Me: Can you please walk me through the path Owler took to such rapid growth?

Bellinghausen: “Within Owler early on, we saw that twinge in the adoption curve, where our community members were really adopting Owler. And that there was a whole set of value being delivered.

In order for us to drive growth, we have to focus on today’s growth drivers, while also be working on next year’s growth at the same time, which is twice as hard, because by mid-point in the year, you have to work on the levers for the next year, while maintaining your active strategies this year.

To 10X every year, you have to double in size every 3-4 months, and to do so you have to:

1. Have the technical infrastructure and capabilities in place (and not have technical limitations) to plow the road ahead of you, and;

2. Inspire the team (and make sure you don’t have any skeptics).

People won’t just believe that you can 10X your user growth; you have to show early wins, especially when you’re new to a company, you have to bring something new that can put the business on a new trajectory. When I joined Owler, we implemented A/B testing methodologies to improve our user conversion rates dramatically, and we were able to 10x user conversion rates very quickly.

What else helped us drive this growth at Owler? We had to make a product that was simultaneously easy, and fun, a product that really sang to people. With Owler, our users say it really feels like personal assistant, helping them with the day to day tasks. Under the hood there is a tremendous amount of technology making this happen. Owler’s Competitive Graph is the key IP that allows us to aggregate information intelligently, in a way that’s really relevant to our users business needs.

At a high level, growth at Owler can be attributed to a few key things. Once our product really started to sing to people, our retention rates really improved, everyone that looked at Owler, was really sticking to the product. The next aspect contributing to growth was when Owler users started to refer friends and colleagues.

Entire teams and organizations started using Owler, CEOs were mandating that their entire companies use Owler, and Sales VPs were standardizing their global organization on Owler. At that point, we focused efforts on marketing and building our brand awareness. We knew we had a groundswell of interest, and organic PR mentions coming in, while also realizing many people weren’t even aware of Owler.

That’s when we started to tell user stories, and how all types of business professionals can be smarter at their jobs through using Owler (sales reps, CEOs, marketers, executives, etc).

What’s next? How do you continue this growth trajectory? We have users at organizations using Owler independently; in some cases there are 10,000+ individuals at a single organization using Owler. Organizations that use Owler collaboratively as a whole, or within their teams will be one of our next levers of growth. In 2017, we’re focused on Owler for Teams to drive more value for teams, and we expect this network effect to help drive our next phase of growth.

To recap, here are the phases in which Owler achieved our growth:

1. First 10X: Achieve product market fit, and convert users.

2. Second 10X: Delight users with the quality of our product, so they recommended it to a colleague, and complement this by telling our brand story.

3. Future 10X: Entire enterprises will start contributing to Owler, and as more people in companies use Owler, the more valuable will be delivered through all the insights that can gathered and return back to people.”

This concludes my interview with Jeremy Bellinghausen, Chief Operating Officer at Owler.

Jeremy was previously the CEO of Topspin Media (sold to Beats Music), President of HotelClub (an Orbitz Worldwide Company), and General Manager for Business.com (sold to Dex Media). Jeremy is an operational expert with deep experience helping companies drive growth. Jeremy holds an MBA from UCLA Anderson School of Management, and a B.S., Engineering from Washington University in St. Louis.

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