How We Got Our First 5,000 Users

Celebrate — this week we got our 5,000th user!  This is the most users either of us (Rodrigo and I) have ever had for any web project of ours.  In the past, we’ve taken the “build it and they will come” attitude towards web development … and they never came!  Here’s the story of how we got our first 5,000 users by constructing custom narratives for influential communities.

The Communities that Seeded Our First 5,000 Users

The major insight we had early on was that our first 5,000 users already existed, they were just part of other communities. We decided that we would go to those communities, tell them a custom narrative (not a generic story), and see if they were interested in our product.  It turns out that they were.

Hacker News.  At 9am PST on January 3rd, we posted a “Show HN” article on Hacker News with the hook that we built the site to keep our New Year’s Resolutions.

Note that our Show HN post was made as an external link to and we made a comment on that post that described the project.  We decided to do that instead of submitting a text story to HN with the first comment as a clickable link.  We had anecdotally observed that posts without external links were not making the front page too often after HN added “Ask”, and some of our friends had observed this also.

The Next Web.  That afternoon, Courtney Boyd Myers at The Next Web picked up the story from Hacker News and wrote a short blurb about us.

Throughout this process I began to notice just how deeply enmeshed Hacker News is in the startup and tech media network.  I didn’t realize that journalists lurk HN for stories, and in fact, now, HN is so big that there’s entire media built on top of it like The Startup Foundry and Hacker Monthly@hackernewsbot tweets out top stories from HN and has almost 9,000 followers, including influencers like Chris Dixon.  Early adopters write short blog posts about discovering your product and taking it out for a test spin.

Our simple post on HN reached the bottom of the front page for only three to four hours, but resulted in approximately 2,300 visitors over the next month and a half.  The majority of traffic directly from HN and TNW, some 1,400 visitors, came on the first day and dried up within a few days, but visitors continued to trickle in from other sources such as Twitter for over a month.  Our launch day saw 150 signups, but our user count continued to increase by over 50% over the next month and a half.

Reddit.  At the end of February, we cross-posted the article to three relevant subreddits, /r/GetMotivated, /r/Productivity, and /r/StopSmoking.  We made sure to address Reddit in the title of the submission with “Hey [Subreddit]” and include in the title a statement of purpose for iDoneThis relevant to the subreddit.  And we engaged the Redditors who checked out the site in the comments to the submission.

How to get on the Reddit homepage (The Oatmeal)

How to get on the Reddit Homepage — The Oatmeal

Those three subreddits were possibly the optimal size — about 16,000 subscribers in total, so that we got a good number of eyeballs on our site, but the subreddits weren’t so huge that all we got was a traffic spike that came and went.  Our posts remained at the top of those subreddits for two to three days and generated over 50 comments worth of discussion.

Around this time, someone happened to post the Jerry Seinfeld Productivity Secret article from Lifehacker on HN.  That article was actually a source of inspiration for iDoneThis, and I happened to catch the news item before it floated to the very top of HN.  I wrote a short narrative relating concepts in the article to iDoneThis and the community at HN. 

Coincidentally, fellow HNers rguzman, peng and I recently built a simple web app which was inspired by this article.

It’s called

We email you on a daily basis asking you what you got done today. We put your email response into a calendar and check off the day. Look at your calendar to see your streak from yesterday to motivate you today.

We posted the site on HN back in January and got some great feedback which we incorporated ( along with some nice press coverage (…). We’re at a few hundred users, a good proportion of whom email us on a daily basis and tell us that that the site is helping their productivity, helping them quit smoking, reminding them to exercise & diet, etc.

My comment on that article stayed near the top during the article’s run at #1 on HN and drove considerable traffic to our site.  To my surprise, our high-karma comment on a top news item fared better than a news item that makes it onto the front page (albeit only for a few hours).  We got about 25% more traffic from our comment versus our submission.

In total, we got about 400 signups from 3,000 new visitors which tripled our user base.  Characteristic of Redditors and HN’ers, the folks that joined up with us were engaged and savvy.  They blogged and tweeted about us, and even offered to make screencasts and build web applications on top of our service.

Lifehacker – This was the big one

first 5,000 users

Is that a hockey stick in your pocket?

A month prior to getting written up by Lifehacker, I had cold-emailed them along with other life-hacking sites to pitch iDoneThis and nothing came of it.

Hi lifehacker,

I’ve built iDoneThis which is an email-based productivity log.  Our users include a few prominent startup founders.  One user called our service a “subtle yet powerful motivator.”

We email you everyday and ask, “What’d you get done today?”  Your email responses go into a calendar.  Look at your previous days’ accomplishments to motivate you today.

Unlike other tools whose usefulness is counterbalanced by their obtrusiveness, iDoneThis is email-based which adds zero overhead.

Please feel free to contact me with any questions here or by phone at XXX-XXX-XXXX.

iDoneThis had begun to stagnate and we were staying just about even in terms users trickling in and heading out.  Rodrigo and I weren’t dedicating much time to building the site more or promoting it, but then we talked to our users by sending out a little survey and the feedback was overwhelming.  A bunch of people expressed a deep appreciation for the product, and that convinced us that many more people might benefit from the site.  We decided to make another push for users.

In trying to pitch iDoneThis to bloggers the second time around, I went after a smaller fish.  I came across the perfect news item: a Lifehacker article that described the same process the author implemented by hand that iDoneThis automated.  The article had actually played a prominent role in the conception of iDoneThis along with the Seinfeld Productivity Secret article, and it was syndicated from How-To Geek, a smaller site.  I wove a short narrative more prominently around the former article and sent an email out to How-To Geek.

Hi there, How-To Geek, I came across your daily productivity log post on Lifehacker awhile back (!5582372/use-a-daily-log-to-keep-yourself-focused-on-productivity).  I started to use the system and it worked great for me.  I was inspired to create a web application to make this process work best for me.

What I ended up with is, an email-based daily productivity log.  At the end of every day, the site emails you and asks, “What’d you get done today?”  All you have to do is write an email back in response.  Your response will go into a calendar for that day with a check mark.  Look over your previous accomplishments to inspire you today.

Our users include techies, lawyers, and female bodybuilders, among others.  This is what they’ve said:

“One of my favorite apps.”  – Naveen Selvadurai, co-founder of Foursquare.
“I love iDoneThis. It’s probably my favorite webapp that I regularly use.”
“I really like it — simple and easy… . It’s great!”
“Loving the service. I’m surprised by this, but it’s actually a pretty subtle, yet powerful motivator.”

It’s a dead simple way to implement your productivity method, and I’d love it if you shared it with your readers.

Please let me know if you have any questions.

On March 30th, our article made it on to How-To Geek and it featured the storyline that I presented to them.  The next day, Lowell Heddings of How-To Geek emailed us, unsolicited, to say that iDoneThis might appear on Lifehacker the following day.  We hadn’t asked How-To Geek to push our story to Lifehacker, so this was a pleasant surprise.  Sure enough, on April 1st, iDoneThis was on Lifehacker.

All told, we got 25,000 new visitors and around 4,500 signups.  The higher conversion rate was surprising but it speaks to the value in getting promoted by sites whose audience is co-extensive with the one you’re trying to reach.

Lifehacker traffic is still coming in as the iDoneThis article was serially released in Australia and then Japan.  Also, the users that have come in through Lifehacker have stuck around.  Out of the first 5,000 users we have, 4,000 of them are active.  About one-fifth of our users email us just about every single day.


Our experience speaks to the power of constructing tailored narratives for influential audiences, the value in talking with your users for encouragement and to evangelize your product, and the benefits of having some good luck.

  • JuicyCanvas

    will give it a spin. consider connecting it to Trello and scale on those users..

    • Janet Choi

      Cool thanks! Yes, we’re thinking a lot of integrations and such, as we’re building out our API right now. Keep the suggestions/feedback coming and let me know if I can help you get started with iDoneThis in any way!

  • Jay McCauley

    Just stumbled onto this, but definitely a great read!

    • Janet Choi

      Hey, thanks Jay!

  • Sel

    great story. It inspired me to continue to build out my ideas! Plus I am definitely going to use iDoneThis

    • Janet Choi

      Wow thanks Sel! Let me know if you have any questions about iDoneThis or need help getting started!

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  • Colin Hewitt

    Congrats Walter – thats great news…

  • lalehvar

    Is this idea in practice, is comfortable?راهبند اتوماتیک

  • mashgana

    This number of users is very good.کرکره برقیکرکره برقی

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  • Kristen

    This article has completely changed my view of marketing at the startup level. I’m working on a Kickstarter campaign to fund a new startup called ExchangeSpot to help people travel the world affordably ( I need to generate subscribers to my email list so I can get them to help me share the campaign when it launches. Using these tactics (from my phone!) before I went to bed last night – commenting on just ONE article on Forbes’ Facebook page about a guy who quit his job to travel) – I woke up to over 60 subscribers. I am just getting started so I can’t wait to see the overall results from these tactics as we grow. Thanks so much for the tips!!!

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