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4 Keys to Building a Self-Sustaining User Base Without a Marketing Budget

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In an ideal world, all startups would be blessed with fully funded and operations budgets, allowing them to run profitable ad campaigns and invest in the creation of high-quality content so they can attract engaged, enthusiastic customers.

Of course, you and I both know that this is just a fantasy for most entrepreneurs. Most startup owners are working with far fewer resources -- if they have access to any marketing capital at all.

But true entrepreneurs don't let a lack of funds stand in their way.

Related: 4 Steps to Attracting and Building Better Customers

Recently, I had the opportunity to talk to Sohin Shah, co-founder of iFunding, a real estate platform. Shah and his partner launched the company three years ago as the first to enter the unproven real estate crowdfunding market. The duo had little capital to draw on to launch big marketing campaigns, but they were still able to attract more than 7,000 users with almost no marketing spend. Today, the company has done more than $40 million worth of business.

Here's how they did it:

1. Leverage your networks.

One of the first things Shah and his partner did after launching their new investment platform was to email all of their friends and family members, encouraging them to either join the site or to pass the invitation on to anyone else who might be interested. This led to a core group of initial users who started seeing positive results with the site, leading to word-of-mouth referrals that grew the platform even further.

In fact, Shah estimates that this method alone generated roughly half of the site's initial 1,000 users.

2. Focus on education.

To continue expanding the site's customer base, Shah and his partner took the no-cost route of education. Without big bucks to spend on flashy marketing campaigns, the duo realized that they could attract a number of new customers by simply educating them about everything the platform had to offer. Not only did this help dispel notions that the site is a scam, it allowed the company to attract the remaining half of its first 1,000 users.

Shah, in particular, approached this strategy in two ways: by attending industry events and through guest posting on reputable websites. It took Shah nearly eight months writing cold emails and sending pitches to editors of top sites before refining his pitch to the point that he was able to get one article published and use that to secure spots on other websites.

Since then, Shah has become a regular on and Entrepreneur, where he's been able to connect with potential customers and build awareness for his brand. In his words, "If people like what they read, they'll take the time and initiative to reach out to you." As a result of this effect in action, Shah and his partner have only recently begun investing in marketing spend -- after securing more than 7,000 accredited investors nearly for free.

Related: 13 Tricks for Landing Your First Thousand Customers

So how can you take Shah's example and use it to improve customer acquisition rates at your own startup?

3. Get over being shy.

Ask plenty of entrepreneurs how their products will change the world, and it's tough to get them to stop talking. Ask them to email their friends and family members to be a part of their company, and all you hear is crickets. For a boastful bunch, entrepreneurs can be surprisingly bashful about recruiting users from their personal networks!

If your company is well funded, you can afford to take a more circumspect approach. If you're on a tight budget, or no budget at all, it's time to get over being shy. Start with your parents and siblings, as they're the ones most likely to support you in any new endeavor. After you've ripped that Band-Aid off, approach friends and extended family members for their support.

4. Help first, pitch second.

Securing guest post spots on sites such as Forbes and Entrepreneur certainly helped Shah build attention for iFunding, but I'm not going to pretend that's an easy route or that it's one that's available to everyone.

But even if you aren't able to lock in top-tier guest posting opportunities, you can still make waves by focusing your marketing efforts on activities that stand to benefit your prospective and current users. What kind of information do they need? What pain points are they experiencing? How can your brand deliver the answers they need in an accessible way? Answer those questions and you'll find a free solution that'll make up for even the smallest of marketing budgets.

Marketing your startup doesn't have to be expensive. If you're committed to your cause, there are options out there that'll help you build a user base on a shoestring budget -- you just have to go after them!

What other tips do you have for acquiring customers with a limited (or nonexistent) marketing budget? Share your recommendations by leaving a comment below!

Related: 5 Helpful Pre-Launch Resources for Online Startups

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