Startup Growth: From 400 to 20,000 Users in 1 Year

How Growth Storytelling & AI Marketing work together

At StoryLab.ai, we’re on a journey to help marketers create more and better content. Faster.

We’re thrilled to see people loving our product and the content we create, and that they’re engaging with us in various ways. We’re very humbled and happy to share that recently, within under a year of starting out, we reached the milestone of 20,000 users.

In this article, we’re gonna share with you how we got our first 20,000 users with the help of Growth Storytelling and AI Marketing. Hoping to help you grow your own startup or scaleup.

Let’s get into it!

1. Context

Let’s start with a couple of simple facts so you can get a view of where we started, where we are now, and what kind of resources we had to make this happen.

  • Purchased StoryLab.ai in the summer of 2021 when it was still called Inspire.so;
  • Recruited a third co-founder;
  • Came up with a vision, a name, and a plan;
  • Changed the name, set up a new domain and website;
  • Learned about the niche (we were not very familiar with it; we were however fairly familiar with the target audience);
  • Acquired 20,000 users within a year;
  • 0 marketing spend (aside from an email tool subscription);
  • 0 full-time employees (3 co-founders working in the mornings, evenings, and weekends);
  • 1 co-founder worked on the tech side, one on brand storytelling, and one on marketing.

Understanding our niche – AI Copywriting and content marketing

We believed that in order to reach their growth goals marketers needed more and better content. Faster. And that AI Copywriting tools could help marketers break through the creativity wall.

All three of us are marketers, each with our own specialization and with more than 10 years of experience in this field. We sought to understand the AI Copywriting realm while also keeping an eye on the broader picture of how we can help marketers to tell better stories and grow along the way.

Side hustles next to side hustles next to dayjobs

We kept our jobs and decided to grow StoryLab.ai slowly. Learning and understanding what drives people every step of the way. Improving the product and creating helpful content accordingly.

There is a lot you can do even if you work a full-time job. And even if you already have a side-hustle next to it. Below you can see a visual representation of how much time you actually have left next to your full-time job.

It’s up to you to find a nice balance of working on your side project, and living your life.

work 9 to 5 and rest of time visual

There is always a certain amount of stress involved when starting a side project. If you’re doing it while still being employed, you’ll need to find ways to make it work around your work schedule.

If you leave your job to start a business, you’ll need to deal with the stress of time and financials. You probably have a runway of no more than a couple of months and that can be stressful too. However the case – as you can see from our story so far – there’s a lot more that’s possible than you might think.

Having co-founders you trust and believe in

One last piece of important contextual insight: we’re sure we could never have gotten this far if our team weren’t what it is. We trust each other. We trust in each others’ knowledge, skillsets, and good intentions. We trust that each of us – living different lives and with different degrees of freedom and opportunity – does what he can.

Also, it’s incredibly important for us that we trust each other to never need to have the final say, the last word, or to ‘be right’. We care about helping each other, helping our audience and users, and our business, to grow. When you have these things as (even unconscious) guidelines in your team, we believe you have a lot better chances at success.

2. What StoryLab.ai actually does

We built StoryLab.ai for marketers, brand builders and content creators who feel the constant pressing need to create more and better stories.

StoryLab.ai is an online tool that generates content ideas for you, and then helps you along the writing process by generating hooks and outlines for your stories. We also offer ready-made copy for your marketing purposes.

The AI part of our product is a direct link to GPT-3, the most powerful Natural Language Processing AI available on the market.

AI Copywriting: relatively new market, with exciting competitors

The AI Copywriting market is relatively new, but we’re in it together with some fairly big players like Jasper.ai and Copy.ai who have already received millions of dollars in funding.

We’re happy to see that these companies are doing a great job in building AI tools to help marketers grow, and we don’t see them as much as competitors but more as an inspiration. We learn from what they’re doing, and with that, improve our own offering.

Vision & ethics

One major difference between us and, let’s say the two companies mentioned above, is that we strive to keep the Growth Storytelling part at the core and let the AI part be the supporting toolset.

We believe that human and AI creativity shouldn’t be in competition with each other, but are meant to collaborate and make each other better. This is how we built our tool and how we hope to help you become a better writer. We also believe that AI copy generation brings along with it a few inherent risks.

With that in mind, there are a few values and responsibilities we try to uphold, to make sure that we, our partners and our community members act in an ethically sound way.

Read more about our vision on AI copywriting ethics, here.

3. How we got 20,000 users within a year with 0 marketing budget

So. Here’s what’s what. There are a couple of things we focused on heavily in our journey of acquiring our first 20,000 users and we would love to share them with you in the hopes that they will also help you on your journey. We’ll dive into:

  • Growth Storytelling;
  • AI Marketing and Content Creation;
  • SEO tactics for startups;
  • Social Media Marketing;
  • Email Marketing;

What’s been most fundamental in helping us grow has been the combination of Growth Storytelling and AI Marketing Content Creation, where SEO especially has been a very important pillar for our growth. We’ve doubled down on these, because this is what has worked most for us in terms of marketing results.

But besides the actual tactics that helped us achieve our goals, we also doubled down on what has been working well for us, as human beings.

Getting the most out of yourself and your (limited) energy and time

Personally, I’ve (Raul) noticed for instance that I’m most productive in the mornings. So I made sure that I created space to work on the most pressing tasks every morning.

For Erwin on the other hand, being that StoryLab.ai was his second side hustle next to a day job and a wife & kids (and, frankly, being a little older and a bit less energetic 😉 ) it was more of a matter of carving out small time brackets and energy to help think and iterate on things.

Next to doubling down on what works, we’ve also always kept an eye out for what’s next. Something might be working great and you should definitely do more of that, but by experimenting on new things, you might find that other tactics work even better. It also helps to not be dependent on one tactic or channel.

achieve great results

Growth Storytelling: how we grew by eating our own dog food

Growth Storytelling”, which we coined, is a new vision for and an approach to content marketing that focuses on Growth: more specifically, where our Growth goals as a company and the (Growth*) Goals of our audience and potential customers align.

*=”Goals” are always applicable. In B2B, “Growth goals” make sense. In B2C, not always.

How is Growth Storytelling different from the standard approach to content marketing? Growth Storytelling focuses on telling the stories that we know will connect with our intended audience, because we’ve done our research and — shockingly — we’ve asked them, and actually listened to them.

Growth Storytelling takes audience insights in the form of quantitive and wherever possible, qualitative data, combines them with marketing and business goals, and places that front and center in:

  • How we construct and evolve our Brand Story and Brand Identity;
  • How we construct and evolve our product, business strategy, and marketing goals;
  • How we construct and evolve our marketing strategy and tactics;
  • And how we create, review, distribute and measure our individual content pieces.

Read more about this approach to Growth through storytelling, here.

growth storytelling model

How we applied Growth Storytelling to help Grow StoryLab.ai and its audience and users

We used data from Keyword Research;
To better understand the problems that our audience is dealing with and how we could help them.

Learnings from what our competitors are doing well, and not so well
competitors: from listening to users in their groups and communities, and available reviews.

Talking to our target audience
As all of us are marketers, it’s relatively easy to keep connecting with friends and our broader professional network to get a better understanding of what people actually need.

Talking to our users
Whenever and wherever we can in a face-to-face setting, or otherwise through engaging with them on social, and putting out a questionnaire that’s given us some valuable insights.

Creating content that helps solve real problems

Using all of the insights from the above to focus on helping our audience grow. We believe the numbers speak for themselves in that we’re at least doing something right, in this area 🙂

AI Marketing and Content Creation

As we’re building StoryLab.ai, we’re constantly learning how AI Copywriting can be used to get real results in the real world. By doing this, we can test if what we promise our users actually works and create AI Marketing Use Cases to help people improve their marketing using the power of AI, step-by-step. You see: more of our own dog food.

Here are a couple of strategies that worked out well for us:

AI Marketing and SEO

Let’s get into how AI helped us out with boosting our SEO efforts.

Coming up with SEO copy variations with the help of AI

After we did our Keyword Research, we found out that quite some people were searching for ‘generator’ related content and copywriting examples. We set out to create great content around these topics with the help of our own generators.

So we created 19 ‘generator’ related pages and 16 marketing copy example pages (and counting) and made sure we internally linked them to boost our authority.

Even though all pages have a unique searcher intent, you can imagine it was difficult to come up with different copy variations for all pages. Trying to explain what you do in 19 different ways is hard. That’s where the power of AI came in handy.

We used our Blog Intro Generator to come up with new variations to bits and parts of pages and added our human touch to perfect them. Without the help of AI, it would take so much more effort. We were very happy to see the power of AI with our own eyes.

reword copy ai blog intro generator

Getting unstuck when writing with the help of AI

Obviously, the ‘generator’ and example pages were not the only pieces of content we’ve created to drive in-market organic traffic.

While creating articles to help people solve various related marketing problems, I (Raul) often got stuck after a couple of minutes of writing. That’s when I turned to the Blog Intro Generator again to solve my writer’s block.

I write, I get stuck, I turn to my AI buddy; I get unstuck in a couple of seconds.

This doesn’t only help save time, it also helps save precious energy and makes writing less of a daunting task. I now, for the first time, had the tools I needed to unstick myself from ‘writer’s block’ whenever I needed to.

When starting with a brand new domain and needing to scale content creation, this is gold!

Check out this article to learn more about how AI can help boost SEO.

AI and Social Media Marketing

For our Social Media Marketing efforts, we use Canva to help scale visual content creation and our Social Media Caption Generator to help come up with different caption variations. Needless to say, I was happy that I had an AI buddy to help do the heavy lifting.

Whenever I finished a blog article, I jumped over to our social scheduler and planned multiple posts for multiple channels. With the help of AI, I was able to make this process fast and efficient. Considering how many articles I’ve written and how many hours StoryLab.ai saved me, I’m one very happy customer.

Check out this article to learn more about how AI can help with Social Media Marketing.

AI and Email Marketing

In our journey to 20,000 users, we’ve accumulated quite some email addresses. And I gotta tell you. Every time I hit that ‘send email’ button, I get a bit nervous.

Luckily AI can help come up with multiple Email Subject Lines before selecting the best one.
This helps me to have a bit more confidence that I did what I could to create a great email for our users.

For this, I turn to our Email Subject Line Generator.

Brand Storytelling with AI

Being a seasoned copywriter who specializes in Brand Storytelling, Erwin can be a little bit snobbish sometimes about using AI-generated copy. Especially in something as important as the copy that tells the story of your brand; what you’re about, what you stand for and what you can do for people.

You want this to be as human as possible, for it to have that gut-level impact, wherever you use it.

We think it’s great that Erwin can be a little bit snobbish about using AI-generated copy. That means that when he says outputs from our generators are good, they’re probably really good.

That’s why we’re proud to let you know that we actually used our own copy generator tool to create a few snippets for our revised Brand Story. Have a look on our website or our social media, see if you can figure out which parts were written by our AI 😉

Learn more about Brand Storytelling with the help of AI, here.

Conclusion and key take-aways: how to grow your startup

So. There you have it: the recipe we used to grow a startup from 400 users to over 20,000 users in under a year, and with 0 ad budget and 0 full-time employees. Here’s the bullet point summary:

  • Make sure you understand your market and target audience enough, before you even start;
  • Make sure you have a great team built on trust, shared passion, and helping people grow;
  • Make a plan, and then start doing stuff – adapt as you grow;
  • Use a smart and suitable combination of marketing tactics and tools.
    What’s been most fundamental in helping us grow has been the combination of Growth Storytelling and AI Marketing Content Creation, where SEO as a channel especially has been a very important pillar for our growth.
  • Be sure to check out what AI-generated copy can do to help save you time.
    Seriously, we keep using this ourselves, and it saved us a bunch of time.

Come build the future with us

We hope this story has been valuable to you. And we’d love to hear from you if you want to let us know: shoot us a message over at team@storylab.ai. Finally: in case you want to dive deeper and/or help us build the future of content marketing:

Write more. Write better. Grow faster.

Get Started with StoryLab.ai.

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