Competing without a Marketing Budget: When All You Have is a Product

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This is a story about the power of a good landing page, PR efforts, and marketing strategy. The refreshing twist here is that instead of explaining how I did all of these things amazingly well, I’ll walk through how my competition is crushing me on these fronts, doing an incomparably better job. I’ll also share some of my findings trying to gain market share when you don’t have the resources to make a snazzy landing page or buy quality blog posts.

Some Backstory

I previously wrote about my journey building Product Pix. Simply put, it’s a website where you upload a product photo, and it automatically removes the background. The model isn’t always perfect, but whenever the result leaves something to be desired, I have a bunch of graphic designers that touch up the photo. The human-generated result gets sent to my user’s email, so they’re guaranteed a perfect result.

I’ve made a principled decision that this isn’t going to be a VC-funded startup. It’s a bootstrapped, 3-pager website that gets the job done. I make my living as a machine learning consultant in San Francisco, and the idea isn’t to build a billion dollar company but dip my toe in building a website from scratch, hopefully making a humble source of passive income and learning lessons about entrepreneurship. I’m trying to accomplish what I can without raising funds or interrupting my career as a machine learning consultant.

So where are things right now?

  1. I have website that always provides a perfect white background for product photos, either immediately when the model works, or within 24 hours by a human in the loop when the model fails.
  2. I have exactly 13 paying subscribers. The biggest one paid 350$ so far. The smallest paid $4.20. Don’t scoff, it’s a much bigger number than 0.

And who do I turn my eyes to in envy?

Introducing My Arch-Rival

Introducing my nemesis, the arch-villain in this story. They’re called

Killers of half the universe? Or actually, maybe they’re just good people trying to build a cool product

What they do is simple: remove background from product photos using a machine learning model. Sounds familiar? Here’s how we compare

  1. Our models automatic models are pretty much the same in quality (phew!). I tried 50 product photos, and worked “well enough” by my subjective judgement 37 of the times, my model met that standard 35 times. That’s a narrow win for them, but a tiny edge that’s not statistically significant.
  2. Product Pix guarantees a perfect result when the model fails using a human graphic designer in the loop. When fails, you’re just stuck with a bad result. That’s a solid win in my book. Knowing you’ll get a perfect result no matter what is crucial.
  3. They’re way more expensive. I’m talking different galaxies. If you want to remove background from 50 photos a month you’ll have to pay $39. On Product Pix the same amount will set you back $5. That’s almost 10x. The fact I have no one on my payroll is giving me an unfair advantage pricing-wise.

So with a product that’s so clearly a better deal, who’s winning?

Well, try googling “remove background photos”, and see where it gets you. They’re the 3rd result. I’m languishing in the 17th place.

Why are they getting all the attention?

Landing page: Top Fold

Simply put, users aren’t all knowing entities that diligently compare alternatives. Before even looking at how well your service runs or what’s your price, users land at your website and try to understand if it’s going to work or not. So they look to see if the website looks like a serious company or a hack. Here’s what you see when you land on my site. It’s not the full page, just what fits in my browser before scrolling:

Gets the job done, but doesn’t exactly scream “I’m trustworthy”

Doesn’t look like much does it? Looks like something that a person who never built a website before might make (alas, I’ll admit it). It’s sparse, the fonts aren’t good?—?etc.

Here’s what are doing:

Yup. That’s better

A clean modern looking design. Feels right.

Landing page: Bottom Fold

As you scroll my landing page, you’ll find mostly words that explain what I offer and how the site works.

Let’s compare that against

By comparison, Remove.Bg showcase a ton of example results. They build and compound trust in an almost despairingly long landing page that’s packed full of visually appealing explanations. One more thing you can see on their landing page is a wall of media coverage references. Mentioning a bunch of familiar names obviously helps establish trust that your site is the real deal:

Fighting as the Underdog

So where do I go from here? Let’s review my options:

  1. I can make my website’s landing page competitive. The main disadvantage is that I know nothing about full stack development, so we’re talking about buying other people’s time. I’m concerned about costs: one of my goals here is to build Product Pix without any fund raising. This project is making money, but still not the kind of money that can bankroll a designer and frontend engineer to give the site a much needed facelift.
  2. Go guerrilla. That means, try anything that doesn’t cost money but might get people’s attention.

Guerilla Marketing

So what’s in my playbook for getting people to land on my website?

Post on Social Groups (Be Humble!)

I’ve learned some humbling lessons on that front. When I first posted to reddit, I was pretty much chased away by an angry mob. My early posts ran something along the lines of:

“Boost sales with a free product background removal service for your website”.

Big mistake. Turns out you’re not the only person in the world that’s trying to sell on a social group?—?people on reddit or facebook are very much sick of being sold-to. Anything that has so much as a whiff of salesmanship gets you promptly kicked out.

Here’s a more successful post I’ve had:

“Trying to get the word out there about a photo background removal service I built for sellers”

The content of the post calls for people’s feedback, instead of shoving my product’s greatness down their throats. Here’s a typical quote. For your convenience I put in bold every bit where I’m qualifying my promise and recognizing I’m not a gift from the heavens:

Sometimes setting your product against a white background helps increase sales […] The automatic result isn’t always perfect, but you get a graphic designer review for every photo […] If this is useful to you guys, I’d love to hear about that. If it’s not, I’d like to learn what else I need to do to make this service useful to you […]

Impact: This is by far the most effective way I’ve found so far to get users to hear about my service and convert to paying users. My biggest clients pay >200$/month, and they were sourced through reddit an facebook posts.

Drawback: You can only post about your product every once in a while. Overplay your hand and you get kicked out of a group and lose a valuable point to connect with your users.

Turn Users into Brand Ambassadors (Relationships, Not Money)

Talking to my users has been the best experience in my journey so far. It’s very interesting to learn who’s actually using my product, and where they hang out. A great side effect to being genuinely interested in your users, is that once you come off as a real person, something miraculous happens: they want to help.

The way I’m turning users into ambassadors isn’t strictly monetary incentive. I tried that, and a couple of users actually rejected my incentive, saying they just want to help?—?they would rather keep paying a full price for my service.

There’s an interesting effect in social psychology called motivational crowding: when you give someone money to do something, they move into a transactional mode (weigh this is worth their time financially, haggle, etc.). My takeaway here is to stress the relationship nature of your interaction, rather than incentivizing with bonuses.

Impact: fully 40% of my paying users were generated from posts and direct referrals of existing users. We’re talking about a small sample size to be sure, but it’s looking like a major thing.

Plug into an Existing Ecosystem

Shopify is a huge platform for ecommerce sellers. Many of these sellers have product photos that needed background removal. Turns out Shopify have their own equivalent of an App Store. So I teamed up with a great friend and competent full stack to build a kickass Shopify Plugin.

Why focus on a Shopify Plugin when the main website could still use a major facelift, you ask? Well, it’s an age old question of exploration Vs exploitation tradeoff. I could go on to focus exclusively on my website, but what if there’s a much better opportunity elsewhere? Better to try a few bets with low investment than one all-or-nothing bet.

I have a hunch that a lot of what makes my sales cycle so difficult is that people have to find me without any priming on how to use my service. They have to hunt down photos from their own hard drive. On Shopify they can just upload the existing photos from their store.

More importantly, when someone lands on my website, there’s a major trust problem?—?no one knows that my website isn’t some sort of scam. When you install an app or plugin from a regulated appstore, trust levels are sky-high. Heck. you don’t even need to type in your credit card to pay, you just press that “accept” button and subscribe to a service.

Impact: a bunch of happy beta testers. We’ll know more in the coming month!

Talk to the Press

This is a hard one. I sent a message or email to every eselling blog I could find and had 0 response. I can’t say I figured this out.

Impact: womp womp

Turn Influencers into Affiliates (Return of the Monetary Incentive)

Turns out there’s quite a few gurus out there who sell their expertise on e-selling to aspiring Amazon/Etsy/Shopify sellers. I want to have them promote my service with their followers, in return for a % in the revenue their referrals generate. It’s actually pretty easy to track a user’s referral path. It took me under 2 hours to code up my backend to track users based on their original referral link, and now I can offer a payment based on performance. So don’t be daunted by the complexities of user tracking.

I reached out to a bunch of such ecommerce influencers. We’ll see how this one goes.

Impact: Only starting out, remains to be seen!

And on and on

There’s a virtually infinite list of things to try out when you’re trying to sell without a budget. I want to generate content, I want to directly message 100 Etsy sellers with a mockup of their current webpage with all the photos replaced with my background removal (mockup generation should be pretty easy to do with code). I want to pay someone to do an honest video review of my product, I want to start a blog about e-selling, and curate helpful tools for e-sellers. I don’t have much time to do any of it, so I prioritize action items based on how promising they feel, which is vague, and how fun they sound?—?which I’m pretty sure about.

One day I hope to write a post about the importance of fun. Lots of entrepreneurs out there claim to prioritize their actions by importance. I think they’re probably lying, but if that’s true I think they’re making a mistake by forgetting to prioritize their joy. But I digress…


Last time I wrote about Product Pix, I had made my first one-time sale of $65.36. Now my website is kinda-sorta a live business, making $420 a month through a mixture of subscription and pay-as-you-go plans. Being up against a better funded company might sound daunting, but I’m making headway. Ultimately, my take away here is:

You don’t need money to get people’s attention. You don’t even need a website that looks much better than a hack for people to subscribe. What you need is a genuine solution to people’s problem, and quite a bit of perseverance to try a dozen ways to reach people and get them to give you a chance.

Competing without a Marketing Budget: When All You Have is a Product was originally published in Hacker Noon on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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