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Photo Credit:
Erik Fabian with co-founder Jenny Olson.

We Built a Following Before We Even Had a Product — Here Are 3 Tactics that Helped Us Do It

Instead of staying in stealth while you develop a product, this founder advocates for building a following ASAP. Learn the tools that helped his company grow before launching.

Jul 8, 2024 5 min readSmall Business
Photo of Erik Fabian
Erik Fabian

Co-founder of Sourhouse

I have been baking sourdough bread for a bunch of years and when the pandemic hit, I was one of those people who was getting calls for sourdough baking advice.

I remembered the challenges of learning to bake and creating my first starter, and that turned into a new product idea — a warming device to keep sourdough starter consistently at the right temperature.

While my co-founder Jenny Olson and I worked on product development over the course of two years, we didn’t want to lose the momentum of this trend, so we looked for ways to engage customers before we even had a prototype, let alone a product to sell. 

Thanks to these efforts, we had about 1,000 Instagram followers and another 1,000 newsletter subscribers when we were ready to launch our Kickstarter in 2022.

With their help, we were able to raise $103,948 from over 1,000 backers to bring the product to life. We’ve since grown to over 50,000 followers across our social channels and email subscribers in the six figures, and we’ve been able to launch several more products thanks to the support of our community.

While it can be tempting to stay in stealth mode while you’re bringing an idea to life, building a following before we had a product benefitted us. It allowed us to build relationships and trust for the brand without feeling the pressure to sell. Plus, it gave us a community of supporters to lift us up through the challenges of bringing a new product to market.

Here are some of the specific tactics we used to market before our official launch and how we’ve continued to implement them to grow since.

We engaged advocates and influencers in the design process

Like many thoughtful business owners, we did plenty of user research throughout our product development process. However, instead of doing this behind closed doors, we used it as an opportunity to develop a core group of advocates.

First, we reached out to home bakers and bread influencers we found by searching Instagram to let them know we had an idea we were working on and ask if they’d be willing to chat for 20 minutes —  conversations that allowed us to build credibility.

When we connected with folks who seemed particularly interested and excited about being involved, we invited them to give more feedback along the way. 

When we reached the point of having product samples, we sent them out to this cohort, both to get real-world feedback but also to invite them to share with their communities. As the Kickstarter launch got closer, we set up an official affiliate program using Kickbooster.

Not everyone who participates in your research phase will also want to help you promote the product, but these relationships can all be valuable to early growth.

Some people were interested in taking part in the development process and gave us critical feedback. Others wanted to monetize the relationship and converted about 13 percent of our Kickstarter backers. 

Some were just happy to get free samples to share with their followers — and they ended up helping us develop winning content styles like the popular time-lapse videos of a starter rising in our product. 

Start by finding a variety of people who care about what you’re doing, and then try to uncover the ways they’d be most excited to be involved so it feels like a mutual success. 

We used our Instagram as a community for bread lovers

We launched our Instagram a year before our Kickstarter, and most of what we posted in the early days was content we thought the baking community would enjoy: vintage photos or comics related to bread with silly captions.

Those did OK and helped fill our page with posts, but we found the most success when we identified creative ways to really engage the baking community through our content. 

For example, in early 2021, we launched a giveaway campaign that invited people to share their hopeful sourdough stories. The giveaway element was powerful because it gave us a reason to collaborate with much bigger channels, like Bob’s Red Mill and Chronicle Books, and get in front of their audiences. 

And, sourcing user-generated content (UGC) as entries to the giveaway gave us access to engaging posts for our feed and allowed our community to feel like part of something bigger. This drove thousands of views to our nascent Instagram channel.

Since then, we’re always looking for ways to make our Instagram page feel less like us talking at our audience and more like us bringing together a community of bakers. For example, we did a series of #starterstories that profiled customers about their sourdough starter experience. 

We’ve also found that posting questions or surveys on our feed really engages people in the comments, and it’s so helpful that we continue to use this approach today. 

Whether you have a product to sell yet or not, engaging with your audience in a way that's meaningful to them will take you far. Instead of thinking about your social media as a sales channel, look for ways to approach it as a gathering space for your community. 

We developed lead magnets that invited new people into our world

Growing our company isn’t only about connecting with existing bread lovers — we want to bring future bakers into the fold, too. 

We developed a digital cookbook full of sourdough basics and recipes as a bonus for our Kickstarter backers, but it has since become a valuable lead magnet — now in its third edition, it’s driven more than 80,000 new email subscribers. 

It’s been so successful that we even push many digital ads to the lead magnet instead of trying to make a direct sale. We also often give away free packets of dried starter at events or online in exchange for email signup. In the last year and a half, we have given away over 25,000 starters.

Yes, it’s a lot of work offering lead magnets with this much value. But, our mission as a brand is ultimately to build a world where people are sharing homemade, fermented foods on a daily basis.

We want to encourage more folks to start sourdough baking or existing bakers to bake more often. Providing people with the basic tools of sourdough starter, information, and recipes gets them started baking. And, once they get into it, they’re ready to appreciate the tools we offer for sale even more. 

Look for ways in your marketing not just to sell something, but to build toward a meaningful goal.

Not only will this allow you to start connecting with potential customers even without a product ready for market, it will build a deeper relationship with your audience. And that’s a recipe for long-term success. 

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