Clay Allsopp

Scraping Forums and Acquiring Customers

Jan 2, 2021

When someone wants feedback on their early product, I tend to dig into how they will get distribution. Unless you're building spaceships, distribution is the bottleneck for initial validation or growth.

Our startup Propeller built a Shopify app that turned your storefront into a native mobile app. We looked for APIs to integrate with our more general-purpose platform, and Shopify was the most compelling.

One catch was, well, we didn't know any Shopify store owners! (there's more to say another time for building products without deeply knowing your customers)

So, what we did to bootstrap our distribution was:

  1. Start at the Shopify forums
  2. Crawl the first few pages and grab forum profiles
  3. Crawl the profiles
  4. Crawl their posts to grab potential storefront URLs that they've put in their posts
  5. Crawl the storefronts to find the store name, email addresses, and any image URLs we come across.
  6. Use all that data to generate screenshots of potential apps. We already had infrastructure for taking in-app screenshots, so it was super easy for us to do this.
  7. Template a bunch of emails (~100) with those screenshots and our pitch

The response rate was pretty good if I recall (since these were all pseudo-personalized). It gave us an initial pool of customers for feedback and reviews to source for the Shopify App Store.

I hope this inspires some creative and scrappy ways of reaching out to potential customers.

I also find it funny that we could have invested our entire startup fundraise into Shopify stock and done quite well (though, to be fair, they didn't go public for several more years 🙃). Maybe the lesson is if you ever seriously build on a platform, you should also invest in it.

For nostalgia, here's our original landing page, which the Wayback Machine has never forgotten. The in-app screenshot was probably generated using this process:

Propeller for shops