The Viral Startup

A Nature-Inspired Strategy for Customer Acquisition

Human rhinovirus Wellcome Images.
  • How do they overcome their victim’s immune system?
  • And, what makes them so resilient?
Photo by Laura Ockel on Unsplash

The Function of a Virus

Don’t underestimate viruses, they may have been the precursors of life. Their structure shares key components with the cells that compose every living organism on the planet. Even today, viruses carry important functions in the development of life.

“A virus is an agent of change, it drives evolution forward.”

The Virus Replication Cycle

Saying it simply, a virus is a genetic material in search of replication, but because of its relative simplicity, a virus needs to replicate inside a living cell. Viruses follow a six-step process to replicate that starts by attaching to their future host cell:

The six-step virus replication cycle
  1. Entry: once attached, the virus genome is injected into the cell, leaving most of its structure behind.
  2. Transcription: inside the cell, several copies of the virus’s genome are made using diverse enzymes and the cell’s infrastructure.
  3. Replication: the new genome copies are partly used to synthesize proteins and other molecules to compose the future viruses’ structure.
  4. Assembly: the new viruses are brought together, each with its own copy of the original genome.
  5. Exit: finally, the new viruses force their way out of the cell to find more cell’s to replicate. In the image, the viruses used internal pressure to do it.

The Customer Acquisition Framework

Traditional Customer Acquisition Framework
  • Each cycle has a critical step. In viruses, it’s breaking into the cell, in startups, the customer conversion.
  • Most importantly, both cycles share the same outcome: growth!
Photo by exploration # on Unsplash

1. Find the Most Qualified Leads for your Business

The cell’s surface is covered with receptors, these receptors are used to absorb nutrients and communicate with other cells. Viruses have spikes shaped to match the cell’s receptors and attach to its surface.

“A virus is extremely effective against a small number of cells, instead of ineffective to a larger number”.

Marketing Application: For startups, it may be tempting to have a value proposition that appeals to a large customer base. However, by narrowing the market, conversion rates may increase and growth will accelerate. When communicating your value proposition, it’s also important to remark the virus's ability to adapt, avoid trying to enforce your view of the world, or educate potential customers.

Facebook Landing Site’s Value Proposition

2. Turn Happy Customer into Evangelists

Viruses cannot move by themselves, but sure can they travel fast! Viruses turn their host’s immune system to their advantage. For example, during a cold, the human body raises its temperature and provokes cough to get the virus out of the body. However, this becomes the perfect opportunity for viruses to find new hosts to replicate.

  1. Select the right communication channel to reach them.
  2. Create the right incentives for your customers to share your product.
Photo by Ryan Stone on Unsplash

3. Earn your Customer’s Trust

The immune system is adaptative, this means that when encountering something new, it determines if that is a threat based on its previous experiences. To overcome this, some viruses have an outer lipid layer to mimic the cells' appearance and go inadvertent to the immune system.

Photo by Damian McCoig on Unsplash

4. Navigating a Large Enterprise

Human skin is composed of death cells hermetically grouped. This makes it nearly impossible for viruses to enter the body except for a limited number of openings like the nose and mouth. But what happens when the cell that the virus targets are located far from these openings? In that case, viruses are specialized in two different types of cells. The first cell is used to navigate the body, and the second to replicate. Naturally, one of these cells is usually part of the circulatory system that traverses the entire body.

Photo by Isaac Smith on Unsplash

5. Maximize User Conversion

Entering the cell is a difficult process, it involves breaking down the cell’s thick protective membrane. That’s why small viruses trick the cell to absorb them as if they were nutrients. Another example, that great viruses let the cells do their work.

“Let customers first experience the value, then the product.”

Reflection: Can your customers experience the value, before your product?

Photo by Jon Robinson on Unsplash

6. Disrupting Bureaucracy

Cells can protect against viruses, they can emit an alert to the rest of the organism when they are under attack. But smart viruses, inhibit the communication system of the cell before starting to replicate.

Photo by Kyran Aldworth on Unsplash

Bonus: Inserting your DNA

I left my favorite technique for last. Do you know why 8% of our DNA can be traced to a virus? Top viruses insert their genome into the cell’s DNA, this ensures that every time the cell replicates new copies of the virus are produced. Genius!

Case Study: A Startup’s Go-To-Market Strategy

The real magic happens when we bring together these techniques. To illustrate how effective, logical, and yet counter-intuitive these techniques truly are, I will apply them to improve the go-to-market strategy for a recently graduated YCombinator startup.

Hellosaurus: Interactive Kids Content

Hellosaurus is an interactive video platform for kids, filled with episodes they can play instead of just watch. They make money by selling a subscription for their content in their iOS app. Hellosaurus has already raised a seed round from top investors and has multiple partnerships with popular YouTube creators.

Hellosaurus Landing Page
  1. Its value proposition is “Screen time reimagined” with a subtitle explaining what they do.
  2. Their main Call To Action is a Download Button for their App.
  3. And there is a link to a Demo Video to show its interactivity.
  • Run multiple marketing experiments, each one with a different YouTuber targeting smaller segments of the parenting market.
  • Extend the affiliate program to parents and other players in the educational industry.
  • Create strong barriers of entry to potential competitors.

A big market is an investor’s dream, but is also the marketer’s worst nightmare.

The Viral Customer Acquisition Framework

The time has come to generalize these concepts. Earlier, I showed the traditional customer acquisition framework, what I did not mention, was its problem: as customers advance through their journey, the cost increases. This is because more people get involved as the journey continues, and some of the customers are lost. At best, as the startup scales, the acquisition costs will be constant, at worst, the costs will increase.

Viral Customer Acquisition Pyramid
  1. Engineer incentives to create a word-to-mouth distribution.
The 5-step Viral Marketing Strategy

Conclusion: Know Your Customer

The entrance to the Temple of Apollo featured an inscription that became the path to wisdom in ancient culture. “Know thyself”. The expression urged the visitors to understand the role they played in history. It was a warning sign to maintain respect for the gods and destiny.

The Viral Marketer’s Lemma: “Know thy customer”

Founder, exploring how to grow the audience for talented content creators.

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