How Startups Create Hype (My 5-Step Playbook)

Use this to build a brand people love and grow fast

Welcome to our first member-only edition of the newsletter. Check out the issue below, and upgrade to become a member and read the rest in full.

You’ll also get full access to 35+ deep dives, with new ones each week, and my community of founders who’ve raised over $200 million.

This week I met with a founder from our community who was struggling to grow and build hype for their startup, despite having a good product. I realized the advice I shared might be useful for other founders too.

My last startup generated tens of millions of impressions on social media, tons of organic press, and thousands of applications to our programs.

Someone even got a tattoo of our logo and, despite starting during the height of the pandemic, the amount word-of-mouth awareness we generated over 2 years blew even my own expectations out of the water.

We did it with a simple 5-step playbook we developed along the way. Today I’m sharing it, step by step to help you generate hype and grow faster 👇

How Startups Create Hype

This 5-step playbook can be applied at any stage in your startup’s lifecycle. I’ll use a few examples from my last startup’s journey from $0 in revenue through our Series A.

Step 1: Understand Tailwinds (and headwinds)

Generating and sustaining hype usually requires you to be building at the intersection of a few macro trends.

Successful startups are built in emerging markets, and markets emerge and grow due to macro tailwinds in society. So the first step is to make sure you have a best-in-the-world understanding of what larger factors are impacting the market you’re building in.

For example, my last startup was at an intersection where people were:

  • Starved of community (this was H2 2020, many people were still quarantining and others were just emerging from it)

  • Questioning the value of a traditional college education

  • Embracing remote work as a viable alternative to an office

  • Considering network states and digital nations

  • Confident the world would need more startups since the pandemic had changed so many things

You probably don’t need to find an intersection that includes quite as many trends as we were able to hit on, but in general more = better. This is important because it creates a more complex and genuinely interesting new view on the world that you can share with people.

If you don’t feel you have a good handle on the tailwinds and headwinds in your market, you can do a few things:

  • Talk to people in your market and see what they feel is changing, and challenge them with your own ideas to see how they react. Pay attention to their responses.

  • Closely monitor online discourse (Twitter, other social media sites, mainstream news, newsletters and podcasts, etc.). Find accounts to follow and curate your own feed relentlessly to make sure you’re seeing all sides of the discourse.

Step 2: Identify and Study Common Reactions

User research is generally talked about in the context of making product design decisions. You ask your users about their problems, understand them, and then build features and experiences into your product to solve them.

But user research can also be incredibly useful for growth.

Instead of asking users how they’d feel about a product that does x, take your conversations with them in a different direction. Prompt them with your opinions on the market, and even other types of users or stakeholders within it. Include potential messaging you’ll use or actions you’ll take with your startup.

Your goal in these conversations is to understand what triggers their reactions, what those reactions are, and which reactions are the strongest. Take good notes and debrief with your team afterwards to find commonalities.

At my last startup, we had the benefit of living with our users for a month at a time, with new groups moving in every month. We didn’t have a formal system for this step in the process, but mostly because we didn’t need to — we were always getting instantaneous user feedback, 24/7.

Step 3: Find the Underlying Emotions

Knowing how users will react to specific messaging or actions is one thing, but in order to build a sustaining brand that people love and identify deeply with, you need to go one level deeper:

Why are they reacting that way?

Shaan Puri has a great way of framing this for content writing, but it’s applicable to startups and generating hype more broadly too:

Politicians, religions, and generational brands all execute this well. When I say the words Nike, The Catholic Church, or Donald Trump you probably have an emotional reaction to each one (no matter what exactly it is). .

If your goal is to generate hype for your startup you’ll need to stand out amongst all the other, more established brands and creators making noise online. So, the more impassioned a reaction you know how to generate, the faster you’ll grow.

Shaan also provides a good list of the emotions you should be looking to get from people:

This is why it’s so important to pay close attention when you’re talking to users — try to understand the emotions behind their reactions.

I still use this framework today. This week a Twitter thread I posted went viral with over 2.2 million impressions:

The comments and quote tweets ranged between:

  • YAY: it was an inspirational list of movies

  • WTF: I entirely missed the point of the movies / they were mostly about awful people

Both of these were intentional, and are why the thread went viral — people can’t help themselves.

Movies like Whiplash and The Wolf of Wall Street can easily be seen as cautionary tales, but I presented them with no context. I just said they’re “movies every startup founder should watch.”

The ambiguity allowed me to thread the needle (and I included Scarface to ensure the WTF reaction would be felt strongly).

Step 4: Test, Iterate, and Make a Splash

The way to apply this to your startup is to identify, from your user research, what the points are that people feel strongly about that relate at all to your market.

Then take those viewpoints and create content, or do things, that will bring those reactions out in people. Ideally you find ones where you get reactions on both sides. The goal is to be clear in your messaging and viewpoint so that you elicit the strongest response from the maximum number of people.

A lot of the time that will mean being somewhat shameless, bold, and contrarian which we leaned into pretty early on at my last startup:

  • Millions of people were quarantining in 2020, so I set up a coliving house in Tulum for 20 founders to build from.

  • Traditional hacker houses were cheap and bland, so we ran our monthly program out of Paris Hilton’s former mansion in Beverly Hills.

  • Traditionally founders focus (too much) on product, so we leaned into social media content marketing from day 1 and had people like Josh Richards come by our house to meet our members.

Some people thought we were the next big thing, others vocally derided us. It didn’t matter to us — both achieved our goal of generating attention and attracting interest from users, early employees, and investors.

Step 5: Become an Identity

Once you’ve done enough testing and think you can create things that will generate a reaction from your audience at will, repeat it over and over again in new ways.

Double down on exactly the identity that’s working for you. Become synonymous with it in an increasing amount of people’s minds. Get in front of as many as possible. Do this relentlessly.

Follow trending, related news and consider how to leverage it. Over time you’ll build a brand that people truly love and, more importantly, include in their identity and want to be part of.

Someone even got my last startup’s logo tattooed on them. Not that I’d necessarily encourage that, but that’s the level of excitement you can build if you’re able to generate and sustain hype.

📚️ Founder’s Library

🚀 Shaan Puri’s full thoughts on how to write viral content.

🎥 TikTok’s founder Alex Zhu on why igniting virality is just like starting a new country.

📈 Lenny Rachitsky on how to engineer virality.

💡 How I Can Help

Here are 2 ways for me to help you close your fundraise, find PMF, or accelerate growth:

Join the conversation

or to participate.