Understanding Truecaller’s Growth Model and How to Launch in New Markets

When I joined the founding team of Truecaller in the summer of 2011 the company consisted of only Alan, Nami and Umut (ex CTO.) I had just graduated from university and was moving back to Stockholm looking for a job. I first learned about Truecaller when I was writing my thesis and, coincidentally, learned that I had a few things in common with co-founder Alan Mamedi. We had both grown up in the northern suburbs of Stockholm, and I used to be good friends with his cousin. I was intrigued by the idea, and this was when the smartphone boom was really taking off. I got in touch with Alan and told him that I wanted to base my thesis on Truecaller and the booming app economy. Unfortunately, I failed to convince my supervisor on this idea so I ended up writing about something else.

Once I moved back to Stockholm I called Alan again and told him that I had graduated and that I was aware that they had a lot work that needed to be done. I was up for anything I told him. He said, “sure, come in and let’s talk about it.” An hour lunch meeting turned into a few hours. Apparently, there was a lot of stuff that needed to be done, but there were one problem. They couldn’t afford to pay me a salary. I told him that’s fine, I believed in the business and so he could pay me once we raised money. That was our deal, and I started work the following week.

It turned out to be the best career decision I’ve ever made, and I consider myself very lucky to have been part of this amazing journey. I’m forever thankful to Alan and Nami for bringing me along this wild ride. I started out working in the customer support, handling our social media accounts, and was officially our first office manager.

Me, Nami & Alan at Guldmobilen, Stockholm 2011

During my 7 years at the company I’ve watched us grow from 1 million users to over 250 million users globally. I’ve witnessed us go from being on the edge of bankruptcy to going on to raise money from some of the top investors in the world (Atomico, Sequoia & KPCB) and become one of the fastest growing apps in the world. I’ve been fortunate to help the company launch in more than 15 countries (across US, LATAM, Europe, Africa & Asia); work on major partnership and co-marketing deals with Google, Apple, Huawei, Yelp, Airtel & Twitter etc.; secure thousands of pieces of media coverage; develop and build long-term relationships with world leading media outlets like the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, TechCrunch & Wired Magazine etc.; and successfully navigate and manage the numerous inevitable potential PR crises along the way that come with scaling that fast.

As this month marks my 7th year at the company, I’ve been doing a lot of reflection and thinking on everything I’ve learnt, mistakes I’ve made, and things that I could have done differently. I remember my first day in the office as it was yesterday. I was full of excitement, but had little to no experience in being part of a startup. I wish I had some kind of manual that pointed out where I should start. That is why I’m writing these posts, to help other people fast-track their learning curve.

With this series of posts, I want to provide some general, practical and common sense guidelines for how we understand our growth model and how we go about launching in new markets (hint: we use a lot of checklists.) In the next post I’ll be sharing some thoughts on how we think when we built our brand and our thought process when choosing a PR agency. I hope that entrepreneurs, marketers and comms people alike will find it a valuable resource, especially as they transition into accelerated growth mode.

The first thing I want to clarify is that the underlying growth factor for Truecaller is that the product solves a really BIG problem. Virality is difficult to explain and replicate, especially word of mouth. But to understand that we need to break down the user journey, and understand the “AHA-moments”, and what factors actually contribute to growth. Knowing this made it much easier for us to prioritise what is really important, and to focus on markets where we know there is already product market fit. Also, knowing how your users discover your product/service and what they truly value will help you create a much more effective marketing message and clever positioning (more about this in the next post.)

This is probably one of the most important things I learned working at Truecaller, to understand when a user “gets what your product does,” how to design that user experience and how to market it. This is something that a lot of early stage fail to understand when they are transitioning to growth mode too prematurely. There’s been a lot of great essays written on product-market fit so I’m not going to attempt to deep dive into this. For us, it has been vital to understand when this happens and how we can engineer it so that our users get to that experience as quickly as possible. I wrote an essay 5 years ago on how we used different social media platforms and in-app notifications to ‘engineer’ the word of mouth. You can find it here: https://pando.com/2013/06/12/how-truecaller-went-from-2m-to-20m-users-in-the-space-of-a-year/ or https://blog.truecaller.com/2013/06/12/engineering-the-word-of-mouth/

This is primarily how people discover Truecaller and when they get their AHA-moments:

Word of mouth: A friend or family member tells you that there is an app that can let you see who is calling and warn you if it is scam call. Getting your product work the very first time is crucial as you seldom get a second opportunity to make a good first impression when it comes to product experience. That AHA moments is the pure network effect.
App Store charts: there’s no big secret that being in the top rankings + having great reviews will help boost organic growth. Getting to the top overall ranking is increasingly difficult nowadays considering the abundance of competition out there. Either your app need to be extremely viral and sticky (organic growth) or you’d need to buy your way in (through user acquisition.)
Through media/social media: a great channel to get users and educate people about Truecaller.

Every company has their own unique growth model, meaning what works for us may not necessarily work for your company. This is a simplified growth model that allowed us to know when to push harder in a market. By knowing that we have covered this checklist it increases our chances to build a more sustainable growth in a certain market.

In the early days, before attracting world class investors, we tried raising capital in Europe (2011–2014.) The biggest challenge we faced was that nobody understood the profound problem we were solving. We were getting a lot of users from the emerging markets and one of the biggest question we got from the local VC’s was: what about the West?

One of the proudest decision we made was to focus on the market were we growing organically. We simply didn’t have the capital to fight our way in to the Western market. We believed if we solved a big enough problem, and built the best product — the market will come to you. This was a big bet from our side, and I’m happy it paid off!

However, when you are focusing on multiple emerging markets there are lots of complexity that you need to navigate e.g. people using low end devices, poor connectivity, language barriers etc. Alan and I wrote a post about this a few years ago — see here: https://techcrunch.com/2014/08/02/whatsapp-truecaller-and-lessons-learned-on-top-growth-hacking-apps/

In order for us to be able to start boosting growth and putting more resource into a market here are a few boxes we needed to tick first:

  • Product localization: this one is quite obvious but having the app available in local language is a must to reach scale.
  • Understanding local number formatting: this was something we had to learn the hard way when we were trying to grow in Brazil. Apparently users were saving numbers and adding different prefixes to a contact e.g. instead of +55111111 they would add #81#111111 making it very difficult for us to identify a number. Before we figured this out we had spent a lot of resource promoting the app, which ended with users coming in having a poor user experience and eventually churning.
  • Spam numbers: are there any public sources where people have reported fraudulent calls? For instance the FCC in the US has released data on this that we could integrate to Truecaller to boost the spam detection.
  • SMS & call verification provider: this is an extremely important piece to get right, especially in emerging markets where OTP messages often get massively delayed resulting in user churn.
  • Hit rate: this is the most important factor for our success in a market. A hit means that we can identify a spam number or identifying a number correctly for our users. Similar to how Uber needs to have a surplus of drivers when they initially launch in a market to drive demand (they would typically compensate their drivers for lost income — and would be bleeding money for ≈9 months before the demand gets to the inflection point of demand meeting supply). If we could provide a hit for our users we knew we had a home-run.

Boosting growth with PR & marketing
For us, launching in a market actually means that we want to boost user growth, establish ourselves in the market (do more local partnerships for instance) and take control of the narrative. There are many great ways to boost growth but in this post we’ll be focusing on primarily on how we do PR and marketing.

Here are 5 crucial elements I think is important when going in to a new market:

  1. Figure out your key message: what is the key pain-point you are solving and keep it simple.
  2. Support your message with data and visualize the problem with stats. If possible combine with a partnership announcement — this will show strength and legitimize your business.
  3. Think local. Always use local user testimonials and case studies to tell your story.
  4. Have a local person on ground or have a spokesperson who can speak the language. Use partners like a PR agency or consultant to help you navigate the local media landscape (I will break down how we think about this in the coming chapter)
  5. Be prepared with a proper FAQ and be accessible to any incoming media inquiries. I can’t stress this enough.

Here’s a simplified list of go-to market activity broken down by 1) pre-launch activities 2) launch activity 3) post-launch activity we would do over the next few months:

  • Pre-launch PR activity 1: Highlight how big of a problem spam and scam calls are in the market with data and how Truecaller can solve it. This will establish and legitimize your existence and create general awareness. We’d typically dig into our internal data to see trends over spam/scam calls and how many spam calls we help our users identify in the market or who the culprits are. Sometime we’d also use market research agencies to help us conduct surveys (see second example below.)

See example: https://www.nation.co.ke/news/Kenya-tops-world-s-spam-scam-targets/1056-4017698-9a308mz/index.html

Another example: https://www.today.com/money/americans-lost-8-6-billion-phone-fraud-last-year-survey-1D80108259

  • Pre-launch PR activity 2: Create awareness around your business model to educate the business press and boost leads. Below is an example when we introduced Truecaller Ads to Sub-Sahara Africa. Key here was to package and position our business model to make it stand out, explain why it make sense to launch it now and why businesses should care (blog post here: https://blog.truecaller.com/2017/05/17/truecaller-launches-ads-platform-for-african-brands/). Once we had all the elements in place went to a few selected media to give them a proper brief and had a Q&A session with them where we could fully explain all the details around why Truecaller Ads make sense to the market.

See example: https://techmoran.com/truecaller-launches-truecaller-ad-platform-brands-africa-reach-40-million-plus-users/

  • Pre-launch PR activity 3: Build up hype that we are establishing operations in the market (media love Foreign Direct Investment stories.)

See example: http://www.itnewsafrica.com/2017/10/truecaller-to-expand-african-operations/

  • Pre-launch social media activity: Engage with local players to boost your brand within the ecosystem. When we were getting close to our ‘launch day’ in Sub-Sahara Africa we announced that we were doing a big developer contest and partnered with the most influential incubator in Nigeria to further build hype and awareness around Truecaller.

See example: https://cchubnigeria.com/truecaller-launchevent-at-cchub-with-huge-developer-contest/

  • Launch day: After all the hype you’ve built over the months launch day is when you really need to impress. Typically what we would do is to invite key media, influencers and important ecosystem players for a proper briefing with our spokesperson and setting up 1-on-1 with them. This is the moment where you can make a big splash and establish long lasting media relationships. We’d start off with a presentation giving everyone a proper introduction about the company. We would also reveal some new stats followed by a big announcement. It’s important that you don’t reveal too much during the pre-launch phase because if you reveal too much and don’t have anything significant to present during launch, then chances are that the press will have nothing to write about. Therefore plan this carefully and don’t burn through you fuel at once.
  • Alternative way to launch: When we launched in the US we combined a key hire + a partnership + revealing some fresh stats and pitched it exclusively to Forbes who broke the news. Sometimes getting one high quality piece of coverage that tells your story in detail is better than 10 mediocre pieces of coverage that no one reads.
  • Post launch PR activity: Once you’ve launched and made big splash, you need to think about the long tail of activity to maintain the momentum. Key here is to be consistent and relevant — tactics for this includes product updates, packaging them in the local flavor, and using stats to show growth.
  • Post launch PR activity 2: A great way to demonstrate momentum is by partnering with a top local player.

At the peak of our massive expansion in 2015 I was working with 11 PR agencies from all over the world. This was indeed an incredibly hectic period and we were making constant announcements and blasting out news. To manage this influx of activity we needed to be organized and set up processes for it. As I mentioned in the beginning of the post, checklists have been a great tool for us to manage high paced market roll-outs. What’s great with checklists is that it helped us focus on what needed to be done systematically and not overlook any crucial steps in stressful moments. This also helped make sure all our agency partners were aligned. This document is constantly evolving. To set the record straight, in every launch we certainly made some mistakes, but we always try to learn from them and improve our playbook.

Here’s a simplified checklist that we use for any type of news announcement:

When we plan this type of go-to market strategy we think very hard about how we are positioning ourselves and the objectives, and how we tie this to our larger strategy. Amazon have a brilliant technique they use when launching new products called the “Working Backward” process. Basically they would first write a press release for a future product launch. If that’s appealing and hits the right notes with people they would reverse engineer their products according to the press release. We try to think in a similar manner where we would think what headline we are looking for to build most hype, and depending on that we’d plan activities, content, key messages and briefings to build up to that.

However, this way of working cannot be contained in a vacuum. Like sound waves, they require a medium. For this process to work, the product, engineering and marketing team need to work in tandem and have strong dotted lines between them.

In the next chapter I’ll take a deeper dive on a topic I often advice other entrepreneurs and comms people on; what you should consider when choosing a PR agency and how to build your brand story.

I want to give a special shout out to Bryce Keane, a friend and a person I look up to, who took time out to give me valuable feedback and proofread this post. Thank you!

If you have any thoughts about this post, good or bad, I’d love to hear them: kim@framtid.tech

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