For many startup founders, the need to raise capital from VCs is their driving force. You may be in a rush to launch fast, get traction and raise a series A as soon as possible. However, there are many reasons why taking VC funds may not be prudent. Building your startup without debt is possible as can be attested by these now-massive 10 companies.

But even without debt, is it possible to gain traction without spending on ad dollars?

The answer is “Yes”. However, there is more that you will have to put in to gain traction without having to advertise. Here are three startups that gained tractions without initially spending a dollar on advertising.


Sara Blakely, the 41-year old self-made billionaire selling undergarments knows it’s possible to gain traction without spending on marketing. The entrepreneur who founded Spanx from a one-product wonder to a household name without spending on marketing has been through the trenches and offers some insightful advice on getting customers: know your product.

Know Your Product

If you build a great product, users will come. When Sara was selling Spanx from her apartment in her twenties, she could not afford advertising. So, the best way was to let her product market itself. Women who bought Spanx were delighted with it and told other women. The traditional word-of-mouth marketing worked the magic.

Even today, while Spanx can afford all the billboards at Times Square, it still does not advertise. The word of mouth marketing leads to more loyal customers. People trust what they hear from first-hand users rather than what is marketed by a company. A study by Nielsen shows that 77% of customers are likely to buy a product from the recommendation of a friend.


Closer in our industry, Baremetrics got its first 100 customers through word of mouth marketing.

Buffer App

You probably know Buffer App or use their products. How did you find them? Chances are that you read a blog post about them.

Use Content Marketing

When starting out, Buffer concentrated its efforts on content marketing. In a nutshell, content marketing simply involves creating blog posts and other online content that are meant to educate and entertain your audience. The posts can help your audience learn about your product and how it can solve their problems.

Content marketing helped Buffer sign up 70,000 users in about a year from when it was founded. The team at Buffer really gets content marketing. You will find them everywhere where their potential users are hanging out, providing valuable information that helps to build their brand and establish authority in their niche.

TAKEAWAY: Use online media to reach your target market. Produce different types of content and gauge their effectiveness improving conversions, optimize and scale.


In 2009, AirBnB was on the verge of closing. Its revenue was just $200 per week, shared between the three co-founders. While still at the Y Combinator, the team was looking over its New York listings trying to figure out why traction was very low.

Know Your Market

After analyzing the photos for some time, they realized one thing: all photos were just NOT great. Users were taking photos of their homes with cameras phones. As a result, potential customers could not see what they were paying for.

The resolution? Fly out to NYC, rent out a camera and take professional photos of the listings.

Long story short, revenue doubled to $400 per week when the professional, high-resolution photos were uploaded for the listings. This was the first financial growth the company had seen in over eight months.

AirBnB’s target customers wanted to know what they would be paying when they booked a house on the site. However, the low quality photographs did not do enough to convince them the service was worth paying for. On improving the photos, signups increased and AirBnB went on to profitability.

Grow Your Startup Without Ad Dollars

Spanx, Buffer and AirBnB did not concentrate on paid marketing from the onset. While the companies now market through various ways, their modest beginnings show that anyone can gain traction if they understand their market and product, and use free marketing avenues like content marketing.

Paid marketing can get you users fast. However, it can also burn your startup capital faster and make you close or sell your business quickly. If you love your product and have the passion to solve a problem in your industry, you can gain success without spending ad dollars.

For SaaS startups, content marketing is an effective way to get the word out about your product and gain traction steadily. Having a content marketing strategy can also help to build your brand and authority in your industry.

Are you using content marketing for your startup? If so, has it helped your startup gain traction?