How This Startup Turned An April Fools Joke Into Customers


A version of this article previously appeared on Inc.

Last week, Divshot turned a simple April Fool's Day joke into a marketing coup, generating nearly 6,000 Tweets and over a thousand Beta customers. Unlike many viral marketing events, the company's latest guerilla marketing stunt was not luck. As noted in Hacking Hacker News, the company previously dominated the mindshare of the web development community by facilitating the spread of a random posting on Hacker News.


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Similar to their prior guerilla-marketing stunt, their April Fool's Day posting topped Hacker News. It was awarded over 300 points by Hacker News' notoriously cynical community, many of whom chimed in with a variety of congratulatory comments. The team's ability to drive significant customer interest without spending a dime on marketing was one of the reasons Jim Andelman and I invested in the company.

The Joke

Divshot's solution is an innovative web development tool, which automatically generates professional-grade code during the wire framing process. Their SaaS product saves web developers and designers time, while allowing them to create cutting-edge websites. These early adopters pride themselves in creating web pages that are not only functional, but also elegant and aesthetically pleasing.

Relying on their customers' penchant for design and good taste, the company announced on April 1st that it had created a new "Geo" template for Bootstrap, a leading web development tool. Geo was a lightly veiled reference to Geocities, a Web 1.0 site that allowed users to create hideously cheesy sites, using a variety of garish templates, buttons and animated images.

To learn how other startups can emulate Divshot's latest marketing win, I spoke with Michael Bleigh, the company's Co-Founder and CEO. He derived five lessons from his latest guerilla marketing triumph.

1. Don't Force It

According to Michael, "We didn’t sit around for hours brainstorming what might make a great April Fool’s gag; in fact, we didn’t do much planning at all for Geo. On March 28 I randomly thought of the idea, pitched it to the team and got an immediately positive response. My cofounder Jake took a couple hours and threw together the beginnings of it and it still seemed funny, so we decided to go for it.

Most of the failed April Fool’s jokes that I’ve seen seem to be trying way too hard. If it doesn’t come easily, don’t force it."

2. Don't Be Afraid To Offend (Some) Customers

When I asked Michael if he was concerned that some of his customers might not "get it" and be put off by the retro template, he laughed, noting, "Our customers build web apps for a living and many of them remember just how awful websites used to look. In fact, many of them built some pretty awful sites themselves back in the day.

My first website was a Geocities-hosted Duke Nukem 3D fan site. It had bright green text and animated GIFs of radioactive symbols all over the place.Bringing web nostalgia together with Bootstrap hit a sweet spot of positive reaction for our gag.However, any time you make a joke you take a risk: humor is an inherently subjective medium."

3. Don't Beg People To Share

No matter how clever your marketing stunt, it won't be shared unless you make it is nearly effortless. At the same time, if you overtly request users to share your brilliance, you risk alienating them. As Michael notes, "While we wrote a blog post about the theme, it went viral thanks largely to the tweet button front and center on GitHub. We didn't ask people to tweet it, they just did. Twitter was by far our largest referrer, outpacing even Hacker News by a large margin. What’s the fun in a joke that only one person knows about?"

4. Don’t Over Sell It

Divshot successfully walked the line between generating broad exposure and appearing overly self-promotional. Per Michael, "While we put our name on the theme, we didn’t embed secret marketing messages or try to optimize a conversion funnel from the traffic. People have become jaded about April Fool’s online because it’s seen as a marketing gimmick. If you try too hard to turn a bit of fun into a business objective, you’re likely to destroy the 'fun' part.

Of course, the lovely thing is that at the end of the day it is a great marketing gimmick. Thousands of people who hadn’t heard of Divshot on March 31 have heard about it now because of our gag. Be content with a little bit of raised brand awareness and don’t try to milk it too much."

5. Don’t Over Think It

Michael believes that one of the reasons Divshot's April Fool's Day joke worked so well is that it was conceived and executed organically. It wasn't derived as result of an offsite, focus group or PR consultant's strategic plan. Rather,"All told, Geo was less than a day’s worth of effort from start to finish for our team. It was a fun thing to collaborate on and watching the reaction was rewarding for the team. April Fool’s, if you choose to launch a marketing stunt, it should always be more about having fun than getting results."

Michael concluded his thoughts by sharing that,"We didn’t bet on Geo succeeding, but we’re very happy that it did. So next year when April first rolls around, I hope we pull off another fun gag. But if we don’t, we don’t, and that’s okay too."

Follow my startup-oriented Twitter feed here: @johngreathouse. I promise I will never tweet lame online jokes or tell you about that killer burrito I just ate.

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John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara's Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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