Illustration: Spectral Designs/iStock Illustration: Spectral Designs/iStock

Recently, Toronto-based healthcare startup Figure 1 reached an important milestone: more than 500,000 medical professionals are now using its app, up from 150,000 users a year ago.

Joshua Landy, Richard Penner and Gregory Levey launched Figure 1 in May 2013. Landy, a physician, came up with the idea while studying the smartphone habits of doctors at Stanford University in 2012. Shortly after, he invited Penner and Levey to join him and run the technical and business sides of the company.

Figure 1 lets physicians upload and share pictures of a brain scan or a patient case from their smartphone, so they can easily show it to colleagues or consult with other verified medical professionals. Since the launch, it’s become a hit among medical students and physicians in North America. Four out of 10 U.S. medical students use the app, and members have now collectively viewed shared images one billion times.

Figure 1—named one of Canadian Business’s 15 most innovative companies of 2015—has raised more than $10 million from investors in North America, and currently has 26 employees. Levey,responsible for Figure 1’s business operations, shares his advice on a startup can grow its customer or user base.

MIND THE LEAKS

Levey says an early lesson he learned from one of his investors is to avoid a leaky bucket. “If you’re getting tons of new users, and they’re all leaving—use the app once and never come back—that’s useless, and not what you want,” he says. Levey is more interested in engagement metrics and how many users continue to use Figure 1 after they join. “That top-line number, 500,000 users, is kind of a vanity metric in some ways,” he reveals. “We’re at 50,000 daily, and that to me is far more important, because people actually use it.”

TALK TO REAL PEOPLE

Levey once took a class in business school with Steven Blank, a Silicon Valley serial entrepreneur known in business circles as “the startup guru.” Levey says Blank’s mantra is to “get out of the building” and talk to users. Levey followed his advice while working on Figure 1 and spent a ton of time beta-testing it with doctors. “We were getting feedback and making sure the end users could see the app as something useful, so it wasn’t just a leaky bucket,” shares Levey.

Now two years out, Figure 1 continues to reach out to users on a daily basis. “Yesterday, we had a user here doing testing, where we watched how they used the app on the phone,” recalls Levey. “People say and do different things and make subconscious decisions they’re not even aware of. Let’s say your app is a bit slower than it should be, then the user might not come back because they’re annoyed by it. But they may not even realize that’s why they leave, but you can test those things using data.

“So really digging in and see what users want, and getting out of the building to make sure the app is solving a problem in their lives.”

MAKE A GOOD APP

Levey says he hates the term “growth hacking,” where businesses use tricks to tactically increase their numbers. “The bigger way to do it is to just make sure your app is good enough that people are actually telling their friends and colleagues,” he says. Levey points out that a lot of Figure 1’s growth comes from word of mouth which happened because it fills a need and people like it. “So make sure your product is good enough that people tell each other about it.”

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