Seven ways to grow your D2C demand without giving your money to Google, Meta, or Amazon

James McClure, a Partner at Antler in Australia, delves into seven ways startups can grow their D2C demand without needing to generate it through paid platforms like Google, Meta, or Amazon.


James McClure

James is a Partner at Antler Australia and co-leading the Australia operations. He is a seasoned C-level exec who brings over 15 years of tech operating experience across EMEA, APAC and the US.

Previously, he was the CCO for Adzuna, running its business across 16 global markets. Prior, he led the Enterprise business for SeatGeek and was GM for Airbnb UK and Northern Europe. James spent his initial tech career at Google in London, Sydney and Singapore; most notably launching local markets and YouTube across APAC.

If you’re an early-stage consumer start-up, funds are tight, and you need to show traction to be able to raise more capital. Here are some tried and trusted ways to build your business without spending on paid media from my operator experience and Antler portfolio companies.

Leverage existing industry/cultural events

A rising tide lifts all boats, and if there is something related to your business that is trending, then jump on it. Retail growth ahead of Christmas is the most obvious, but these can be calendar dates like Valentine’s Day or industry-specific like CES.

One of our portfolio companies - Anda, a smart wearable company using haptic feedback to modify with the users breathing - utilised World Breathwork Day (yeah, it’s a thing) as a hook to increase the buzz for their waitlist by jumping on existing social content from breathwork aficionados.

Pace of execution: High

Cost of execution: Low

Best suited for: Seasonal businesses, e.g. apparel or travel

Referral programs

Financial incentives

‘Give $X to a friend and get $Y’ is a classic growth loop, and Airbnb wrote the book on this. Remember, you don’t need an engineering team to make this happen - you can get SaaS software off-the-shelf which can plug into your emails or Shopify pretty quickly. My favourite is ViralLoops, and there are plenty of others available.

Pro tip: To set the $X and $Y, the quickest hack is to have X=Y and X+Y below your AdWords/Meta CAC.

Pace of execution: High

Cost of execution: Medium

Best suited for: Marketplaces, businesses with high word-of-mouth share

Status or access

If you’re short on funds, remember that people can be motivated by more than money. How about you offer priority access to new drops/releases for 3 referrals? Or an ‘OG Believer’ badge on their profile for 10 referrals? Or lunch with the founders for 20?

It won’t work for all businesses, but where there is a strong value alignment for business, and customers increased access or status has considerable cache. Morning Brew provides a great example of unlocking premium content after three referrals (and much more besides)

Pace of execution: High

Cost of execution: Low

Best suited for: Mission-driven businesses, hype/release-driven businesses

Build a community

Everyone says they’re community-driven, but that is only true if you actually have two-way discussions with your customers. 

The quickest way to start is to add community features to your business very quickly with SaaS tools like Circle. Alternatively, you can easily stand up Slack/Discord/Whatsapp/Telegram for your early believers.

Pace of execution: High

Cost of execution: Low

Best suited for: Businesses focusing on a passionate community

Run an event which mirrors your product

If you don’t have a product, how do you gain feedback and validate the opportunity?

A good way is to set up an event. This tests the key value propositions of your product and engages early adopters. Red Flags set up an event for Sydney singles which leveraged the key differentiators of their relationship super-app - namely key personality insights and ‘Real Talk’ messaging in a physical setting. This gained them waitlist sign-ups and successfully engaged their target audience.

Pace of execution: Mid

Cost of execution: Mid

Best suited for: Consumer tech subscription businesses

Willingness to pay for new products

Physical goods

Consumer product development is difficult as there’s a high bar on production value and uncertainty on sales - even more so for physical products. It’s best to verify a level of demand before embarking on costly design cycles or a Kickstarter campaign. is a good example of a lightweight way to test consumer demand, which Anda used to strong effect in their product validation journey.

Pace of execution: High

Cost of execution: Low

Best suited for: Consumer physical products


For freemium or subscription businesses, pricing is also hard to get right. A way to take the pressure off pricing whilst still exploring willingness to pay is to set up a ‘foundational membership’ where you allow early advocates to lock in a cheaper price ahead of any subscription launch. This enables you to see demand and give status to these OGs. 

Humpday (an anti-dating app dating app) have done this successfully ahead of their freemium model launch - highlighting a solid willingness to pay and gaining customer love into the bargain.

Pace of execution: High

Cost of execution: Low

Best suited for: Freemium or subscription businesses

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