Roam Research is, I think, a great example of how popularity can slowly build until it hits a point and then seemingly overnight it can "go viral" and be a success (another similar example would be @_DavidSmith's Widgetsmith app, from a developer who's made a ton of iOS apps then hit breakout success with an app to build iOS homescreen icons, but I digress).
I just checked back, and I personally signed up for Roam Research in early January before including them in a post about exciting beta apps for 2020. At that point, Roam was in "open beta" and if you joined their email list, you'd get an invite via email.
In that email list, the Roam team would send out interesting links about Roam. For example, in February, their email included a link to a video review from a user, the RoamBrain.com site that had just launched, and the Networked Thought Substack that had just launched.
That same email let them promote a paid course on Roam, which I think was likely a strong part of their growth story. In February, Nate Eliason made a paid video course about Roam—and the Roam team shared it in their email, saying "The course costs $99 right now - but since our official tutorials are so lacking We've decided that anyone who completes the course (and sends us some gif or video showing that they've learned the material) will get $100 in Roam credits once we start charging."
At that point, Roam was free, but in this way you could almost pre-pay for Roam and learn more about it at the same time. That obviously took a large commitment to take the course, but turned more people into power users.
That same strategy of promoting everything possibly connected to Roam was most evident on Twitter, where both the official @roamresearch account and the founder's @conaw account would share tutorials, videos, discussions, and more about Roam. That made people more likely to create content about Roam, as you'd get a guaranteed audience. Even competitors got mentions; on May 7th, for example, @RoamResearch retweeted an add-on for Tiddlywiki that added some Roam features.
In that way, Roam made itself the evangelist for wiki formatting, backlinks, and the graph databases as they became increasingly popular across software. I think that may have helped as well: By not attacking competitors, and instead playing up that they have bigger goals, they kept the thought leadership and essentially anyone making a competitor helped promote Roam. Roam Research's core features of backlinks, wiki-style linking, and more date back to Xanadu and even earlier to Vannevar Bush in the 1970's, and suddenly what was old was new again and Roam was leading the way.
And their community is deeply committed to the product, enough that #roamcult is more than just a joke. A debate on Capiche about Roam vs Notion in late April was incredibly popular, with people taking a variety of opinionated sides on why they did or didn't like Roam. They built something people are passionate about.
And it was free. People were building detailed linked notes and expanding on the core features and selling courses all around a free in beta product.
Then Roam shut down signups. On May 5th, after hitting some scaling issues, Roam Research closed signups, and instead had new people fill out a form to request access. That included a commitment to paying—and that's when Roam Research shared their $15/month pricing first. So you now had people seeing other smart people using Roam, making videos and articles and more that were amplified by the Roam team—and so people were asking on Twitter for invites and that only helped more people see Roam and want to get in. Restricting access weirdly can increase signups, and that seemed to have an amplifying effect in Roam Research's case.
Then on June 9th, Roam opened signups again, this time paid (though with beta access still free to people who'd signed up before May), with pricing high enough to get people to talk about it, including a $500 "true believer" five year subscription. That reinforced the "cult" image, and got people talking again about Roam.
And then, it's been a drip of features, with themes and more coming since then, each time with the Roam team helping amplify creators in the community making great stuff, which makes people want to make more.
If anything, I see Roam's success as success at building a quasi-community around a product, and continually iterating on making a unique product that people will rave about and help you market for free.
Two words: Roam cult.
I believe the key to Roam's success is they didn't try to mass market right from the start, shouting to and shooting for everyone. They still aren't.
Instead, they focused on their product and a few people (literally). This created not users, not even fan but fanatics. This led to the "cult", and when you have a cult, you have a powerful following.
It may sound obvious and simple, but it's difficult and frustrating to resist the temptation to reach out to more people, because it often implies working on a product with like 10-20 users for a year or more.
25+ years of trying to organize notes and lists using dozens of note taking and productivity apps has been a frustrating time sink. I find the daily page based freestyle note taking in Roam relieves that frustration. I just start writing, formatting and linking and ignore the impulse to organize. However I can create "storage" pages just by embedding pages and blocks. Even when I think I've screwed up my note entry somehow, I can always find what I am looking for very quickly using the linked references. I was stalled while researching and writing a sci-fi book, but being able to connect various pages of information on characters, society, geography, etc. while word building is fantastically helpful and has spurred me on. If JK Rowlings had Roam, her apartment would have much tidier.
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