Superhuman started it (kind off) and now hey.com has made the invite only model famous, Clubhouse is also in the list of invite only model. Seems to me more of attention and marketing model rather than controlling the user base.
Invite-only is one of the original marketing strategies for email services. Hotmail spread quickly at first from its email signatures, which I think very likely was the inspiration behind everything things like the iPhone Mail app having a "Sent via iPhone" signature. It's a status symbol at first, that oh look, I'm using this new thing before it's widely adopted and popular, and maybe got in before most people. (And then, over time, the same signature becomes passé and almost brands you as a late-adaptor. So it goes.)
Not sure if Hotmail was invite-only at first though. Gmail was invite only at launch, though, and it was hugely popular, enough that people were selling Gmail invites on eBay (something someone repeated this week with Hey invites). Google was also infamous for leaving their software in perpetual beta, which sortof tied into the invite system where you're suggesting "hey, we're still building this thing, so we can't let everyone in just yet" while using that to drive interest.
It works, too. I personally signup for beta wait lists all the time, while forgetting to download new software that just gets released traditionally. You need a broader marketing plan that drips out details and makes people anticipate trying the product to make the invites actually valuable and something people will want, though.
The interesting thing more recently is how Superhuman uses the invite only system to basically build exclusivity, almost like it's a private club that you have to know a member to get join, which increases the value of the invite and makes people more likely to really try it once they get an invite as they want to see what they've been missing out on. Clubhouse took that to the extreme; I still haven't seen invites for that floating around.
Frankly, speaking from experience after running such an invite system, making a system invite only is absolutely a marketing model. But it can be a way to scale up. For instance, Capiche requires you to go through onboarding for early access; that gives our team a chance to check new posts, keep spam out, and keep the quality of the community higher than purely open signups would. Roam Research's Twitter mentions is another great example there; they were previously open signup, then their servers were getting overwhelmed so they locked down signups and made it invite only. That bought them time—but also it was incredible seeing people asking for invites on Twitter almost immediately. Each Tweet ended up being marketing for Roam Research and made others want in.
There's something interesting going on nowadays with software almost as a status symbol, and invite only marketing absolutely plays into that.
Invite only is a multi-pronged strategy
1. Marketing - agree with @maguay here
2. User experience and onboarding tuning. With a limited set of power users, the founders can figure out the optimal experience.
3. Identify scale bottlenecks and fine tune. The engineers can understand the limits of their current setup, estimate what is required for scaling up if the user growth is on the same trajectory.
I think this strategy works in the case of B2C products. I am not familiar with B2B products successfully using this strategy.
It works if you have an unfair advantage - like a well know brand name, backer or someone influential in your network.
It's all about FOMO.
For the average person trying to pull this off - its an exercise in dashed expectations.
It’s a bit of both to be honest. Both superhuman and Hey used the Onboarding process to trim down what they’d call ‘casual users’ by introducing some level of friction, Hey with the mail us on this email and Superhuman with their fill this extensive typeform. While ‘invite only’ has been a distinct strategy to surround product launches with a miasma of exclusivity and that inner circle feel, this invite only strategy is also a product of new age SaaS companies looking to solve for retention and for power users before they move to growth/hyper growth.
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