Traction: What is it?

During investor meetings, master classes and speaking to other founders, I kept hearing this word over and over again. Traction. Traction. Traction.

Traction: What is it?

It's been just over a year since we founded our startup. The early months went by in a blur. Every time you get to work, it slowly becomes clearer what you are building and why. I kept waiting for the aha moment when I'd know exactly what I was doing. It's safe to say I'm still waiting.

That Elusive Term...

Straight away I was forced to jump in the deep end. During investor meetings, master classes and speaking to other founders, I kept hearing this word over and over again. Traction. Traction. Traction. In the early days of product ideation, I just thought, "Oh we'll get to that..." or, "that'll come soon."

I had a vague definition of traction in my head: the combination of a growing customer base and a marketing machine. But I had never delved too deeply into this term. Then a couple of months ago, I came across a book, Traction: A Startup Guide to Getting Customers. The blurb leapt out at me:

"Most startups end in failure. Almost every failed startup has a product. What failed startups don't have are enough customers.

Founders and employees fail to spend time thinking about (and working on) traction in the same way they work on building a product. This shortsighted approach has startups trying random tactics - some ads, a blog post or two - in an unstructured way that's guaranteed to fail."

It caused me to reflect on our progress to date: were we making the same mistakes that too many startups had before? We'd spent most of our time building our app, understanding the problem we were solving and strategising about features and future plans. But very little time thinking about how we would put it in the hands of customers. I read the book in a day and a half. I couldn't put it down.

My Take on Traction: A Startup Guide to Getting Customers by Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares

As Paul Graham, the Founder of Y Combinator stated:  “A startup is a company designed to grow fast. Being newly founded does not in itself make a company a startup. Nor is it necessary for a startup to work on technology, or take venture funding, or have some sort of ‘exit.’ The only essential thing is growth. Everything else we associate with startups follows from growth.”

Traction means growth and the pursuit of traction is what defines a startup. Weinberg determines that there are 19 market and distribution channels for startups:

  1. Viral marketing 📈 encouraging users to refer other users
  2. PR 🗞️ getting name out there via traditional media outlets)
  3. Unconventional PR 🌟 doing something exceptional to draw media attention
  4. Search engine marketing 🔬 allowing companies to advertise to consumers on search engines
  5. Social and display ads 📰 paying for ads on popular sites
  6. Offline ads 💭 tv spots, radio and podcast ads
  7. SEO 🔎 making website shows up for key search results
  8. Email marketing 📧 an old faithful involving sending converts and prospects emails
  9. Content marketing 🎨 creating video or written content
  10. Engineering as marketing 🧑🏿‍🔬 using engineering to acquire customers, we gave this a go here
  11. Targeting blogs ✍️ blogs that answer specific problems your customer faces
  12. Business development 🤝 creating mutually beneficial strategic partnerships
  13. Sales 💸 directly selling product for dollars
  14. Affiliate programs 🔗 getting influencers in your industry to promote your product and get a small commission for every sale
  15. Existing social media platforms 📱 Facebook, Twitter or Instagram
  16. Trade shows 📺 industry events to show off products
  17. Offline events 🎟️ anything from meetups to large conferences
  18. Speaking engagements 🗣️ giving a great talk to increase your startup's profile
  19. Community building 📡 forming communities around products or leveraging existing communities

I know what you're thinking. That's a hell of a lot of potential channels to explore and the only way to do so, is to explore them one by one until you've found the one that converts to the most customers. You will most likely need to try tactics that are completely unscalable long-term.

Weinberg has two key findings:

  1. Far too many startups focus on the same channels
  2. Until you start running tests, it's difficult to tell which channel is best

Each of the 19 channels have worked for startups in the past. Identifying the right channels to target can be a huge differentiator compared to your competitors.

One of the main takeaways from this book, is that time needs to be spent building the product and testing traction channels at the same time. The product itself and traction are of equal importance, so Weinberg emphasises the "the 50% rule: spend 50% of your time on product and 50% on traction."

As soon as I found this out, my role completely changed. Given that my co-founder is technical, I realised my role needed to be near enough 100% focused on traction. I now always have a traction goal that I'm working towards and all of my work is done with the aim of attaining that goal.

We also created a spreadsheet to keep track of the different channels and approaches we are taking as we go along. After each Instagram post, TikTok video or blog, I analyse how effective it was (did we get more signups to our waitlist, more followers or any buzz). You can't analyse what you don't track.

For anyone interested in doing a deep-dive on this stuff, I highly recommend Traction: A Startup Guide to Getting Customers. If you like that one (or maybe are a bit further along), Hacking Growth: How Today's Fastest-Growing Companies Drive Breakout Success is also great.