Creating a successful startup requires a lot: a great idea and an innovative product, of course, but also an insane work ethic, a willingness to take risks and the ability to think on your feet. But all those assets won’t account for much if you don’t have traction.
“Traction is evidence of customer demand, and if you don’t have it your company dies,” explains Gabriel Weinberg, an entrepreneur and co-author of “Traction: How Any Startup Can Achieve Explosive Customer Growth.” “You need to have customers who are deeply engaged with the product.”
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Weinberg has launched two technology companies: Opobox, which he sold for $10 million in 2006, and current project DuckDuckGo a non-tracking search engine that has increased traffic 600 percent since the NSA revelations broke. And he says most self-starters — himself included — don’t think about traction early enough, if at all.
"Startups should be spending half their time getting traction," he says. “If you spend less than that, it's really not top of mind and you won't come up with creative solutions — and you need creative marketing solutions for a start-up to work.”
So how do you grow your audience, get people to clamor for your product and launch a successful business? We asked Weinberg for his tips.
Don’t wait till you have a perfect product to share it
When should a new company start thinking about traction? “Immediately,” says Weinberg. “What generally happens is people have a good idea for a startup, and they kind of sit in their bunker, producing [the perfect] product.” In reality, you aren’t going to know what needs fixing until you get fresh eyes on the product. “And the only way to do that is to start trying to get traction right from the beginning.”
Create a “traction” goal
In order to figure out a method to get people to notice your company, you need to determine some kind of “traction goal.” For startups, that’s usually one of three things, says Weinberg: how much traction you need to raise money from investors, how much traction you need to be profitable or make a certain amount of money, or how much traction you need to prove to yourself and your team that this is something you want to work on for a while. “And that should be a hard number you can identify,” he adds. “Ten thousand customers, or a hundred customers, depending on your business.”
Test, test, test
So how exactly does one get to this number? Every business is different, so while search-engine optimization (making your website show up for key search results) might work for one startup, another company might do better focusing on viral marketing (getting your customers to refer others) or going to trade shows or speaking engagements. “Most people have no idea how to reach the market. So you have to test different channels to find the bullseye — that one channel that's going to get you to grow,” says Weinberg. “Figure out the three best, and run a month-long test to see which get you the best results.”
And once you determine that, keep testing. “First you're testing what channels to use, then you're testing within that channel what strategies to use,” says Weinberg. Plus, sometimes a strategy that helped you reach your goal initially stops delivering in the same way. “Then you have to go back to testing channels, but basically you never stop testing.”
Boost your bullseye
"Now, any sophisticated marketing strategy will generally have that one core channel, but other things feeding into it," says Weinberg. "So for example, if you focus on content marketing — and you're producing really high-quality content on your blog or other places — you'll often want to put some paid marketing behind that content, like Facebook ads or search-engine ads even. But your content is still that core strategy."
What to look for when testing
Weinberg says that tests are designed to answer three things.
1) How scalable is this channel? Or, how many customers do you think it can achieve?
2) How much does it cost? Or, how much does it cost to get one customer through the channel?
3) Is it attracting the right type of customers? "Different channels will yield different types of customers, and you want to see whether they're valuable customers," he explains.