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Traction Book Summary – Gabriel Weinberg

What you will learn from reading Traction:

– A complete list of distribution channels that start-ups should consider using.

– Tactics, strategies and ideas to boost the effectiveness of using these channels.

– The Bullseye framework for finding the most profitable channels of growth.

Traction Book Summary:

This is a book for entrepreneurs or individuals who are looking to start their own company. In traction Authors Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares explore the distribution opportunities that all businesses have. In the book they present and develop a framework for systematically evaluating your distribution channels. Read on if you want to find out how!


What is Traction?

Traction is the best way to improve your chances of startup success. Traction is a sign that something is working. If you charge for your product, it means customers are buying. If your product is free, it’s a growing user base.

Traction is basically quantitative evidence of customer demand. So if you’re in enterprise software, [initial traction] may be two or three early customers who are paying a bit; if you’re in consumer software the bar might be as high as hundreds of thousands of users.

Traction and product development are of equal importance and should each get about half of your attention. This is what we call the 50 percent rule: spend 50 percent of your time on product and 50 percent on traction.


The reality of start-up growth:

What works for others won’t necessarily work for you. Remember, people are biased by their previous experience. Just because their last company got traction in this way doesn’t mean it is right for every company. It’s hard to predict the traction channel that will work best.

In fact, often the most under-utilised channels in an industry are the most promising ones.

Successful companies have built microsites, developed widgets, and created free tools that drive thousands of leads each month. The most common unscalable thing founders have to do at the start is to recruit users manually. Nearly all startups have to. You can’t wait for users to come to you. You have to go out and get them.

Startup growth happens in spurts. Initially, growth is usually slow. Then it spikes as a useful traction channel strategy is unlocked. Eventually it flattens out again as this strategy gets saturated and becomes less effective. Then you unlock another strategy and you get another spike.


Getting Distribution Right:

[You] probably won’t have a bunch of equally good distribution strategies. Engineers frequently fall victim to this because they do not understand distribution.

That is a really bad idea. It is very likely that one channel is optimal. Most businesses actually get zero distribution channels to work. Poor distribution—not product—is the number one cause of failure.


The Bullseye Framework:


The first step in Bullseye is brainstorming every single traction channel. If you were to advertise offline, where would be the best place to do it? If you were to give a speech, who would be the ideal audience?

For each channel, you should identify one decent channel strategy that has a chance of moving the needle. For example, social ads is a traction channel. Specifically running ads on reddit, Twitter, or Facebook is a channel strategy within social ads.

The second step in Bullseye is running cheap traction tests in the channels that seem most promising.

For each traction channel in your middle ring, now construct a cheap traction test you can run to determine if the idea really is good or not. These tests should be designed to roughly answer the following three questions:

How much will it cost to acquire customers through this channel? How many customers are available through this channel? Are the customers that you are getting through this channel the kind of customers that you want right now?

The third and final step in Bullseye is to focus solely on the channel that will move the needle for your startup: your core channel. If all went well, one of the traction channels you tested in your middle ring produced promising results.

If everyone in your industry uses social ads to grow, you might be better off using another channel.


Next steps:

Inner ring tests are designed to do two things. First, to optimize your chosen channel strategy to make it the best it can be. Second, to uncover better channel strategies within this traction channel.

Making A/B testing a habit (even if you run just one test a week) will improve your efficiency in a traction channel by two or three times. There are many tools to help you do this type of testing online, such as Optimizely, Visual Website Optimizer, and Unbounce.

Andrew Chen, a startup adviser on growth, coined the Law of Shitty Click-Throughs: “Over time, all marketing strategies result in shitty click-through rates.”  Look for customers where others aren’t looking. Keep a lookout for the cutting-edge tactics that haven’t yet succumbed to the Law of Shitty Click-Throughs.

This “effective tracking and reporting system” can be as simple as a spreadsheet or as complex as an analytics tool that does cohort analysis, but it must exist. Furthermore, each test you run should have a point—to validate or invalidate

However, they are quite straightforward if you’re using the right online tools. In fact, a basic analytics tool like Clicky, Mixpanel, or Chartbeat can help you answer all three of these questions.

Mint did something that few startups had done before to increase awareness and build excitement for its launch: it asked people on its prelaunch waiting list to recommend Mint to their friends in return for priority product access.


Using Reporters:

What gets a reporter’s attention? Milestones: raising money, launching a new product, breaking a usage barrier, a PR stunt, a big partnership, or a special industry report. Each of these events is interesting and noteworthy enough to potentially generate some coverage.

You can also use Twitter to reach reporters online. Almost all reporters have Twitter accounts, and you’d be surprised at how few followers many of them have.

This stunt had everything traditional media loved in a piece: it was unique, surrounded the launch of a high-potential new startup, and told a story about how the company was creating jobs in a small town (they hired several residents).


Great Customer Support:

Good customer support is so rare that, if you simply try to make your customers happy, they are likely to spread the news of your awesome product on that basis alone.

He personally emailed users to thank them for spending time on the site and did everything he could to make early redditors feel appreciated for being part of the community.

Doing these types of things has worked so well for Grasshopper that it has hired two full-time employees whose sole responsibility is to delight customers.


Social Marketing:

Do things that don’t scale early on. Reaching out to individuals to share posts, for instance, is okay, because you’re building toward a point where your content will spread on its own.

Matthew’s approach exemplifies the benefits of building traction and developing your product in parallel. These tests gave the team a clear idea of the type of product their customers wanted.

People visit social media sites for entertainment and interaction, not to see ads. An effective social ad strategy takes advantage of this reality.

If you have a piece of content that has high organic reach, when you put paid [advertising] behind that piece of content the magic happens.


Search Engine Marketing:

The basic SEM process is to find high-potential keywords, group them into ad groups, and then test different ad copy and landing pages within each ad group. Sometimes you cannot find any good terms because your product category is so new that there is no search demand for it yet.

The problem with Uber is that there’s not a lot of search demand for it. I mean nobody searches for “alternatives to taxicabs that I can hire via my phone.” It’s just not a thing. And this is a problem with a lot of startups that are essentially entering a niche where nothing had existed previously…. There’s just not search volume.


Get Cheap Adspace:

To get really cheap offline ads, look for remnant advertising. Remnant advertising is ad space that is currently being unused.

Publications accept almost any price when selling empty inventory near print deadlines: after all, it is a complete loss for them if they don’t sell that space.


Content Marketing:

Produce in-depth posts you can’t find anywhere else. You need to create quality content to succeed in this traction channel.

The most common hurdle in content marketing is writer’s block. To overcome it, simply write about the problems facing your target customers. Every single industry has issues people struggle with.

The secret to shareable content is showing readers they have a problem they didn’t know about, or at least couldn’t fully articulate.

Most marketers fail to realise that quality is no substitute for quantity. Both Rick and Sam made it a point to say there’s no shortcut to creating quality content.

Unbounce found that infographics are shared about twenty times more often than a typical blog post and have a higher likelihood of getting picked up by other online publications.


Email Marketing:

Another popular approach to building an email list is creating a short, free course related to your area of expertise. These mini-courses are meant to educate potential customers about your problem space and product.

For many businesses, email marketing is the most effective channel to bring people back to their sites. Take Twitter as an example. If you’re an active Twitter user, think of every email you’ve ever gotten from them about someone mentioning you in a tweet, a friend of yours who just signed up,

Build an email list of prospective customers whether you end up focusing on this traction channel or not.

Set up a series of automated emails. Often called life cycle or drip sequences, this technique works best when the series of emails adapts to how people have interacted with your product.


Building Virality:

Groupon generates referrals by giving people an incentive to tell their friends about discounts. Unless a certain number of people have purchased a Groupon, the discount is not valid.

A viral loop in its most basic form is a three-step process: 

A customer is exposed to your product or service.

That customers tells a set of potential customers about your product or service.

These potential customers are exposed to your product or service, and some portion become customers themselves.

Dropbox gives you more space if you get friends to sign up. Airbnb, Uber, PayPal, and Gilt give you account credits for referring the product to friends.

If you can increase the average number of invites that each user sends out, say from one invite per user to two, you will double your viral coefficient. To pursue this traction channel effectively, you need to measure your viral coefficient and viral cycle time from the start. Consider those measurements your baseline.

The best way to approach this testing is to map out every aspect of your viral loop.

How many steps are in the loop?

What are all the ways people can enter into the loop (landing pages, ads, invites)? Literally draw a map of the entire process and try cutting out unnecessary steps.

Invitations that work best are short and succinct. Sign up for the most viral services you can think of and you’ll see what we mean. Additionally, personal hooks really help. For example, if in the invitation you say so-and-so referred you to this product, you can put the exact same message on the conversion page.

Andrew mentioned that he sees companies making the same mistakes: Products that aren’t inherently viral trying to add a bunch of viral features Bad products that aren’t adding value trying to go viral.

Thinking about virality as a tactic rather than a deep part of a product strategy.

Build a viral loop into the product. There are several types of viral loops, including word of mouth, inherent, collaborative, communicative, incentives, embedded, and social.


Build Tools:

We call this traction channel “engineering as marketing.” You make useful tools like calculators, widgets, and educational microsites to get your company in front of potential customers.

After a few days of this, I got tired of going through the manual steps (look at Alexa, look at their page titles, check out their domain, etc.). So I built an application to automate that process for me.

I had also started angel investing at the time, and I used the same process to assess the marketing savviness of potential startups I was considering investing in.

I think of free tools as content (albeit interactive content). At HubSpot, we really believe in marketing channels that have high leverage (i.e., write it or build it once—and get value forever). As such, we take a very geeky and analytical approach to marketing. We think of each piece of content (blog article, app, video, whatever) as a marketing asset. This asset creates a return—often indefinitely.

One way to boost your efforts in this traction channel is to take advantage of cyclical behavior. E.g. New year resolutions

To really maximise impact, put your micro-sites and tools on their own domains. This simple technique does two things. First, it makes them much easier to share. Second, you can do well with SEO by picking a name that people search often so your tool is more naturally discoverable.

Building noteworthy tools that your target audience finds useful is a solid way to gain traction that also pays dividends down the road by helping build your SEO.

A simple roadmap to executing this technical strategy includes:

Providing something of true value for free, with no strings attached.

Making that offering extremely relevant to your core business.

Demonstrating that value as quickly as possible.

The best companies to use this apps-powered model are software companies. In this case, they can launch complementary apps—or subsets—for free. This not only creates value that draws people in, it also educates people on what the main product does.

Make them as simple as possible. Single-purpose tools that solve obvious pain points are best. Put them on their own Web sites and make them easy to find, particularly through search engines.


Business Development:

For business development to work well, you must have a clear understanding of your company objectives. What metrics do you need to hit in order to maximize your chances of success? How can partnerships help you get there?

You need to understand why a potential partner should want to work with you. What are their incentives? Just as you evaluate potential partnerships in terms of your core metrics, they will be doing the same.

People tend to get caught up on the names—“is this a known name”—and place more emphasis on that than what might be more important elements.

Just because you’re offering a Web site widget doesn’t mean the Web site team is the ideal set of stakeholders. Think about who within this company benefit most from your product


Information and Affiliates:

Information products include digital products like e-books, software, music, and (increasingly) education. Since it doesn’t cost anything to make another digital copy, selling info products through affiliate programs is quite popular. Creators will give large percentages to affiliates that promote their products.

These companies often create their own affiliate programs or go through popular lead-gen networks like Affiliate.com, Clickbooth, Neverblue, and Adknowledge.

Commission Junction—CJ has many of the largest Internet retailers on its platform. It is also somewhat pricey: it costs upward of $2,000 to sell your product through its network. This high cost, combined with the fact that CJ curates both affiliates and publishers for performance, creates a high level of quality in its network.

ClickBank—The leading platform for anyone selling digital products online (courses, e-books, digital media).

Affiliate.com—Affiliate.com promises a very strict affiliate approval process, which it claims means higher-quality traffic for its advertisers.

Pepperjam—Started by Kris Jones (whom we interviewed for this chapter), the Pepperjam Exchange encompasses multiple channels (mobile, social, offline retail, print, etc.).

Adknowledge—Adknowledge offers traditional ad-buying services in addition to affiliate campaigns. It also works in mobile, search, social media, and display advertising, giving advertisers access to affiliate and CPC outlets through one platform.

LinkShare—LinkShare helps companies find affiliates and builds lead-gen programs for them. Companies like Macy’s, Avon, and Champion use them to manage affiliate programs.


Use other Platforms for your growth:

Airbnb saw much of its early growth come through Craigslist. Customers who used Craigslist found that Airbnb was a much simpler and safer solution. With this knowledge, the company’s engineers developed a “Post to Craigslist” feature that would allow you to list your bed on Craigslist.

Every year there’s a new platform, new device, new something, and as somebody who’s starting a company you should consider if there’s something really cool you can do on an upcoming platform.

But for a startup, you really aren’t in that position. When a platform is popular, it’s crowded…. A lot of people have cool apps and could do really, really well if they were to get this initial push, and that initial push is free if you do it early. But you risk that all that effort is a waste.

You have to think ahead. What types of things would Apple or Google really like? What are things that, if we were to do, Apple or Google or Microsoft would be looking for? And is there a natural fit between what we do and what they would be looking for?

Some of the most successful startups grew by making bets on emerging platforms that were not yet saturated and where barriers to discovery were low…. Betting on new platforms means you’ll likely fail if the platform fails, but it also dramatically lowers the distribution risks described above.


Organise Meet-ups:

Eric Ries wanted to broaden the audience for the Lean Startup principles he was promoting on his blog. However, he was afraid his message would get lost at a large conference like SXSW. Instead, he organized his own conference and invited founders of successful companies to talk about how Lean principles worked in their startups. While he didn’t want people to have to travel to attend, he still wanted people from out of the area to find out what was happening at the conference. To this end, Eric live-streamed the conference to meetup groups across the country.

Rob spoke about the types of companies that have the potential to benefit from meetups and other offline events: Companies with customers who have shared interests, who have a kind of community or at least a need for one, I think that’s the type of company that will benefit most.

Great meetups can create lasting community connections. The meetup groups that watched the live stream of the first Lean Startup conference continue to meet years afterward: more than twenty cities still have regular “Lean Startup Circle” meetups.

A local university lecture hall is a good place to hold an event like this. Often, universities are willing to open their facilities if it’s for an educational purpose and if some of their faculty or students are participating. This type of mini-conference can be done for less than $500.

The tried and true approaches like Facebook and AdWords are so crowded now. People need to think about doing things that don’t scale.

If you have a good idea for a talk and see an event that aligns with an area of your expertise, simply pitch your talk to the event organizers. If your ideas are solid, they will want you. This process becomes even easier as you become a recognized expert.

Landing speaking engagements is far easier if you have expert credentials. After all, if you don’t “earn the right” to be onstage, the audience won’t give you the attention you deserve. For example, if you run a popular blog, it becomes much easier for organizers and attendees to find and recognize your expertise.

Leveraging social media to reach people outside of the conference is a similar tactic. Rand Fishkin of Moz tweets his slides before every presentation, which lets his followers find out what he’ll be talking about. Then, when he posts a video of his talk, there is already some buzz and interest in watching and sharing it.


Set Standards in communities:

Stack Overflow wanted to create the best question-and-answer site for developers—a community that truly helped developers get better at their jobs. Upon launch, Jeff established strict guidelines (decided on in tandem with the community) so that only practical, answerable questions would be allowed.

Because these community guidelines were prominently featured on the site, users often policed the site on their own—even more aggressively than Jeff himself would have.

To prevent this negative cycle, it is important to focus on quality early on and set standards that can be maintained as the community grows.

Another use of community is for hiring. Everyone working at Gabriel’s startup DuckDuckGo was a member of the DuckDuckGo community first. Hires that come from your community already buy into your mission. These are people you really want on your team—community members who didn’t just believe in your mission, but also took the initiative to help you achieve it.



Targeting Blogs—Contact ten niche blogs and try to get them to review your product. To make it really easy for them, offer to walk them through the product (in person if you can find local bloggers or connect with them at events).

Publicity—Contact five relevant local reporters about your company and try to get them to write about you. Local stories are much easier to get written since there is already local interest.

Unconventional PR—Host a contest around your product. This contest could be as simple as a cash giveaway for creative product usage or as complicated as a game constructed around your product.