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  Traction Channels

Before we get started, let’s define what traction is. Traction is a sign that your company is taking off. It’s obvious in your core metrics: if you have a mobile app, your download rate is growing rapidly. If you’re a search engine, your number of searches is skyrocketing. If a SaaS tool, your monthly revenue is blowing up. If a consumer app, your daily active users are increasing quickly. You get the point.

Naval Ravikant, founder of AngelList, an online platform that helps companies raise money, says it well:

“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. … It’s the Supreme Court definition of porn. You’ll know it when you see it.”

You can always get more traction. The whole point of a startup is to grow rapidly. Getting traction means moving your growth curve up and to the right as best you can. Paul Graham, founder of startup accelerator Y Combinator, puts it like this:

“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.”

In other words, traction is growth. The pursuit of traction is what defines a startup.


Nineteen Traction Channels

After interviewing more than forty successful founders and researching countless more, we discovered that startups get traction through nineteen different channels. Many successful startups experimented with multiple channels (search engine marketing, business development, etc.) until they found one that worked.

We call these customer acquisition channels traction channels. These are marketing and distribution channels through which your startup can get traction: real users and customers.

We discovered two broad themes through our research:

1. Most founders only consider using traction channels they’re already familiar with or think they should be using because of their type of product or company. This means that far too many startups focus on the same channels (search engine marketing, public relations) and ignore other promising ways to get traction.

2. It’s hard to predict the channel that will work best. You can make educated guesses, but until you start running tests, it’s difficult to tell which channel is the best one for you right now.

Our introductory chapters 2–5 expand on these themes. Chapter 2 introduces our Bullseye Framework for getting traction. Essentially, it involves targeted experimentation with a few traction channels, followed by laser focus on the one that is working.

Chapters 3 and 4 offer traction strategies and tactics to apply when using Bullseye, including pursuing traction development in parallel with product development. Chapter 5 offers one way to approach parallel traction/product development – called the Critical Path – where you focus on a single traction goal and ignore everything not required to achieve it.

Before you jump into this material, however, we’d like to introduce you to the nineteen traction channels and some of the people we interviewed for them. We will explore each of these channels in chapters 6–24.

When going through these traction channels try your best not to dismiss them as irrelevant for your company. Each traction channel has worked for startups of all kinds and in all different stages. Get one channel working that your competitors dismiss, and you can grow rapidly while they languish.

Viral Marketing

Viral marketing consists of growing your userbase by encouraging your users to refer other users. We interviewed Andrew Chen, a viral marketing expert and mentor at 500 Startups, for common viral techniques and the factors that have led to viral adoption in major startups.

We also talked with Ashish Kundra of myZamana, who discussed using viral marketing to grow from 100k users to over 4 million in less than a year.

Public Relations (PR)

Public relations (PR) is the art of getting your name out there via traditional media outlets like newspapers, magazines and TV. We interviewed Jason Kincaid, former TechCrunch writer, about pitching media outlets, how to form relationships with reporters, and what most startups do wrong when it comes to PR. We also talked with Ryan Holiday, bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying and media strategist, to learn how startups could leverage today’s rapidly changing media landscape to get traction.

Unconventional PR

Unconventional PR involves doing something exceptional (like publicity stunts) to draw media attention. This channel can also work by repeatedly going above and beyond for your customers. Alexis Ohanian told us some of the things he did to get (and keep) people talking about reddit and Hipmunk, two startups he co-founded.

Search Engine Marketing

Search engine marketing (SEM) allows companies to advertise to consumerssearching on Google and other search engines. We interviewed Matthew Monahan of Inflection, the company behind Archives.com (before its $100 million acquisition by Ancestry.com) to learn how Archives relied primarily on SEM for their growth.

Social and Display Ads

Ads on popular sites like reddit, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and hundreds of other niche sites can be a powerful and scalable way to reach new customers. We brought in Nikhil Sethi, founder of the social ad buying platform Adaptly, to talk with us about getting traction with social and display ads.

Offline Ads

Offline ads include TV spots, radio commercials, billboards, infomercials, newspaper and magazine ads, as well as flyers and other local advertisements. These ads reach demographics that are harder to target online, like seniors, less tech-savvy consumers and commuters. Few startups use this channel, which means there’s less competition for many of these audiences. We talked with Jason Cohen, founder of WPEngine and Smart Bear Software, about the offline ads he’s used to acquire customers.

Search Engine Optimization

Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of making sure your website shows up for key search results. We interviewed Rand Fishkin of Moz (the market leader in SEO software) to talk about best practices for getting traction with SEO. Patrick McKenzie, founder of Appointment Reminder, also explained to us how he uses SEO to cheaply acquire lots of highly targeted traffic.

Content Marketing

Many startups have blogs. However, most don’t use their blogs to get traction. We talked with Rick Perreault, founder of Unbounce, and OkCupid founder Sam Yagan to learn how their blogs transformed their businesses.

Email Marketing

Email marketing is one of the best ways to convert prospects while retaining and monetizing existing ones. For this chapter we interviewed Colin Nederkoorn, founder of email marketing startup Customer.io, to discuss how startups can get the most out this traction channel.

Engineering as Marketing

Using engineering resources to acquire customers is an underutilized way to get traction. Successful companies have built micro-sites, developed widgets, and created free tools that drive thousands of leads each month. We asked Dharmesh Shah, founder of Hubspot, to discuss how engineering as marketing has driven Hubspot’s growth to tens of thousands of customers through tools like their Marketing Grader.

Targeting Blogs

Popular startups like Codecademy, Mint, and reddit all got their start by targeting blogs. Noah Kagan, Mint’s former director of marketing, told us how he targeted niche blogs early on, and how this strategy allowed Mint to acquire 40,000 users before launching.

Business Development

Business development (BD) is the process of creating strategic relationships that benefit both your startup and your partner. Paul English, co-founder and CEO of Kayak.com, walked us through the impact of their early partnership with AOL. We also interviewed venture capitalist Chris Fralic, whose BD efforts at Half.com were a major factor in eBay’s $350 million acquisition of the company. We’ll show you how to structure deals, find strategic partners, build a business development pipeline, and approach potential partners.

Sales

Sales is primarily focused on creating processes to directly exchange product for dollars. We interviewed David Skok of Matrix Partners – someone who’s taken four different companies public – to get his perspective on how the best software companies are creating sustainable, scalable sales processes. We also take a look at how to find early customers and have winning sales conversations.

Affiliate Programs

Companies like Hostgator, GoDaddy and Sprout Social have robust affiliate programs that have allowed them to reach hundreds of thousands of customers in a cost-effective way. We interviewed Kristopher Jones, founder of the Pepperjam Affiliate network, to learn how a startup can leverage this channel. We also talked with Maneesh Sethi to learn how affiliate marketers choose what products to promote, and some of the strategies they use to do so.

Existing Platforms

Focusing on existing platforms means focusing your growth efforts on a mega-platform like Facebook, Twitter, or an App Store and getting some of their hundreds of millions of users to use your product. Alex Pachikov, co-founder of Evernote, explained how their focus on Apple’s App Store generated millions of customers.

Trade Shows

Trade shows are a chance for companies in specific industries to show off their latest products. We interviewed Brian Riley of SlidePad, an innovative bike brake startup, to learn how they sealed a partnership that led to over 20,000 sales from one trade show and their approach to getting traction at each event.

Offline Events

Sponsoring or running offline events – from small meetups to large conferences – can be a primary way you get traction. We spoke with Rob Walling, founder and organizer of MicroConf, to talk about how to run a fantastic event, how it can benefit you, and the type of work that goes into pulling off a successful event.

Speaking Engagements

Eric Ries, author of the bestselling book The Lean Startup, told us how he used speaking engagements to hit the bestseller list within a week of the book’s launch, how he landed these talks, and why he chose to use this channel to generate awareness and book sales. We also interviewed Dan Martell, founder of Clarity, to learn how to leverage a speaking event, give an awesome talk and grow your startup’s profile at such speaking gigs.

Community Building

Companies like Zappos, Wikipedia, and Stack Exchange have all grown by forming passionate communities around their products. In our interview with Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia, he detailed how he built the Wikipedia community that’s created the largest repository of human knowledge in history.

We also spoke with others who’ve built and scaled communities at different stages: Jeff Atwood, co-founder of Stack Exchange and Discourse; Chris McCann, founder of the popular Startup Digest newsletter; and Sandi MacPherson, founder of the community-based startup Quibb.

Takeaways
  • Every one of the nineteen traction channels has proven an effective means to get initial traction for both enterprise and consumer companies.
  • It is hard to predict exactly which traction channel will be best for your company at a particular time.
  • You have natural tendencies (bias) toward or against certain traction channels. Which traction channels are you biased for? Which traction channels are you biased against?