Traction: Book Review

Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mare’s Traction: How Any Startup Can Achieve Explosive Customer Growth is a wonderful aggregation of interviews, insights, real-world trial and errors, and inspiration. It’s packed with information that is actionable and easy to stick in your back pocket for when you face interesting issues that you would never consider being prepared for.

cover art for traction book

I was interested in Traction not only because it was an interesting topic but also because I was heavily involved in DuckDuckGo — using the service, advocating the Instant Answer platform at meetups, and submitting code on their open source repos as a part of DuckDuckHack. To immerse myself more in the privacy, growth, and startup culture I figured what better way than to read the CEO’s book.

How to gain traction

There are a few ways your product can get traction, 19 actually. They’re:

  1. Blogs

    One of the most popular forms of marketing and the most effective form of content marketing. Blogging helps users find your product or service based on similar issues, problems, and stories that you’re writing about.

  2. Publicity

    This requires some spotlight — maybe even some finagling for the sake of fame. Publicity will come when you do something grand, speak with someone popular, or just shout in a crowded room. Most say that no publicity is bad publicity. If people are talking and you’re on their minds, they already care about you and your products at least a little.

  3. Unconventional PR

    My main idea for this type of PR is following Y Combinator’s Paul Graham methodology of doing things that don’t scale. This might involve publicity stunts and even going door-to-door — things that clearly won’t work in the long run but that are somehow managing to get people looking at you right now.

  4. Search Engine Marketing

    Clearly, yegg knows this topic very well. DDG does make revenue on advertising as do all search engines. If anyone tells you Google is in the business of cloud storage, Android phones, or video, you can tell them they’re not wrong but that they’d be more accurate if they simply said they’re in the advertising business. Everything else is just shiny products to deliver ads and it’s a great tool to use to gain some traction.

  5. Social and Display Ads

    Banner ads

  6. Offline Ads

    Think commercials and Times Square. I always feel Super Bowl ads get me hooked on products and love watching the new ways companies innovate with only a 30-second time slot.

  7. SEO

    There are entire departments of tech companies that devote themselves to SEO. The reality is that sometimes you need to be at the top of the list for someone to click you and it’s very important you’re on the top of that list no matter what their original query was.

  8. Content Marketing

    Ultimately similar to the blog tactic above but more granularly covering the main objective here which is to get people’s eyes on your content because it relates to them then selling them things.

  9. Email Marketing

    A great way to reach your customer or user directly. Send them personalized notes and ultimately sell them stuff!

  10. Viral Marketing

    Companies like Viral Loops have entire businesses based on helping you utilize this tactic. Dropbox is one of the largest case studies for Viral marketing. Getting free storage – which seems like a tangible and valuable thing – just for getting a friend to sign up for a service was an incredibly successful move by Dropbox and helped get them a large user base.

  11. Engineering

    Building tools and products to help grow your brand is a great way to get more eyes on you and your products. If you’re writing a book on photography and build a photography app that helps take better pictures using some of the tactics you discuss in the book, it’s going to get people talking!

  12. Business Development

    Sales but grander. Big things to keep in mind with this is that both parties have to come out happy. We help you integrate our service so your users can have more variety and easy access and in turn, we’re getting more traction because we’re available on more platforms.

  13. Sales

    Instead of partnering with businesses like Business Development, you’re partnering with paying customers. Selling is important for any business that intends to create revenue and good sales approaches will ensure quality traction for your company and product.

  14. Affiliate Programs

    Even if you never heard the word ‘affiliate’ you’ve probably been the victim of an Amazon affiliate link where someone got a commission from something you bought. It’s a solid example of how using other channels to provide access to another channel can be beneficial for multiple parties.

  15. Existing Platforms

    Using apps and services that already have large user bases and audiences is a quick way of accessing many people at once. If you’re able to utilize someone else’s audience by providing them with information or any other value, you can shine a big ad on a lot of people.

  16. Trade Shows

    This may seem old-fashioned if you’re heavily in the startup community glaring at your codebase all day, but there are many business owners, consumers, and everyone in between that attend trade shows just waiting to be hooked on your traction train.

  17. Offline Events

    Similarly, events such as meetups and conferences offer huge and specialized audiences that can help grow a fanbase.

  18. Speaking Engagements

    Sometimes within offline events and sometimes their own entity, if someone who is well-known is speaking at some public place you better believe people are flocking there – those are the people that can help gain traction.

  19. Community Building

    As a Community Leader at DuckDuckGo, I can say for certain that I’ve gained friendships and partnerships with people and companies that are fans of the platform and that would love to assist in the future and who I wouldn’t hesitate to help either. Hosting and organizing events and gathering likeminded people is one of the most powerful ways to garner a community and gain traction.

Now that you’re illuminated with nearly twenty different tactics that can be used to get your business going, you’ll be glad to hear that it’s impossible to know which will be your most successful method. Testing will have to be done to help understand which is working well and which might be working better than expected. The idea is to hit every single option and track which areas are performing well. If billboards and speaking engagements are where you’re converting most often, it might be time to turn some of your copywriters into meetup organizers.

Product vs. Marketing

It may surprise you just how highly Traction regards marketing. Toward the start of the text, the 50% rule is introduced outlining how half of your time should focus on the product while an entire second half should be focused on marketing and ultimately getting traction. Some might glorify not focusing on traction because it would imply they have a superior product that didn’t require marketing, but Silicon Valley investors disagree. Marc Andreessen says:

The number one reason that we pass on entrepreneurs we’d otherwise like to back is focusing on product to the exclusion of everything else. We tend to cultivate and glorify this mentality in the Valley. We’re all enamored with lean startup mode. Engineering and product are key. There is a lot of genius to this, and it has helped create higher quality companies. But the dark side is that it seems to give entrepreneurs excuses not to do the hard stuff of sales and marketing. Many entrepreneurs who build great products simply don’t have a good distribution strategy. Even worse is when they insist that they don’t need one, or call no distribution strategy a “viral marketing strategy.”

We hear it all the time: “We’ll be like Salesforce.com—no sales team required, since the product will sell itself.” This is always puzzling. Salesforce.com has a huge, modern sales force. The tagline is “No software,” not “No sales.” AH is a sucker for people who have sales and marketing figured out.

It might sound outlandish or even trite depending on what your philosophies are, but traction and the methods of getting it are sometimes more important than the product itself. There’s a reason Apple, a company that makes products perfectly capable of "selling themselves", still has extremely well-paid marketing executives like Phil Schiller.

Meta Marketing

One of the best parts of the Traction book wasn’t even anything in the text but the metadata that the authors provide about how they sold the book and the different channels they used along the way. Even during the process of selling the book after launch and all the events, ad campaigns, and whatnot are documented in great detail and provide extremely insightful information.

Selling a book can be seen as a microcosm of starting a business. There are goals and metrics but just one product without any employees so it’s much easier to manage. Sharing the things like Amazon results, sources, and more truly provide value for someone who hasn’t gone through this rigamarole just yet. Similarly interesting is the insights provided about how many books were sold and on which platforms.

I do plan on using some of these same tactics on my own and when I have the opportunities to. I won’t be buying billboards for my mere blog posts but certainly see the value in other companies investing in things like that such as Snapchat in Times Square. The idea of tackling all facets of marketing and drilling into the ones that stick is a principle that can be applied to many things in business as well. I’m excited to use the ideas in Traction and can’t wait for any updated versions.

Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mare’s Traction: How Any Startup Can Achieve Explosive Customer Growth was one of my very first startup books. Around the same time is when I picked up Nir Eyal’s Hooked and started idolizing figures like Ben Horowitz and other business gurus — I’m glad I’m part of it now.

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