Have these men really mapped the DNA of startup success?

By Molly Flatt 29 October 2015
Gabriel Weinberg, founder of DuckDuckGo.

Molly Flatt meets the men behind Traction, the book that unlocks the secrets behind startup success.

“The pursuit of traction is what defines a startup.”

So write Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares in Traction, published by Penguin today, a book which aims to answer the billion-dollar question: what makes one new business achieve explosive customer growth in a crowded market, while others wither away after the first flush of crowdfunding success?

“We’ve each had our struggles and successes with getting traction for our respective startups,” explains Weinberg, the founder-CEO of search engine DuckGoGo, whose previous venture, Opobox, was acquired for $10 million.  

“In each case it was one of the hardest things to figure out in the business. The Lean Startup and other books do an excellent job of showing entrepreneurs how to validate a startup idea, but we wanted to help with the next step in that process – getting your idea in the hands of real customers.”

Endorsed by Seth Godin & Eric Ries

Their book already boasts plaudits from both Lean Startup author Eric Ries and marketing guru Seth Godin, and it’s easy to see why. A lean, mean how-to manual, it challenges both woolly thinking and personal biases in favour of clear frameworks and relentless experiments.

“At my first startup, I made two of the biggest mistakes we talk in the book,” admits Mares, who founded CloudFab and RoommateFit and is former director of revenue at software company Exceptional. “I didn’t focus on traction early enough and never doubled down on one channel.

“Today, we see tons of startups making this first mistake. They’ll get an idea, build build build and… launch! Then nothing happens.

“They’ve spent 90% of their effort on building a product that they now have to figure out how to market. In the book, we talk about something called the 50% rule, which is that startups should spend 50% of their time on product and 50% on traction-related activities. Growth is just as important as product, especially in the early days.”

Unlocking growth

At the heart of the book is the ‘Bullseye’, a three-step framework that guides readers to identify the one traction channel out of a possible 19 – from SEO to Unconventional PR to Community Building – “that will unlock your next growth stage”.

“Essentially the process boils down to ranking the 19 different channels according to how likely you think they are to deliver the traction your startup needs, running cheap tests in each of these promising channels, and doubling down on what’s working,” Weinberg explains.

“All the time, we see startups doing a little bit of paid advertising, a little bit of blogging, a little bit of social media… and all of it going nowhere. This is because they never take the time to find the single channel that’s likely to drive most of their growth.”

Once you’ve found your traction sweet spot, in-depth chapters on each channel then help you develop an effective strategy, with case studies and golden rules from the likes of Adaptly’s Nikhil Sethi (on Social and Display Ads); TechCrunch writer Jason Kincaid (on Publicity) and OKCupid founder Sam Yagan (on Content Marketing).

One of Weinberg’s favourite traction posterchildren is marketing software company Marketo. “From day one, they had an idea for this marketing automation tool but, they didn’t have a product,” he says.

“So, they started building an audience – going to conferences, meetups, blogging – and became trusted authorities in the marketing space. When they launched their beta product months later, they were able to do so to 14,000 fans and email subscribers, which put them on the map almost immediately.”

Our take

Traction is a seriously user-friendly book, and the authors’ challenging of a classic entrepreneurial misbelief – build it and they will come – is long overdue. But isn’t their focus on rapid scale just another example of Silicon Valley’s aggressive, grow-fast-then-sell-out ideology? Where are the slower, but perhaps more balanced and more sustainable, business models?

“Certainly there’s a place for both,” Weinberg agrees. “However, even slow-burn businesses need to acquire customers. We have many more examples of regular businesses in the book than we do examples of massively scaling companies like Uber.”

When it comes to a parting piece of advice for would-be entrepreneurs, he doesn’t hesitate. “Focus on building an MVP [minimal viable product] as quickly as you can, and start testing traction channels from day one. Just get started.”

In other words, the billion dollar answer boils down to: stop tweaking that perfect mid-century colour palette and start reaching out to your customers, now.

Traction: How Any Startup Can Achieve Explosive Customer Growth is available to buy today from £13 on Amazon.