Traction: A Startup Guide to Getting Customers

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9780976339601: Traction: A Startup Guide to Getting Customers

Most startups end in failure.  Almost every failed startup has a product. What failed startups don't have is traction -- real customer growth.

This book introduces startup founders and employees to the "Bullseye Framework," a five-step process successful companies use to get traction. This framework helps founders find the marketing channel that will be key to unlocking the next stage of growth.

Traction is a guide to getting customers, written for startup founders, marketers, and those interested in how today's startups grow and get traction. This book shows you how the founders of several of the biggest companies and organizations in the world like Jimmy Wales (Wikipedia), Alexis Ohanian (Reddit), Paul English ( and Alex Pachikov (Evernote) have built and grown their startups. We interviewed over forty successful founders and researched countless more growth stories to pull out the repeatable tactics and strategies they used to get traction.

"Many entrepreneurs who build great products simply don't have a good distribution strategy." -- Mark Andreessen, venture capitalist

Too often, startups spend months (or years) building a product only to struggle with traction once they launch. This struggle has startups trying random tactics - some ads, a blog post or two - in an unstructured way that leads to failure. Traction shows readers how to systematically approach marketing, and covers how successful businesses have grown through each of the following channels:

Viral Marketing
Public Relations (PR)
Unconventional PR
Search Engine Marketing (SEM)
Social and Display Ads
Offline Ads
Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
Content Marketing
Email Marketing
Engineering as Marketing
Target Market Blogs
Business Development (BD)
Affiliate Programs
Existing Platforms
Trade Shows
Offline Events
Speaking Engagements
Community Building

This book draws on interviews we conducted with the following individuals:
Jimmy Wales, Co-founder of Wikipedia
Alexis Ohanian, Co-founder of reddit
Eric Ries, Author of The Lean Startup
Sam Yagan, Co-founder of OkCupid and CEO of
Jason Cohen, Founder of WP Engine
Chris Fralic, Partner at First Round Capital
Rand Fishkin, Founder of SEOmoz
Noah Kagan, Founder of AppSumo
Jason Kincaid, Blogger at TechCrunch
Alex Pachikov, Co-founder of Evernote 
Ryan Holiday, Exec at American Apparel
Andrew Warner, Founder of Mixergy
Garry Tan, Partner at Y Combinator
and many more.

Les informations fournies dans la section « Synopsis » peuvent faire référence à une autre édition de ce titre.

About the Author :

Gabriel Weinberg is the Founder & CEO of DuckDuckGo, the search engine that doesn't track you with over a billion searches in 2013. He is also an angel investor in early stage startups. Weinberg has been featured on CBS, FOX, the Guardian, the Washington Post and many more. Previously he was the Co-founder & CEO of Opobox, which was sold to United Online in 2006. Weinberg holds B.S. in Physics and an M.S. in Technology and Policy from MIT. He is based on Valley Forge, PA with his wife and two boys.

Justin Mares is the former Director of Revenue at Exceptional, a software company that Rackspace acquired for 8 figures in 2013. He has previously founded two startups (one acquired, one bust) and runs a growth meetup in San Francisco. You can find his writing on marketing and personal-development on his blog,

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. :


Preface: Traction Trumps Everything

In 2006 I sold for millions of dollars an Internet company that I had cofounded a few years earlier. It was a strange company for many reasons, not the least of which was that we had no employees from beginning to end. I wrote every line of code and did all the accounting and customer support.

The terms of the deal were such that my cofounder and I didn’t have to work for the acquiring company at all. We were free to move on to other things, and we did. A few months later my wife and I moved from our 865-square-foot apartment near Boston to a country house twenty-five miles outside of Philadelphia. I had just turned twenty-seven.

She went to her job and I sat at home doing nothing for the first time in my life. We knew no one for a hundred miles in any direction.

Naturally, I started tinkering on the computer again, starting about a dozen side projects simultaneously. A year and a half later, I thought I was on to something. I noticed two things that bothered me about Google: too much spam (all those sites with nothing but ads) and not enough instant answers (I kept going to Wikipedia and IMDb). I thought if I could easily pick out the spam and the answers, then I’d have a more compelling search engine.

Both problems were harder to solve than I initially thought, but I thoroughly enjoyed the work and kept at it. Everyone I talked to about my search engine project thought I was nuts. You’re doing what? Competing against Google? Why? How? Another year later, in the fall of 2008, I flipped the switch, unveiling my search engine to the public.

DuckDuckGo had a rather uneventful launch, if you can even call it a launch. I posted it to a niche tech site called Hacker News and that was the long and short of it. The post was entitled “What do you think of my new search engine?”

Like many entrepreneurs, I’m motivated by being on the cusp of something big, and I was at the point where I needed some validation. I can survive on little, but I needed something.

I got it.

Granted, the product wasn’t anything you’d want to switch to at that point, and people let me know that. It was an Internet forum, after all. However, I still felt there was genuine interest in a new search competitor. I could tell some people were growing wary of what Google was becoming. For example, those initial conversations led me to investigate search privacy and eventually become “the search engine that doesn’t track you,” years before government and corporate surveillance became a mainstream issue.

In any case, the response I received was enough motivation to keep me going. Which brings me to traction. I needed some.

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 powerful. Technical, market, and team risks are easier to address with traction. Fund-raising, hiring, press, partnerships, and acquisitions all become much easier.

In other words, traction trumps everything.

My last startup had grown using two traction channels: first, search engine optimization (ranking high in search engines for relevant terms), and later, viral marketing (where your customers bring in other customers, such as by referring friends and family through use of the product).

Viral marketing doesn’t work well in search because you can’t easily bake it into the product by putting stuff between people and their search results. So I tried search engine optimization. The terms “search engine” and “search engines” were too hard to rank for, as the high-ranking companies had been around for a decade and had tens of thousands of links pointing at them from their long histories. “New search engine” was more in my grasp.

I worked hard for many months to rank high for this phrase. The key to good search engine optimization (SEO) is getting links. As you will read later in the SEO chapter, you need a strategy to get these links in a scalable way.

Getting stories written about you in blogs and news outlets is a common SEO linking strategy. However, I hit saturation with that channel strategy pretty quickly and it didn’t get me to the top. Something more creative was required.

After much brainstorming and experimenting, I eventually hit upon a good idea. I built a karma widget that would display links to your social media profiles and how many followers you had on each service. People would embed it on their sites and at the bottom there would be a link back to DuckDuckGo that said “new search engine.”

This channel strategy worked beautifully. I was number one.

Trouble was, not a ton of people make that search—about fifty a day. So while I did get some traction and a steady stream of new users, it leveled off pretty quickly. It wasn’t enough traction to be meaningful. It didn’t move the needle.

I made two large traction mistakes here. First, I failed to have a concrete traction goal. In retrospect, to move the needle for my traction goals at the time, I needed more like five thousand new visitors a day, not fifty. Search engine optimization was not going to get me there.

Second, I was biased by my previous experience. Just because my last company got traction in this way didn’t mean it was right for every company.

These are very natural mistakes to make. In fact, most startups make them. The most common startup trajectory now goes something like the following:

Founders have an idea for a company they’re excited about. Initial excitement turns into a struggle to build a product, but they do get something out the door.


The founders expected customers to beat a path to their door, but unfortunately that isn’t happening. Getting traction was an afterthought, but now they are focused on it. They try what they know or what they’ve heard others do: some Facebook ads, a little local PR, and maybe a smattering of blog posts.

Then they run out of money and the company dies.

Sadly, this is the norm. Even sadder, often these products are actually on to something. That is, with the right traction strategy they might have actually been able to get traction and not go out of business.

Given my previous startup success I thought I knew what I was doing. I was wrong. Luckily, I wasn’t dead wrong. I had the money to self-fund through my traction mistakes, and so they didn’t prove fatal for DuckDuckGo. Not everyone is as lucky.

Right when I realized I was making these mistakes I also realized I didn’t know the right way to go about getting traction at all. I asked around. It turns out there was no good framework for getting traction, and that’s how this book was born, way back in 2009.

Around this time I also started angel investing and more seriously advising other startups. I saw firsthand similar struggles and mistakes. I also partnered with Justin Mares, my coauthor. Justin founded two startups (one of which was acquired) and recently ran growth at Exceptional Cloud Services, which was acquired by Rackspace in 2013 for millions. He’s a growth expert in his own right.

We set out to help startups get traction no matter what business they were in: from Internet companies to local small businesses and everything in between. We drew on our personal experiences, interviewed more than forty founders, studied many more companies, and pulled out the repeatable framework they used to succeed.

That framework is Bullseye, a simple three-step process for getting traction. Bullseye works for startups of all kinds: consumer or enterprise focused, large or small.

Since DuckDuckGo’s humble beginnings, we have grown five orders of magnitude (10x growth spurts), from that initial one hundred searches a day to now over ten million a day. Each step—from 100 to 1,000, 10,000 to 100,000, 1,000,000 to 10,000,000—involved figuring out how to get traction again. That’s because, as you will see, often what works in one growth stage eventually stops working.

Thankfully we had Bullseye to help us find the right traction channel strategy at the right time. After my search engine optimization mistake, we shifted to using content marketing, social and display ads, publicity, and most recently business development. We’ve hit the bull’s-eye repeatedly, and so can you.


Traction Channels

Before we get started, let’s define traction. 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 running a subscription service, your monthly revenue is skyrocketing. If you’re an organic bakery, your number of transactions is increasing every week. 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.

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.

Traction is growth. The pursuit of traction is what defines a startup.

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 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 customer growth.

We uncovered two broad themes through our research. First, most founders consider using only traction channels with which they’re already familiar, or those they 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 and ignore other promising ways to get traction. In fact, often the most underutilized channels in an industry are the most promising ones.

Second, it’s hard to predict the traction 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 you to traction thinking: the mind-set you need to adopt to maximize your chances of getting traction. Chapter 3 presents our framework for getting traction called Bullseye. Essentially, it involves targeted experimentation with a few traction channels, followed by laser focus on the core channel that is most promising.

Chapter 4 explains how to go about running traction tests, a central theme of Bullseye. Chapter 5 presents a second framework—called Critical Path—to help you focus on the right traction goal and ignore everything else 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 the 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 phases. As mentioned, the right channel is often an underutilized one. Get one channel working that your competitors dismiss, and you can grow rapidly while they languish.

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 forty thousand customers before launching.


Publicity 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 publicity. We also talked with Ryan Holiday, media strategist and bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, 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 people talking about reddit and Hipmunk, two startups he cofounded.

Search Engine Marketing

Search engine marketing (SEM) allows companies to advertise to consumers searching on Google and other search engines. We interviewed Matthew Monahan of Inflection, the company behind (before its $100 million acquisition by, to learn how Archives relied primarily on SEM for its 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 WP Engine 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 Web site 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 Unbounce founder Rick Perreault and OkCupid cofounder Sam Yagan to learn how their bl...

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