Traction mistakes

Most startups don't fail at building a product. They fail at acquiring customers.

The biggest mistakes I see over and over again when startups try to get traction are as follows (in order of importance).
  1. They don't pursue traction in parallel with product development.

    The benefits of parallel customer acquisition cannot be understated. First and foremost, you can use initial customer development to inform your product roadmap and literally prevent yourself from a) building something people don't really want and b) building something people want but not enough to form a business around it. Second, you can launch with a nice base of initial users. Third, you're prepared to scale to the next step because you've been testing messaging and distribution channels since the beginning and thus have a great idea of where to focus post-launch.

  2. They didn't spend enough time pursuing traction.

    I believe distribution is equally important as product. That means quite literally you should be spending 50% of your time on it. For tech people, you should probably bias it to 75% so you end up getting to equal in the end.

    At 50%, it competes with being at the top of your mind, which means you can actually make real headway and be creative. Otherwise, it becomes an afterthought and progress drops off exponentially.

    Note I'm not a fan of doing this 50/50 split between a tech and non-tech co-founder. You will maximize success probabilities if each co-founder does both. The other problem with the split is the non-tech guy ends up picking up all sorts of other stuff (QA, paperwork, etc.) and 50% starts to become 25%.

  3. They were biased towards or against certain traction verticals.

    There are many verticals that startups have used to get traction. Usually in a given growth stage, one ends up mattering the most, but which one is a bit unpredictable.

    The biggest bias here is availability bias. Startups generally just don't think of things like billboards and infomercials because they're out of their vision. Another large bias is a negative bias towards things people find icky, e.g. sales, affiliates -- but they don't have to be icky at all. A third bias is the general bias against schlep -- business development is in this category for sure.

    The point is that you should consider all traction verticals in the pursuit of traction. I'm not saying actually act on all of them at all, but at least consider them.

  4. They didn't take a systematic approach to getting traction.

    People have established processes for product development, but less so for distribution. The usual approach is to build the product, then frantically try to figure out how startups promote things, then haphazardly attempt various obvious things in serial (try to get press coverage, buy some adwords, facebook ads, etc.).

    You can do better, however. What I like to see is an educated guess at a few traction verticals that are likely to work based on product type, market approach and stage of company. List them all out in order of potential usefulness.

    Then approach the most promising verticals (say five) with small but effective tests using something like quant based marketing (i.e. with numbers). If one or two out of the initial five seem promising, focus hard on them. If they turn out not to work, then back up and pick the next set of verticals.

  5. They didn't take advantage of micro-opportunities.

    Startup micro-opportunities are little moments that pop up every now and again that can give you a nice blip in traction if you move fast on them. Two common examples are responding to stuff in the press or memes in an interesting way and trying out new tactics within traction vertcials that appear (e.g. Pinterest ads if they come out with them).

    To take advantage of these opportunities you have to be watching, flexible and creative. What this means in practice is that you generally need #2, i.e. to be spending enough time on pursuing traction to recognize one when you see it.
FWIW, I've made all these mistakes myself. My first company was a disaster in this regard. My second one swung like a pendulum in the other direction and I spent too much time getting traction and not enough on product development to build a long-term sustainable company. At DuckDuckGo I've tried to avoid these mistakes as best I can.


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I'm the Founder & CEO of DuckDuckGo, the search engine that doesn't track you. I'm also the co-author of Traction, the book that helps you get customer growth. More about me.