Traction: How Any Startup Can Achieve Explosive Customer Growth Audible Audiobook – Unabridged
Most startups don't fail because they can't build a product. Most startups fail because they can't get traction. Startup advice tends to be a lot of platitudes repackaged with new buzzwords, but Traction is something else entirely.
As Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares learned from their own experiences, building a successful company is hard. For every startup that grows to the point where it can go public or be profitably acquired, hundreds of others sputter and die. Smart entrepreneurs know that the key to success isn't the originality of your offering, the brilliance of your team, or how much money you raise. It's how consistently you can grow and acquire new customers (or, for a free service, users). That's called traction, and it makes everything else easier - fund-raising, hiring, press, partnerships, acquisitions. Talk is cheap, but traction is hard evidence that you're on the right path.
Traction will teach you the 19 channels you can use to build a customer base and how to pick the right ones for your business. It draws on interviews with more than 40 successful founders, including Jimmy Wales (Wikipedia), Alexis Ohanian (reddit), Paul English (Kayak), and Dharmesh Shah (HubSpot). You'll learn, for example, how to:
- Find and use offline ads and other channels your competitors probably aren't using
- Get targeted media coverage that will help you reach more customers
- Boost the effectiveness of your email marketing campaigns by automating staggered sets of prompts and updates
- Improve your search engine rankings and advertising through online tools and research
Weinberg and Mares know that there's no one-size-fits-all solution; every startup faces unique challenges and will benefit from a blend of these 19 traction channels. They offer a three-step framework (called Bullseye) to figure out which ones will work best for your business.
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|Listening Length||7 hours and 24 minutes|
|Author||Gabriel Weinberg, Justin Mares|
|Whispersync for Voice||Ready|
|Audible.com Release Date||October 23, 2015|
|Publisher||Gildan Media, LLC|
|Best Sellers Rank|| #10,097 in Audible Books & Originals (See Top 100 in Audible Books & Originals) |
#10 in New Business Enterprises
#42 in Marketing (Audible Books & Originals)
#61 in Small Business (Books)
Reviewed in the United States on May 25, 2022
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BTW, I don’t trash “Traction” because I have a marketing book; there are *many* other useful marketing books out there. But “Traction” isn’t among them, IMHO.
The second edition of my award-winning “Bullseye Marketing” book is available here.
Detailed critique of “Traction” follows:
First, the good news: “Traction” is chock full of ideas/stories of how some successful startups dramatically ramped up their sales and revenue. My suggestion is that you not think about copying these tactics, but do be inspired by them to come up with even better ones for your company.
Second, the authors suggest that you don’t just use the tried-and-true strategies for an industry. Be contrarian; see how you can exploit the marketing channels (what they call “traction channels”) that others in that industry are ignoring. Indeed, I have had some of my greatest successes as a fractional CMO when it was my first time working in an industry and I was coming in with a fresh perspective rather than following the established industry playbook.
And while dated (in 2023) in the details (15 cent ppc clicks, for example), their explanations of how to implement the various channels are very solid.
No now for the problems.
Problems with Traction’s Bullseye framework
Their Bullseye framework is a decision-making framework: In the outer ring, you put all 19 of their “traction channels”, research them in-depth, and decide on three or four to move into the middle ring for testing. After only a month of testing the channels, while spending under $1,000 ($1,269 in today’s dollars), you decide which single channel will work best for you, and put that one channel into the center of the Bullseye to use.
A month is a shockingly short amount of time to test. As they note in their “Viral Marketing” chapter, “assume one to three out of every ten [A/B tests] will yield positive results.” It can take a lot longer than a month for a startup to have statistically-significant results or find a profitable channel. Many successful startups initially hone their offering, messaging, and marketing over months or even a few years to achieve product-market fit in one city or geo before attempting to go national. Uber’s initial service was providing a black, luxury car; it was over a year later that they switched to their taxi-like service with drivers using their own cars.
The authors want you to find The One traction channel that will provide the fastest growth for your startups. And they repeat, over and over, that it is one. Like an irresponsible farmer who over-farms the land, they advise you to “focus on the most promising [traction channel] until it stopped working.” Then you determine the next most successful channel and drive that into the ground.
They even say that, “The way this step gets most often messed up by founders is by keeping around distracting marketing efforts in other traction channels.” You may use other channels in support of that one, but that’s it.
A major, major problem with the Traction testing process is that you can’t separate the testing of a channel from the execution. Let’s say that you decide to test email marketing, send out four emails in that month, and don’t get much of a response. That doesn’t mean that email marketing can’t be a great channel for you; you may simply have sent out four, poorly crafted emails. As they say in their chapter on email marketing, “An email campaign can go from a waste of time to wildly profitable just by tweaking a few words and headlines.” Exactly.
It often takes a startup months, and many campaigns, to figure out what messaging and offers will be most effective for it.
Here’s the dark side of this approach, which I’ve seen. The company tests a few channels for a few weeks, finds one that is hot, and says, “That’s it! That’s our Bullseye channel!” And so they go all-in on that channel, and the next month that channel doesn’t run so hot. It’s meh, at best. So, understanding that they need one superhero channel, they jump to the second best channel in the tests. And when that isn’t up to their expectations, they quickly abandon that (after all, it can’t be a failure of execution, it must be the channel), and so on, leaving behind a trail of channels that were given up on too quickly. I know that we expect instant gratification, but some excellent channels take more than a month to produce results.
And as someone who plays too much poker, I have a much more intuitive understanding of probabilities and improbabilities than before. I know how big a role variance can play, how players (regardless of skill) can run very hot or very cold over hundreds of hands, and how misleading statistically-insignificant data can be.
They treat all channels as worthy of equal, early-stage consideration. But experience shows that for most companies some channels, like email, are inexpensive/virtually free and often produce swift results while others, like display ads, are expensive and usually take several months to a few years to produce results.
And B2B companies may be able to secure technology partners early on, but sales partners will rarely sign on until you have meaningful traction and know how to sell the product yourself.
Occasionally, the Traction authors break character and say something like, “This channel could benefit from using these five other channels with it,” And in their chapter on engineering as marketing, they write, “HubSpot, a marketing automation software company, has reached tens of millions in revenue in a few short years. One key to its success is a free marketing review tool the company created called Marketing Grader.” “One key”?? I thought one was all that it takes. The leadership of HubSpot was smart enough to use several; they were best known for their use of content marketing, which they called “inbound”, but also used paid ads, SEO, email, inside sales, partners, PR, and other channels.
Nonetheless, in general the authors heavily push their one-channel approach.
(The authors of Traction say it is for all startups -- B2B and B2C. In reality, their book is heavily slanted toward B2C companies; probably 70-80% of the examples are B2C companies such as Zappos, Uber, Groupon, and Warby Parker, and it includes many other casual mentions of industries like shoes and t-shirts and dating.)
Use multi-channel marketing instead
The Traction authors simply don’t understand the importance of multi-channel marketing, even for startups.
I am an explicit proponent of multi-channel marketing, as I explain in my book. Why? Because it works better. It’s generally understood by marketing professionals that marketing programs are most effective when you’re using at least four-to-six or more marketing channels. Our customers are in many places, and we have to reach them in many places with many messages. Quite simply, in multi-channel marketing the channels reinforce and build on one another. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Global analytics firm SAS says, “Multichannel customers spend three to four times more than single-channel customers do.”
My own study of 85 SaaS companies found that those with robust, multi-channel programs grew almost five times faster than those using just one or two channels.
When you’re doing multi-channel marketing, you’ll find that there isn’t just one effective channel -- the best source of your leads will vary from month to month. One month the best source of qualified leads may be email, the next month social media ads, then webinars, then PR, etc. But the point is that the program is working, not just one superhero channel.
Startups need brand marketing, too
The “Traction” authors also don’t understand how important building a startup brand is. A strong brand allows you to charge more, have higher margins, have more loyal customers, and much more. It also makes your short-term leadgen programs (“traction channels”) more successful.
As I write in Bullseye Marketing:
This is as true for startups and SMBs as it is for Fortune 500 companies. Jaleh Rezaei, who was the CMO of Gusto when it grew from 500 to 50,000 customers, and is now the CEO of marketing AI startup Mutiny, wrote in 2023:
Brand awareness lowers CAC [Customer Acquisition Cost].
I suggest always having some brand spend. Measure it on awareness within your TAM [Total Addressable Market], not acquisition.
Even my award winning brand campaigns [at Gusto] were 30-50x less efficient at acquiring customers than traditional performance mktg (ads, FB). But when I turned off brand spend, 6 mo later CPCs & CAC shot up, conversions & organic tanked.
10-20% of mktg program budget (1-2% of new ARR) is the bare minimum I’d spend on brand. (Program budget is ~40% of overall mktg budget, which is ~40-50% of new ARR)
Ad agency veteran, successful startup CMO, and VC Mike Troiano has said, “I think the biggest advantage the West Coast has to the East Coast is that VCs out there tend to understand the value of leading with brand, rather than with demand gen alone.”
Maybe those Traction channels wouldn’t be exhausted so quickly, or ever, if they had gotten better multi-channel and brand support.
Does the “Traction” single-channel strategy work?
But does the single-channel “Traction” strategy work? No doubt for the startups mentioned, it did. They were lucky and stumbled upon a profitable channel reportedly very quickly, or the founders came into the enterprise with a good idea of how they could reach some customers. (Or, like HubSpot, they actually were using multiple channels all along,) For example, they say that “within six months of launching, [Mint] had 1 million users,” largely from “publicity” (after burning out blog sponsorships). “Users”? Were they paying customers? “Eyeballs” were a big deal in 2007, but today it’s all about paying customers.
But every company is just one data point, so we can’t say how much better those Traction success cases might have done if they had used multi-channel and brand marketing, too.
Their book’s title could be Traction: Survivorship Bias. The authors are basing the strategy on a small set of successful startups without looking at how many startups couldn’t find that one, superhero channel, and whether a similar, single-channel strategy was unsuccessful for many other startups.
The differences between their approach and mine are significant, as are the differences between the books. The Traction authors tell, but they don’t show; there is only one illustration in the book: Noah Kagan’s test results spreadsheet from Mint in 2007. My Bullseye Marketing has over 100 full-color graphics, including many examples of excellent, creative B2B marketing. I even supplement the chapter on video by including a web page with excellent B2B marketing videos.
You don’t need to believe me. Bullseye Marketing has gotten great reviews and endorsements, as you can see on the Amazon book page. You can get my “Bullseye Marketing on Amazon”.
There are many good examples , and useful advices!
Now I know, and I can take action.
TRACTION nailed exactly what I needed. It is a fantastic introduction to not only a model to use and guidelines to use it, but also a ton of avenues of marketing. Each is laid out so that anyone can get started right away.
Although it is geared more toward B2C companies, my B2B company will benefit a ton from the wealth of knowledge, tactics, and stories.
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Regardless, it’s a great book for newbies or even seasoned marketers as it’s well structured and easy to follow.
Regardless, I did read this book and felt that it was pretty poor. It's maybe useful for the first time start up tech founder but I found that much of it was only relevant to a small subset of businesses and was focused on digital trends quickly go out of date based on the speed of change.