Book summary of


How any startup can achieve explosive customer growth!


Traction is a sign that your startup is taking off. If you charge, it means customers are buying. If your product is free, it means your user base is growing.

If you have traction, all your technical, market, and team risks become easier to handle. It becomes easier to fund-raise, hire, do press, partnerships, and acquisitions.

Traction trumps everything.

How to think about Traction?

Almost every failed startup has a product. What failed startups don’t have is enough customers.

You should spend your time in parallel, both constructing your product and testing traction channels.

This is what we call the 50 percent rule: spend 50 percent of your time on product and 50% on traction. This rule seems simple but it’s hard to follow because the pull to spend all your attention on the product is strong. You’re probably making a startup because you want to build a particular product. You have a vision, but a lot of traction activities are unknown and outside your vision and comfort zone. So you try to avoid them. Don’t.

Doing product and traction in parallel has these benefits:

  • You get knowledge from traction efforts, so you’ll build the right product for your customers.
  • You get to experiment and test different traction channels before you launch anything. This means when your product is ready, you can grow rapidly.

Before trying to get traction, you’ll need to define what traction means for your company. You need to set a traction goal. Maybe your current startup goal is to raise funding or become profitable. How many customers do you need and at what rate? You should then focus on marketing activities that result in a significant impact on your traction goal. It should move the needle.

Your startup has 3 phases:

Phase I: Make something people want

In phase 1, your product has the most leaks, it really doesn’t hold water. You shouldn’t scale up your efforts now, but it’s important to send a small amount of water through the bucket so you can see where the holes are and plug them. \ Your goal in phase 1 is to get your first customers and prove your product can get traction. You focus on building your initial product and getting traction in ways that don’t scale: giving talks, writing guest posts, emailing people you know, attending conferences, and doing whatever you can to get in front of customers.

Some founders believe that startups either take off or don’t. Actually startups take off because the founders make them take off!

– Paul Graham

Phase II: Market something people want

Once you hone your product, you have product-market fit and customers are sticking around. Now is the time to scale up your traction efforts. You fine-tune your positioning and marketing messages.

Phase III: Scale your business

As your company grows, smaller traction strategies stop moving the needle, so you’ll start to scale.

In phase 3 you have an established business model and significant position in the market, and you’re focused on scaling to further dominate the market and to profit.

Traction for funding

When pursuing funding, first contact individuals who understand what you’re working on. The better your investors understand what you’re doing, the less traction they’ll need to see before they invest. Also, try friends and family who may not need to see any traction before investing as they’re investing in you personally.

To pivot or not to pivot

Many startups give up way too early. The first thing to look for is evidence of real product engagement, even if it’s only a few dedicated customers. If you have such an engagement, you might be giving up too soon. Look for the bright spots in your customer base and see if you can expand from that base.

How to get traction? The Bullseye framework

The Bullseye framework helps you find the channel that will get you traction. Most businesses actually get zero distribution channels to work. If you can get even a single distribution channel to work, you have a great business. If you try for several but don’t nail one, you’re finished.

You’re aiming for bullseye: the one channel at the center of the target that will unlock your next growth stage. Here are the 3 Bullseye framework steps:

Find what’s possible: The outer-ring

The first step in Bullseye is brainstorming every single traction channel. It’s important not to dismiss any channel in this step. Think of at least one idea for each channel. For example, social ads is a traction channel. Running ads on Facebook or Twitter is a channel strategy within social ads. You could research what marketing strategies worked in your industry as well as the history of companies in your space.

Find what’s probable: The middle-ring

Go around your outer-ring and promote your best and most exciting ideas to your middle-ring. For each traction channel in your middle ring, now construct a cheap traction test you can run to find if the idea is good or not. These tests need to answer the following questions:

  1. What’s the cost of acquiring customers?
  2. How many customers are available?
  3. Are they the right type of customers for you now?

You want to design small scale tests that don’t require much up-front cost or effort. For example, run 4 Facebook ads instead of 40.

Find what’s working: The inner-ring

The final step in Bullseye is to only focus on one channel that will move the needle for your startup: your core channel. At any stage of your startup, you should have one traction channel that you’re focusing on and optimizing.

Most founders mess this up by keeping around distracting marketing efforts in other channels.

If search engine marketing is significantly better for you than other channels, you should focus all your efforts on this core channel and uncover additional strategies and tactics within it.

If no channel seems promising after testing, the whole process should be repeated. If you tried several times with no success, then your product may require more tweaking and your bucket might be still leaky.

How to test traction?

Middle-ring tests: You should be running several cheap tests that give you an indication of how successful a given channel strategy could be.

Inner ring tests:

You’re doing two things:

  1. Optimize your chosen channel strategy to make it the best it can be.

  2. Discover better channel strategies within this traction channel.

There is always a set of things you can tweak. For targeting blogs, you can tweak which blogs to target, type of content, call to action, etc. For search engine marketing, you can tweak keywords, ad-copy, demographics, and landing pages.

A common approach is to use A/B testing, where A is the control group and B is the experimental group. The purpose of it is to measure the effectiveness of change in a button color, an ad image, or a different message on a web page. If the experimental group performs significantly better, you can apply the change, get the benefits, and run another test.

You can use tools such as Optimizely, Visual Website Optimizer, and Unbounce.

Over time, all marketing channels become saturated. To combat this, you should always be trying to discover new strategies and tactics within your channel and conduct small experiments. Also, experiment with new marketing platforms while they’re still in their infancy.


To track your tests you could start with a simple spreadsheet or use an analytics tool with cohort analysis. You’ll need to answer these questions:

  1. How many people landed on the website?
  2. What are the demographics of my best and worst customers?
  3. Are customers who interact with my support team more likely to stay?

A basic analytics tool like Clicky, Mixpanel, or Chartbeat can help you with these questions. You can use a spreadsheet as the tool to rank and prioritize traction channel strategies. You should include columns like how many customers are available, conversion rate, the cost to acquire a customer, lifetime value of a customer for every given strategy.

How to focus on the right traction goals? The critical path framework

Define your traction goal

You should always have an explicit traction goal you’re working towards. This could be 1,000 paying customers or 100 new daily customers, or 10% of your market. You want a goal where hitting the mark would change things significantly for your company’s outcome.

Once that is defined, you can work backward and set clear time-based subgoals. Such as reaching 1,000 customers by next quarter.

The key is to follow the critical path towards that goal and exclude all features and marketing activities that don’t help you reach your goal. Everything you decide to do should be assessed against your critical path.

Avoid traction biases

Your competitive advantage may be acquiring customers in ways your competition isn’t. That’s why it’s critical to avoid have traction biases. Stop your urge to refuse channels like speaking engagements, sales or affiliate marketing, business development, or trade shows just because you hate talking on the phone or you find the channel annoying or time-consuming.

Targetting blogs

Targeting blogs that your prospective customers read is one of the best ways to get your first wave customers.

Mint’s initial series of tests revealed that targeting blogs should be its core channel. They asked users to embed an “I want mint” badge on their personal blogs and rewarded them with a VIP access before other invitations were sent out. They also directly sponsored blogs. They sent bloggers a message with “Can I send you $500” as the subject and told them a bit about the product.

To find smaller blogs in your niche:

  • Google “top blogs for x” or “best x blogs.”
  • Search for your product keywords on YouTube.
  • Use tools like FollowerWonk and Klout to find top twitter accounts in your industry.
  • Use social mention to find sites with the most frequent mentions for your keywords.
  • Talk to people to figure out what your target audience is really reading online.

You can also target link-sharing communities like Reddit, Product Hunt, and Hacker News.

Dropbox, Codecademy, Quora, and Gumroad all got their first customers by sharing their products on HackerNews because their products were a good fit for users on that site.


Starting out, an article in TechCrunch or The Huffington Post can boost your startup in the eyes of potential customers, investors, or partners. If you have a fascinating story with broad appeal, media outlets will want to hear from you.

It’s easier to start smaller when targeting big media outlets. Sites like TechCrunch and Lifehacker often pick up stories from smaller forums like Hacker News and subreddits. Instead of approaching TechCrunch, try blogs that TechCrunch reads and get story ideas from. It’s easier to get a smaller blog’s attention. Then you might get featured on TechCrunch and then The New York Times which reads TechCrunch!

What gets a reporter’s attention?

  • Milestones like raising money, launching a new product, breaking a usage barrier.
  • A PR stunt.
  • A big partnership.
  • A special industry report.

A good press angle makes people react emotionally. If it’s not interesting enough to elicit emotion, you don’t have a story worth pitching.

A good first step is using a service like Help A Reporter Out (HARO), where reporters request sources for articles they’re working on. It could get you a mention in the piece and help establish your credibility. Also, you could offer reporters commentary on stories related to your industries.

You can use Twitter to reach reporters online; almost all of them have Twitter accounts and you’d be surprised how few followers many of them have, but they can be highly influential with their content.

Once you have a solid story, you want to draw as much attention to it as you can:

  • Submit the story to link-sharing sites like Reddit and HackerNews
  • Share it on social networks
  • Email it to influencers in your industry for comment.
  • Ping blogs in your space and tell them you have a story that’s getting buzz.

Once your story has been established as a popular news item, try to drag it out as long as you can. Offer interviews that add to the story. Start “How We Did This” follow-up interviews.

As your startup grows you may consider hiring a PR firm or consultant.

Unconventional PR

Nearly every company attempts traditional publicity, but only a few focus on stunts and other unconventional ways to get buzz.

The publicity stunt

  • renamed (Halfway, Oregon) to and launched it on the Today show with the mayor of Halfway, Oregon.
  • Richard Branson made his press conferences as outlandish as possible (dressing like a woman, driving a tank through the streets) to get the media talking about whatever Virgin was launching.
  • WePay (a PayPal competitor) placed a 600-pound block of ice at PayPal’s conference entrance.
  • DuckDuckGo bought a billboard in Google’s backyard highlighting its privacy focus.
  • Blendtec created a series of videos called “Will It Blend?” where they blended items like a rake, golf balls, and even an iPhone.
  • When Grasshopper did a rebrand, they sent chocolate-covered grasshoppers to 5,000 influential people.

Customer Appreciation

Be awesome to your customers. Shortly after Alexis Ohanian launched Hipmunk, he sent out luggage tags and a handwritten note to the first several hundred people who mentioned the site on Twitter.

Holding a contest is also a great repeatable way to generate publicity and get word of mouth. Shopify has an annual Build a Business competition.

Great customer support is so rare that, if you make your customers happy, they’re likely to spread the news of your awesome product. Zappos is one of the best-known examples of a company with incredible customer service and they classify support as a marketing investment.

Search Engine Marketing (SEM)

SEM is placing ads on search engines like Google. It’s sometimes called “pay-per-click” because you only pay when a user clicks on an ad.

SEM works well for companies looking to sell directly to their target customer. You’re capturing people who are actively searching for solutions.

Click-Through Rate (CTR) The percentage of ad impressions that result in clicks to your site.

Cost per Click (CPC) The amount it costs to buy a click on an ad.

Cost per Acquisition (CPA) How much it costs you to acquire a customer, not just a click. If you buy clicks at $1 and 10% of people who hit your site make a purchase. This makes your CPA at $10.

CPA = CPC / conversion percentage

SEM to get early customer data

You can use SEM as a way to get early customer data in a controlled and predictable way. Even if you don’t expect to be profitable, you can decide to spend a certain amount of money to get an early base of customers and users to inform you about important metrics such as landing page conversion rates, average cost per customer, and lifetime value. used AdWords to drive traffic to their landing pages, even before they built a product, to test interest in a specific product approach. By measuring the CTR for each ad and conversions, they determined which product aspects were the most compelling to potential customers and what those people would actually pay for. When they finally built their product, they built something they knew the market would want.

SEM strategy

Find high-potential keywords, group them into ad groups, and test different ad copy and landing pages within each ad group. As data flows in, remove underperforming ads and landing pages and make tweaks to keep improving results.

Use tools like Optimizely and Visual Website Optimizer to run A/B tests on your landing pages.

Keyword research

Use Google’s keyword planner to discover top keywords your target customers use to find products like yours. You could also use tools such as KeywordSpy, SEMrush, and SpyFu to discover keywords your competition is using.

You can refine your keyword list by adding more terms to the end of each base term to create long-tail keywords. They’re less competitive and have lower search volumes which makes them ideal for testing on smaller groups of customers.

SEM is more expensive for more competitive keywords, so you’ll need to limit yourself to keywords with profitable conversion rates.

You shouldn’t expect your campaigns to be profitable right away, but if you can run a campaign that breaks even after a short period of time, then SEM could be an excellent channel for you to focus on.

Writing ads

Write ads with titles that are catchy, memorable, and relevant to the keywords you’ve paired with it. Include the keyword at least once in the body of your ad and conclude with a prominent call to action like “Check out discounted Nike sneakers!”

Each of your ads and ad groups will have a quality score associated with it. A high-quality score will get you better ad placements and better ad pricing. Click-through rate has the biggest influence on quality score, so you should tailor your ads to the keywords. Google assigns a low-quality score to ads with CTRs below 1.5%


  • Consider expanding your ads to the content network of non-Google sites.
  • Consider luring people back to your site by retargeting through Google AdWords or other sites like AdRoll or Perfect Audience. These ads often convert better as they’re aimed at prospects who have already visited your site. (Be warned that it may feel creepy to certain people)
  • Consider using Google’s Conversion Optimizer to automatically adjust your ads to perform better.
  • Use negative keywords to prevent ads from showing for certain keywords you don’t want to target.
  • Consider using programming scripts to manage your ads.

Social and Display Ads

Display ads are banner ads you see on websites. Social ads are ads you see on social sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Large display campaigns are often used for branding and awareness, much like offline ads. They can also elicit a direct response such as signing up for an email newsletter or buying a product.

Social ads perform exceptionally well is when they’re used to build an audience and engage with them over time, and eventually convert them to customers.

Display ads

The largest display ad networks are Google Display Network, BuySellAds,, Tribal Fusion, Conversant, and Adblade. Niche ad networks focus on smaller sites that fit certain audience demographics, such as dog lovers or Apple fanatics.

To get started in display advertising, you could start to find out types of ads that work in your industry. You could use tools like MixRank and Adbeat to show you ads your competitors are running and where they place them. Alexa and Quantcast can help you determine who visits the sites that feature your competitors’ ads.

Social ads

Social ads work well for creating interest among potential new customers. The goal is often awareness oriented, not conversion oriented. A purchase takes place further down the line. People visit social media sites for entertainment and interaction, not to see ads.

An effective social ad strategy takes advantage of this reality. Use ads to start conversations about your products by creating compelling content. Instead of directing people to a conversion page, direct them to a piece of content that explains why you developed your product or has other purposes than immediately completing a sale. If you have a piece of content that has high organic reach, when you put paid ads behind that piece, magic happens. Paid is only as good as the content you put behind it. You should employ social ads when you know that a fire is starting around your message and you want to put more oil on it.

Major social sites you may consider are LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, StumbleUpon, Foursquare, Tumblr, Reddit, YouTube, and many others.

Offline Ads

Even today, advertisers spend more on offline ads than they do online. When buying offline ads, You should try to advertise to demographics that match up with your target audience. Ask for an audience prospectus or ad kit.

Not sure if magazine ads are a good channel for you? Buy a small ad in a niche publication and give it a test. Want to see if newspapers would be good? Buy a few ads in a local paper. You can also try radio ads and billboards.

  • You can save money by signing longer ad contracts.
  • Look for remnant ads which are ad space that’s unused; publications accept almost any price when selling empty ads near print deadlines.
  • You could track ad effectiveness by using unique web addresses and promo codes. You could also try adding “How did you hear about us” to your sign up process.

Magazine ads

A compelling magazine or newspaper ad will have an attention-grabbing header, an eye-catching graphic, and a description of the product’s benefits. Also, you should have a strong call to action, like an offer to get a free book.

Direct mail

You could also try direct mail by searching for “direct mail lists” and find companies selling such information. (Beware that it can be perceived as spammy)

  • Provide a self-addressed envelope.
  • Use handwritten envelopes and cards.
  • Have a clear call to action.
  • Investigate bulk mail to get reduced pricing.

Local print

You could also try local print ads like local fliers, directories, calendars, church bulletins, community newsletters, coupon booklets, or yellow pages. These work really well for cheap if you want to get early traction for your company in a specific area.

Outdoor advertising

If you want to buy space on a billboard, you could contact companies like Lamar, Clear Channel, or Outfront Media. Billboards aren’t effective for people to take immediate action, but it’s extremely effective for raising awareness around events, like concerts and conferences.

DuckDuckGo bought a billboard in Google’s backyard and it got big attention and press coverage.

Transit ads can be effective as a direct response tool. You can contact Blue Line Media to help you with Transit ads.

Radio and TV

Radio ads are priced on a cost per point (CPP) basis, where each point represents what it will cost to reach 1% of the station’s listeners. It also depends on your market, when the commercial runs and how many ads you’ve bought.

TV ads are often used as branding mechanisms. Quality is critical for it and production costs can run to tens of thousands. Higher-end ones can cost $200K to make. You’ll also need an average of $350,000 for actual airtime. For smaller startups, you could try local TV spots which is much cheaper.

Infomercials work really well for products in categories like Workout equipment, household products, health products, and work-from-home businesses. They can cost between $50,000 and $500,000, and they’re always direct-response.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

SEO is improving your ranking in search engines in order to get more people to your site.

The most important thing to know about SEO is that the more high-quality links you have to a given site or page, the higher it will rank. You should also make sure you’re using the keywords you want to target appropriately on your pages, like in your page titles and headings.

There are 2 strategies to choose from: fat-head and long-tail.

Fat-head: These are one and two-word searches like “Dishwashers,” and “Facebook.” They are searched a lot and make about 30% of searches and are called.

Long-tail: These are longer searches that don’t get searched as much but add up to the majority of searches made. They make up 70% of searches.

  • “Wooden toys” is fat-head.
  • “Wood puzzles for 3-year-olds” is long-tail.

When determining which strategy to use, you should keep in mind that the percentage of clicks drops off dramatically as you rank lower. Only 10% of clicks occur beyond the first page.

Fat-head strategy

To find out if fat-head is worthwhile, research what terms people use to find products in your industry, and then see if search volumes are large enough to move the needle. You can use the keyword planner tool for that. You want to find terms that have enough volume such that if you captured 10% for a given term, it would be meaningful.

The next step is determining the difficulty of ranking high for each term. Use tools like Open Site Explorer. If a competitor has thousands of links for a term, it will likely take a lot of focus on building links and optimizing to rank above them.

Next, narrow your list of targeted keywords to just a handful. Go to Google Trends to see how your keywords have been doing. Are they searched more or less often in the last year? You can further test keywords by buying SEM ads against them. If they convert well, then you have an indication that these keywords could get you strong growth.

Next, orient your site around the terms you’ve chosen. Include phrases you are targeting in your page titles and homepage. Get other sites to link to your site. Links with exact phrase matching from high-quality sites will give you a significant boost.

Long-Tail strategy

Because it’s difficult to rank high for competitive fat-head terms, a popular SEO strategy for early-stage startups is to focus on long-tail. If you bundle a lot of long-term keywords together you can reach a meaningful number of customers.

Find out what are search volumes for a bunch of long-tail keywords in your industry? Do they add up to meaningful amounts? Also, take a look at the analytics software you use on your site or google search console to find some of the search terms people are already using to get to your site. If you’re naturally getting a significant amount of traffic from long-tail keywords, then the strategy might be a good fit. Also, check if competitors use this strategy. If they have a lot of landing pages (search for in google), then it’s a sign that this strategy works for your market. Also, check Alexa search rankings and look at the percentage of visitors your competitors are receiving from search.

If you proceed with a long-tail SEO strategy, you’ll need to produce significant amounts of quality content. If you can’t invest time in that, you can pay a freelancer from Upwork to write an article for every search phrase you want to target.

Another way is to use content that naturally flows from your business. Ask yourself: what data do we naturally collect or generate that other people may find useful. Large businesses like Yelp, TripAdvisor, and Wikipedia all gained most of their traffic by producing automated long-tail content. Sometimes the data is hidden behind a login screen and all you need to do is expose it to search engines, or aggregate it in a useful manner.

How to get links?

Don’t buy links, you’ll be penalized by search engines for it. Instead, you can do:

  • Publicity - Get covered by a publication.
  • Product - Produce shareable web pages.
  • Content marketing - Create strong shareable content. Content that’s highly shareable include infographics, slideshows, images, and original research.
  • Widgets - Give site owners useful things to add to their sites which link back to yours.

Content Marketing

Companies like Moz and Unbounce have well-known company blogs that are their biggest source of customer acquisition.

Unbounce started a blog and an email list from day one. They used social media to drive readers to your blog. They pinged twitter influencers to ask for feedback, gave away free infographics, and e-books. These actions don’t scale but they push them to a point where their content will spread on its own.

OkCupid is a free online dating site. They intentionally wrote controversial posts like “How your race affects the messages you get” to generate traffic and conversation.


  • Overcome writer’s block by writing about the problems facing your target customers.
  • Use infographics because they are shared 20x more.
  • Show your readers that they have a problem they didn’t know about.
  • Engage in online forums where your target customers are, and try to contribute.
  • Do guest posting on other popular blogs.
  • Keep a regular content schedule.

Email Marketing

Email marketing is a personal channel. Messages from your company sit next to emails from friends and family. That’s why email marketing works best when personalized. It can be used to build familiarity with prospects, acquire customers, and retain customers you already have.

Email marketing to Find customers

  • Build an email list of prospective customers through your other marketing efforts.
  • At the bottom of your blog posts and landing pages, simply ask for an email address.
  • Create a short free course related to your area.
  • Consider advertising on email newsletters.

Email marketing to Engage customers

If a customer never gets the value of your product, how can you expect them to pay for it or recommend it to others?

  • Determine the steps necessary for customers to get value from your product
  • Create targeted emails to make sure people complete these steps.
  • You can use tools like Vero and to automate these messages.
  • Send an automated personal email 30 minutes after they signup to ask they if they need help.

Email marketing to Retain customers

Email marketing can be the most effective channel to bring people back to your site. Twitter sends you an email with a weekly digest of popular tweets and your new notifications.

More business-oriented products usually focus on reminders, reports, and information about how you’re getting value from the product. Mint sends a weekly financial summary to show your expenses and income over the previous week.

You can also use it to surprise and delight your customers. Planscope sends a weekly email to customers telling them how much they made that week. Photo apps will send you pictures you took a year ago.

Email marketing to Drive revenue

You can send a series of emails aimed at upselling customers.

WP Engine sends prospects an email course about Wordpress, and near the end of the email, they make a pitch to signup for its premium Wordpress hosting service.

If one of your customers abandoned a shopping cart, send her a targeted email a day or two later with a special offer for whatever item is left in the cart.

You can use email to explain a premium feature a customer is missing out on and how it can help them in a big way.

Email marketing to get referrals

Groupon generates referrals by incentivizing people to tell their friends about discounts.


  • Use an email marketing provider that helps ensure deliverability like MailChimp.
  • Use A/B tests for every aspect including subjects, formats, images, timing, and more.
  • Send emails between 9 AM and 12 PM in your customers’ time zone or schedule them at the time they registered for your email list.
  • Learn copywriting techniques by checking resources like copy hackers.

Viral Marketing

Viral marketing is getting your existing customers to refer others to your product. It was the driving force behind the explosive growth of Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Dropbox, Instagram, Snapchat, and Pinterest.

It’s so powerful that even if you can’t achieve exponential growth with it, you can still get meaningful growth. If your customer refers a new customer within the first week, you’ll go from ten customers to twenty and double every week without any additional marketing.

The oldest form of virality occurs when your product is so remarkable that people naturally tell others about it — pure word of mouth.

Inherent virality occurs when you can get value from a product only by inviting other customers, like Skype, Snapchat, and WhatsApp.

Others grow by encouraging collaboration like Google Docs.

Some embed virality like adding “Get a free email account with Hotmail” or “Sent from iPhone” to default signatures. Mailchimp and other email marketing products add branding to free customers’ emails.

Some incentivize customers to move through a viral loop, like Dropbox giving you more space if you invite friends to sign up. Airbnb, Uber, and PayPal give you account credits for referring friends.

Some add embedded buttons and widgets to grow virally, like Reddit and YouTube.

Some broadcast users activities on their social networks, like Spotify posting on Facebook when you play a song, or Pinterest when you pin content.

The viral coefficient K is the number of additional customers you can get for each customer you bring in. It depends on i, the number of invites sent per user, and conversion percentage (who will actually sign up after receiving an invite)

K = i * conversion percentage

Any viral coefficient above 1 will result in exponential growth. Any viral coefficient over 0.5 helps your efforts to grow considerably.

You can increase the number of invites per user i by including features that encourage sharing, such as posting to social networks. You can increase the conversion percentage by testing different signup flows. Try cutting out pages or signup fields.

Viral cycle time is how long it takes a user to go through your viral loop. Shortening your cycle time drastically increases the rate at which you go viral. You can do it by creating urgency or incentivizing customers to move through the loops.


  • Measure your viral coefficient and cycle time from the start
  • Run as many A/B tests as you can. Focus on big changes that would result in a 5-10x improvement in a key metric, like a new email autoresponder or website design or onboarding flow. Then optimize smaller stuff.
  • You need a constant stream of new customers entering the viral loop. This is called “seeding.” You could use SEO and online ads for that.
  • Copy those who have done it before.

Engineering as Marketing

You can build tools like calculators, widgets, and educational microsites to get your company in front of potential customers.

HubSpot has Marketing Grade, a free marketing review tool. It’s free, gives you valuable information, and provides HubSpot with the information they use to qualify you as a potential prospect.

Moz has two free SEO tools, Followerwong and Open Site Explorer. They’ve driven tens of thousands of leads for Moz.

WP Engine has a speed testing tool that asks only for an email address in exchange for a detailed report on your site’s speed.

  • Provide something of true value.
  • Make the offering extremely relevant to your core business.
  • Put microsites and tools on their own domains. It makes it easier to share and does well with SEO when people search for your tool.

Business Development

With business development, you’re partnering to reach customers in a way that benefits both parties.

Google got most of its initial traction from a partnership with Netscape to be the default search engine and an agreement with Yahoo to power its online searches.

Business development can take the form of:

  • Standard partnership, like Apple and Nike producing Nike+ shoe that communicates with the iPhone.
  • Joint ventures: Two companies working together to produce a new product. Like bottled Starbucks Frappuccino produced by Pepsi.
  • Licencing: Spotify licensing music from record labels.
  • Distribution deals: Groupon works with a restaurant to offer a discount to Groupon’s mailing list.
  • Supply partnership: Deals between suppliers and Walmart.

You should have already defined your traction goal and milestones, and you shouldn’t accept any partnership that doesn’t align with it. Many startups waste resources because it’s tempting to make deals with bigger companies.

  • Create an exhaustive list of all your possible partners.
  • Send it to your investors and friends for warm introductions.
  • Approach potential customers with a value-focused proposition that outlines why they should work with you.
  • Make sure to find out who is in charge of the metric you’ve targeted, and contact them directly.
  • Make the negotiation and term sheet as simple as possible


Sales is the process of generating leads, qualifying them, and converting them into paying customers. It’s particularly useful for expensive and enterprise products.

Structuring the sales conversation

Situation questions. Ask one or two questions per conversation. The more you ask situation questions, the less likely they’re going to close.

  • How many employees do you have?
  • How is your organization structured

Problem questions. Use sparingly.

  • Are you happy with your current solution?
  • What problems do you face with it?

Implication questions. Meant to make a prospect aware of the large implications that stem from the problem.

  • Does this problem hurt your productivity?
  • How many people does it impact?
  • What customer or employee turnover are you experiencing because of it?

Need-payoff questions. Focus attention on your solution and get buyers to think about the benefits of solving the problem.

  • How do you feel this solution would help you?

Cold calls

Be judicious about the people you contact. You want someone who is one-two levels up in the organization. They have enough perspective on the problem and some authority for decision making. Avoid starting at the top unless you’re calling a very small business.

Try to get answers about:

  • Process: How does the company buy a solution like this?
  • Need: How badly does the company need a solution for this?
  • Authority: Which individuals can make the purchase happen?
  • Money: Do they have the funds? How much not solving the problem cost them?
  • Timing: What are budget and decision timelines for purchase?


It’s better to gain traction through a marketing channel first, then use sales as a conversion tool to close leads. The next stage is lead qualification: determine how ready a prospect is to buy. Once you’ve qualified the leads, you should lay out exactly what are you going to do for the customer. Set up a timetable for it and get them to commit with a yes or no whether they’re going to buy. Closing leads can be done by a sales team who does a webinar or product demo and has an ongoing email sequence that ends with a purchase request. In other cases, you may need a field sales team that actually visits prospective customers for some part of the process.

A checklist that can help you with sales:

  • Remove the need for IT installs
  • Free trials
  • Channel partners
  • FAQs
  • Demo videos or Webinars
  • Testimonials or case studies
  • Email campaigns
  • Low introductory price (less than $250/mo for SMB, $10,000 for enterprises)

Affiliate Programs

An affiliate program is an arrangement where you pay people for making a sale or getting a lead. Ex: When a blogger recommends your product and gets you a sale, they take a cut. It’s less risky than using ads because you only pay when you get a sale, and you get to decide what a transaction is. If a credit card is denied, the affiliate commission is zero.

Affiliate programs are the core traction channel for many e-commerce stores, information products, and membership programs. Affiliates could be coupon/deal sites, loyalty programs, product aggregators, email lists, and niche sites.

It’s convenient to use an existing network of affiliates such as Commision Junction, Peperjam, ClickBank,, ShareASale, Adknowledge, and LinkShare. But you can also do the other option of building your own, which can have the benefit of paying affiliates in features of your product rather than cash, like Dropbox referral program giving people free storage.

Start looking for affiliates in your own customer base. They’re the easiest to recruit and already have an affinity for your brand. You could then contact content creators like bloggers, publishers, social media influences, and email list creators.

You could start with a simple flat/percentage fee for conversion.

Existing Platforms

Existing platforms are websites, apps, and networks with a huge number of users that you can leverage to get traction. This includes Apple and Android app stores, Chrome and Firefox browser extensions, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, etc..

App stores

The most efficient way to get discovered in app stores is to get into top app rankings and featured listings. A way to get into top rankings is to

  1. Offer the app for free
  2. Use ads to get the app into charts, which will get it higher downloads and get it higher and higher up the charts. You can buy ads from places like AdMob or installs from Tapjoy.
  3. Drive adoption through publicity and targeting blog channels as well

For all this to work, you need to have a compelling app that’s rated highly on a regular basis.

Browser extensions

It’s difficult to make people visit your site consistently. A browser extension allows people to get value from your product without needing to return to your site. Evernote saw a huge jump in customers when it launched its browser extension.

Social sites

Try to focus on platforms that are just taking off and see what are they missing. Myspace didn’t have a native video hosting solution, so YouTube stepped in and provided an embed a video option. Bitly fulfilled the need to share shortened links on Twitter. Airbnb developed a post to Craigslist feature that allows you to list your bed there. Paypal targeted eBay users as its first customers.

Trade Shows

Trade shows offer you the opportunity to showcase your product in person. Early on, you can use it to build interest in what you’re building. As you get more established, you can use it to make major announcements or to sell to big clients.

To decide whether an event is for you or not, you can visit as a guest the year before. Get a sense of how crowded it is and the quality of attendees.

Make a list of key attendees you want to meet at the show, and schedule meetings with them before you attend the event. Trade shows are a chance to meet face-to-face with online and offline magazine editors, bloggers, existing customers, potential customers, vendors, competition, and potential partners.

When planning your booth, determine if you want it to be located on the show floor. If your goal is to reach many attendees (instead of a few high-value prospects) you’ll need that visibility. Put together an impressive display. Have an impressive demo or video. Send discount cards to all attendees before the conference. Use giveaways to generate some buzz and traffic.

Offline Events

Sponsoring or running an offline event can be a primary way to get traction. Twilio attracts its customers by sponsoring hackathons, conferences, and meetups. It’s particularly effective for startups that sell enterprise software.

In phase 1, where smaller groups of people can move the needle, attending meetups and events is a prime way to do so. In phase 2, you can take advantage of larger conferences like TechCrunch Disrupt, Launch Conference, and SXSW to build on their traction.

Twitter put flat panel screens in SXSW hallways, where you could text “join SXSW” to 40404 and show up on the screens. They jumped from 20,000 tweets per day to more than 60,000 by the end of the conference.

You may choose to connect with a target group of customers at a meetup. Seth Godin used meetups when launching his book Linchpin. He organized meetups in cities all across the US through his blog and a total of 10,000 people attended this event.

Throwing a party can be an effective way to get some traction. Evite did this when they put on one of the largest parties in the Bay Area for an Internet celebrity. It exposed Evite to its target audience in a memorable manner. Attendees were then likely to use it when throwing their own parties. Yelp did the same to jump-start usage in new cities.

You can select a relevant topic for your product and invite the founders of local companies to give short talks on the subject. Or you can use a roundtable discussion approach where attendees suggest topics for discussion and vote on them.

A local university lecture hall is a good place to hold an event like this. If your first event is a success, consider scaling up to larger events.

Try to keep attendee quality as high as possible, and make the ticket price relatively high so that individuals with successful businesses are more likely to attend than those just starting out.

Speaking Engagements

Speaking at small events can improve your speaking ability, give you some early traction, and spread your story. We recommend trying to give at least one talk even if you choose not to pursue this channel.

This channel works well if there is a group of people in a room that (if pitched right) would move the needle for your business. This occurs more with enterprise and B2B businesses because they’re often at expensive conferences.

If you have a good idea for a talk, simply pitch it to event organizers. It becomes easier as you become a recognized expert. You can also start by asking them about the ideal topics they want at an event, then craft a perfect pitch.

You can start by speaking for free at coworking spaces, nonprofits, and smaller conferences, and use these appearances to refine your talks and build your reputation.

All successful talks tell a story. Your story can be about what your startup is doing, why you’re doing it, and how you got to where you are?

You can tweet your slides before presentations. Record your speeches, and post clips from it to expose it to thousands of people online.

Community Building

Community building involves investing in the connections among your customers, fostering those relationships, and helping them bring more people into your startup.

Wikipedia began with a small group of users from an earlier online encyclopedia project. Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood were already Internet famous before starting Stack Overflow. They presented their ideas to readers to give them feedback, and they even had the community vote on the name for it.

People want to feel like they’re part of something bigger than themselves. You need to have a mission if you want to build an awesome community. A mission gives your community a shared sense of purpose and motivates them to contribute. Being open with your community is the best way to get them to buy into your mission.

In Reddit’s early days, any individual who wrote about Reddit would get an email from co-founder Alexis Ohanian thanking them. He would also sent shirts, stickers, and other gifts to early users. He also coordinated an open bar tour for Redditors.

A challenge with community building is to keep the quality high. So you should establish strict guidelines, and feature it prominently on the site. You’ll start to see users policing the site on their own. You could also keep high-quality by making your community invite-only or developing a karma system.

If you’re a software company, you can foster a community by making your code open-source.

If your company’s core function is connecting people, you’re best set up to take advantage of community building.


Don't miss our new book summaries!

  • Actionable takeaways
  • Read in minutes
  • Unsubscribe anytime