Traction by Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares

This book was thoroughly underwhelming. Dozens of people have recommended it to me in the past couple of years, and I don’t understand the hype. It has some insightful ideas, but they’re buried under questionable advice and poor writing.

Each marketing channel the book describes has the level of depth you’d expect from a journalist writing an article about a topic for the first time. The majority of the information seems to be secondhand advice based on interviews the authors conducted with successful founders, so there were lots of little errors you’d expect from someone describing something from the outside. For example, the book claims that Joel Spolsky became famous for being the CEO of Fog Creek Software (really, it was his blog). When they describe reddit, they confuse the concepts of “upvotes” and “karma.” Their description of the ideal keynote speech sounded to me like the epitome of a terrible presentation (7 minutes per slide?!?), but that’s a bit subjective.

The first few chapters had the most value to me. They describe a high-level approach to finding a marketing strategy and evolving it over time. The rest of the book had some interesting anecdotes, but I didn’t learn many techniques to apply to my businesses.

Conflict of interest notice: I admit I had a slight bias coming into this book because one of the co-authors is the founder of Perfect Keto. That company competes with one of my websites for search traffic using SEO techniques that I find a bit shady.

What I Liked ๐Ÿ”—︎

  • It provides a good jumping-off point for brainstorming marketing ideas.
  • The book describes marketing meta-strategies that I found compelling, such as the 50% rule and Bullseye.

What I Disliked ๐Ÿ”—︎

  • The quality of the writing was poor.
    • Most of the book is in the passive voice.
    • There were many sloppy, confusing sentences, such as the following:
      • The way this step gets most often messed up by founders is by keeping around distracting marketing efforts in other traction channels.

  • Lots of fluff and redundancy. The book could have been 30-40% shorter with the same information.
  • The authors don’t seem to have firsthand experience with many of the topics they describe.
  • It’s aimed more toward VC-backed startups that have money to blow.

Key Takeaways ๐Ÿ”—︎

Defining traction ๐Ÿ”—︎

  • Traction is evidence that your company is satisfying a need.
    • e.g., downloads of your app are increasing, more customers are buying subscriptions

50% Rule ๐Ÿ”—︎

  • If your early customers love your product, but you have no means to find more customers, your company will likely fail.
  • To avoid getting lost in the product, dedicate 50% of your time to product development and 50% of your time to marketing.
  • Focusing on marketing brings you a stream of fresh customers experiencing your product for the first time.

The leaky bucket ๐Ÿ”—︎

  • Early in your product’s life, investing in marketing is like pouring water into a leaky bucket.
    • You expose your product to customers, but most leave because your offering isn’t complete yet.
  • Most founders postpone marketing efforts because they see it as wasteful to market before their product is polished.
  • Marketing is helpful even when most customers choose not to buy.
    • In these cases, marketing exposes which gaps in your product are the ones that matter to customers.
  • In the leaky bucket analogy, your bucket is still leaking, but marketing shows you where the leaks are.

Moving the needle ๐Ÿ”—︎

  • You need to pick marketing channels and strategies that will make a difference to your business if they succeed.
    • e.g., a tweet that drives 20 visitors to your website is meaningful if you’re brand new, but if you’re already getting 10k visitors per day, that tweet is negligible.
  • As you grow, you need to find new strategies that are appropriate for your scale.

The Bullseye Method ๐Ÿ”—︎

  • Bullseye is a three-phase technique to discover your product’s ideal distribution channel.
  • A business needs only one strong distribution channel to succeed, but most businesses don’t experiment enough to discover their ideal channel.

Step 1: The Outer Ring - What’s possible? ๐Ÿ”—︎

  • For each traction channel, brainstorm at least one strategy for your business that could move the needle.
  • Research successful companies similar to yours and learn what strategies they applied.

Step 2: The Middle Ring - What’s probable? ๐Ÿ”—︎

  • Test a handful of marketing channels at small scales.
  • It’s better to test multiple channels in parallel, as marketing tests take time and parallelize well.
  • In each test, evaluate:
    1. How costly is customer acquisition?
    2. How many customers are available through this channel?
    3. Are these the customers you want?

Step 3: The Inner Ring - What’s working? ๐Ÿ”—︎

  • Take your most successful channel from step 2 and focus all your energy on optimizing this channel.

The Law of Shitty Click-Throughs ๐Ÿ”—︎

Over time, all marketing channels result in shitty click-through rates.

-Andrew Chen

  • New, effective marketing strategies degrade as other people discover them and start doing the same thing.
  • To combat this, continually experiment with new marketing strategies to find effective techniques that your competitors have not yet saturated.

Overcoming marketing biases ๐Ÿ”—︎

  • Founders often neglect marketing channels because they’re uncomfortable (e.g., public speaking) or unfamiliar (e.g., trade shows).
    • This is a reason to pursue those channels because it makes it more likely that your competitors aren’t using them either.

Marketing channels ๐Ÿ”—︎

The book includes a few pages of strategies for each of these channels, but I didn’t have any useful takeaways from any of those chapters. I think the list of channels is useful as a brainstorming exercise, and you can search online for better guides for approaching any particular channel.
  • Blogs
    • Reach out to niche blogs that match your audience and offer them a direct affiliate deal or paid display ad.
  • Publicity
    • Use HARO to connect with reporters interested in your market.
    • Pitch your product to small bloggers, as larger blogs often source from smaller niche blogs.
  • Unconventional PR (PR stunts)
  • Search engine marketing
  • Search engine optimization
  • Social and display ads
  • Offline ads
    • Billboards
    • Magazines
    • Radio and TV
  • Content marketing
  • Email marketing
  • Viral marketing
  • Engineering as marketing
    • Offer a free product to attract users who might be interested in your paid product.
      • e.g., if your product helps people optimize their website’s SEO performance, offer a free website checker.
  • Business development
    • i.e., forming partnerships with related companies
  • Sales
  • Affiliate programs
  • Existing platforms
    • i.e., platforms with an existing audience where users can find you
    • e.g., eBay, App Store
  • Trade shows
  • Offline events
    • Meetups, conferences
  • Speaking engagements
  • Community building
    • i.e., fostering a passionate user community