How Will You Get Traction?

To acquire customers, your startup needs to find the right marketing channel.

For startups, hockey stick growth up and to the right is the gold standard. It signals product demand, successful marketing execution and the potential for a long term viable business. Many early stage startups struggle to ever achieve this rate of growth. Others find that they can achieve it for a short time but stall and are unable to get their growth back on track.

A few years ago, a member of the Philadelphia startup community and the founder of DuckDuckGo, Gabriel Weinberg, and his co-author, Justin Mares, conducted an in-depth study of the problem of gaining traction. Weinberg, who is building the search engine that doesn’t track you at DuckDuckGo, had more than an academic interest in this subject as his company is working to gain customers in the shadow of Google, who some have in the past suggested had an “unbeatable” grip on the search engine market.

After Weinberg and Mares examined the methods that successful startups have used to acquire customers in the past and classified them into nineteen categories, or traction channels, they compiled that knowledge into a book for other startups called Traction: A Startup Guide to Getting Customers. They also created the Bullseye Framework, a method to focus on the right channels for customer acquisition discussed in the book.

Overcoming the problem of customer acquisition is vitally important for a startup. As the back cover of Traction explains, “Almost every failed startup has a product. What failed startups don’t have are enough customers.”

“The basic concept of getting traction is that no vertical works forever,” Zac Pappis, DuckDuckGo’s Director of Marketing and Community as well as the new Marketing Director of Philly Startup Leaders, told the founders of this year’s class of the PSLU Accelerator. Pappis has extensive experience with the traction channels and the Bullseye Framework, working with Weinberg on DuckDuckGo since his hire as the second employee of the search engine.

Founders starting out should create a spreadsheet assessing the viability and potential for each of the 19 traction channels. Be very careful not to skip any, Pappis warned. The traffic channels which a startup overlooks may also be deprioritized by their competitors and thus a viable, unsaturated marketing channel.

Following an assessment of all the options, narrow down the potential traction channels to three for testing. Testing more than three risks spreading resources so thin that the data returned from the test isn’t particularly meaningful. Many people also wonder how long and how many resources should be put into the tests. Ultimately, “[w]here to start first is often a gut decision,” according to Pappis.

After selecting one traction channel for the focus of the startup’s resources, other channels should still be revisited through brainstorming additional ideas and reassessing their potential. “You could continue to go through all of the channels everyday and it would be the most valuable thing you could do,” Pappis told the founders.

Continuing his talk about the things that people didn’t know that they didn’t know before reading and applying the book, Pappis said that one reason to move on to a new traction channel is that “there just aren’t enough people there to move the needle.” The press was one of the traction channels that DuckDuckGo previously grew from. After the NSA revelations by Edward Snowden, DuckDuckGo was frequently profiled in the press and saturated the channel. Now, it no longer focuses on it. DuckDuckGo can no longer generate enough traction through press stories to move the needle on its growth. “You need to be looking at the total audience size in order to figure out when you would exhaust that channel and need to move onto another one,” Pappis offered.

Once a traction channel is exhausted or stops working, it is time to go back to the spreadsheet and begin testing again. These channels have been used by startups to successfully grow in the past. However, every startup needs to figure out for itself which one will work next to grow their business.

DuckDuckGo has achieved remarkable growth over the past five years, as demonstrated in its online chart of direct queries per day located at https://duckduckgo.com/traffic.html. However, within this enviable hockey stick growth chart, Weinberg and Pappis have had to switch channels several times. Many companies, like DuckDuckGo, move up and to the right not in a straight line but in a series of growth spurts as they use and exhaust different traction channels. In order to continue growing DuckDuckGo, Weinberg and Pappis are always assessing whether they are acquiring customers through the right method and what to try next if their current traction channel stops working.

Startup founders looking to similarly propel their company forwarded would be wise to learn the 19 different traction channels identified in Traction and continue to assess, test and apply its methods throughout their company’s growth.

Robert Melton is a co-organizer of PSLU and the founder of Funtober, which helps people have more fun from Labor Day to Thanksgiving. @funtober

Zac Pappis is the Director of Marketing and Community at DuckDuckGo, the search engine that doesn’t track you. Zac is also the new Marketing Director of Philly Startup Leaders and is helping local startup entrepreneurs connect through PSL Live! @zacpappis

Philly Start-up Leaders Accelerator provides Philly’s promising founders & startups with an opportunity to connect and build lasting relationship through one-on-one mentorship. We do so by leveraging the knowledge and resources of the community to create more successful, strong, and scalable startups in Philly. We do not take equity; we only provide value. @StartupLeaders