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Traction: How Any Startup Can Achieve Explosive Customer Growth


Personal Thoughts

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.

Summary Notes

  • The number one reason that we pass on entrepreneurs we’d otherwise like to back is they’re focusing on product to the exclusion of everything else. Many entrepreneurs who build great products simply don’t have a good distribution strategy. Even worse is when they insist that they don’t need one, or call [their] no distribution strategy a “viral marketing strategy.”
  • Delicious—Delicious allows you to use keywords to find links that others
  • Sponsor small blogs, especially personal blogs. Providing influential bloggers early access or offering early access in exchange for spreading the word are other effective strategies. Offer something unique to your best targets. Build a special offer just for them and put together a draft guest post that they can run with.
  • Ryan offered this template email he’s used to pitching reporters successfully: Subject: Quick question Hey [name], I wanted to shoot you a note because I loved your post on [similar topic that did a lot of traffic]. I was going to give the following to our publicist, but I thought I would go to you with the exclusive because I read and really enjoy your stuff. My [company built a user base of 25,000 paying customers in two months without advertising/book blows the lid off an enormous XYZ scandal]. And I did it completely off the radar. This means you would be the first to have it. I can write up any details you’d need to make it great. Do you think this might be a good fit? If so, should I draft something around [their average] words and send it to you, or do you prefer a different process? If not, I totally understand, and thanks for reading this much. All the best, [Your Name]
  • Once you have a solid story, you want to draw as much attention to it as you can. Here are a few ways to do it: Submit the story to link-sharing sites (Reddit, Hacker News) with larger audiences. Share it on social networks to drive awareness, which you can further amplify with social ads. Email it to influencers in your industry for comment. Some of them will share it with their audiences. Ping blogs in your space and tell them that you have a story that’s getting some buzz. These writers may then want to jump in themselves to cover you.
  • PR has a huge impact on early-stage startups. . . . Funding is obviously very important. But funding is essentially gambling. You’re saying, “I think this unproven person deserves two million dollars of my money to build a business that may or may not succeed, and if it does succeed we need to find a buyer who will pay even more to take it off our hands.” There are so many things that can go wrong. When people gamble, but they don’t tell themselves they’re gambling (as investors do), they need information to justify their decisions, and they need social proof and examples and evidence that they’re doing the right thing. They already know if they want to invest in you or not, and they’re looking for confirmation that they made the right call. Press is one of the single most effective things for pushing people over the edge and confirming they did the right thing.
  • TARGETS Focus on the right smaller sites. Press stories often “filter up,” meaning major news outlets are often looking to major blogs for story ideas, which in turn are looking at smaller blogs and forums. That means if you can generate buzz on those sites, you can increase your chances of getting picked up by bigger publications. Build real relationships with the specific reporters covering your startup’s market. Read what they write, comment, offer them industry expertise, and follow them on Twitter. Have newsworthy milestones to share. Contact reporters only when you can package your milestones into a compelling emotional story. When you do make a pitch, keep it short and sweet!
  • Do something big, cheap, fun, and original. A publicity stunt is anything that is engineered to generate a large amount of media coverage. They are often hard to do consistently well, but just one well-executed stunt can move the needle for your company. Publicity stunts need to be creative and extraordinary to succeed. Some types that have been successful repeatedly are competitive stunts and viral videos. Be awesome to your customers and good things follow. Common ways to do customer appreciation well are through gifts, contests, and amazing customer support. Excelling in this area is a way to do unconventional PR over a longer period of time. Prepare for failure. Success in this channel is unpredictable. You should have a defined process for brainstorming and selecting ideas, but also understand that not every idea will work.
  • Several sources have mentioned that an average CTR for an AdWords campaign is around 2 percent and that Google assigns a low-quality score to ads with CTRs below 1.5 percent. If any of your keywords are getting such low CTRs, rewrite those ads, test them on a different audience, or ditch them altogether.
  • TARGETS Use search engine ads to test product positioning and messaging (even before you fully build it!). Do not expect your early SEM ad tests to be profitable. If you can run an ad campaign that gets close to breakeven after a few weeks, then SEM could be the traction channel for you to focus on. A test ad campaign can be as little as four ads that you use to experiment. Measure conversions so you can test SEM variables against profitability. Areas you should be testing include keywords, ad copy, demographic targeting, landing pages, and CPC bids. Cost per acquisition (CPA) is how much it costs you to acquire a customer, and that is ultimately what you need to be testing against. Use longer keywords. Known as long-tail keywords, they are often less competitive because they have lower search volumes. As such, they are cheaper and so can be more profitable—you just may have to aggregate a lot of them to get the volume you need to move the needle. Pay close attention to your ad quality scores. High-quality scores get you better placement on the page and better pricing on your ads. The biggest factor in quality scores is CTR.
  • If dealing with national magazines, consider using a print or “remnant ad” buying agency such as Manhattan Media or Novus Media that specializes in negotiating discounted pricing of up to 90% off rate card. Feel free to negotiate still lower using them as a go-between.

Traction: How Any Startup Can Achieve Explosive Customer Growth

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