If you've spent any time around startups, you've probably heard the term "traction". When I first started my company, I saw traction everywhere and always seemed a little nebulous. I understood that traction meant some form of progress, but how I should define it for my company and how to measure traction wasn't always evident (are Instagram followers traction? are website visits traction?).
So, what is traction?
I like Nir Eyal's definition of traction vs. (dis) traction. He writes about the difference between the two in his book Indistractable. Put simply, distractions are actions that move us away from what we really want and traction moves us towards what we really want.
If we modify this slightly for a business context, then traction metrics show us that our companies are moving in the direction that we want. They measure that our company is progressing toward our goals.
So how do we get to the traction?
Step 1: Ask yourself, what are your goals?
Traction is unique to you, your business, and your business goals. Defining your goals is a critical first step. With my very first company, I knew what problem I was trying to solve and what I wanted to do to attempt to solve this problem. But, I didn't put serious thought into the kind of business I wanted to grow. It wasn't until I found myself pursuing a whole bunch of metrics that weren't relevant that I realized I was looking at the wrong things.
If you're trying to figure some of that out for your business, I highly recommend Strategy Letter 1: Ben and Jerry's vs Amazon by Joel Spolsky. It provides helpful ways to think through whether your market/product/environment better supports an amazon vs. ben and jerry's approach. Suppose you're starting a company with lots of established competitors and no network effect like a cookie shop. In that case, you'll be running and measuring the company a lot differently than a company that is a new technology with high customer lock-in (like Facebook).
Once you know what kind of company you're in your goals should specific and actionable—less like we want more users and more like we'll grow to 10,000 signups by October 1st.
Step 2: Define metrics that show progress on those goals
Now that you know a little more about what company you're building, defining your traction metrics comes next. Examples of types of traction metrics are user growth, customer acquisition growth, and customer revenue. Depending on what kind of business you're growing, what you're measuring can change. When building a social network user growth is going to be very important, if you're creating a soap store, you'll need to stick very closely to revenue and profits.
Step 3: Create the systems that will support your traction
At the end of the day, though user growth, churn, and revenue are all great things to measure, you don't directly control whether someone buys, signs up, or leaves your service. Cue systems. Systems are the daily, weekly, monthly whichever consistent time period action your business is going to take to get the traction you seek. I love a lot of what James Clear has to say about habits, and he explains the goals vs. systems paradigm more here.
At first, these systems are likely your best guesses on what's going to move the needle, but as you implement them and see what works, you can reflect and iterate.
A Note on Fake Traction:
While running my first company, there were many, many moments of fake traction. Things like joining x sponsored accelerator program or sponsored invite to a paid conference here or increased Instagram followers there all made me feel like I was doing something right, but they weren't traction. Celebrating small wins is great and all but don't let that substitute for the real measures of progress in the business.
I hope that was helpful. What does traction look like for you?
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