You’ve got a great product. You’ve found market fit. You’ve got customers — maybe a few, maybe a lot. Now what?
You’re making progress, but you’re lurching forward. Or worse, you keep taking one step forward and two steps back. You’re having awesome days when everything seems to go right, followed by dreary, everything-is-failing days.
I’ve been there so many times that I just call it Tuesday. This is a perfectly normal path on your startup’s way to finding traction.
What Does Traction Mean for a Startup?
Traction is not to be found with a minimum viable product. It’s not a badge earned from a product’s initial sales. It’s not a guarantee backed by a startup’s early success.
If you’re looking for traction, you’re looking for sustainable, scalable growth.
That kind of growth doesn’t happen when you’re flat-footed. There are no cases that I know of where a startup was able to achieve sustained, scalable growth by selling a single product to a static market. And in most cases, a startup has to fail multiple times before it finds the right combination of product evolution and market expansion along the way.
If you’ve got a winning product and have sold it to an appreciative market, but you can’t seem to get traction, it’s usually because you’re stuck on either the product or the market side.
I’m there right now. And I can tell you this: Finding traction feels like constantly trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. In order to stay sane and get unstuck, you’ve got to smash those square pegs pretty hard.
Understand You Must Improve Continuously
You can’t rest on your last success. By the time your product organically builds more market share for itself, these things will undoubtedly set you back:
New entrants into the same market will come after your share.
New customer problems will emerge that you’ll need to solve before someone else does.
New external factors will sneak up on your business.
So you’re going to have to perpetually improve your offering. This means change — which is risky and painful — for both your startup and your customers.
Sometimes change means addition by subtraction, which will anger certain customers. Sometimes it means going after a new market with a completely different value proposition, which will alienate certain customers. Sometimes it means a huge pivot into a new line of business, which will abandon certain customers.
But it’s change or die, so make the decision to anger, alienate and abandon some of your customers — and then go to the next step.
Understand There’s No Safe Space
Sometimes running a startup is like being dropped in the middle of a minefield: There’s the palpable fear that you can’t stay where you are, but you certainly can’t just take a random next step.
So how do you move?
You know you have to proceed with caution. Check and test each step, then either build on the success or recover from the failure. But no matter what step you take next, you should first pick a direction and commit to it.
I often talk about the A, B and C story of a startup. Story A is what you do today. Story B is the next big milestone in your sights. Story C is the billion-dollar payoff. Your startup has a single C story, a handful of B stories and a ton of A stories.
Think of these stories as episodes in a television series or chapters in a book. No good writer just rambles forward from page to page. They work backwards from the ending. Revisit your C story mission, break it down to B story milestones, then pick one of the A stories and start writing.
Understand It’s Never Perfect
You’re never going to get enough data to be 100 percent sure that you’re moving your startup in the right direction. All the customer feedback in the world won’t assure the next feature will be used. All the market research in the world is pretty much just a guess at what’s going to happen in real time.
By all means, collect a lot of data before you make your decisions. But before you do your first customer survey or run your first A/B marketing campaign, set a time limit on when to stop collecting data and when to start using it.
Again, markets shift quickly (see above), and the data you get on Day One will be old, stale and of little use to you on Day 180.
Understand the Best Plans Are Just Plans
The most consistently successful entrepreneurs spend a lot of time planning, but planning is never enough. You can draw lines of preparation all over the place and still not draw enough of them to handle every possible outcome.
Some entrepreneurs take months (and sometimes years) in the planning stages. Experience has taught me that after a certain point, the longer you plan the bigger the failure.
Instead of trying to plan for every possible outlier, choose a number of levels of discomfort and create fallback plans instead. If I have one plan of action and three backup plans for it, I know I can address the real-world outcome, even if I can’t predict it.
Understand There Will Be Unintended Consequences
I have never launched a new startup, product or feature without some unintended consequence slapping me in the face, one that I never could have seen coming.
When you’re an established commodity and you make any change, no matter how careful you are, someone is going to be upset. Don’t call off a change the first time someone complains, and don’t be too quick to revert the change even when you hit your complaint limit. Because you could be evolving.
Understand You May Uncover Something Ugly — or Awesome
Yes, you may have to reverse course. But you also might be headed for a pivot. Sometimes small changes uncover big problems or even bigger opportunities.
Take the time to decide if the change you made has put you on a path to avoid certain disaster. Or maybe the change is pushing you to build a much more lucrative, much more valuable product and company.
No matter what you decide, you should always come down on the side of sustainable, scalable growth. This is what will lead you to traction, and that will get you to your next B story — and eventually your C story's billion-dollar business.