Traction by Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares: book notes and comments

Photo of the Traction book coverI read Traction, a classic startup marketing book, at the start of this year. I’d previously seen and loosely embraced some of its ideas, but have happily fully embraced its thinking and marketing philosophy with Ellipsis since. It’s pretty simple, but really good.

There are already a ton of book summaries and notes on the internet, so this isn’t my attempt to do that; instead I want to pick out the parts I found especially interesting, and add my own analysis.

Making something that people want

The book opens with a section on making something that people want, a key part of the product and marketing conundrum. Weinberg and Mares argue there are three phases:

From the perspective of getting traction, you can think about working on a product or service in three phases:

  1. Making something people want.
  2. Marketing something people want.
  3. Scaling your business.

I don’t know I agree that these are three distinct phases. Separating the first and second out implies you make your product and then bolt on marketing. This is fine as long as the assumptions you’ve made about what people want are good, but most of the time these assumptions will be at least a little off.

Instead, the making and marketing need to be hand-in-hand right from the start; “making something people want” is a marketing exercise as much as anything else.

Indeed, the next point speaks to this idea of the two being tightly connected:

Startups take off because the founders make them take off… The most common unscalable thing founders have to do at the start is to recruit users manually. Nearly all startups have to. You can’t wait for users to come to you. You have to go out and get them.

And, over the course of doing “things that don’t scale”, as this is trendily referred to as, you’re doing both marketing and talking to users who tell you what they want.

Choosing your traction channels: less is more

This section has really influenced the work we’re doing with Ellipsis: we’ve embraced Traction’s channel philosophy wholeheartedly and will focus on as few channels as possible when doing new work.

Here’s the key passage from the book:

“It is very likely that one channel is optimal. Most businesses actually get zero distribution channels to work. If you can get even a single distribution channel to work, you have a great business. If you try for several but don’t nail one, you’re finished. So it’s worth thinking really hard about finding the single best distribution channel.” Peter Thiel.

By focusing on a single traction channel, you want to wring every bit of traction out of your core channel. This step gets most often messed up by founders by keeping around distracting other marketing channels. You should spend all your efforts on this core channel because uncovering additional strategies and tactics within it will have a greater effect than using these secondary channels. They’re distracting.

My experience so far is this is absolutely spot on: finding one channel which really works and then doing as much as possible with that channel is so much better than trying to seriously pursue half a dozen options.

Yet, you have to balance what’s working with what could work in the future:

[All channels become crowded eventually, so] you should consistently conduct small experiments. Constantly running small traction tests will allow you to stay ahead of competitors pursuing the same channels.

On paid channels vs non-paid channels

The final influential section was this one, which argues you should always choose non-paid channels first as the benefits compound over time – whereas for paid channels you pay for results and that’s it:

When you advertise, the money you’re spending is what drives how much attention you get. Want more clicks? Spend more money. Contrast this to inbound marketing whereby the cost of producing a piece of content is relatively constant. But, if it generates 10x more leads in a month, your marginal cost for those extra leads is almost zero. Further, with advertising (outbound marketing), the traffic you get generally stops when you stop paying. With inbound marketing, even *after* you stop producing new content, the old content can still drive ongoing visitors and leads.

This makes a lot of sense. Ellipsis was doing an okay job running ads for a couple of clients, but we’ve stopped offering these. We’re best at non-paid channels and for the vast majority of our clients there are underutilised channels in this section that will deliver better value in the long term – which is, after all, what we’re trying to do.

A very good marketing text

The thing that most surprised me about the book is how good it is. It has a very simple but effective marketing philosophy, and then gets on and talks through each of the possible channels in turn. There’s no fluff or unnecessary repetition.

Certainly very happy to recommend this one. Details are on the book website.