How To Get Traction? Or Why Is My Startup Broken?

The Mystery of Achieving Exponential Growth

tl;dr This post looks at how startups gain their initial traction. By studying previous successful startups (like Quora, Mint, Airbnb, Twitter, Facebook, Groupon) we realise that clever mass marketing techniques; and targeting niche markets are the real reason many grew so quickly. Going viral is harder than it looks.

The Problem With Your Startup

You’ve thought of the great idea, conducted various forms of customer validation, recruited your technical co-founder, pivoted twice and finally launched your Minimal Viable Product (MVP). Awesome! You are on the verge of making the headlines and dollars. You and your co-founder stare at the web analytics screen waiting for lift off… Something must be broken. You check your Internet connection and click refresh. You ask yourselves why no one is visiting your site? Why is no one buying our product?

The common question of gaining initiation traction is challenging one. Challenging because it fundamentally questions your business model. Going live or launching is the ultimate validation test. Did we build the right thing? Does anyone want our product?

Marketers are quick to advise you to “improve your SEO”, “interact on key social media” or “buy adwords”. Consultants will tell you to “revisit your business model” or “redraw your lean canvas”. While you appreciate their helpfulness, this advice doesn’t always translate to your business case or doesn’t actually work in reality.

How To Get Traction?

When in doubt, look back in time. While not the most reliable tool (history), it may well help you make your next intelligent step forward. Or it just proves that the big names of today faced a similar uphill battle.

Quora has endless questions on gaining traction. Enough to justify the section titled: How Did X Get Traction? Here is a selection of some of our favourite initial traction startup stories.

1. How did Quora get its initial traction?

Adam D’Angelo (Quora Founder) puts it simply: “We invited our friends, and some of them invited their friends, etc.” However this was back in 2010 and the site has evolved dramatically since then. A common thread for many startups is encouraging content creation. Sites that can encourage users to create content retains existing users and attracts new users.

2. How did Mint get initial traction?

Mint insiders go into detail of how they built their user base. Apart from having a great brand that solved a real problem, they leveraged a strong PR and marketing strategy that reaped high quality traffic.

A sweet domain name also helps, but usually comes at a price. Mint supposedly paid $2 million for the four letter address.

3. How did Airbnb get initial traction?

Solve a problem with a crazy idea. In 2007 San Francisco hotels were booked out. The buddying entrepreneurs saw an opportunity to rent out their floor space by throwing an “air” mattress. The concept blew up.

Dave Gooden suggests a rather more sinister approach to gaining traction. He describes a sophisticated mailing campaign via Craiglist.

4. How did LinkedIn get its initial traction?

Lee Hower (LinkedIn Founding Team) boasts impressive growth in users. Within 12 months they claimed 500,000 users!

We are doubtful of good luck and timing however… some claim the uniqueness of their product at that time explained the success.

Others suggest clever news article placements in the Wall Street Journal and Forbes Magazine helped gain attention.

5. How did plentyoffish get its initial traction?

A decade ago dating websites became the ultimate place to find your next partner. Many competitors appeared but Plenty of Fish remained in top spot.

The reason behind this success is likely to be Markus Frind’s (founder) smart approach to SEO and Google AdSense. His blog post describes the sites exponential growth.

6. How did Facebook gain its initial traction?

We’ve all followed the news stories and seen the film (“The Social Network“). Was it really down to the determination of one computer programming genius?

The early traction appears to have come collecting e-mail addresses of schools and students. The Facebook leveraged the network effect of well connected groups to gain traction.

They offered an attractive option for networks of schools and students to stay connected. As these networks already existed, they simply moved this targeted niche from older and isolated networks to the newer platform.

7. How did StumbleUpon gain its initial traction?

According to Brad O’Neill (First Angel Investor and Advisor) Stumbleupon was one of the very first add-ons to the Firefox browser. This early relationship helped Stumbleupon grow a significant userbase, as the functionality was integrated into their browsing.

Stumbleupon was one of five or six product ideas the original founders had considered.

8. How did Twitter get initial traction?

The tipping point for Twitter appears to be its showcase at the 2007 South by Southwest (SXSW) festival. Twitter displayed festival goers messages on large screens around the event.

However before this time, it is likely that the early adopters and a large network of bloggers did their part to spread the word.

9. How did Foursquare get initial traction?

One view is that a launch at 2009 South by Southwest (SXSW) kicked off their growth. Another view is that a city-by-city approach expanded as new users were added. By pushing growth in cities, a combination of city level growth and national growth promoted adoption.

However was it their prior experience with location based technology that triggered their real growth? Dennis Crowley (Founder) several years earlier had developed and sold a similar concept to Google (now Google Latitude).

10. How did Groupon get initial traction?

Groupon began life as the ThePoint, a community campaign site. It was only several iterations later that a simple experiment for pizza coupons on a WordPress blog validated their coupon based model. Or was it?

Andrew Chen suggests a more sinister strategy of realising a “temporary arbitrage in buying tons of demographically targeted ad inventory”. Groupon essentially leveraged a low cost of customer acquisition by buying up massive subscriber lists and then targeting them with marketing messages. The cost of acquisition quickly rose but by then Groupon had a large enough pool of customers.


It appears plenty of mystery exists around gaining early traction. However based on the above analysis, these top tips may help you gain your early traction:

+ Encourage content creation
+ Get a sweet four letter domain name
+ Build a sophisticated mailing campaign
+ Get published in a newspaper article read by your target market
+ Get the most out of Search Engine Optimisation (SEO)
+ Utilise the network effect
+ Be the first and be integrated into a daily tool (eg be that button on the top of every web browser)
+ Use early adopters and bloggers to promote your brand
+ Leverage prior experience (and networks)
+ Find a low cost of customer acquisition before others do

If you wish to share your own experiences drop us a line or leave a comment or join the Hacker News discussion.

Image Credit: Let A Thousand Nations


You might also enjoy:
+ Need Startup Advice? – Just Ask Online
+ The Startup Dictionary – Learning the Lingo #3
+ Learning From Other Startups – 6 Real Life Stories
+ Samsung’s Pivot From Dried Fish to Smartphones
+ Top Startup Podcasts – Learning From Listening

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About Spark N Launch

3 responses to “How To Get Traction? Or Why Is My Startup Broken?”

  1. Andrew G says :

    Great post

Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Quora - 31 July 2012

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