Jason Lemkin has a new post out about gaining traction after your product ships. He says it’s hard, much harder than building the 1.0 product which was already hard, and he makes some concrete suggestions on how to go about gaining traction:
- Finish hiring your core team. Presumably you’ve left the sales and marketing until post-1.0?
- Get attention for your app: ”Whatever you can possible do. Go to every conference. Speak at any possible event you can, no matter how small. Win every award. Try to get every blog to write about you. Reach out to anyone and everyone in your space. Be respectful, but totally, utterly, shameless here. Do whatever you can possibly think of here.”
- Hit the pavement and get early customers and partners
- Lavish attention on every single customer and lead
- Plan your next release carefully–it may be your last
Wow, put that way, the job seems really tough!
After reading the account, I do have memories of startups that had to solve the traction problem through brute force and shoe leather. They were painful and very scary.
The thing is, success is about being prepared (with a healthy dose of luck, though chance does favor the prepared mind). As I tell my kids, “It doesn’t matter how smart you are, if the other guy already did the homework and knows the answer while you’re still trying to figure it out, he looks smarter.”
So it is with achieving product traction. This is why I wrote my earlier post about achieving what I call “Content-Audience Fit” to tell Founders it has to be their first priority, even ahead of building a product. Possibly even ahead of knowing what product you will build. I say this for two reasons. First, if you don’t know your audience, you can’t build a great product anyway. While you might think you know your audience, how can you be sure until you have Content-Audience Fit?
If you have Content-Audience Fit, the following things are true:
1. There is a reasonably large audience that is steadily growing and is consuming your content. They care about what you have to say in the market you’re interested in. They are subscribing to your mailing list, following you on Twitter, liking you on Facebook, or whatever other Social Medium works for your market. Consequently you know what Social means to your market.
2. You are part of the Conversation taking place on the web for your chosen market. You are posting in their online communities. You’re on the blogs of the key influencers (you do know who they all are, don’t you?) commenting.
3. You are so familiar with the commercial players in the market that you’ve helped the Market Audience understand some of them better. You’re commenting on their blogs too. That establishes you as an agnostic authority in the market.
4. Because of your participation in all the right conversations, and because of the quality of the content you’re producing, Key Influencers will recognize your name. You are beginning to get folks asking you unsolicited questions as a recognized Expert.
There is a not-so-subtle difference between this Content-Audience fit and “Get attention for your app”. It’s because you’re getting attention for your content. You’re establishing yourself as an expert, not a guy shilling your products and company. Because your content is very high quality and it’s being given away freely, you’re invoking the principle of reciprocity, which is a powerful force when marketing and selling. You’re laying the groundwork to present your selling proposition from a position of strength, after your prospects have already decided you’re the expert.
Imagine being able to validate your product vision, and eventually early versions of the product with that kind of Audience insight. It’s invaluable. It should be a requirement. Yet so many companies build the product first and consult the Audience afterward.
Second, you need a strategy to make this business of gaining Product Traction easier. I love the definition that strategy is what you do to make winning easier. If you ever needed a strategy, it is when you launch your 1.0 product!
So how do we convert Content-Audience Fit to Product Traction?
Back up. Let’s get the timing right first. You don’t want to start trying to achieve Content-Audience fit after you’ve built Product 1.0. That’s way too late. Here’s a mini-case study:
I took Helpstream, a Social CRM startup, from being invisible to having a successful blog that had achieved Content-Audience fit in about six months. At the end of the six months, the key influencers knew who we were and were starting to write about us. For example, Paul Greenberg, the “Godfather of CRM”, wrote a short passage that perfectly signals good Content-Audience fit:
A few weeks ago, I had a discussion with fellow Enterprise Irregular Bob Warfield, who is the EVP of Products for a company called Helpstream. I have to admit, when I saw Bob’s rather cogent commentaries on the Enterprise Irregulars site, I became curious as to what he did and what the Helpstream company dealio was. I asked him and we set up a demo and a conversation between me, Bob, and Anthony Nemelka, the President and CEO of Helpstream and a long time industry veteran.
That second sentence telegraphs where we’re going and why Content-Audience fit is so critical to a product launch. Because of my “cogent commentaries”, Paul asked us for a demo. Imagine Content that is so good, the key influencers are coming to you, rather than you going to them hat in hand trying to get a meeting. I would budget a minimum of 6 months and perhaps as long as 12 months to achieve your Content-Audience fit. Sounds like you need to get started at the same time you start the Product, right?
This is an insight that is missing from many startups. In fact, many want to do a stealth launch and keep everything secretive. Feel free to keep your product aspirations a secret, but you’re nuts if you’re not belting out super high quality content for your audience from Day 1. That means as you sit around the table with your fellow Founders, and you ask the question, “Who is spearheading our drive for Content-Audience Fit and who is writing all that content?”, there had better be a good answer. That marketing guy you partnered with who has never actually done a blog, he has just simply hired people who did blogs? We might be past the evolution in how marketing is done for that to be a good idea. First question I ask any marketing candidate at any level is, “Show me your blog?” If the response is, “Huh?”, the interview is not going to go well. It’s no different than asking any question about marketing deliverables. Would you hire someone who had never had any contact with advertising of any kind? Content marketing is so critical to small companies, how can it be an afterthought?
As an aside, I recently came across a bootstrap business called, The Wirecutter. The Founder achieved Content-Audience fit before they ever started this little company by writing for Gizmodo, Wired, GadgetLab, and MaximumPC. How about grabbing one of the big name bloggers in your space as a co-Founder? How about at least as an advisor to help you get to Content-Audience Fit? Have them brutally critique your content until you get it right.
BTW, people like Paul Greenberg have extremely high standards. There is a reason they get nicknames like the “Godfather of CRM”. They are trusted and they didn’t get there by being dummies or shills. If your content doesn’t have something really meaningful to say, you’ll get nowhere with this strategy. But if you get the meeting because your PR firm pounded hard enough on doors, and then in the meeting you still have nothing to say, you’re going nowhere anyway. So:
It is critically important to do the work of achieving Content Audience Fit!
That’s it. Full Stop. End of Sermon. Don’t.Mess.It.Up!!!
Okay, now imagine you’ve got that fit, as defined by the 1,2,3,4 list above. Let’s use it to produce traction. This is done in the following ways:
The Audience that’s ready to Jump Now is ready. Invite them in.
There are always those influencers who get an edge by working harder to learn than the others. Always those prospects who are ready to buy now and want the new new thing. If you have achieved Content-Audience Fit, all you need do is announce the availability of a product and any of these people in your audience will be likely to check in. Start with your Beta Test. You can keep it as controlled as you like, but put the announcement out through your content channel and be sure to communicate at least your value proposition well enough so people will want to jump in. If you don’t have a big enough audience yet that having 5% of them answer your invitation, you don’t have Content-Audience Fit.
Give the Early Adopters an Amazing Deal and Make Them Heroes
You don’t need revenue yet, you need credibility. You put out the call to action, and the right people have self-selected by coming forward. They like you or else they wouldn’t have come forward. They’re active in the online world or else they’d have no idea you existed. They’re raising their hands to tell you they care. Make it easy for them to feel like that was the best decision they ever made. Focus your spotlight of attention entirely on them. Save your bandwidth so you can give them completely unreasonable amounts of it. Make them heroes and they will make you a star.
You need to charge them a little bit or it isn’t a real transaction. Give them the best deal you will ever offer in your corporate history and make sure they know that in the nicest possible way. Give them attention and services that will never be available to others in even a year’s time. Plug every member of your team into the success of these early customers.
When that fire has caught, you can ask them for a favor. You can ask them to help you get the word out. At the very least, you need them to be a willing and able reference. Next step up, you need them to be a case study. Grand Prize: you need them to be a source of referrals. Try to discreetly make sure when you sign them up that they’ll be able to do some of this, at least serve as references. You can’t ask for that favor up front, but you can find out if they’ve ever been involved with early software, done references, yada, yada.
Earn the Right to Raise Your Price and Sell Bigger Deals
The company I mentioned earlier, Helpstream, had nearly every marketing automation company as customers for our Customer Service Social CRM product. I remember calling each of these CEO’s, who were all entrepreneurs like myself, and asking them what Helpstream could and should do going forward. Phil Fernandez, CEO of Marketo, shocked me by telling me, “Bob, I don’t know if I should be saying this, but you should raise your prices.” Even more shocking was that Phil wasn’t the only one to tell me that. So we did, after carefully making sure to grandfather existing customers with appropriate agreements so that they were taken care of. There was virtually no pushback whatsoever, and it helped the business tremendously.
What had happened is we had earned the right to raise our prices by delivering on our promises and raising our credibility.
The ability to price higher comes most from credibility. Sure, you might have the world’s greatest product, but nobody knows that if you don’t have the credibility. Can you see where having good Content-Audience Fit is the first step on the credibility journey? Beyond that first step, it is your conduit for telling your customer’s stories and continuing to build that credibility.
The next step is being able to tell your Early Adopter’s stories. In terms of closing business, there is nothing like being able to have a prospect talk to a customer that gushes about your product. At Callidus Software we used to invite prospects to our User Conferences precisely to maximize the exposure to that kind of sentiment.
Startups are enaged in earning the right to raise prices and to sell bigger deals throughout their history. Successfully getting your first 5-10 reference accounts is just the first rung on that ladder. Each company you sell to would like to know that they’re not the largest deal you’ve ever sold. Raising the size of your largest deal earns you the right to sell even larger deals. Accumulating this asset of referencibility is your primary deal closing accelerant until you’re large enough to point to being the market leader or perhaps to being a public company. Gordon Moore’s Chasm Crossing can largely be seen as the process of establishing the credibility needed before those who are not Early Adopters will buy.
All along your journey, your Content continues to establish your company’s expertise in its chosen field. You never walk away from that–you just keep building on it. If your references are your Sales Accelerant, your successful Content is your lead generation accelerant. Establish your web properties as the go-to spots to learn about what your customers care about. All the best marketing startups like Hubspot, SEOMoz, Marketo, and Eloqua are working this way. Maybe that’s a clue for the non-marketing startups that this is how marketing is done these days?
Lead With Content for Competitive Skirmishes and Insights
Competitors are great for startups. If you’re the only one in a market, you have to undertake to grow that market all by yourself. With competition, the cost is shared and the market can grow much more quickly. In addition, picking a fight is a sure way to add passion to your content and help drive more traffic. You can’t agree with everybody, but you need to agree with the position your key audience want you to stake out.
Take advantage of that with your Content strategy. See which conversations your competition are dominating and wade into those conversations with your own viewpoint. That viewpoint has to carry substance, but when it does, if you win the audience’s hearts and minds who are watching the conversation, they will come your way. You can’t win them all, but this is where you start stacking up the different value propositions. This is where you carve up the market into micro-niches that are looking at things each a little differently. Here’s where you find out which micro-niches matter, and which ones are dead ends best left to the competition.
Passive sonar gained by just passively consuming the content from your space is great, but so much more can be learned through active pinging of the landscape. See how they respond to your messaging, analysis, and insights.
There’s a lot of work required to achieve traction. But, if you subscribe to my Content-Audience Fit idea, you’ll begin that work Day 1 at your company. When you’re ready to enter Beta Test, you’ll have a lot more going for you than your sales guy’s contact lists and willingness to burn through shoe leather. You’ll have an audience that wants to come to you, embrace your product, and help you spread the word. FWIW, Helpstream wasn’t my first or last experience with Content-Marketing Fit. My bootstrap company, CNCCookbook, thrives on the notion today.
(Cross-posted @ SmoothSpan Blog)