Traction and getting unstuck
How to fix the love between your product and customers, in a startup company.
Traction is tuning habits towards a sound vision.
Those five words define the struggle that consumes and destroys most startup companies within their first year of existence.
The trouble isn’t that founders don’t know the definition of traction; they do. But the concept is too abstract to be actionable. How do I know this? Because I had several mentors warning me about my exact actions that killed my first startup.
I have a different approach. I’m going to tell you a life story about traction. Concrete metaphors that have actually happened have a way of uncovering a sea of meaning conveyed in five little words.
This is a story about how I found love (and the marooned decade preceding it).
I was spending my time in the doldrums, I was caught in a cauldron of hate
Perhaps I’m not your typical Silicon Valley stereotype. High school is a social nightmare for most techies. For me, it was a personal trial.
You see, I wasn’t just a geek out of place in 11th grade. I was an immigrant from the Middle East (Iran), aged 17, just arrived in Toronto, sitting in an English as a Second Language (ESL) class. And I had a severe case of traction problem: I had a crush on someone a few rows in the back, while literally lost for words in the English language . If we’re going to talk about traction, first we need to talk about being stuck without it.
Two years prior to this immigration, when I was 15, I spent a day in jail on the peak of a mountain near Tehran (sorry mom, if you’re just finding out). I mean that literally: brick walls, metal bars, the whole works. Crime? Climbing with a group of twenty people that included an unmarried couple. We were in violation of the moral law against unmarried relationships; not even directly, but by proximity to it!
I was stuck, on that summer day in the early 90’s, at a low point in history, on top of a mountain, in a jail room with seventeen other boys (the unmarried couple were let go once the girl’s dad phoned in a bribe, which was a routine thing to do in such situations.) I’m relating this particular background story, because it’s both literal and a metaphor for my upbringing: I was stuck in a society that forbid me to build up experiences towards a natural human need called romantic connection. In ESL class, I didn’t just suddenly need courage and mastery of the English language; I needed to overcome 17 years of absolute inexperience.
That’s what I mean by a personal trial. How's that for not having traction?
I felt persecuted and paralyzed, I thought that everything else would just wait
When I was 16, a year after the day in jail and a year prior to sitting in ESL class, I had a date. Not any kind of date.
The Internet hadn’t been invented yet, and I was a member of a local network connecting to a centralized forum with dial-up modems. One of the friends I had made, Maryanne (not her real name), was ten years older and had just got engaged to be married. So I asked her to a very public high-end cafe on a date, at the risk of imprisonment. I was confident she’d show up, and she did. “That’s pretty brave of you, how did you know I’d show up?”
“You’re getting married.” I said confidently. "This is your last chance to defy imposed dating norms. And I won’t be here next year to talk about it. No complications.” Her impression showed surprise in the ability of a sixteen year-old reading her mind. “So why did you invite me out?” I smiled, “I feel paralyzed” I said. “I’ve never been allowed to socialize with women, and in the future when I’m free, I’ll be lost for words. I wanted a bridge. I wanted to have a vision of what I’ll be looking for, even if getting traction is going to take years.”
“Let me tell you something,” she said and leaned forward to share a serious secret behind the tall glass of café glacé. I smiled again with curiosity and leaned in to listen. And she kissed me on the lips, in public, for ten long seconds. In a mix of shock, fear and surprise with exceeded expectation, I shut up and let it happen. We eventually sat back amidst an unstirred crowd, and she asked “how many girls did you ask out before me?” I said “none.” And then she gave me the most important lesson I’ve ever learned in romance, business and life in the last twenty years, in a single word. She said:
While you are wasting your time on your enemies, engulfed in a fever of spite
We’re all delusional. I certainly was in my post-immigration high school; how else would you accept the self-label of “terrible with girls” from someone who not once asked anyone out? I feared rejection, of course; but I refused to address the commonplace fear because of an excuse. I was artificially devoid of all basic experience blocks, with a big idealistic vision of the kind of man I wanted to be. The gap of experience was so vast that I feared to look over the height. The kiss taught me that I had a chance once I was in the conversation, but I didn’t know how to start conversations.
I despaired about lacking traction, like many of us do when starting something new; but in retrospect I wasn’t even sitting in the car. I was on the side of the road, pitying my inability to create opportunities to put the tires on the road. Your conversion rate is zero if you have zero impressions. Like a restaurant hotel with no sign, nobody knew I existed.
And instead of addressing the customer funnel, I was too focused on the product, in this case myself.
Beyond your tunnel vision reality fades like shadows into the night
The first time in my life I was certain of lacking traction was dating in high school. Like most teenagers, I was in love with the vision of the ideal girlfriend; but when you constrain yourself to meeting the perfect person instantly, opportunities turn into desperation.
Months went by in self-imposed solitude. One day, suddenly, the face of an ordinary girl in the back of the ESL class invoked my imagination, like the imagination of a miner recognizing veins of gold in the stone he’s been beholding for days. My daily line of sight in an instant turned into a permanent tunnel vision, and my un-involvement gave way to muttering incompetence. I was the minimum product in front of the buyer, but I didn’t feel viable. Yes… No... What’s the question? … I was lost for words. I feared failure, and I feared success even more. I was 17.
One day, after about a year, I mustered up the courage to approach the girl. Turned out she had just got married and was about to move out of town the next month. She said that with a pleasant smile and a gift the next day. But somehow I recorded that as a failure on my part. It was tunnel vision for selective experiences, combined with cognitive distortion in classifying the outcome.
In the first-person narrative of a startup founder, the line between traction problems and insanity are somewhat blurred. In absence of data from trailing experiences, you interpret and root-cause reality firmly from the basis of your expectation bias. So with a single data point, often what you learn is less correct than your best guess if you had no data.
To martyr yourself to caution Is not going to help at all
At the risk of giving away the twist, let me explicitly say that in the metaphor, I’m also describing every corporate employee who wants to become an entrepreneur.
Most of us as employees spend most of our days in a little jail on top of the mountain called the cubicle. We have our own romantic ideas of what a career should look like, but we’re prevented, with the full force of law, from exploring them except in our own private bedrooms. The corporation defends its right to your time and inventions because it pays you a salary, much like the theocratic republic decries the “corrupt" natural values of its citizens through its codified and policed morals. Whether you respect the morality of law is completely irrelevant. “The first rule of any game is to know you’re in one”  If you’re into the game of romance, you can’t live within a theocracy. If you’re into the game of entrepreneurship, you can’t live within the walls of a cubicle.
Corporations, like theocracies, own what happens in your bedroom, by privately enforced moral rights. I’m not suggesting that either situation is amoral or reprehensible — simply utter a word of protest inside either environment to quickly find the larger part of the masses stacked for the status quo and against you. Instead, I’m leading by example: I’m an immigrant entrepreneur; I’ve opted out of belonging to both the theocratic society and the corporation. So my first advice is this, if you want traction:
Admit to yourself when you’re stuck in a game you can’t win, and be prepared to get on the right road track.
Because there'll be no safety in numbers when the right one walks out of the door
Love is blind; don’t get obsessed.
Founders tend to be abstract thinkers. We see a pattern and generalize, in a world of concrete stories. We see a customer and build a persona template, in a world of specific people. And we fall in love with an idealized image looking to be fulfilled, instead of a flawed person with lovable imperfections.
There’s nothing wrong with that behavior, except that it destroys you. Idolization leads to tragedy, whether you’re studying religion, Shakespeare or reality. I’m a student of reality and my own dragged-out stupidity is the only empirical story worth offering:
What is the point of waiting for perfect timing for a single opportunity, when every single moment is filled with thousands of opportunities?
Why do we fall in love with that one person? Why do we bet it all on that one key technical hire? Why do we gamble the company on a single key customer? Why do we risk the whole pile of funding on a single product vision? And why, when our hearts are broken, we start from scratch, just to repeat being blind?
I used to sing the lyrics “‘cuz there’ll be no safety in numbers when the right one walks out of the door” to myself in high school when the girl I was obsessed about got married and walked out of the door. I understood the lyrics incorrectly for years, just like I understood that first kiss incorrectly. It’s not that “the right one” holds all the cards. It’s not that there’s no point in seeking “safety in numbers” of opportunities. It’s that if you’re gambling it all on the “right one”, you’ll lose out on all the opportunities.
“How many girls did you ask out before me?” … “None” … “Exactly."
Can you see your days blighted by darkness, is it true you beat your fists on the floor?
Love is not the only place where we make mistakes.
My first startup (representing 4% of my productive life) failed because of falling in love with a concept, pursuing it with tunnel vision, and looking for the right timing for a fixed idea rather than the abundant opportunities to tap into within a fixed time.
Consider yourself lucky when your failures, pains and sufferings in other domains in life become your light in the darkness of new domains. After much hard work, sweat and blood, I knew I had made a mistake, and it only took a few months to walk away and embrace a wide net of better-validated post-concept opportunities.
If you asked me during the life of my first startup what our main problem was, I would have recalled “lack of traction”. In retrospect, the truth could not be bent further. When you lack traction, that’s not the problem. The problem is a timeless obsession with a single opportunity, as opposed to an urgently executed process for selecting the best opportunity.
Is the girl not responding? You’re chasing the wrong girl. Say hi to 50 girls, identify the 40 that respond, filter the 30 that are single, send out 20 flowers, wait for 10 thank you cards, set up 5 dates, hit it off with two of them and buy a single ring. Don’t buy a ring, pick a single girl out of the crowd, and chase her for the next five years. That’s how you waste your time, which is the only precious resource you have.
Are customers not responding? You’re chasing the wrong customers. Don’t bend over backwards to turn a no into a yes; get out of that cubicle and set up 50 coffee dates with yes-minded people. Meet 40 of them. Identify the 30 that have a legitimate need. Send out 20 proposals. Wait for 10 follow-ups. Select 5 projects that make money for you and create value for the customer. Prototype and test two of them. Scale one.
Stuck in a world of isolation, while the ivy grows over the door
I’m a huge fan of Chef Gordon Ramsey. You can learn more about startups by watching Kitchen Nightmares and Hotel Hell than by swapping war stories with other founders. You can detect a common pattern:
Hapless owners think they have a great menu (product) in an amazing neighborhood (market). But nobody seems to be coming in, and the ones who make the mistake of coming through the doors seem to want to run away. We have a traction problem. Call Chef Ramsey before we’re bankrupt. We need that magic kiss.
“How many customers have you actually talked to, since the success?” … “None.”
At this juncture, I’d like to differentiate my message from Lean Startup and Customer Development. I’m not Steve Blank, advising you to Get Out Of The Building. I’m not Eric Ries, telling you to Identify Metrics around your Growth Engine. This is a different message:
Finding traction and getting unstuck is not about talking to more people. It’s about finding a way to stop lying to yourself.
Tunnel vision is the lie. No matter how many opportunities are here now, we acknowledge them only for confirming our biases. The funnel I described a few paragraphs ago is the way you seek out the truth. But it will not work (and it didn’t in my first startup) if you’re still lying to yourself.
Traction starts at that Hail Mary moment when you finally admit “what I’m doing doesn’t seem to work, I’m going to do something completely unusual” and call the older engaged woman or one of the best chefs in the world to slap you in the face with the truth: that despite having drawn a funnel in front of you, you're still blindly in love with the tunnel vision.
(Notice how when a consultant like Gordon Ramsey puts changes in place, the next day most of them are reversed by the drowning owner.)
So I open my door to my enemies and I ask could we wipe the slate clean
The moment I started asking girls out on dates, I came face to face with a surprising find.
Girls don’t screen by appearances or experience as much as by the timing of the opportunity. A few sustained weeks into this unusual activity, I had learned to look at dating as a funnel rather than through obsessive tunnel vision. Guy friends were starting to comment “how are you getting all this attention all of a sudden?!” They were noticing the traction, but not the insight: Once you put yourself out there, you gain visibility into the minds of your prospects. You will learn who’s single, who’s looking, and who’s in a committed relationship. You’ll have all this intelligence that the coward you left behind, as well as the competition, lacked. And it yields compound interest.
Compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe.  Life has a funny exponential trajectory when you disrupt yourself. I’m supposed to be a child of a theocratic and anti-western revolution, and yet opening the funnels of my sights to the world around me led to being the resident of a western evolution — in love, belief, life and all.
And opening my eyes to the needs of the world rather than the grandiosity of my visions has led to startup journeys, indeed with traction, that I will spare for another day. But I shall leave you with one last word of caution.
But they tell me to please go fuck myself, you know you just can't win
My final word is to the innovator.
There’s no such thing as a traction problem. The product is not broken. The customer is not wrong. It’s you.
Traction is about how you select things within the funnel of your eyesight. It's tuning habits (in selecting customers and solutions) towards a sound (nature-compatible) vision.
- First rule: go where you’re actually in the game. If they think you're crazy, go live with other crazies. Stop wasting time where you are.
- Make sure your vision (love, product, service, even your longer than usual essay) aligns with the natural order far better than the anti-love status quo's.
- Assume you already have tunnel vision.
- Speak to as many people as you can and share your vision. Let them open up the funnels of your eyesight. Let them slap your face with the truth of a kiss.
- Focus on those who want to love you.
- Love back selectively, with empathy for timing. This is the critical overlooked step to getting unstuck
- If you still haven’t succeeded with traction on that vision, you’re out $500 for coffee and cookies.
That costs far less than 4% of your productive life.
And if you’re lost for words on the first coffee, I promise you won’t be on the last one.
- Pink Floyd’s album “Division Bell” came out in 1994. I bought it after I immigrated, and probably listened to it every single night in high school while marooned in a perfectly new society and culture. The song “Lost for Words” became the background music to the personal story of my acculturation. The headlines in this essay are the lyrics of that song.
- Quote is attributed to Sandy Lerner, co-founder of Cisco Systems, 1984
- Quote from Albert Einstein
Amin Ariana is a software entrepreneur in San Francisco.
Special thanks to Mia Dand for reading early drafts of "Traction and getting unstuck".
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