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Gaining Traction: What It Is and How It Will Make You Successful

We’re lucky to have this guest post from Zane the Experimenter.

Most people are just treading water – logging the minimum monthly work hours to pay the bills and stay afloat.

If you are a blogger or entrepreneur of any sort, you were probably seduced by the notion of being your own boss and thereby becoming a master of your own fate. Unfortunately, the hard reality is that most people in this position of independence work even harder than the norm for fewer results. The work ethic is certainly commendable, but many fail to ever develop real traction and therefore never get to live the lifestyle they envisioned.

There is a famous quote by Lewis Carroll, which is one of my favorites because it illustrates the folly of living without traction:

“It takes all the running you can do“To keep in the same place”

This quote has been used as the basis of what is called the Red Queen’s Hypothesis.

One example of the hypothesis at work is in evolution – where each species is constantly evolving just in order to continue to survive, since all the other species are each evolving as well. As applied to business and marketing this means that in an ever-changing marketplace, even if you feel like you are doing a lot to help your business, you may be doing the bare minimum to keep up with evolution.

Many Bosses Instead of Just One

When I first started my mobile software company, people said to me “it must be nice to not have a boss.” I would reply: “actually, instead of one boss, I have many!” A boss is anybody that pays your bills and therefore feels entitled to have a say in what you do and how you do it. By this definition, building software for a client led me to have many bosses. Sure, the contracts paid the bills – but once the money was gone I was left with little or nothing to show for the experience.

Likewise, many bloggers and creators of online products are impulsive and short-sighted.

As the market shifts and it becomes clear that emerging tools (most recently Facebook and Twitter) are necessary, they implement these strategies simply in order to keep up. There is rarely thought about what such a strategy will contribute to the site, to the users, or how specifically it will help the product. Because “everybody else is doing it,” bloggers halfheartedly mimic the strategy and end up with a new time-sink rather than a growth strategy.

In both scenarios, there is no long-term benefit received. Both high price-tag contracts and Twitter strategies may seem appealing to cash-strapped and traffic-starved young businessmen, but they do little to create a brand or product that can live on its own. In other words: each of these strategies dies as soon as time stops being pumped into it because they have no traction. They are subject to the same “trading time for money” paradigm that truly efficient people seek to eschew.

How to Choose an Endeavor

By this logic, we should choose our endeavors or projects based upon their potential traction. What, exactly, is gaining traction though? I would define it, as it metaphorically applies to business, in the following way:

The capacity for an endeavor to create additional value for the company or product beyond an initial fixed gain, potentially creating unforeseen future benefits.

I chose the word traction because it implies that, as it grows, you have greater pull or influence. If designed correctly this use of traction will lead to a compounding effect that means each future project is more effective than the last – this is the amazing power of synergy at work.

With this in mind, I have developed a simple checklist for myself when evaluating a new idea:

1. Does it provide me with a long-term reward? Studies have shown that it is a natural part of human psychology to accept a small reward now rather than a larger one later. We are irrational creatures in this regard, and it is something we must fight. I choose contracts and projects, especially those with revenue sharing, because they have the possibility to exceed expectations. Most recently I worked for about 2 weeks for a revenue sharing agreement that is generating about $100 per month. It will take a long time before I earn back the value of my time at the current rates, but the contract does not ever expire and the business has the chance of succeeding wildly and exceeding expectations.

2. Will it provide me with a new intangible asset or skill? We get so wrapped up in money that sometimes it is easy to forget how important it is to invest in ourselves. As a computer programmer, a project that uses an in-demand language that I do not know implicitly has more value to me because it increases my future value in other ways. Put another way: why would I not let someone pay me to learn something new?

3. Would it be okay if this project fails? It is never a good idea to have all your eggs in one basket. I have seen many entrepreneurs put themselves in a situation where they are up to their eyeballs in debt and loans, pushing ever forward for the eventual big payday. It is true that if this strategy pays out it can be insanely lucrative, but being ready to allow a bad project to fail and to start a new one is a much more reliable strategy for long-term success.

4. Is there an end in sight? You hear about business exit strategies for a good reason. If you are passionate about a project it is fine to want to work on it for many years to come, but the act of formulating an exit strategy before you get too deep into a project ensures that it is all actually leading towards something.

Experiment: Killing your Babies

One of the most important but under-utilized parts of being self-employed is being able to kill your babies, or to do away with an endeavor that is not producing results. Of course, you must finish contractual obligations, and any time you decide to quit something it should be done with care. Still, I encourage you to set up each of your projects as an experiment.

The reason I like the word “experiment” so much is because it carries an implicit acknowledgement of fallibility. Instead of embarking on a project and hoping that it works out, set out to treat the project as an experiment to see if it will work. My blog itself is an experiment, one in which I’ve tried dozens of marketing strategies and writing styles and am carefully analyzing the results.

The most important bit here is having a way to quantify the success of a project.

There exists a common programmer prioritization system of “need-to-have” vs. “want-to-have” and “like-to-have” features for a project. I employ this when I accept a revenue sharing contract. I agree to implement only the “need-to-have” features at first. If the project begins to show profit roughly on par with the amount of time it cost me to implement the features, I move on to the other features.

In this way, each project is given a fair chance to succeed, but unsuccessful projects are dropped quickly and ruthlessly, maximizing the potential to gain traction.

How Traction Compounds

We have all heard (and perhaps dreamt) of the viral tipping-point, where traffic compounds upon itself exponentially overnight. In most scenarios, traction is a bit slower to build but the results are no less impressive. Here are a few examples from my own life, without which I would not be able to live my current lifestyle.

When I first started my blog, I harbored a secret fear that I would not be able to write enough quality content to meet my schedule. In fact, the opposite has happened – I have so many ideas that my task list is overflowing with thoughts and I even had to increase the frequency of my posts just to keep up.

Traction is at the core of this. When I first started blogging I decided to also begin posting (arguably) well-written comments on other blogs. This meant that I had to go about the process of finding other blogs that contained content I was interested in and read them with some regularity. This fit into my checklist above because the types of information I am most interested in is obviously something I would like to know more about anyway, even if it does not ultimately help the blog. In addition, getting my name out there in the fields I am most interested in (neuroscience, for example) is certainly a good idea.

Soon I found that the comments and resulting discussions were not only providing traffic for my blog but giving me valuable business insights into what my readers were most interested in, as well as revealing new and interesting topics worth researching for future posts.

By the time I decided to start actively using Twitter, it only made sense to continue to apply this strategy. I quickly realized that Twitter is really nothing more than a big comment thread on a global scale. I took this as an opportunity to follow and discover new articles and bloggers in relevant fields and subsequently retweet interesting information. You may have heard the advice before that, in order to use Twitter well, you need to work to share interesting content with your users from a variety of sources. The key distinction is that in my strategy it is not “work” to find this content. I consider the very act of reading new and interesting things to be the primary goal and the growth of my Twitter feed to be an auxiliary benefit.

As a final example, consider my afore-mentioned mobile software business. I continue to accept the occasional contract to this day, but I am carful to choose those that will have benefits to me in the future. The recent contracts I accepted have each had at least two of the following three properties:

– A revenue sharing agreement

– A big-name client

– A new skill to be learned

By developing a large amount of unique intellectual property and revenue sharing arrangements with clients, about 60% of my total monthly income is residual (and will continue, generally, even if I am not actively maintaining it). With the money I earn, I choose to invest the vast majority – compounding interest is just another form of traction, after all.

As a result of these lifestyle and work adjustments, I am able to now work from the road and travel the world. Despite the fact that the mobile software company I started does not have an office or employees (like it once did), it is actually more successful now and leaves me more time to pursue other interests.

Keep On Trucking

I certainly do not want to become another talking head that promises yet another get-rich-quick pill. I believe strongly in the value of hard work and determination. Traction is a valuable tool for growth, but it requires effort like anything else. It is not a prescription that will allow you to work less, but rather it is a way to ensure that your hard work continues to provide results into the future.

I trust that you who read this blog are already not just hard workers, but smart workers. Still, we could all benefit from gaining a little more traction. Have you managed to find it in your business? Do you have your own traction checklist? Let me know in the comments below!

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