What to do if your startup does not get traction

Startups might sound cool but they are not easy!

What to do if your startup does not get traction
Startups might sound cool but they are not easy!

For your startup, you need a sustainable level of customer growth. If your startup does not get traction, it will surely languish and die. Sad, yes, but true nonetheless. But wait! You did your research, you built a solid product, reached out to your potential user base, so why isn’t anyone buying?

It’s tough to overturn poor uptake, but it can be done. Your startup doesn’t have to be fated to the deadpool where so many startups go to die, but you’ll have to look death in the eye, reassess your methods, and find your missteps.

Listen to your customers

Understand what your customers really want, because at the end of the day, customers don’t care about your idea. You care about your idea, you love your idea, and maybe being married to that idea resulted in your downfall. What you really need to do with your great idea is test it, and see if that idea translates into an awesome product that people are willing to use, and pay for. If you’re not getting traction, this is the first step to finding out if you made a misstep here, or perhaps if the market has shifted while you were busy building.

First thing’s first, you’ll need to talk to your current customers, and the ones that signed up initially but didn’t stick around. Customer development means really talking, and really listening to your customers to find out where you’re missing opportunities. Conduct customer interviews in person, by email, or via phone to get your feedback. If you can get in-person or phone interviews, they’re usually the best.

Products are highly tied to emotion, and it’s usually the first thing people say about your product that will give you the best insight about their experience. With a scripted or cookie-cutter email survey, you could easily miss the most important piece of the puzzle — customer perspective.

Was there a disconnect between the feedback you received during the initial customer development process? Is your hypothesis correct but the product is wrong? I’ve built products that people wanted, but my initial product missed the mark as far as its value proposition.

Look further than just customer feedback on your idea, understand that you may be failing to reach more customer who want to buy your product. If that’s the case, you’ll need to go back and find out how to target your market. Once again, communicating with your customer directly will clue you into the things you need to know about your audience — hobbies, demographic, purchasing habits. It’s possible that after talking to your customers you’ll be clued in to a large part of the market that you’d previously been missing out on.

Customer development is the single most important step for traction; figure this out quickly. Your customers are the best way to give you a quick snap back to reality, and indicate the viability of your business model.

Re-Assess The Product

Based on the feedback you receive, is the solution you set out to give your customers actually a solution? Did you get the product right? The good news and the bad news is, you have your product completely built out, meaning you have the ability to test every aspect and get real feedback from your customers. Customer feedback via interviews, analytics, and surveys should give you an idea about where the product isn’t registering with your customers. Maybe your customer feedback leads you to a simple redesign, like a couple of features that are annoying or complicated. Perhaps the feedback tells you the issue in comparison with competitors.

Features and business model are important, and could be traction barriers (be wary of the “Next Feature Fallacy), but you’ll also need to take a step back and reassess the entire product against the problem: have you achieved product market fit? It’s probably safe to say that without customers knocking on your door, you haven’t. Back track with your product a bit, back to the problem. Is your product truly coming from a point of pain? If it is, and customers aren’t buying, they don’t understand the problem, and that’s where you need to step in.

Getting to product market fit also means understanding the difference between MVP and MSP (minimum sellable product). Your product could very well be stuck in the MVP stage, which may bring in some sales, but it’s not ready to be replicated and sold to others. This takes a good amount of testing, polishing, and prioritizing features, and the line between MVP and MSP can be hazy. It might be a good idea to reach out to one of your devoted users and ask them where they see the difference in your product’s MVP and MSP.

Is Your Value Proposition Clear?

Messaging is something that many startups struggle with. The most important thing to gain from your customers is this: does the essence of your problem/solution boil down to one sentence? From that — does the value resonate with your customers, and is that value proposition unique on the market?

Few people buy products simply for the sake of technology; they buy a product because they understand how it will improve their life. Not only should you be able to explain the problem/solution in one sentence, but your customers should be able to do the same. Ask current product users how they would feel if they could no longer use a product. If over 40% of users answer saying they would be ‘very disappointed’ without it, you have strong value-based traction.

You can use the same tactics you would in defining product and customer development: simply talk to your customers directly. And the best way to know if your customers perceive real value? They’ll pay for your product.

Re-evaluate Your Go-To-Market Strategy

Did you effectively plan your go-to-market strategy? Do you even have a go-to-market strategy? Just like your original product hypothesis, this might need to be re-evaluated.

Bringing a new product to market is hard, really hard, and most people fail. There’s no one way to bring a product to market. Do you understand the buying process of your potential customers? Do you know the business issues of the decision makers? Are your targeted marketing channels the appropriate ones to reach your desired user? Your go-to-market strategy is a sub-set of your overall marketing strategy. It’s not just one event, you’re not just gearing up for press around your product’s release. It’s an entire plan around your product’s life-cycle.

No one said startups were easy. In fact, the odds are never in your favor. However, that doesn’t mean poor traction in the beginning spells inevitable doom for your company. View your traction problem as the best learning opportunity you will ever have. Now, you need to quickly dive back into the pieces of your startup puzzle and find which pieces have gone missing, or were never in the box to begin with. It’s never too late for a team who is able to take a good hard look at each tenet of the business from idea to market strategy, and use that knowledge as a springboard to move the business forward. In the end, if you can overcome the traction hiccup with your fledgling company, you will be far better equipped for future obstacles.