Do you have traction?

Our long-term growth depends on the demands we place on the market.

Do you have traction?
Photo by Waldemar / Unsplash

A car cruises down a highway, emitting a steady hum.  As the asphalt meets the tire, the spinning drive-shaft transfers the energy of the engine into the front axle. As the car hits 60 miles per hour, the wheels rotate eight hundred and thirty-three times per minute, blurring the design of the wheels into concentric circles.  

The highway's rough surface sands down the galvanized rubber.  Once it's too smooth, the tires will be replaced.  "See right there?  That's your tread depth.  You need at least six thirty-seconds of an inch ... and you're at four, almost three!"  A fresh hit to the wallet earns the driver a fresh set of tires, and the process repeats.

Though this friction erodes the driver's checking account, they wouldn't have it any other way, because it represents the most important force in driving: traction.

Traction is the adhesive friction of a body on a surface on which it moves; it is pulling force and a state of tension.

Traction is the difference between progress and play.  Inside a calm garage, a child occupies the driver's seat, jerking the wheel left and right.  Beep beep!  Look at me!  I'm driving!  they shout. We wave.  Our smile is genuine, but it belies our amusement: "they think they're driving; it's so cute."

Parents of the best kind might turn the ignition into the first position.  Air conditioning fans whir, and the dashboard illuminates.  The toddler's world transforms from pure imagination to real numbers, lights, and gauges.  They blink, drawing their attention here and there.  Now they're driving!  Vroom vroom.  The appearance of numbers — the same ones mommy and daddy see when they're driving, heightens the illusion.  

Are We Driving?

Like the car, your business is a system.  Systems are composed of stocks: amounts like cash, customers, leads, opportunities, and flows: change or rates of change between these stocks, like income, expenses, conversion rates, and gross churn.  

Because your business is a system, improving one part 🐙 — adding revenue, increasing traffic, improving retention, is not in and of itself evidence that you've improved the system.  In fact, you may even be worsening 🐙 it.

So what, then, is business traction?  

Our metaphor can help us here.  I'll tell you facts about the car, and you tell me if it's got traction.  Let's start with the car's stocks: 15 gallons of unleaded gasoline, 4 leather seats, 4 doors, all working, and 5 intact windows ...

Okay, I see, that's not really helping at all, is it?  

Alright, let's try its flows: the engine is running, pulling gas into its cylinders.  The tires are spinning, and the A/C is blowing.

How do you feel now?  A little better?  But still, you're not ready to make the call?

Okay, here's one more clue, and I think it'll make you slap your buzzer for sure!

The car is moving.

Come now, why are you pausing?  Are you thinking negative thoughts like "Well, what if its engine just gave out, and it's slowing to a stop?  Or you know — it could be getting hauled to the junk yard on the back of some tow truck!  That's still moving, you know!  This guy is out to trick me!"

Tsk. Me?!

The Space Between

So what is traction in a business sense?  And how do we know if we have it?

Let's orient 🐙 ourselves by first adapting the definition to our car example:

Traction is the adhesive friction of (the car on the road on) which it moves; it is pulling force and a state of tension.

Substituting our business:

Traction is the adhesive friction of (our business on the market within) which it moves; it is pulling force and a state of tension.

There's more here than linear movement, isn't there?  There's not even a mention of the things going on inside the business, or its components.  The focus is on the liminal space between the business and the market and the contact between the two.  

Traction occurs in the handshake. The market pulls on the business by making demands: 'we want this.'  The business doesn't just say "sure" and hand it over.  It creates tension by making its own demands of the market: 'yes, you can have that, but you will pay us X for that, and it will be packaged this way, and it will not include that feature yet.  And we're also going to sell it to your competitor.'  Those demands capture and preserve value for the business, fueling it, enabling it to grow.

Traction, therefore, is demand satisfaction that creates and protects business progress.  I would even go a step further and argue that traction is demand satisfaction that accelerates the business, because what constitutes traction changes from one phase of growth to another.  First, traction is invalidating or corroborating assumptions, then it's gaining our first 10 customers, then it's figuring out how to replicate the founder's successful sales calls with that first sales hire, then it's taking a market leadership position, and so on and so on.  At no point in those subsequent stages can we harken back to a previous milestone and claim it as evidence of traction today.  Traction is what-has-the-market-done-for-you-lately.


As founders, we have to learn how to maintain traction by making fair demands of the market.  Fair because without these demands, the business ceases to exist, and the market ends up unsatisfied.

These demands require seeing the market a bit differently.  Not as a villain, but as rightfully selfish; ultimately, no single customer cares if you manage to build a company, as long as they get what they want from you.

Our long-term growth, therefore, depends on our ability to say yes 🐙, our willingness to say no 🐙, and the courage to capture enough of the upside we create that we can continue to lead the market into our vision.