Angel investors will often categorize an idea as a painkiller or a vitamin. A vitamin is something that makes the customer’s life a little easier or a little better, whereas a painkiller is something that solves a real pain point for the customer. The assumption is that if you are addressing an actual problem a customer has, they will have a greater urgency to purchase your product or service and will more readily take on the risk of buying and using a product or service from a startup.
B2B startups have a particular challenge in that they are asking their customers to take a chance on the product and the company. If a customer buys a startup’s product, invests in setting it up and training their employees on it, and then the company disappears in a year because they ran out of money or pivoted, then the customer is up a creek, and that purchasing manager has some explaining to do to his or her boss. The product has to be really compelling for the buyer to take that chance. It is often not enough that it has better features than existing products or that it saves the customer 10%-20% on their costs.
Even for B2C companies, it can be challenging to get consumers to change their behavior. The product has to be significantly better than the alternatives to get consumers to switch and stick around.
Sales to paying customers is the greatest validation of an idea, and the product that delivers on the idea. Traction is a term that most often refers to a startup’s progress in getting customers.
A company’s traction with customers indicates that there is actually demand for the product or service. This is sometimes referred to as (or as an important part of) product/market fit,* meaning that there is a validated market for the product at the stated price. Traction also shows that the company has actually built a working version of their product, and that they can sell it to businesses or generate consumer demand, for B2B or B2C offerings respectively.
In many cases you, the angel investor, will not be the intended customer for the startup’s product, and without interviewing lots of potential customers it can be challenging to assess the appeal of the product. Traction tells you unequivocally whether the intended customer is willing to use and pay for the product. You do not need to be an expert in the domain or up to date on the competition, because the customers are making rational decisions with all that information.
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