Talk To Us When You Have Traction! Huh?

by on January 14, 2012

This is probably one of the most common phrases you hear from venture capitalists. It has become the de facto phrase from an investor that really isn’t interested in your startup, but wants to let you down easy. I make a conscious effort to avoid taking this backdoor, but I know that I have been guilty of it as well.

skid marksRecently, I was digging into a company and providing the entrepreneur with some feedback. After sharing a few thoughts I used the traction excuse – in this case it was legit. We liked the space, the entrepreneur and what he had accomplished so far. However, he didn’t have enough traction for it to be attractive as an investment yet. He quickly emailed me back with the question – “What do you mean by traction, specifically?”

Then it hit me – I have never actually been asked that! I think that investors are so used to using the term that they never put any quantifiable information behind it. I thought that it would be a good exercise to provide a quick overview of what traction looks like. Note that what follows is completely a generalization and their are many other factors that come into play in an investment decision. Also, traction looks very different depending on the type of company you are building and the market you are targeting. I will tackle three common ones in this post and try to estimate some figures that would be required for a Series A investment.

In consumer internet or mobile startups that does not have a transactional revenue model attached to it traction is all about the audience. The bar for what traction looks like in these companies has been significantly raised from 5-7 years ago when everyone was starting social networking and digital media companies. To be compelling to a VC you will need to show early signs of growth, 30%-50%+ month-over-month (MoM), and start to build an active user base of 100K+. Some VCs I have talked to say not to get your hopes up for a Series A investment unless you are around the 1,000,000 mark.

uvs-to-pinterestLets take a look at one of the hottest companies in this space that just recently closed a round of financing, Pinterest. Don’t focus so much on the incredible growth they have recently experienced, but rather notice that they had it even when their user base was small.

A SaaS company will not experience the same kind of growth as a consumer internet company. It is, however, generally able to produce revenues from day one. The definition of traction for these companies looks more at the signs (or specifically, data) that the company is moving to a scalable and profitable model. In simple terms, the separation between the cost of customer acquisition (CCA) and the lifetime value of a customer (LTV) is shrinking and repeatable. This combined with a growth of 10%-30% MoM shows signs of traction.

An e-commerce company takes a longer time to show signs of traction that is attractive to investors. This stems from the fact that it requires a considerable scale to make an e-commerce company profitable in light of low margins and expensive infrastructure. The same key performance indicators (KPIs) apply – CCA and LTV. However, unlike SaaS companies there are going to be considerable capital and fixed costs in an e-commerce company to consider. In general, growth rates of 10%-30% MoM and a 12-month run rate of over $1 million are signs that the company has traction.

I want to re-iterate that this is a generalization and their are many other factors that come into play in an investment decision. However, I wanted to try and provide some quantitative numbers for context.

Another question that I know will come up is in relation to what kind of traction is required for seed/angel investments. That is a whole other post, but I will share a great comment from my colleague Karam. While a Series A is all about traction seed investment is all about momentum. This momentum can take a lot of forms – traffic, sales, product development, recruitment of a team or even investors who have already stepped up to the plate.

Don’t wait until you have hit these metrics to reach out to investors either. In every case, an investment starts with a relationship that has to be built and investors want to see lines not dots. If you are moving in the right the direction and building traction make sure you reach out!