Bruce Cleveland: Part 1- Traversing the Traction Gap

April 2, 2019

PUBLISHED BY Vinnie Mirchandani

SOURCE Deal Architect

Bruce Cleveland, who many readers may remember from his Siebel days is now an investor and has a new book out, Traversing the Traction Gap. I had a long ranging conversation with him about the book and also about trends he sees in today’s enterprise software industry. In this part we focus on the book, in Part 2 tomorrow he will discuss partnering and how to go after white spaces in the market.

How did the book come about?

Many people have asked, “How long did it take you to write the book?”  It took about a year of nights and weekends and a bunch of rewrites with others helping along the way. Not writing the book – I did that – but performing the interviews, creating graphics, getting legal sign off to use the quotes we collected, and that type of thing.  I learned it really does take a village to get a book out – at least something that’s meaningful. More importantly, it took me 35 years of experience to accumulate the knowledge to write it. It required 10 or 12 years on the venture side and 25 years on the operating side.

I was fortunate to work for and with some of the most amazing technology CEOs and leaders in the Valley.  Luminaries such as Larry Ellison and Tom Siebel were – and still are – the visionaries who created massive markets and incredibly successful technology companies.  Tom’s new company, C3, is doing exceptionally well.  I had the advantage of a ringside seat observing the decisions they made and helping to execute them. Over the course of ten years as a venture investor, I met with and listened to presentations from at least 1,000 teams. I learned from those experiences as well. Finally, for the book, we interviewed dozens of successful founders and CEOs to better understand what led to their success.  So, the Traction Gap Framework is something that I developed but the ideas came from the cumulative knowledge and experience of many smart and talented people.

Over time, patterns began to emerge as I began to see what tended to cause startup failure: 80% for enterprise or B2B oriented startups. B2C — 90% to 95% failure rates.  CPG — 98% failure rates. I realized that there are a lot of great ideas and very talented teams, yet many make mistakes that are avoidable.

So, I started to unpack all of this.  When I joined two other people to create a new venture firm, Wildcat Venture Partners, I brought those ideas with me based upon the patterns I had observed. The most common cause of failure? Many phenomenal product teams stumble when it comes time to take their products to market. While they may have great product engineering skills, most teams lack “market engineering” skills – a term I came up with to represent category creation/redefinition, thought leadership content, market validation processes, pricing models, etc. I decided to double-click on this.

All early stage startups – and new products inside an existing company – must go through 3 phases: go-to-product, go-to-market, and go-to-scale. There is a lot of help from angel investors, incubators and accelerators for the go-to-product phase. There is also a lot of help in the go-to-scale phase from groups such as Bain, McKinsey, etc. However, there is very little help for that murky go-to-market period. And, the evidence – 80% failure rates and higher – shows us that this is the most challenging phase for startups.  One of my partners is Geoffrey Moore, author of “Crossing the Chasm”. That book has taught millions of entrepreneurs how to think about markets.

Most of the groups we invest in come out of great colleges or great companies, be it Salesforce, Google, Facebook, or wherever. There, they have learned how to develop a product. However, many of those groups have never experienced bringing a product to market. And, there has been virtually nothing written with respect to how to do it successfully.  There are no prescriptive guides.  There aren’t’ guardrails or guideposts for startup teams to follow. I decided that, based upon my personal operating experience taking an early stage startup from an idea to a billion-dollar outcome and investing in multiple early stage startups that went on to become billion dollar outcomes, that I would share my experience and the experience of others who had succeeded.

The Traction Gap Framework

We don’t need more acronyms introduced into the technology landscape. I decided to adopt Minimum Viable Product – MVP –  a term that Steve Blank, Eric Ries, and Marc Andreessen propagated, and derived the names of the value inflection points for the framework from that term. It may be debatable about what constitutes an MVP, but it’s something that people are familiar with.  In my experience, if you can explain new ideas in terms people already understand, then they can quickly pick up on those ideas.

TGF - Detail
I adopted the “minimum viable” format and applied it to the value inflection points associated with the framework.  The reason that I call them value inflection points is that as you reach each successive point, your company increases in value because you have diminished risk in the eyes of the investor community. In fact, it’s a step function change in value, not a smooth curve.

Read the full article on Deal Architect.