Two years ago, when my co-founder, Matt Mohebbi, and I started  Iodine, we had nothing but a hunch. We thought we could help people make better decisions about their health by combining data and design, and focusing on their needs rather than on the needs of their doctors or their insurance companies. That was our hypothesis, and we've spent the past two years building a company around it. 

Most of those months, we've been building products--specifically, the website Iodine.com and  Start, a mobile app for those suffering from depression--that navigate people through their options, with the goal of helping them arrive at a better decision, faster. We're proud of these products, and lucky to have had the time to make them work. In  startup land, two years is a long time, enough time to test and refine and fail repeatedly. And now, thankfully, we think we've got a company that's helping people find which medications work for them, just as we'd planned.

Now we have to prove it.

For most companies, proving that you've got a great product simply means selling it to the people who want to use it. But since our products are free to consumers, proving it means getting the evidence ready so we can start selling it.

In particular, it means three things: 

  1. We have to prove that a lot of people will use what we've built and that they'll find our products useful enough to recommend to others. 
  2. We have to prove that our products actually do what we say they do in terms of measurably improving the health and happiness of our users. 
  3. We have to prove that companies out there are willing to pay for our products (that means employers as well as health care organizations, like pharmacies and insurance companies, that provide our users with medications and care). 

The Silicon Valley buzzword for this sort of evidence is traction. Traction refers to that cocktail of user growth, marketplace success, and other metrics that shows a business is actually making it as, well, a business. For companies like ours making free products, traction means getting enough users now to sell against later. For companies charging users for their products, traction means, basically, sales--but in a mode of rapid experimentation, iteration, and optimization (more buzzwords!).

These concepts are featured in a new book called--you guessed it-- Traction: A Startup Guide to Getting Customers, by Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares. Normally, I'm suspicious of how-to strategy books, but this one came along at just the right time for Iodine, with lucid case studies on what has worked for other startups. We bought everyone on our team a copy of Traction and ran a weekly study group that yielded dozens of ideas for how to get Iodine into more people's lives. 

Some of those experiments, inevitably, have failed. It turns out, nobody really wants another news­letter on depression. But others have panned out, such as hatching distribution partnerships with like-minded startups--thank you, PillPack and GoodRx. These experiments have not only helped us get users; they've also helped us develop an efficient strategy for getting users, and avoid putting too much effort toward low-yield gambits.

So, what happens once we get a critical mass of users? Then it will be time to monetize, to show that other companies will pay for the products and services we've created. 

Two years in, the surprising thing is that so much of this is going according to plan. Back on day one, we knew that Iodine was a great idea. Now we just need to prove it's a great company.

From the March 2016 issue of Inc. magazine