Building a Business Requires Building Trust

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 3 Early Customer Stage, 4 Finding your Niche, 5 Scaling Up Stage, Sales, skmurphy

“Don’t take business advice from people with bad personal lives.”
Frank Chimero “Some Lessons I Learned in 2013

One of the hallmarks for success in a business-to-business market is the ability to form personal relationships as well as professional business relationships. I am always dismayed when I read advice that advocates bait and switch or other forms of con games that erode trust and make it difficult for any startup to build relationships.

Anyone who always puts themselves first ends up with bad personal life. Startups that are only clear on their own needs rarely outrun the same fate. It’s the difference between a focus on funding or an “exit” and a focus on building a business.

Working with bootstrappers sometimes puts us on teams that are in desperate circumstances. Where they are able to translate time pressure and resource starvation into a bias for action from a change in perspective they often succeed–or at least move beyond the current crisis: success, like the horizon, is an imaginary line you can approach but never seen to cross. But where they use it as an excuse to take shortcuts that abuse prospects trust we sometimes have to part company. It does not happen very often, and it hasn’t happened in more than a year, but perhaps three or four times in the last decade we have had to walk away from a sales or marketing strategy we didn’t feel was in the long term best interest of the startup or their prospects.

“Fame is something that must be won.
Honor is something that must not be lost.”
Arthur Schopenhauer

Related posts

  • Treat Social Capital With The Same Care as Cash
  • De Tocqueville on Concept of “Self Interest Rightly Understood”
    You meet people who have a clear understanding of their own needs and seem to spend no time on anything else. But the deals that they make seem to based only on fear and threat. To create real opportunities in your own business requires that you explore and understand the needs and aspirations of your current and potential customers. To bring them ideas that will improve their lives and businesses requires that they trust you have their interests at heart when they talk about current problems that may expose their weaknesses and shortcomings
  • Keeping Your Customers’ Trust [Includes a Recap of Weinberg's 11 Laws of Trust]
    I think B2B software is often purchased by firms hoping to achieve–or avoid–some sort of change. Like consulting, software is the promise of an ongoing business relationship.  The two essentials in a mutually satisfactory business relationship are trust and an exchange of value.
  • Sustaining Is More Important Than Starting
  • David Foster Wallace: The Only Choice We Get is What to Worship especially this section from Wallace’s talk:
    But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.
  • Honesty in Negotiations
    One of the key tasks we help early stage teams with preparing for and executing successful negotiations.  There is a belief among some engineers that the best marketing and sales people are the most accomplished liars. In my experience nothing could be further from the truth. Most negotiations have long term consequences and involve interacting with people that you will encounter again and who know others you will encounter in the future.  I always assume that at some point in the future the folks I am negotiating will know the full truth of the situation and that very few secrets remain that way for long. In George Higgins‘ novel “Dreamland” a character remarks “I never forget and I always find out. ” I assume that about anyone that I am negotiating with.

Without A Revenue Hypothesis Your Business Model Is a List of User Activities

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, 2 Open for Business Stage, Customer Development

Q: I am building an app that helps people build nearby interest groups (e.g. local model railroaders, quilters in your town, etc…). I am trying to establish a baseline for my value hypothesis testing and am considering the following metrics:

  • Registration rate of those who come to landing page
  • Rate of registered users who join or create an interest group
  • Rate of interest group members who interact (post etc) in a group
  • Rate of interest group members who log in again after a month

Even if I estimate the each of these rates at 50% I cannot tell what this would mean in terms of validating my business. Also I cannot determine how to use these metrics to determine the features to put in my MVP.

Any advice for where to start in a minimum set of metrics and features for an MVP for this service?

A: For the sake of an initial model let’s accept your estimate of a 50% rate for those four metrics. There are two key sets of hypotheses that you are missing:

  1. What are your hypotheses for how you generate revenue? What will your customers pay for and why? 
  2. What are your hypotheses for the cost of acquiring and servicing a paying customer? How much will it cost to get them to the landing page and to maintain the service?

Your answers to these two sets of hypotheses interact to tell you how long you can stay in business.

Q: Those are great questions but I feel like they are related to growth, something I think I should explore once I have figured out the value testing.

A: Getting paid is proof of your value hypothesis. You need to map your path to revenue. Once you can do that then planning how to do it in a repeatable scalable way is your growth hypothesis. Given that you are zero revenue you need to grow to at least break even to keep running experiments.

Q: OK I understand the importance of the monetization strategy in the hypothesis testing, but I don’t think it’s relevant to my original question. Suppose I added a another metric:

  • Rate of interest group members who convert to a premium account (e.g. for unlimited messaging)

And I assume it costs me $1 to get new visitors to my landing page. So now I have six hypotheses:

  • It costs $1 to get a visitor to the landing page
  • 50% of visitors register
  • 50% of registered users join or create an interest group.
  • 50% of interest group members interact in a group.
  • 50% of interactive group members login after a month.
  • 50% of persistent interactive group members upgrade to a premium account

What does that tell me? I still cannot tell if I have a  good starting point.

A: I think it makes all of the difference in the world, now you are optimizing for revenue in your experiments. The others are all vanity metrics if you don’t have hypotheses for their relationship to revenue and impact on cost.

You can enter whatever you think your conversions will be a priori, and now you can construct a hypothetical business that is profitable.

Without that you don’t have a (profitable) hypothetical business, you have a list of activities that users are engaging in.

Q: Should I Persevere With My Product Or Get A Job?

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage

Q:  I can’t get people to use my service. For the last 9 months or so I been trying to get it going, trying to validate the idea, but I can’t get people to use it, and I’ve iterated and improved the product multiple times.  I can get people to click on ads  and visit the service but no one will even sign up much less use the service.  

A:  Whom have you talked to about the service? Have you talked to potential customers?

Q:  Up until now, I’ve only really gotten feedback from my family and friends. I thought that marketing would be enough to explain the idea and convert visitors into customers, but it’s not working, and I’ve tried different methods and messages.  

A: How did you come up with the idea for the service?

Q: I got the idea from my Dad almost two years ago and developed the idea into what it is now.  I have been into technology for as long as I can remember and I am constantly dreaming of tons of amazing ideas, but most of them are too complicated to create myself:  when my Dad came along with the idea I saw it as a chance to start fulfilling my dreams. At the time I thought that idea was simple enough to develop into a product. But I was wrong; it was much much harder than I had anticipated.  

A: As Paul Saffo advises, “Never mistake a clear view for a short distance.” I can sympathize with the challenges of having too many ideas and ideas that are too complex to make viable. It doesn’t hurt to write them down and in the case of the more complex ones also try to break them into phases or steps and see if you can create a building block that might then enable a second step etc..  How long have you been working on this particular idea?

Q: I took me about a year to develop a minimum viable product; About half way through I dropped out of college to focus on it full time. It has been rough but I have finished developing it.  I don’t know what to do and I can’t keep wasting my time and money on something that’s not working. My parents were supportive at first, but now they are saying I need to get a job. So, any advice on the service  or what I should do would be great.  

A:  A year ago if your parents had said we will support you for a year but if you have no customers then you have to go back to college or get a job would you have agreed? If not, how much time would you have asked for?

You have to treat the friends and family who are supporting you just as you would an investor and give them visibility into your plans and results. It’s also not fair to ask for a blank check: you have to have a stopping rule.

Experienced investors, whether Angel or VC, will impose one on you. But friends and family may find it harder. That’s why you have to agree up front on the limit of investment you are asking for.

You don’t have to give up on your vision, but you need to either earn enough to become self-sufficient to pursue it on your own, or go back to college to finish your education. Here are a few questions you can use to measure your progress and navigate your way forward:

  • What have you learned in the last six months that’s made you more effective as an entrepreneur?
  • In the last three months?
  • What do you hope to learn in another three that will allow you to gain customers?
  • Before you start a new project you need to define your stopping rule or you risk going bankrupt or you force the people who are supporting you to define it for you–or you bankrupt them as well.

Here are “Three Questions to Ask Before Quitting” from pages 66-71 of Seth Godin’s “The Dip

  1. Am I Panicking? Decide in advance when you are going to quit.
  2. Who Am I Trying to Influence? A person or a market? Markets value persistence far more than an individual.
  3. What Sort of Measurable Progress am I Making?

Q: What do you think of the advice a friend gave me: ”You’ll never fail if you don’t give up.”

Be very careful of this advice:  if you keep doing the same thing expecting different results you won’t succeed either. Take a long-term view for a moment. Looking back from 30 or 35 or 40 it’s unlikely you would regret finishing college and perhaps even working for five or ten years to get some real world experience before starting a company.

If your goal is to be an effective entrepreneur then you may learn faster in other situations than by continuing full time on your startup today. Despite what you read on TechCrunch and similar sites very little success is overnight.

Related

Feeling Lucky Is Not a Strategy

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, 2 Open for Business Stage, 3 Early Customer Stage, skmurphy

“Luck cannot be duplicated.” Richard Kostelanetz

Riffing on a Nov-2-2013 TechCrunch post by Cowboy VenturesAileen Lee (@aileenlee) “Welcome To The Unicorn Club: Learning From Billion-Dollar Startups” Ryan Hoover suggests that you should ”Forget What You Know: There is No Right Way to Start Up”[1][2]

“They didn’t talk to people. They didn’t do market research. They didn’t create a landing page to see if people would enter their email. They just built it. For the past year, they invested in the team and technology to prioritize speed of iteration with disregard to traditional methods of customer development and company building.”
Ryan Hoover in “Forget What You Know: There is No Right Way to Start Up”

This is not a methodology, it’s hoping to get lucky. The article cites several startups that may have gotten lucky as proof of…I am not sure, I guess that it’s possible to get lucky.

“Lean methodology and the startup community at large, espouses customer interviews, landing page tests, concierge experiments, and other tactics for testing hypotheses and measuring demand before building a product. In many cases, this is good advice but sometimes it’s a waste of time or worse, directs entrepreneurs away from something truly great.”
Ryan Hoover in “Forget What You Know: There is No Right Way to Start Up”

For every team that gets lucky I wonder how many thousands run through their savings in search of the truly great without talking to customers or testing their hypotheses. Perhaps a more careful and detailed analysis will uncover ways to duplicate the success of some of these startups but I worry that it may be like trying to select the winning lottery ticket: the fact that some people do it does not change the fact that on average it’s a terrible investment strategy.

“Diligence is the mother of good luck.” Benjamin Franklin


Ryan’s essay also appeared on LinkedIn and TheNextWeb:

I don’t think this “Forget What You Know” post is representative of the quality of Ryan’s insights. Here are three blog posts by him that I have found very useful and recommend reading:

 

Video from Lean Innovation 101 Talk at SF Bay ACM Nov-20-2013

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, 2 Open for Business Stage, 3 Early Customer Stage, 4 Finding your Niche, Events, Lean Startup, skmurphy, Video

The video from my “What is Lean–Lean Innovation 101” talk is up:

Here is the description for the talk

“Lean” provides a scientific approach for creating a product and developing new businesses. Teams can iteratively building products or services to meet the needs of early customers by adopting a combination of customer development, business-hypothesis-driven experimentation and iterative product releases. This talk covers:

  • Why more and more companies are using Lean
  • What is Lean, what it is not
  • Key concepts
  • Get Out Of Your BatCave
  • Use an initial product (MVP) as a probe to explore the market
  • Build-Measure-Learn
  • When and how to pivot
  • Rules of thumb for successful lean innovation

I want to thank Alex Sokolsky for his outstanding effort on behalf of SF Bay ACM doing the video capture and editing.

IEEE-CNSV Panel Explores Engineering in Japan vs Silicon Valley Mon-Mar-3

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, Events, Silicon Valley, skmurphy

I am helping to moderate a panel 7pm Mon-Mar-3 at IEEE-CNSV on “Innovation: Work and Life of the Engineer in Japan and Silicon Valley” The event takes place at Agilent Technologies, Inc. in the Aristotle Room, Bldg. 5 located at 5301 Stevens Creek Blvd., Santa Clara, CA 95051. There is no charge to attend and the event is open to the public.

The event is organized by Takahide Inoue, the Global Outreach Director for the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society at UC Berkeley.

The panel members are:

  • Takashi Yoshimori, Toshiba Semiconductor
  • Laura Smoliar, Independent Consultant, Signal Lake Venture Capital
  • Tom Coughlin, IEEE Region Six Director-Elect, CNSV member and Independent Consultant
  • Kim Parnell, Past Chair, IEEE Santa Clara Valley Section, CNSV member and Independent Consultant
  • Brian Berg, Past Chair, IEEE Santa Clara Valley Section, CNSV member and Independent Consultant

Here are some of the questions I hope the panel is able to address:

  • What are innovation lessons from Silicon Valley?
  • How does Silicon Valley do so many innovations?
  • What are innovation lessons from Japan?
  • How do Japanese engineers sustain their interest in a topic to achieve mastery instead of moving on to the “new hot thing” or next “bright shiny object?”
  • What makes an innovative culture? What can other areas do to create an innovative culture?
  • In Silicon Valley, we tend to celebrate the individual over the group. For Silicon Valley engineers how do you give back to your  community?
  • The Japanese say that “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” For Japanese engineers, how do you disagree constructively with your peers to foster innovation?
  • What advice do you have for engineers for finding an idea that can inspire them to work on for several years before it becomes a reality?
  • How do you see the work of the engineer changing in the next five to ten years?

I hope you can join us tomorrow night. Here are some background material on Silicon Valley’s innovation culture you may find relevant.

Here are five related blog posts about Silicon Valley it’s entrepreneurial culture

Finally Tom Wolfe wrote “The Tinkering’s of Robert Noyce” about the founding and early culture at Fairchild and Intel for Esquire in December of 1983 and updated it for Forbes ASAP fourteen years later as “Robert Noyce and his Congregation.” (Aug-25-1997).


The text of California Historical Marker 836:

PIONEER ELECTRONICS RESEARCH LABORATORY – This is the original site of the laboratory and factory of Federal Telegraph Company, founded in 1909 by Cyril F. Elwell. Here, Dr. Lee de Forest, inventor of the three-element radio vacuum tube, devised the first vacuum tube amplifier and oscillator in 1911-13. Worldwide developments based on this research led to modern radio communication, television, and the electronics age…California Registered Historical Landmark No. 836..Plaque placed by the State Department of Parks and Recreation in cooperation with the City of Palo Alto and the Palo Alto Historical Association, May 2, 1970

Five Serious Financial Mistakes Bootstrappers Can Avoid

Written by Theresa Shafer. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, 2 Open for Business Stage, 3 Early Customer Stage, First Office, skmurphy

Five  serious but avoidable financial mistakes we hear from time to time at a Bootstrapper Breakfast:

  1. Mistake: using credit cards to finance your startup.
    Fix: Pay cash, trade favors, barter, go without, but don’t let your monthly balance roll over and accumulate.
  2. Mistake: not having a stopping rule for when you need to stop bootstrapping and look for work. This can lead to bankruptcy.
    Fix: set a time limit and an expense limit for getting your new business off the ground. Work part time and work on your business part time to maintain break even cash flow.
  3. Mistake: not keeping your spouse in the loop if they are working and keeping the lights on while you bootstrap.
    Fix: treat your spouse as an investor or a board member: provide ongoing detailed accounting of plans and spending.
  4. Mistake: hiring a full time employee too soon.
    Fix: start with contractors, make sure you can at least break-even on a regular basis with the contribution the employee will make vs. the additional expenses incurred–understand all of the expenses you first full time employee will trigger (e.g. workers compensation, payroll service, fixed salary expense (vs. contractor)).
  5. Mistake:  signing a lease on an office too soon
    Fix: use co-working space, look for an informal sublet, be clear on why you need an office (e.g. just pay for meeting rooms as needed, barter for lab or working space as needed, look at hourly/day rate offices for conference calls or meetings).

#3 got picked up by Entrepreneur Magazine in a roundup of 7 tips: “Funding Your Business on Your Own? Learn From These 7 Entrepreneurs.”  I thought these three from the list were also common and avoidable:

  • “Branding too soon” by Rebecca Tracey of The Uncaged Life
    This is really investing too much in messaging before you know what works. I have made this mistake and I see others do it as a way to make the business seem “more real” or “like an established company.”  Trying things out in conversation gives you the fastest feedback and is the easiest way to iterate if you are deliberate about it.
  • “Idealism about costs” by Tom Alexander of PK4 Media
    This comes in many forms, but the most serious that he touches on is not understanding how long it can take to get paid, especially by a larger firm. 90 to 120 days from invoice has not been uncommon for many of our clients. Small firms tend to pay faster, and getting paid the first time by a large firm can take much longer than subsequently.
  • “Failing to calculate burn rates” by Steve Spalding of Project MONA
    This takes several forms, but one mistake is to pay yourself a salary (incurring State and Federal taxes on the “round trip” from your savings back to your bills instead of putting less money into the business and living off of your savings. It’s also better to provide the bulk of your starting capital as a loan instead of equity, so that early profits can be distributed as loan repayments instead of salary or dividends.

Update Thu-Feb-27 (morning): Elia Freedman offered a common critique of this post, In Getting Good At Making Money by Justin Williams and “How to Get Good at Making Money” by Jason Fried. Writing “The Art of Bootstrapping” he observes

The only thing a bootstrapper needs to know: CASH IS KING. Nothing else matters and every decision needs to be made to maximize cash. The articles refer to revenues, but revenue is not cash. Here’s an example: I do a contract development job today for $10,000. When done I submit an invoice and the company takes 60 days to pay. Yes, I have $10,000 in revenues today but I don’t get the cash for 60 days. How do I pay my bills in the meantime?

I am relentless when it comes to managing cash. I have a spreadsheet that gets duplicated and updated with actuals and projections every month. This allows me to make cash flow decisions months before the negative shortfall actually happens, allowing me at various times in the history of the company to ratchet up spending, lay people off, cut payroll or minimize other expenses. Because of this work, I see the company very very clearly on a month to month basis and can make appropriate choices.

I think it’s a fair criticism. An accrual accounting perspective has too much parallax from bootstrapper’s actual cash position and offers a false sense of security. I tried to sharpen the advice from the Entrepreneur round up on “Idealism about costs” toward this but I would add a sixth mistake to make it clear:

Mistake: Using accrual accounting (ignoring the timing–the real cash impact–of cost and revenue items) will kill you.
Fix: Forecast  and manage the explicit timing of cash in and cash out for your business. Understand that people will cash your checks immediately but be slow to pay your invoices.  Some won’t pay the full amount or even pay at all. Rely on clear understanding and simple plain English agreements, don’t hope that “legal language” in a contract will make a difference to your getting paid (assume any contracts you sign will be enforced against you by larger firms.

I think trust is as important, if not more important than cash. Bootstrappers who focus exclusively on cash without also managing trust and social capital will often fail to prosper as well. Related blog posts:

Update Mar 8: this post was included in the Founder Institute’s “Mar 2 2014: This Week’s Must Read Articles For Entrepreneurs.

Q: Resources For A Lean Approach to Sales, In Particular New Product Introduction

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 3 Early Customer Stage, 4 Finding your Niche, Sales, skmurphy, Workshop

Q: We have started selling and are looking for resources for a lean approach to sales, in particular for new product introduction.

Scott Sambucci and I presented a workshop at Lean Startup 2012 on “Engineering Your Sales Process.”
The deck is posted at http://www.slideshare.net/SalesQualia/engineering-your-sales-process

About 70% of the workshop is interaction with attendee on their specific early sales challenges so it’s not something that we video record.

Scott Sambucci has two books out that address early sales issues:

Here are two articles that offer useful overviews of what’s needed to define a sales process:

In addition here are some other books you may find helpful:

Here is a long interview I gave to Gabriel Weinberg on early stage B2B sales that many entrepreneurs have found useful: Sean Murphy on the first six enterprise customers

All of these resources talk about a systematic approach to selling for new products.  I continue to offer “Engineering Your Sales Process”® as a workshop for early stage teams. Please contact me if you would like to arrange for a workshop.

Getting More Customers Workshop on March 25, 2014

Written by Theresa Shafer. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, 2 Open for Business Stage, 3 Early Customer Stage, 4 Finding your Niche, 5 Scaling Up Stage, Events, skmurphy, Workshop

Getting More CustomersLet’s face it, finding customers can be quite a challenge. In this interactive workshop, we will cover a variety of proven marketing techniques for growing your business: attendees will select one or two that fit their style and develop a plan to implement them in their business in the next 90 days.

  • Speaking – small groups, large groups, conferences, …
  • Writing – blogging, newsletters, articles, …
  • What Other People Say About You – referrals, testimonials, case studies, …
  • Getting Found When and Where Prospects are Looking: adwords, Craigslist, trade shows, SEO/SEM, …

March 25, 2014 9am-12:30pm
Sunnyvale, CA
$90 includes lunch

Register Now

“This workshop provided great material to bounce off of. SKMurphy created a fertile space for me to think about my business and plan a concrete step forward. Thank you.” Paul Konasewich, President at Connect Leadership

Real Prospects, the Simplest Functionality They Will Pay For, and Team Members Who Can Help

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, 2 Open for Business Stage

Q:  I have worked as a manager in corporate IT for many years, saved my money, and now have an idea for a new product. I need a plan to go from essentially nothing but the idea to building an organization that can support a service-first or  concierge MVP and the metrics in place to enable migration to a full product and profitable business.  Getting off zero seems to be my problem.

A: There is a temptation given you have a good idea and money to last for a while to go into execution mode: writing code and hiring staff. but there is probably very little risk that you cannot get the code developed and if you have some experience in hiring to bring reasonably talented people on board. The risk is in building–or offering in the case of a service-first MVP–something that people will pay for.

At a subconscious level this may be why you are having trouble getting off zero. It’s also possible that after many years in corporate IT you may be more energized by a career than a startup: in either event you should pay attention to your lack of energy.

I would suggest that you do not force yourself too far into execution mode until you were confident that you had identified a problem that people would pay you to solve and that you knew how to find people or firms with the problem.

One way to start, which you can do without quitting your day job, is to make a list of a dozen to three dozen people you can talk to about the problem you plan to solve and contact them.

See if they have the problem, what their view on what a solution might look like, and what the value of the solution would be to them.

Mastering the mechanics of starting a company don’t represent a risk reducing milestone; here are three critical near term risks to focus on instead:

  1. Finding real prospects who acknowledge they have the problem, want to talk about it, and believe that it’s a critical business issue for them.
  2. Finding early team members who are energized by the problem and not a paycheck and can contribute relevant skills and/or domain knowledge.
  3. Understanding the minimum functionality or result you need to deliver to get paid.

You can work on all three of these without quitting your day job. Keep saving your money, you’ll need it once you start bootstrapping. And managing the conflicting priorities of a day job and a bootstrapped startup will be good practice for managing the conflicting requests from early customers and early prospects.

Getting Unstuck

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 4 Finding your Niche

I had a conversation today with a good friend I had not seen in a while. Normally cheerful, he was feeling “stuck” in his startup

I have started several businesses,  tried to start quite a few more, changed direction more often than I ever planned and shut down more than a few–sometimes even before they really got off the ground. I am familiar with a sense of getting stuck, of things not working.  It’s hard to discern and harder to admit what is working and what is not. But at some point I had to acknowledge the need for change and tinker with my approach.

I gave him three suggestions that I have worked for me when I find myself stuck:

  • “Put one foot in front of the other” for two to three weeks: close out small tasks, don’t look at the big picture but schedule a time to look at it candidly and let your subconscious work on it.
  • Find a way to dramatically break the pattern of your day: fast for a day, volunteer somewhere for a day, go along an all day hike, spend a day at a museum or art gallery, etc…It’s not about getting away from the challenge as much as finding a way to get some emotional distance on the constraints you are wrestling with
  • Make a list of what you have accomplished in your life and the people you have enjoyed working with. Often when I have a setback I forget what I have done and tend to focus on the things I have screwed up.

I wrote about “Bouncing Back” a few years ago and suggested

Exercise and a break from the computer are both a good idea.

I think you have to reflect on what happened but with some emotional distance.

Remember Thurber’s observation that “humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility” and write down your lessons learned once you can laugh about it (at least a little) so that you are not just re-opening wounds.

Some amount of lateral drift (reading books, seeing folks you’ve neglected as your firm was failing, etc..) can also give you perspective on what to do differently next time.


Update Thu-Jan-30 I guess I like this title, I have used it once already. In 2011 I wrote about “Getting Unstuck” that focused on perfectionism and an inability to let go of stalled opportunities to nurture new ones. An excerpt:

Sometimes I don’t want to take the next step because I can’t face the downside: I would rather live with the possibility of an outcome than take the necessary steps to determine if it’s actually going to happen. When I was younger I would sometimes hold off on selling a stock that had dropped because “it’s not a loss until I sell it.”

When I had a business in the mid-90?s I was slow to prune my sales funnel of prospects that had stalled, I see this same behavior in clients now. Once you do you realize that you have to generate more leads and that often forces you to explore new options or approaches you have hesitated on because the pipeline looks full.

Perfectionism is a very dangerous trait in a startup founder. Two ways that we address it in both our own operations and in our client engagements is to use wikis and shared calendars. Every draft of a plan or document goes into the wiki from the beginning: everyone’s drafts and progress (or lack of progress) are visible to everyone else on the team. But because we are on the same team we can help each other out. Shared calendars and gives team members permission to help with phone calls and meetings you are avoiding scheduling.

Difference Between a Hypothesis and an Assumption

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, 2 Open for Business Stage, 3 Early Customer Stage

Q: What are the key hypotheses you need to address first getting your startup off the ground? What is the difference between an assumption and hypothesis?

When you are looking for early customers the value hypothesis is critical. You may reach them using non-scalable methods that don’t address your first real growth hypothesis.

My take on the distinction between hypothesis and assumption, your mileage may vary:

A hypothesis is what is being tested explicitly by an experiment. An assumption is tested implicitly. By making your assumptions as well as your hypotheses explicit you increase the clarity of your approach and the chance for learning.

The two things that can trip you up most often is an unconscious assumption that masks a problem with your hypothesis or an unconscious bias in who you are testing the value hypothesis on.

See also


Update Wed-Jan-29-2014: Tim Allen left a great comment that elaborated on the need to focus on value first even if your methods don’t scale:

There was a bit of a light-bulb moment for me what I read the line:

“When you are looking for early customers the value hypothesis is critical. You may reach them using non-scalable methods that don’t address your first real growth hypothesis.”

I feel this is so often forgotten, especially in the situation of legacy systems and trying to execute lean product design within larger organizations. One example that I have been involved in, and which I regret not pushing back harder, was a requirement to use some legacy data services.

This meant that we couldn’t initially execute a hand-cranked, non-scalable solution to data storage and retrieval that our product required, which would have been better as it would have enabled us to get to customer quicker and get real learnings about how they are using our product.

At the time it didn’t seem like a big deal, but in the end it was, and continues to be an issue and an impediment in getting to the customer quicker. Likewise, any real growth hypothesis, results will most likely be skewed by the performance of systems that are not in your control.

I want to thank Tim for offering a practical story that elaborates on the principle of confirm the value before worrying about scaling. When I was at Cisco the focus was always on “will it scale,” as in we shouldn’t do something because “it won’t scale.” This sometimes led to us releasing a product that could have been more valuable if we had proceeded a little more thoughtfully and incorporated early feedback before rushing to launch. Techniques that work “in the small” to gather insight have their place even inside of large firms.

Q: How To Pull The Trigger On A Pricing Model

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 2 Open for Business Stage, skmurphy

The following is an e-mail exchange from 2013 recast as a Q&A with a start team launching a new service. Some identifying information has been altered. I have included an analysis at the end.

Startup: We have  a complex pricing challenge for a new B2B service we launched 8 months ago that will be sold on a subscription basis to several distinct categories of business customer. We offer alerts to events based on keywords. Here is a chart we came up with to identify options, cost drivers, and concerns.

Options for pricing/tiering:
  • Number of alerts
  • Number of entities followed
  • Weighting of entities followed based on member count and/or total events they generate
  • Number of users receiving alerts
Cost drivers:
  • Setup cost for tracking a new entity
  • Verifying feed for any event types an entity generates
  • Operating costs are very low compared to setup
Our concerns:
  • It’s a new type of service in a new market.
  • Possible customers range in size from individuals to small firms to large enterprises to non-profits to government agencies
  • Plan to follow a wide range of events and entities

But we seem to be all over the map in internal discussions and cannot decide how to proceed. We have some grant money but need to transition to a business model to keep going.

Sean:  I  would start with a detailed analysis of the value to each of the different types of customers you have identified.

  • What action will your customer take as a result of your notification or review of search results?
  • What costs or risks do you help them reduce?
  • What opportunities will you enable them to identify and take advantage of?
  • What they are doing three minutes before they decide to add a keyword search request to your service?
  • What result are they actually paying for? Is there valuing in knowing a keyword (or perhaps a synonym set) does not appear?

I think you have focused too much on what you can do and what your costs are, not enough on what customer is actually paying for.

Q: We agree, this is largely a value-based pricing question. We have many trial users that tested the service and originally said yes to certain pricing. But we are now covering more than 500 entities and several thousand events. Also we are selling a basic service now but believe we will have a long runway  to increase the delivery of valuable data and insights over the lifetime of the relationship: getting relationships is key. Put another way, we believe we are in a “land grab” situation where getting the relationship is key and extracting value is really a secondary issue.

Sean: It’s a secondary issue until the grant money runs out. Also, there is a very big distinction between asking a free user to agree to certain pricing and actually getting them to pay. Either asking them if they will pay or how much they will pay typically has very little predictive value of conversation rate or price point validity.

Q: So if asking them if they will pay or how much they will pay does not work, what should we do instead?

Sean: Make them an offer and see if they do pay. If you are doing a “freemium model” now where you are giving away the service you need to either time limit access (e.g. a two week or 30 day or 60 day trial) or remove certain features and make them accessible only if they pay. In your situation it might be that some entities are free and the rest cost and/or some event types are free and others cost.

You should ask them what they are doing now and what it’s costing them in time, effort, dollars, opportunity cost, risk, etc… That’s factual. And from their answers you should be able to infer a value for your offering if it satisfies their needs and their constraints on a solution.

Q: We are still having trouble assigning a value (or a  price), in part because we have several different customer types who we believe will gain very different value–or have very different ability or willingness to pay–from our service.  We think the range might be as much as four times for the same subscription. We are not sure we want them to see each other’s pricing but are not sure how to hide it.

A: It sounds like your are more worried about leaving money on the table than getting people to pay. Normally your risk is that people don’t pay, not that you pick a price that’s too low and too many people sign up. It’s usually the case that  there are other features the “high value” customers want and are willing to pay extra for. The trick is to engage and get them to pay something so that you can continue to work with them to refine and improve the service.

In addition to tiering pricing based on features or capacity customers are comfortable with different pricing for the same service based on other objective criteria: in particular enterprise customers accept that non-profits, schools, and students may pay less  for the same service.

Q: We have an MVP, a good team that built our software, and a lot of interested customers but no pricing strategy. We have built a ton of models for various options and approaches but we are still struggling to go to the next step.

At some level setting a price, making an offer, and seeing of it’s accepted–or at least countered–trumps continuing to do more  detailed analysis. As long as you have a theory for the value you are creating for your customer: your cost model is important to determining business viability but much less a factor in your pricing. You can make these offers individually or privately,

The negotiation can be more important than the opening offer especially for early customers where you are simply trying to move them from free to paid.

Here are some alternatives that are more in the nature of fixed configuration instead of user configurable you may want to consider:

  • it may be easier for you to curate lists of keywords than to put the onus on the customer to define what keyword they want searched. This will also simplify your setup and testing.
  • There may also be a value in selling a report with a set of common searches that address a certain fixed set of entities.
  • There is probably a higher value letting the customer define a unique set of searches so that only they are notified, but less total revenue than a standard report.
  • There may be value in indexing archives going back five or ten years to sell reports/briefings on trends and to provide a context for the last few times the same event was detected. This archive could also act as a training set to develop a taxonomy or ontology of key concepts.

Q: Thanks, we have decided to continue with our current open and free approach and negotiate individually with people who ask for new features.


Analysis: the fear of making a mistake can often paralyze a team. This seems to affect some teams more than others but all of us are affected to some degree. Early financing based on winning contests, grants, generous relatives, understanding spouses, or anything that does not come from a paying customer can de-focus a team from the need to develop a clear value proposition and business model. With money in the bank they can be distracted  from making firm offers that may actually convert their “free users” into paying customers.

It’s OK to leave money on the table. In the beginning having a few customers pay something is an enormous risk reduction in your viability. Once you have established that at least a few people are wiling to pay something you can raise prices to where you actually make a profit on the offers that get accepted and achieve, or at least start moving toward, breakeven cash flow. It’s as important to plan for customer reference as much the cash value of the deal when you are getting started.

You can grandfather  a small number of early customers with low pricing for a long time provided you are increasing prices for new customers and are on the path to breakeven cash flow.

It’s normally a good idea to be slow to raise prices on your early adopters: this recognizes the risks they took to embrace your offering early and the time they invested to help you refine  your features and your sales and support processes. Instead of raising price ask for case studies, testimonials, and referrals once they are satisfied with our product. You can also negotiate on price in parallel with the level of reference and other terms and conditions.

You can continue to  increase pricing over time as you add customers you can talk about, which reduces the perceived risk of your offering to new prospects, and as you move down the learning curve on onboarding and support so that can make firm promise sabout the impact of your offering on their business and how long it will take to achieve. Adding new features based on customer request and your deeper understanding of their needs also allows you to further differentiate and charge more, if only for a subset of your total customer base.

Recap Semifore MVP Clinic: Selling To A Team of Diverse Experts

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 4 Finding your Niche, 5 Scaling Up Stage, Audio, skmurphy


Series profile
Thinking about this using an OODA loop model – — Observe -> Orient -> Decide ->  Act

  • Orient part is sensemaking — its own kind of fast learning
  • Often takes a long time in a complex situation (e.g., all situations where learning is involved); subject to error because it’s “culture bound”
  • What we do
    • Asking what you see
    • Asking what are interactions (including between people, process, platform, and practices)
    • focused on  asking good questions / suggesting questions to research;  avoid giving advice
  • Audience: other entrepreneurs

Hosts

Presenter profiles (see extensive write up a “Semifore Execs Share Bootstrapping Lessons and 2014 Scaling Up Plans at Jan-17-2014 MVP Clinic) 

  • Robert Callahan, COO Semifore, Inc.
  • Herb Winsted VP Business Development and Customer Care, Semifore, Inc.
  •  Semifore, Inc: niche software player in Electronic Design Automation founded in 2006 with a focus on tools for memory map management

Initial questions

  • How do we scale and grow the business
  • What strengths or accomplishments will you build on
  • What existing or constructed vantage-points (data-collection opportunities) have been or will be most useful?
  • What capabilities need to be developed
  • What’s the primary barrier or key challenges you need to overcome
  • talk about product and challenges -    cross functional nature
  • talk about what you have learned – making sense of current experience
  • look ahead 2014 talk about plans

Problem profile

  • complex sales environment
  • education / learning involved
  • many prospective clients have rolled their own
  • side issues = standards, interaction with purchasing
  • Usually find a pre-existing culture / product team /  team
  • more complex sales and adoption problem
    • touches hardware team (e.g. system architect, RTL developers)
    • software developers
    • documentation specialists
    • documentation consumers – e.g. verification and validation team
    • plus “team in larger team or org issues”

This is a mid-course correction conversation. We have a viable product that’s now robust

How do you scale the business?
Competitors are “in-house” solutions – first generation build out.  Smifore product replaces spreadsheets and in-house Perl scripts that represent a career path for internal tool developer

Questions from Audience 
Q: How many employees does Semifore have?
A: five direct plus some other outsource teams we draw on for specialized resources

Q: Do you monitor feature usage and see which ones are used and which ones are not? Do you remove unused features?
A: it’s on-premises software, there is no monitoring except in conversation with customer. Will be deleting some obsolete standards but have to provide a lot of legacy support and backward compatibility

John observed: consider inserting learning & feedback loops here.

Q: Do you have any services revenue?
A: We have  a hybrid license. basic level charge, tiers of users (groups of 10). we sell licenses in batches of 10 with a decreasing cost per incremental seat even as total site license fees go up. We have some project support service fees; there are also fees for “global license”

Q: Tips for growing from small groups to more users in the companies.  How to encourage spread inside customer
A: We believe the following have been key to our success:

  • spend face time with customers
  • dealing with the internal script-writers “who can do stuff.”
  • sales opportunity: when the script-writer leaves

Q: What percentage of customers did you have pre-existing relationships with (from Magma, as an ex-employee of that company, etc.)?
A: really only first customer, most of the rest were “cold starts”

Q: Also, is the tool compelling to any functional area as is, or is it compelling primarily because there’s a lack of resources for the previous internal approach?
A: a bit of both.  solutions exist in organizations that are not visible to management.

Notes from Live Session

Walking around the issues –

Rob: in the Valley back when disk drives looked like washing machines.  Finance roles, then managing channel and tech support.  EDA for last 15 years.  External advisor to Semifore, joined the firm a couple years ago.  growing the business from boutique to a real business.

Herb: business development VP — customer facing activities. started in the electronics business back in the ’70s. Projects in Europe, Japan, US, involved with Semifore since 2008. Semifore is the “right size” for connecting directly to customers.

Have both survived and added customers.  Tool crosses several different disciplines,  enabled by high level

Some standards IPXACT and System RDL but for the most part replacing either custom scripts or Excel input based techniques.
Rich Weber drew on experience at SGI, Cisco, Sttratum One to create cross-compiler
selling to sw, firmware, and documentation teams proliferating from early beach heads

Respond to customers quickly. agile response.  Keeping customers.

Initial sell to a small team.  from 10 users to 100 in the same company. tool goes viral.  education challenges to begin using the tool.  Support requests are often enhancements to connect with their local requirements.

How to proliferate. Getting information early in the design / development process. Measure speed.  Perceiving the activity outside “my silo.”  It’s a blazingly fast product once it’s in place.

Q: does tool help to measure design cycle impact?
A: It’s really a technology driven company working with engineers who focus primarily on technology, but our customers live in a business environment. more recently customers are coming in and asking for automation of the creation of these architectural descriptions. Once the tool is adopted there is a shift from create the “perfect document” to ‘good enough distributed widely’.
Semifore enables a start from a terse description that can be elaborated.  EDA Process Workshop in Monterrey – need a good plan more than a good tool

Herbie: Making the transition from supporting a wide variety of design styles to a smaller subset that the industry as a whole seems to be converging on.
Sean: similar to what happened in networking where there was a convergence from “multi-protocol” to IP and Ethernet.

As an introduction strategy Semifore offers a sandbox model.

John: have you thought about a user conference where you can share lessons learned and foster “viral process”?

  • Rob: good idea, we could do it in the Valley
  • Herbie: one challenge is a lot of our customers are direct competitors and don’t allow us to talk a lot about what they are doing or even that they are using it.
  • John: breakfast at Coco’s might actually kick this off; talk about failure as much as glossy success. provides access to design ideas and source of marketing insights.
  • Sean: first Verilog user group was very low key.  It was at Denny’s.

Rob: engineer to engineer conversations have been of great benefit, but we have trouble translating that into business impact.

  • Sean: boiled frog problem- registers grow incrementally.  complexity ….  how to trigger the epiphany that “it’s getting hot”.  how describe the environmental question about increasing complexity.
  • Rob: we see people saying “we can’t manage any more. please help”
  • Sean: need to crystallize this customer’s business insight into tools for engineer customers at other firms (including prospects) into a compelling business proposition. Problem has scaled from hundreds to tens of thousands of registers

Sean: What is one thing that would change the equation:

  • Herbie: go to next level in revenues. A potential contract on the horizon would generate more human resource.
  • Rob: finalize and accurately describe tool functions, so can present / educate people at higher levels of the organization..

Q: What is your licensing model?
A:business predicated on one year licensing deals, renewals are based on internal uptake not multi-year contractual obligations. Avoids some issues where customers wait for end of quarter/year asking for large discounts

John: your great strength is your engineering view, but is this in some ways a weakness? Could you do more to see into the customer organization w/o more revenue?
Rob: A senior VP engineering has a P&L and a business view. We are a small tool in price, it’s hard to get their attention.

Take-Aways

  • Herbie: this session was out of our normal activity.  appreciate opportunity.  learned working inside orgs & managing projects: the reality of business situation, putting together the fifth team.
  • Rob: better mousetrap doesn’t always sell.  Semifore has good technology.  challenge is to refine the messaging.  describe “breakage is around the corner.”
  • Sean:  need to explain to prospects that they have gotten used to dealing with “broken”. I think Semifore’s challenge less in engineering more making business case to pragmatic buyers.

The Likely Consequences of Entrepreneurship Require Perseverance

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, 2 Open for Business Stage, 3 Early Customer Stage, 4 Finding your Niche, Rules of Thumb, skmurphy

Justin Kan (@JustinKan)wrote “Startups Don’t Die They Commit Suicide” in 2011″ (mirrored on his blog here)  reflecting on what he had observed and learned as a serial entrepreneur. It was reposted on the Philly Startup Leaders list earlier this week which led me to write the following comments mixed with excerpts from Kan’s post.

Startups die in many ways, but in the past couple of years I’ve noticed that the most common cause of death is [when] founders/management kill the company while it’s still very much breathing.

I think this is right, two key requirements for building a business are team morale–shared vision, enjoyment of working together, hope for the future–and cash flow. And morale can get you through periods of poor cashflow  more than cashflow can compensate for poor morale and team dynamics. I think a lot of teams lose their “gumption” and give up.

Long before startups get to the point of delinquent electricity bills or serious payroll cuts, they implode. The people in them give up and move on to do other things, or they realize that startups are hard and can cause a massive amount of mental and physical exhaustion — or the founders get jobs at other companies, go back to school, or simply move out of the valley and disappear.

I think bootstrappers are in some way at less risk for this because they know it’s going to be hard, although perhaps not how hard.
A lot of times the founders don’t maintain their health and energy and cannot weather a setback or analyze their situation with enough emotional distance: debugging your startup requires peace of mind

Often the root problem can be traced back to a lack of product traction — it’s rare to find people willingly quitting companies with exploding metrics. But one thing that many entrepreneurs don’t realize is that patience and iteration are critical in achieving product market fit.

Keeping a ‘captain’s log’ or other journal can give you a place to vent your frustrations–and let them cool for later analysis–jot down your fragmentary insights for later revision and recombination, and allow you to look back at earlier crises you have managed and problems solved: record to remember, pause to reflect. We have worked with a couple of Finnish teams and they have a great word “sisu” that is the Arctic version of gumption.

Overnight successes might happen fast, but they never actually happen overnight.

I think a lot of the desire for overnight success  is driven by trade press accounts of young millionaires who clean up the real story to make it seem simple and inevitable. I have met a number of entrepreneurs who think that one deal or one relationship will be the point of departure for a rocket trip to the stars. That’s always the way the success narrative is cleaned up and presented, but the reality almost always–barring a few lottery ticket winners–involved a lot more hard work and the slow accumulation of many small insights, decisions, and advantages.

On the other hand, happy people don’t normally start new companies: as Sramana Mitra has observed, startups are founded by mavericks, iconoclasts, dropouts, and misfits.  In fact, I think Barry Moltz is right: you need to be a little crazy.

Still, I think morale at an individual and team level is a key resource, and the teams that persevere seem to be more driven by the thought of proving a new idea right than proving  former co-workers, bosses, or  relatives wrong. While 0roving folks wrong can be the start–bold action coupled with frank expression has inadvertently launched many a deeply felt entrepreneurial career–it’s rarely what sustains an individual much less a team.

“It’s only after you fail once or twice and learn to rely equally on thought, analysis, and anticipation–in addition to speed, talent, and execution–that you can really call yourself an entrepreneur. ”
Barry Moltz in “You Need to Be a Little Crazy

Semifore Execs Share Bootstrapping Lessons and 2014 Scaling Up Plans at Jan-17-2014 MVP Clinic

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 4 Finding your Niche, 5 Scaling Up Stage, EDA, Events, skmurphy

Semifore , Inc. was founded in 2006 by Richard Weber based on his system design experience at several startups and some larger systems firms. All of them struggled with the need for  tools and methods to keep the hardware architecture in sync with software architecture and to ensure that the development and customer documentation was up to date. He developed an application that worked from a common specification to generate high level hardware description language specifications, software source code, and human readable documentation for the memory maps and configuration/control register behavior. Semifore has bootstrapped growth since 2006 and has seen their offering adopted at a number of major semiconductor firms. and system houses.

  • What: Semifore Execs Share Bootstrapping Lessons and 2014 Scaling Plans
  • MVP Clinic Format: Webinar with shared note taking in a PrimaryPad
  • When: Fri-Jan-17-2014 10am PST
  • Cost: No Charge
  • Register: https://www3.gotomeeting.com/register/251287126
Register Now

We have two members of the Semifore executive team joining us 10AM PST on Fri-Jan-17-2014 for a discussion of what they have learned about their success so far as a niche player in the Electronic Design Automation space and their plans to scale up in 2014. You can register to take part in the conversation at

  • Rob Callaghan, COO of Semifore Inc.
    Rob was previously  Vice President of Operations for sales and technical support at Magma Design Automation. Prior to Magma, he was Group Director of Business Development as well as Director of Sales Operations at Cadence Design Systems. He has worked with other large electronics firms such as L.M. Ericsson, Amdahl Corporation, and Memorex Corporation in the functions of Product Marketing, Field Operations, Finance and Accounting. His expertise includes strategic and operational planning, operations management, market research, and financial operations for organizations such as direct sales channels, product marketing, R&D operations, corporate business development, corporate mergers and acquisitions and strategic investments. He has a BS in Finance from the Menlo School of Business and a MBA from Golden Gate University.
  • Herbie Winsted, Vice President of Business Development and Customer Care
    Herb is a veteran of over 26 years in the EDA and Semiconductor industries. He has held positions of Director Business Development and Director IC Implementation and various individual contributor assignments at Cadence Design Systems. He has also assumed management responsibilities for CAD teams and IC layout groups at National Semi, GEC Plessey, and AMD. Herbie has also lead hundreds of multi-discipline automated layout projects in different roles at Silicon Valley Research (Silvar-Lisco) working with major Semiconductor companies worldwide. He has excelled at team building and establishing both business and personal relationships at every level of the organizations he has serviced. He has wide experience in creating marketing messaging, training, and sales collateral. He has always put customer requirements as his highest priority and excels at finding practical solutions that satisfy all parties concerned.

Background for discussion

Semifore Inc. is a software startup in Palo Alto Ca. The company provides a software product platform that automates and manages the register information for the Hardware / Software interface during the definition, specification, implementation and verification phases of the ASIC and/or FPGA design process. The company is privately held and has no external investors. It was founded in 2006 by Richard Weber who is currently the CEO of the company.

Currently the company has over a dozen paying  customers which are using the platform to deliver their chip sets to customers. Logo’s such as Altera, AMCC, Microsoft, and other large firms have embraced the tool and associated design methodology to reduce their design cycle time and improve their product functionality.

Semifore’s products are used by Systems Architects and designers, Verification Engineers, Software Development Engineers, and Technical Publications teams inside of Semiconductor companies.

The company has been funded via “bootstrapping” and is operated solely from operating cash flow. This has provided sufficient funds to get through the product development and early customer engagements that allowed Semifore to market, test, and refine the technology to a state of high reliability and functionality with low post-sales support requirements. The product does what we say it does and once it’s installed the product often goes viral.

The company has relied on trade show attendance and word of mouth to secure additional sales leads to qualify and move to a product demonstration. The customers for this product, are for the most part, currently internally developing their own solutions in this space.

Market / Customer Challenges (Lessons Learned 2006-2013)

  1. Internal solutions are viewed as “free” and they get the job done today. The cost is buried across many functions within the customer and the time hits they take are part and parcel of the “design silos” in most organizations.
  2. The teams that have “created” the internal solution often have a vested interest in keeping them alive.
  3. The currently employed internal “methodology” touches many organizations that may not be the purchasing entity or the driver for the decision or have the ability to overrule and drive a central technical solution throughout the organization. Many large customers have several different of internal solutions in this design space.
  4. This design problem is very niche and eclectic and often is not highly visible to upper engineering management. It’s noise to them. Education at all levels is required for buy in on this kind of tool.
  5. Internal solutions tend to be limited to file transforms and depend on rigid input formats to produce useful results. Very little true design intelligence for detecting correct semantics and interface capability to other tools or standards.
  6. There is considerable confusion regarding the status and capabilities of the “standards” that support this particular design methodology that adds to the tendency to “wait and see “ before making buy decisions.

Key Goals for 2014

  1. Expand the adoption by existing customers who have embraced the tools and succeeded using them in production.
  2. Build on current success to add new customers, large and small.
  3. Determine level of participation in existing standards committees and explore offering our proprietary language as a standard with endorsement from existing customers.

Update Fri-Jan-17: here is the audio for the event.

Product Market Fit Metrics

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 5 Scaling Up Stage, Rules of Thumb, skmurphy

Q: I am considering metrics for an add-on new product launching in a well established company that  makes equipment to test electrical cables (for the last 29 years). We are introducing a new product that is an add-on to existing products (it is only useful if used with the existing product). This is a project that was pushed by our founder and has been developed for the past year. We were able to get a little bit of feedback along the way from customers but not much.

I recently moved into the product manager  position and one of the things I am trying to do with this project is set some metrics we can use to judge the success or failure of the project–something we have not really done before. This cheap product is not designed to make a lot of money itself, but the hope is that because of this add-on product we will be able to sell more of our main product. To that end I’m trying to come up with some way to help judge if that is really happening or not.

Below is what I have so far as possible options for key metrics to watch after we launch the product:

  • Total units sold (I see this as one of the least useful, but it feels like it has to be there for completeness)
  • Total Orders (i.e. how many companies are ordering them – goes along with units sold but tells more of the story)
  • New Customer Orders (Orders from first time customers – sign that we won business because of the new add on)
  • Orders with main product (These are orders from existing customers, but for new equipment with the add on)
  • Orders without main product (These are orders from existing customers without new equipment – implies retrofitting)
  • Repeat orders (Orders from customers who previously purchased the add on – implies they like the add on)
  • Website Interest (Individuals who navigate to the information page – implies right marketing message, compare to sales numbers)
  • Win/Loss Mentions (Number of times add-on product is mentioned as a influencing factor in a successful sale)

My questions are:

  1. Are these actionable metrics?
  2. Will these really provide me insights into the success of the project or help me to know when we need to change something?
  3.  Do you have better suggestions for metrics? Which are the best to focus on?

A:  At a high level, there are two sources of sales growth for an existing product:

  1. Selling more units to current customers (perhaps because they find additional uses for your primary offering or your add-on removes a blocker or dissatisfier for use in new areas).
  2. Selling units to new customers who have not purchased from you before. Here again you should look for attach rates – how often was the secondary offering included in the offer.

I think the metrics you outline are well thought out and would enable you to assess whether or not the addition of the new product is either driving greater adoption in existing customers or adoption by new customers. Here are two additions to consider:

  • Measure not just first order but a re-order from a new customer as a rough proxy for satisfaction in the same way you measure re-orders from existing customers (or split re-orders as from established or recent customers)
  • You don’t mention customer satisfaction or net promoter score; you might want to include those in your assessment (in particular if you can do a “before and after” to judge the impact of your add on offering).

One thing to probe for in conversations is what do current (or new) customers stop buying, stop doing, or stop wasting as a result of buying your add on. What are you replacing or substituting for (either with the primary product or the combo product). That might give you some additional insights into the total value of the combo offer (old plus add on).  This is initially more qualitative but you may be able to create categories or metrics as you continue to engage. See “The Early Bird Already Has The Worm” for some additional suggestions on this.

One final thing to consider would be to create a bundle that can be purchased if you can message for a category of customer applications/needs/use-cases that would benefit directly from the combo. In the beginning this could simply be bundling into the same shipment but if there is enough distinct demand it may be worth considering creating a single package or an integrated product that blends the combination. The theory here is that over time the retro-fit orders will subside and customers will either order the single or the bundle but not the add on stand alone if they understand it’s value for one or more applications.

Taking a step back the real question is what to design next, not whether to kill the add on product or not. The development costs for the add-on are sunk. Putting it a different way, you should have a consistent approach for evaluating whether to kill/obsolete/end-of-life any of your products that you are applying on a regular basis depending upon average or expected product lifetimes. Your competitors are hard at work attempting to obsolete your products as well as their own. Detecting when they have been successful or planning for how to beat them to the punch is worth doing systematically.

Proving the founder/owner wrong conclusively (or right) may be a less valuable use of your time than addressing the real issue: what are the top problems you need to solve to continue to grow your business. If you can, get the founder to expose the thought process and the data and customer stories that were examined or formed the context for designing the add on. See if there are additional insights for new products to be investigated. Also, I would not be too quick to discount practices in a company that has lasted 29 years: your firm is undoubtedly doing a number of things well and you want to take care not to break what’s working as you instrument the product management process and potentially start to kill products.

If you spend all of your time trying to measure decisions that were made before you took the role it’s not as useful pushing for additional conversations with customers, non-customers (who you believe might buy from you), your sales team, your support team, and channel partners. As a product manager you need to help the firm determine where to invest engineering/design efforts to address key opportunities. Of these the harder conversations to target are with non-customers (either  ‘no longer customers’ or ‘never were customers). See “Non-Customers Are Where Important Changes Often Start” for some more on this.

I think the original question points up the need for an ongoing assessment of “product/market fit,” even by mature or established firms with established products. Here are two related posts that suggest the search for a scalable business model does not have a finish line, all businesses must revisit this challenge periodically:

Tom DeMarco on Leadership, Trust, and Training

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 3 Early Customer Stage, Rules of Thumb, skmurphy

I re-read Tom DeMarco’s “Slack” over the Thanksgiving break and came away with a couple of good ideas worth sharing.  He offers the following definition of slack in the second to last chapter “Working at Breakneck Speed”

Back in the time of sailing ships, going anywhere by ship was a risky business. Going faster increased risk (more sail kept aloft in high winds, more changes taken in unknown and shoal waters, more fatigue and more human error). In such a time, the naval forces would instruct their captains to “proceed with all prudent speed” to arrive in a timely manner at an engagement. Prudent speed is something other than breakneck speed. It’s slower. We have to learn to move our knowledge endeavors “at all prudent speed.” [..]

The difference between the time it takes you to arrive at “all prudent speed’ and the time it would take at “breakneck speed” is your slack. Slack is what helps you arrive quickly but with an unbroken neck.

He offers insights on leadership, trust, and training that I found very applicable to entrepreneurs managing startups.

Leadership: there is no easy formula for real leadership (if there were we would see a lot more of it), but it seems clear that the following elements always need to be present:

  1. Clear articulation of a direction
  2. Frank admission of short-term pain
  3. Follow-up
  4. Follow-up
  5. Follow-up

Deciding what you will sacrifice or forgo to meet your objectives is a key element of developing realistic objectives and actions plans to support them. Adjusting your plan in light of intermediate results is also required. This same model also applies to any installation and bring-up plan you offer to prospects considering your offering.

Trust: always give trust slightly in advance of demonstrated trustworthiness. New leaders acquire trust by giving trust.

I think these rules apply to co-founders, employees, prospective customers, and partners. Trust but verify. Trust is the real currency of early customer relationships.

Training is practice doing a new task much more slowly than an expert would do it.

The concept of a learning curve or experience curve is that an individual or team’s proficiency at task is a function of their relevant experience doing it. You cannot be working at peak efficiency and learning at the same time. And you need to allot more time for rehearsal and reflection. Startups can outperform established firms by refusing to stall at an acceptable level of performance, instead continuing to refine their approach through mindful execution and deliberate practice.

Learning is faster and more effective when there is a facilitator or expert and peers or co-learners. Committing to learn as a team and seeking out or recognizing those with expertise are two elements of more effective training.

These are not the only insights in Slack, which anticipates the value of a flow based focused over resource efficiency and suggestions for change management and risk management.

The key tools of management in the knowledge organization are the tools of change management. Instead of authority and consequence (the management staples of the factory floor), the best knowledge-work managers are known for their powers of persuasion, negotiation, markers to call in, and their large reserves of accumulated trust.

Tom DeMarco has two other books that are definitely worth reading:

Recap From Nov-20-2103 MVP Clinic

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, 2 Open for Business Stage, 3 Early Customer Stage, Audio, Community of Practice, skmurphy

Overview: exploring how to identify some key problems in communities where the presenters members, trying to understand how to research them, and how to contribute to solving those problems.  Two very different people facing analogous situations: one is a researcher looking for action research topics in the KM4Dev community, the other is an entrepreneur who wants to make athletic contests more engaging for contestants and the audience by providing more information that is mobile device friendly.


(You can also download from http://traffic.libsyn.com/skmurphy/MVPClinic131120.mp3)

Next two MVP Clinics


Commonalities between the two cases that were presented on November 20, 2013

  • Challenges in understanding the embedded (often invisible) interests, incentives and assumptions of different groups
  • Assumptions about boundaries of organizations that interact with those communities
  • Change management perspective is necessary but is challenging to apply in a community context — it is more of an organizational term, based on a high degree of control
  • watching a school of fish trying to determine how they decide to change direction
  • both were familiar with communities but may not have appreciated impact of incentives

Panelists for today:

Presenter #1: Phillip Grunewald

  • PhD student researching how knowledge exchanges can be best facilitated in the international development sector.
  • Have been working on this for 1.5 years now and have another 1.5 years  left to conduct studies
  • Before starting this PhD, worked in in various organisations  on Marketing, Corporate Communications, Monitoring and Evaluation and  customer relationship management.
  • Hold a bachelor’s degree in corporate communications and a masters degree in international studies.
  • LinkedIn: http://uk.linkedin.com/pub/philipp-grunewald/6a/4ba/82/
  • Blog: www.thoughtfordevelopment.com / twitter: @thought4dev

Situation: 

  • Attempting to find a mutually beneficial way of facilitating researcher-practitioner interaction.
  • Usually a (social) researcher  (from an external institution) is perceived as an “outsider” that sees  his collaborators as either “means to an end” or as the objects of the  study.
  • This is due to a generally perceived separation between  researchers and practitioners. In this model the practitioners usually  deliver or are themselves the data for analysis.
  • The findings of  research then either stay within the realm of research or are  distributed back via, for example, reports.
  • This not only makes learning  cycles very long but also means that there are things the researcher  “is blind to” by not being closely embedded in the context that is being  studied (this has its advantages and disadvantages).
  • In  the particular the present situation involves a community of practitioners in a collaborative manner.
    • Have  offered 2 hours a week until next May to spend on research projects of  their choice.
    • An initial survey (http://www.allourideas.org/grunewaldtopics/results ) was used to generate and poll ideas. This generated considerable interest and a surprising list of ideas that  the community is interested in.
    • However, since then discussion on the  most popular topic started and participation rates have been low.
    • Part  of the reason might be the internal dynamics of the community, which are hard to completely understand but there are many other potential issues.

Ideal outcomes:

  • High levels of engagement on both sides
  • Mutual learning about content and process
  • Continuous feedback to the research process so that further research can incorporate (reiterative process)
  • Personal development of researcher
  • Basic research – exploration of impact of academic work
  • Experimenting – developing experience for questions that are motivated by practioners concerns

 Criteria for acceptance of a project

  • Poll the community for popularity
  • Within the KM4Dev concerns (broad thematic area)

Alternative frames:

  • Researcher has to be in both worlds
  • Researcher has to be intimately involved with the research subjects
  • Framed within the KM4Dev topic

Alternative next steps:  

  • Abandon the whole idea as “too difficult”
  • Make questions more specific/have a clearer thematic focus
  • Have more explicit objectives
  • Make people aware that there is a free resource that they are not using
  • Ask people if they question researcher’s ability/capacity to come up with valuable contributions
  • Ask community members if they have no capacities to dedicate to the process (mainly time)
  • Ask why they do not prioritize this activity vis-a-vis their other activities
  • Drive  topics that have been chosen and only have low levels or participation  constrained to specific points in time (rather than ongoing)

NOTES Not much response after the initial survey.  Lots of ideas and votes in the survey, but the social network site (Ning) has had little or no participation Sean: offering service at no charge, letting them set the agenda. . Howard: trying to get an understand what an ideal research project be?  what kind of research design? Philipp: participatory action research.  looks at matter, gathers data, comes up with findings, brings it back. assess changes.  Then the cycle repeats. John: what does research mean to this community, 2-3 hours a week for 6 months may not match their expectations for a project, consider offering a research-related task (as opposed to undifferentiated “research”) e.g. data cleaning so that you avoid the challenge of not matching expectations or running up against problematic ideas of “research.” Sean Is there a concern about asking for credit in results? There IS a problem on the academic side with a self-assessed view of academics that are irrelevant. Sean: making a comparison with Eugene’s case: trying to make things easier, but not changing behavior. Assessing speed. making things go farther. Philipp: KM4Dev is focused on practice; other communities dominated by academics.  Research might be out of the norm; people are oriented toward peer-to-peer exchanges. Using Barb’s question: why should people change?  is there a clear blockage or missing piece that research can address? Originally this was just a probe: “what would the reaction be?”  So far: any outcome is interesting.  but not prepared to give up. Payoff given the challenge of understanding Philipp’s process. How do open source management of volunteers? Is there a pattern for organizing volunteer labor that could be harnessed / re-purposed for KM4Dev? Challenge of figuring out how to leverage 2-3 hours a week may mean focus don’t invest effort in engaging if payoff is small/problematic Howard: in a nonprofit where GIS data described a watershed that was intact in BC.  Tried to engage community around protecting the watershed.  When leaders from the nonprofit traveled there and met with community representatives, they found potential interest, but more interested in issue of teen suicide — a much more immediate threat than the logging companies coming in.  That was a real learning experience for the nonoprofit.  Shifted the organizations focus to partnering with them through a focus on their issues. [Added post-call: My quick summary of this nonprofit experience glosses over the fact  that, for the nonprofit, the discovery that community members had  completely different priorities represented / might have represented an  enormous challenge for the organization. The nonprofit had no expertise on the issue of teen suicide, and this issue could easily have been seen as beyond the scope of the organization's mission, which was at the time more environmentally oriented. It was the willingness to listen to community needs and to be flexible in responding that enable the organization to move forward.] What does the community view as a key problem ? Where are KM4Dev’s priorities and how does Phillip’s expertise and experience align for best contribution.  Philipp’s  feeling of pain and surprise means he has learned something. Complexity of the KM4Dev ecosystem that Philipp is working with.  same thing for Eugene.  In both cases, people see the offer through very different lenses.  How open up receptivity to alternative ways of working together? The challenge is getting a group of people to change.


Questions from the audience : First question is what’s research in many organizations where KM4Dev members work research is a restricted activity takes a certain status and has some inherent separation from “work in the field.”  So the first suggestion is: how about offering elements of research but not calling it research?  That could include data gathering and analyzing data, or a literature search or many many other bits or pieces that would be useful but are dis-aggregated. Second suggestion is that: KM4Dev members come from many different organizations and they play different roles in those organizations.  Getting them to agree on one research agenda or on one perspective going forward is an impossible feat.  The community will never “agree.” So what’s behind both suggestions is the idea of dissolving as a strategy: to breaks down research tasks into elements on the one hand and to break down the KM4Dev community into sectors with distinct interests.


Presenter #2: Eugene Chuvyrov

  • Have 14  years of  programming experience, with 3.5 of those being an independent   consultant.
  • Built many web-based and several mobile products – love   technology, not just programming, and I can see myself programming robots or wearable devices just as eagerly as I do mobile dev.
  • Ran a Software Architecture group in Florida and I help organize a  cloud  computing group here in the San Francisco Bay area.
  • http://www.we-compete.com/

Situation: 

  • A  year ago, Eugene and two former colleagues from Florida broke  ground on what I wanted to be a new way to engage the competitors and  fans in amateur athletic competitions.
  • As a bodybuilding competitor of 6  years, it always bothered me that:
    •  the process of registering for  competitions was archaic,
    • there was no way to see who was competing beforehand, and that sometimes competition results would not be posted for weeks.
    • I also thought that the competitions were boring for the  audience, since many were not familiar with competition rules or competitors.
  • I wanted to start with the sports I am very familiar with  (strength events) and expand into other sports from there.
  • I showed a  simple prototype of my mobile app to one of the more prominent  competition organizers and he stated they’d use it. (Facepalm) that was  all the validation I needed to get going on executing the idea.
  • It took us 6 months to build a website and a mobile app, and I have been promoting it for another 6 months now.
    • I promoted http://we-compete.com  via contacting competition organizers who I knew directly, or via  friends who are also competitors.
    • I also contacted many competition  organizers whom I didn’t know, after noticing that
      • they still had either  .pdf files to download for competitor registrations,
      • or they tried to  integrate EventBrite/other ticketing software into their offering with an iform
    • I established contact with heads of federations that have 50-100  competitions each year and solicited their feedback.
    • I also invested in  Facebook and Google ads, but those generated close to 100% bounce rate.
  • We had half a dozen competitions created on the  platform. Since we waived all fees for the initial batch of users, I  cannot reliably say people would use us  if we had charged them our 2.5%  fee per registration/ticket sold.
  • I expected our offering to go viral  after the initial batch, but that did not happen.

Next Steps:

  • Currently, I resorted to more traditional  marketing.
  • I am organizing a competition myself in June in the East Bay  area, and will use http://www.we-compete.com  exclusively.
  • I am helping a few competition organizers pro bono with  basic web/technology stuff. I sponsored bodybuilding federations,
  • I am  getting more active on social media and doing promotions in e-mail  newsletters/magazines.
  • I am also weighing executing on a consumer play  related to We Compete via creating mobile apps for competitors, and  having those mobile apps feed data into the centralized database (if  competitors choose to share the info, of course).
  • I am also evaluating  partnership with competition content creators (video, photo, general  information) and seeking ways to get on podcasts and YouTube channels.
  • I  am very passionate about this space and would love to continue  executing on my ambitious vision, but not if I have to live under the  bridge while doing that.

NOTES Sean: does the app enrich the experience for an audience.  (business model would have to follow) Eugene: lots of pictures as a form of engagement, no centralized location.  Notice LOTS of mobile devices at any event. The idea is to function like a meetup. Competition is emotional experience… Eugene is connected in the competition space…  direct approach response has been good.  But so far people won’t pay. Business model is like http://eventbright.com

  •     the price/payment is before
  •     the benefit comes afterward

Consider attending a high school re-union to compare behaviors, rituals, and business models for somewhat different kinds of events. The app is really changing some of the dynamics of competition – knowns and unknowns for participants – what is the value of changing that, how to position it going forward and eat own dogfood in organizing a competition – that might be a business How to characterize users / clients

  • heads of established federations and contests – they may not be in much pain (yet?)
  • people considering a new contest for fun or profit – organize a competition “in a box’ similar to how Meetup lowers cost of coordination
  • Notice the monopoly structure of the business… populated by people that are not very tech-oriented

What is the mobile app about:

  • pictures?
  • stats?

Typical event:

  • 90 competitors
  • 500 fans/participants

Barb: I’m also thinking that this needs some change management theories applied to it… I think that Eugene is right in showing the benefit  Why should people change the way they do things, when they work so well so far? Sean: more like meetup than eventbright. Can you provide unique or more curated content?  or just additional content? …so that profiles persist across competitions… Could competitors be encouraged to pay for the profile? What’s the value of a profile to other competitors? Can other sites be integrated?  Do those other sites support the mobile side?  And what are their business models?  and do people look at those other sites during a competition? status quo; organizing iframing eventbrite. in some ways we-compete is a threat, in others a collaborator: complex ecosystem of organizers, athletes, audience Howard: “Create a competition in a box” may be inadvertently taking position of disrupter, so a threat. What you are hearing is that you should continue to explore, more by making offers than writing code


Questions from the audience: ? unique content vs. basic mobile app with pictures ? transition from “probably not a good idea” to “late” Philipp: What about assessing information needs ground up?

The Illusion of Omnicompetence: Smart and Competent Are Domain Specific Adjectives

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, 2 Open for Business Stage, skmurphy

“Smart, competent people” are not a generic quantity; they’re incredibly domain-specific.”
Megan McArdle in “Obamacare is no Starship Enterprise

One of the secrets to building a successful technology startup is to attract talented people to your mission who share your values but bring diverse skills and perspectives. Innovation is very hard and successful sustainable innovation is a rare outcome. There is a tendency for the “suits” to look down on the “propeller-heads” and the “pony tails” who of course reciprocate this lack of respect. The green eye shades and the grey hairs view the rain makers with some suspicion, who in turn mentally assign them and others to the “committee to stop sales.” No one cares much for the shysters until the fine print sprouts teeth.

You need people who enjoy sweating the details and others who don’t lose sight of the big picture. You cannot talk your way out of an engineering problem, but if you take the time to listen to prospects you may find a way to reframe the problem to one you can solve. Computing systems tend to be rigid and unforgiving, rewarding those who understand the need for an exacting specificity. People are much more complex and ambiguous and resist debugging. You need people on the team who can plan the work and work the plan, and at least one or can push the reset button at the right time for the right reasons before things go too badly off track when the map does not match the territory.

I don’t have any magic formula for how to identify–much less attract and retain–the right set of talent for your team. But I do know it’s important to recognize that you need folks who have deep domain experience and at least a few who are good at spanning domains. Recognizing that you need a requisite variety of skills is a good start, and being cautious –difficult for some entrepreneurs–in areas you are unfamiliar with is another good practice.

The technocratic idea is that you put a bunch of smart, competent people in government — folks who really want the thing to work — and they’ll make it happen. But “smart, competent people” are not a generic quantity; they’re incredibly domain-specific. Most academics couldn’t run a lemonade stand. Most successful entrepreneurs wouldn’t be able to muster the monomaniacal devotion needed to get a Ph.D. Neither group produces many folks who can consistently generate readable, engaging writing on a deadline. And none of us would be able to win a campaign for Congress.

Yet in my experience, the majority of people in these domains think that they could do everyone else’s job better, if they weren’t so busy with whatever it is they’re doing so well. It’s the illusion of omnicompetence, and in the case of HealthCare.gov, it seems to have been nearly fatal.

We like to think that being “smart and competent” makes you less likely to make mistakes. But when you’re out of your element, it may merely enable you to make more — and larger — mistakes.

Megan McArdle in “Obamacare is no Starship Enterprise


See also Clay Shirky’s “Healthcare.gov and the gulf between planning and reality.

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