Offering expert consulting means developing a specialization and focus that enable you to execute with distinction. The phrases “finding the niche for your product” and “product market fit” are essentially equivalent. A key definition of a market is that members reference each other’s buy decisions and therefore building up a set of references lowers your next prospect’s perception of the risks in your product or service (not just will it work or will you do what you say you can do but are you going to offer them significant value.
Many entrepreneurs who are naturally optimistic make a serious mistake in discouraging pessimistic thinking instead of putting it to good use. The clever utilization of constructive pessimism is one of the keys to success.
I am giving a talk on “Extracting Competitive Insights from Software Demos: Crafting and Refining Your Company’s Message Through the Analysis of a Competitor’s Demo” at the Silicon Valley Chapter of the Society for Competitive Intelligence (SCIP) Tue-May-24 at 6PM.
Texas Hold’Em offers some useful models for technology startups: pick the right table (competitors) and understand how your cards best combine with common cards (the status quo and adjacent possible)
Here are two explainer videos Verdafero has produced: the first is intended for REIT executives, the second for general managers of hotels. They condense key symptoms for a customer need or problem and the impact of Verdafero on the bottom line.
Excerpts with commentary on Bill Watterson’s 1990 Kenyon College address: “Some Thoughts on the Real World By One Who Glimpsed it and Fled.”
We are offering our “Getting More Customers” workshop 9:00am-1:30pm on Sat-Apr-23-16. Spend a morning working on your business with a mix of lecture, discussion with peer entrepreneurs, and reflection and writing. You will leave with a plan for getting the phone to ring and your inbox to fill with inquiries.
Scott Robertson had a great post up last month on how to make content marketing work: be relevant, be different, be real, be useful, and be consistent. Here are some excerpts along with additional thoughts and commentary.
Theodore Zeldin gave a series of six lectures on conversation that were collected in slim book called “Conversation: How Talk Can Change Our Lives.” I found it offered a number of insights on what is needed for a serious conversation. And since serious conversation is one of the primary tools for early market exploration and customer development; I have curated a list of nine excerpts I think entrepreneurs will find useful.
My interview with Gabriel Weinberg was originally published Sep-8-2010. He was doing research for what became his fantastic book Traction. We talked for the better part of an hour and a half and I can remember he kept returning in different ways to what was needed to close your first dozen enterprise customers.
Any innovation effort is a painful struggle punctuated by false starts and dead ends. Your efforts are met with lack of interest even when a basic invention is working and active resistance when it starts to replace the tried and true. Like any childbirth the trick is managing the pain long enough to deliver.
Trust is built over repeated interactions between people. If your business requires long term relationships then you have to make sure that investments in automation are not deployed in a way that undercut your ability to have real conversations. Unfortunately, some uses of email automation tools are pushing sales conversations into the “Uncanny Valley” because they strive to simulate–but miss–a genuine personalized touch.
Cultivating mindfulness requires you to maintain situational awareness and realize when your reflexes may trigger a reaction that is not as thoughtful as the situation requires.
Q: We have already implemented the first prototype of our product, but we need to know that we are either on a good course or need to change.
A: If you long for certainty you should not be doing a startup, pick a regulated utility or government bureaucracy as a career. Lean Startup and Customer Development techniques can help you to reduce risks by identifying them and developing mitigation strategies but it’s not a guarantee. Any real market attracts competitors and you don’t get to write their plans so it’s not just a question of understanding the prospect’s status quo but being able to identify and react to competitive threats. The view that product-market fit is a ratchet that you cannot fall back from neglects the impact of competitive response, new entrants, and continued changes in technology and customer preference.
Q: Perhaps I overemphasized our desire for certainty; we understand a startup is uncertain. Should we use our current prototype as an MVP?
Yes. I would start with what you have and use it as a probe to refine your understanding of the market and customer needs.
Make a distinction between the product, your message, and your target customer. You can talk about your product in different ways, adjusting your message to highlight and test key hypotheses. You do not have to make any changes to your product to this. Any product by definition–or at least any short enough for a prospect for prospect to listen to willingly–of necessity highlights some aspects omits others. You can also use different messages on different target customers or present different message to different prospects of the same type as a way of refining your understanding of what they view as important.
It’s critical that you have conversations with prospects and not simply present messages and see what they react to. It’s only in conversation that you can truly be surprised (you have to be listening, it’s not a monolog) and often the most surprising and useful thing a prospect can do in a conversation is to ask you a question you have not considered before (that’s why it’s called a conversation not an interrogation). 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 whom you are testing the value hypothesis on. In particular you may have defined your target customer by certain selection criteria but your actual choices for whom to speak to (or who will speak with you) are not sampling from the full spectrum of possibilities.
Q: Or should we build another or several other smaller MVPs to test only the most important assumptions? Should we build various tests in parallel to test the needs of different types of customers?
I have come around to the approach of testing several hypotheses in parallel, I think you learn faster and are more likely to identify a good opportunity more quickly. After you take your current prototype and use it to have conversations, I would explore a few different potential customer types in parallel. One good article on this is by David Aycan, “Don’t Let the Minimum Win Over the Viable,” where he offers a comparison between three approaches:
Traditional linear approach:
I am also a huge fan of Discovery Kanban as a way to manage a set of options and experiments in parallel with managing commitments to customers and other execution targets. It actually gets harder as you start to gain some early customers and need to continue to explore the market and refine your understanding in parallel with keeping your current customers satisfied.
In “Our ‘For Impact’ Culture Code,” Possible Health outlined a number of operating principles and cultural values that are also very appropriate for bootstrappers.
Possible Health: Our “For Impact” Culture Code
I am a huge fan of Neil Perkin’s blog “Only Dead Fish” and his two newsletters: “Your Weekly Dead Fish” (archive) and “Fraggl.” I followed a link from his post on “Complexity and Simplicity” to a thought provoking presentation by Possible Health on “Our For Impact Culture Code.”
Here is my take on some key concepts from the deck (emphasis in original) that would benefit bootstrappers –as well as “non-profits.” I have added my observations in italic:
- “Non-profit” is a legal structure, not a way of doing things. And we don’t believe that we should define ourselves in the negative. Instead, we exist to create impact.
Observation: bootstrappers are often motivated by a desire to make an impact (in addition to a desire for autonomy) and have to focus on impact as a way to prove credibility and establish their firm as a viable alternative worthy of consideration.
- We treat efficiency as a moral must.
Observation: in the non-profit world this avoids the trap of excusing poor and/or inefficient execution because you are working on a “good cause.” For bootstrappers it’s second only to impact for viability.
- If building effective healthcare systems for the poor were easy, everyone would do it. We do this work precisely because it is labeled as “impossible” by many.
Observation: you can substitute “effective healthcare system” for whatever you own Big Hairy Audacious Goal (see “Building Companies to Last” by Jim Collins for more on this term). Bootstrappers have to work in riskier and more challenge environments because established firms are less willing to invest effort when markets with a clearer return are accessible.
- When your outcome is impact, time is a terrible thing to waste.
Observation: as I have outlined in the Chalk Talk on Technology Introduction, prospects use their estimate of your “time to impact” as the single best indicator of the amount of risk in your solution. Days to weeks beats months to quarters.
- When you’re working in the world’s most challenging environments under constant uncertainty, the way to maximize learning is to minimize the time to try things.
Observation: any environment with high uncertainty is challenging, running smaller experiments minimizes the cost of failure and speeds learning.
- It’s everyone’s job to turn time into resources and possibility for our patients.
Observation: all that bootstrappers have in the beginning is their time; if they cannot create an impact and a sense of possibility in prospects they won’t prosper.
Related Startup Culture posts:
- Four Excerpts from Valve’s Employee Handbook That Belong In Yours
- Yanis Varoufakis: “Valve is an Enlightened Oligarchy”
- Netflix Culture: Freedom and Responsibility by Reed Hastings
Update June-28-2014: Guillermo Marqueta-Silbert (@guillemarqueta) tweeted a comment to the effect that the exchange rate for entrepreneur hours to impact was a function of entrepreneurial skill. I think this is a great insight and suggests a more nuanced understanding that it’s not just trying anything but trying things that flow from a deep understanding of customer situation and needs, competitive landscape, relevant technology alternatives, and market evolution. In an OODA Loop formulation–Observe-Orient-Decide-Act–the key differentiator that expertise brings is a richer and faster Orientation to the situation.
Q: When I introduce the idea for my business a lot of my friends are quick to ask: “are you sure there is no one else doing this?” In today’s fast and disruptive business world, I think it is very hard to come up with a business idea that is 100% unique, and utilizes a completely new set of technology features. I constantly find myself arguing that it doesn’t matter if someone else also has the same startup or business idea, it’s how you go about executing your business idea that matters.
What are your thoughts on competitors and how put off should I be when I find out another company has a similar product and mission to my startup?
“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. Both require building trust. 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.
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
- When and how to pivot
- Rules of thumb for successful lean innovation
Q: We have started selling and are looking for resources for a lean approach to sales, in particular for new product introduction.
Lean Approach To Sales at Lean Startup Conference 2012
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:
- “Startup Selling: How to sell if you really, really have to and don’t know how”
- “52 Sales Questions Answered: A Q&A Guide to Customer Development & Sales”
Two articles that offer useful overviews for defining a sales process:
- The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Sales by Mark Duncan and Sean Murphy
- The Sales Learning Curve by Mark Leslie and Charles Holloway (2006)
Revised in 2011 at “Sales Learning Cycle“
Other books you may find helpful:
- SPIN Selling by Neil Rackham
- Solution Selling by Michael Bosworth
- You’ll Never Get No for an Answer by Jack Carew
- Secrets of Consulting by Gerald Weinberg
- Getting it Right the First Time: How Innovative Companies Anticipate Demand by Christy and Katsaros
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 to twelve 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.