I used to think it was the advice I offered that provided the highest value to clients and friends. I talk to a number of people in different or challenging situations. Recently I have come to appreciate that it’s when I focus and listen to someone explain their situation, asking them questions from a caring perspective to help clarify their understanding, that I often provide the most value.
I cannot remember what reference led me to read “Gunfire at Sea” by Elting Morrison but I thought it captured some fundamental truths about innovation so well I bought several copies of “Men, Machines, and Modern Times” by Elting Morrison and started sharing them with friends in 2005. I had a conversation with Gary Smith about the book sometime that year and he said he had written a thesis at the Naval Academy on the subject of bebop as a model for innovation. I pestered him for several months afterward to dig it up because from his description I really wanted to read it.
Creating value for others is the core of the entrepreneurial mindset. It enables the exchange of value that fuels entrepreneur’s efforts to bring new ideas and products to market.
Dan Sullivan: Entrepreneurs Make Two Decisions
Successful entrepreneurs differ from other people–not in their abilities but in their mindset. They have internalized two fundamental commitments, by making these two decisions:
- Decision 1: To depend entirely on their own abilities for their financial security, because they realize that the only security is the security they create themselves.
- Decision 2: To expect opportunity only by creating value for others, because they understand that this is the only unlimited source of economic opportunity.
Both for personal or business growth, an entrepreneur has to cultivate patience and consider long term effects, not just a transaction’s immediate benefits.
“Start building network, blog, educating 1 year before you make the leap.
The first sales will always be to friends. Make those friends.”
Conor Neill in “Entrepreneur: Start a year before you Start“
I think Conor Neill offers this is a great framing for the need to identify the things about your plan that are not likely to change–a problem area, a category of customer–and join communities that are already focused on these. Build on experience and relationships.
He advises “build community” and not “build new community” and I agree, I would build new only where you cannot find existing communities. If it’s a real customer category or a real problem there is almost always one or more communities formed that are addressing it at least partially. There may be several each using different terminology and focused on a different aspect of the same set of problems, but this is a search you can start well advance in crafting a product.
I don’t know if your first sales come from “friends” but certainly from people that trust you, if you can start the trust building process in advance of the sales process by becoming a member in good standing of communities they are already a member of or by writing or speaking about topics that they are interested in, then you effectively start in advance of the direct sales process.
Build on Experience
Another way to look at this is to “always start in phase two of a five phase plan.” Look into your past experiences and projects for examples of problems solved and relationships that you can build on as you start your new venture. If you are going in to a new area and cannot identify aspects of prior experience or expertise that will have an impact then be careful: you may be attracted to the new new thing without a way to differentiate your offering.
It’s OK to start over from scratch but if you are effectively setting fire to ten or twenty years of experience you may want to look instead at problems and fields that are adjacent or can take advantage of your experience in preference to one where you don’t bring relevant experience. Green fields are seductive because you know the problems of the areas you are more familiar with and can fall victim to the “grass is greener” when speculating about how easy a new field may be.
Some reflections on the Startup Conference May 2014 in Redwood City. The informal conversations were far better than any of the presentations I sat through. I offer some suggestions for informal networking at events.
Brian Fuller had an interesting blog post on why you should circle the chairs in a meeting to increase audience participation at “Industry events need to get more social.”
Panels and speeches at events are the live equivalent of newspaper publishing: We talk, you listen. Newspapers and magazines have been pounded for the better part of a decade that the we-say, you read model isn’t what people want in the age of ubiquitous and constant information. Why should it be the same for live events?
Array the chairs in the room in a great circle around the presenter(s). Everyone has to look at everyone else; no one hides; everyone’s forced to be attentive and stay off their laptops and cell phones. The circular set-up makes conversation easier. Up the ante by removing microphones from the speakers and panelists. Make sure the moderators really know how to facilitate a conversation, even if it means calling on people in the audience. Phil Donahue meets sub-threshold leakage.
These are great suggestions but they have a few things working against them. And I say this as someone who really likes the round table format and has used it many times:
- We did the EDA Bloggers Birds of a Feather this way at DAC 2008 and ICCAD 2008.
- We structured the “Managing Project Health” Birds of a Feather at DAC 2009 as lightning talks followed by discussion in the audience.
- We run the Bootstrappers Breakfasts® this way as well.
- All of our workshops
I only mention this to show I like the format and understand its strengths.
The Drawbacks To A Roundtable
- Only works with small groups: the nature of the interactions start to breakdown at 16-20 people and really starts to have problems above 40 or 50 people. There are other formats that build on it that have the group break into smaller discussions and then reform and report but the practical limit on the meeting size is somewhere around 40 or 50 for a single large roundtable. Above 16-20 it becomes more difficult to manage.
- Speakers sell audiences on attending. While the ‘unconference’ format is also gaining in popularity, I haven’t seen any in the electronics or EDA space. The EDA Process workshop comes closest to free discussion, but again it’s a smaller audience and people are in one room for the day and get to know one another better.
- Requires strong moderation. When a panel breaks down into a series of monologues you may still learn something. But when a roundtable doesn’t come off it can be very painful. It’s a challenge to bring folks together for 60-90 minutes and foster a good discussion. We do it at the breakfasts but we limit the table size to 20 (and most breakfasts have 8-16 attendees). Sharing a meal or a cup of coffee also seems to help break the ice. We have the networking take place afterward, once folks have had a chance to get to know one another.
Where The Roundtable Format Works Better
I think the roundtable format works better when the attendees are still wrestling with emerging problems where collaboration trumps competitive pressures (e.g. where the “stag hunt” model still holds). This was certainly the case for the blogger BoF’s and the Project Health BoF as well as the Bootstrappers Breakfasts. Everyone is more focused on learning than “getting the word out” about their product or service.
And I think that points up another problem with the format for conferences. Sponsors pay and take part to get the word out about their product. They don’t want to be in a setting where competitors and others can attend in what is effectively a peer position. If you are on a panel, up on a raised platform or stage, there is an unconscious presumption that you must be smarter than the audience. If everyone is sitting around in a circle, then everyone’s opinions matter more or less equally.
This was the inspiration behind the Conversation Central model that had 8-16 around a table having a conversation. The premise was that we would talk about issues facing the EDA industry that had not yet settled into competing solutions from vendors.
Jeff Jarvis Perspective
Here are some comments that Jeff Jarvis gave at TEDxNYed that mirror Brian Fuller’s:
This is bullshit.
Why should you be sitting there listening to me? To paraphrase Dan Gillmor, you know more than I do. Will Richardson should be up here instead of me. And to paraphrase Jay Rosen, you should be the people formerly known as the audience.
But right now, you’re the audience and I’m lecturing.
What does this remind of us of? The classroom, of course, and the entire structure of an educational system built for the industrial age, turning out students all the same, convincing them that there is one right answer–and that answer springs from the lectern. If they veer from it they’re wrong; they fail.
Terry Frazier Perspective
Terry Frazier left a long and well thought out comment I wanted to include in the main body of this post:
Industry events are evolving and will adapt over time because they must compete with alternatives. You’ve nicely summarized the limitations of “drum circle confab”-style meetings – which can work wonders in the right setting but are no panacea. No one goes to a Mormon Tabernacle Choir concert to hear the audience sing.
People who live in social media tend to get tunnel vision and forget there are (still, and probably always) large segments of the population for whom social this and social that isn’t all that appealing. And no amount of tweeting is going to change that.
I was really interested in Jarvis’ comments. I’m glad I read the whole link because, out of context, I took a different (and inaccurate) meaning. The world of “Education” is far different from education. It is broken in different ways and needs, in many cases, very different solutions.
Jarvis has good ideas. Sadly I don’t see much evidence that people running Education have any clue how to apply good ideas without making them into bad ideas.
Overview: This MVP clinic helps 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
- Mon Dec-16-2013 10am PST https://www3.gotomeeting.com/register/228324222
- Fri-Jan-17-2014 10am PST https://www3.gotomeeting.com/register/251287126
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:
- Howard Silverman http://solvingforpattern.org
- John Smith http://Learningalliances.net
- Sean Murphy https://www.skmurphy.com
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/
- Blog: www.thoughtfordevelopment.com / twitter: @thought4dev
- 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.
- 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 practitioners concerns
Criteria for acceptance of a project
- Poll the community for popularity
- Within the KM4Dev concerns (broad thematic area)
- 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 non-profit. 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.
- 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. (Face palm) 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 interactive form
- 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.
- 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 dog food 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:
- 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 disruptor, 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?
We use this definition in our “Engineering Your Sales” and “Validating Your MVP” workshops and our MVP clinics. Our focus is on developing and selling products to businesses so that biases the definition a little bit but it’s important to remember what’s under your control in crafting your MVP:
- The particular type of customer: you can select who are you targeting and messaging. In many B2B markets the best message is a dog whistle: highly appealing to your target and of little interest to those who are not.
- The specific problem or need your focus on: it’s better to pick a very narrow pain point initially so that you maximize your chances of providing value.
- What you provide: the feature set and packaging of your offering.
These are normally the three areas that you tinker with during marketing exploration and MVP introduction. It’s also important to understand what’s not under your control:
- The customer decides if the need is important enough, or the problem severe enough, to devote any time to conversation or learning more about your offering.
- The customer decides if your solution offers enough of a difference over the status quo and other alternatives available to them to actively consider. Value is in the customer’s mind and it’s created in the customer’s business when they successfully deploy your offering. Your MVP is not valuable in the abstract; it must always be evaluated in the context of a particular customer. It does not matter how much time and expense you have invested in creating it, it’s the effect it will have on the customer’s business.
- The customer decides the nature and size of the initial purchase. You can decide not to pursue an opportunity that is “too small” but if the customer wants to pilot in a team or one department before deploying your solution more widely it’s often better to take that deal and get started than continue to argue for a larger initial deal. Breaking your offering into phases and smaller components will always make it easier to digest.
The following chalk talk illustrates this last point in more detail:
See “Chalk Talk on Technology Adoption” for a transcript.
Question: I’m reading Seth Godin’s Tribes book, what role do you think tribes play for startups? For context, we are in crunch time at my startup. We have a few part-time engineers and have soft-circled first half of angel round. Morale is still very high but have lots on our mind. I’m contemplating whether our energy is better spent “buckling down” and addressing our needs for people and investment, or a whether we should focus on catalyzing a community who share our passion to make tech better for relationships and community.
The key to changing management’s view of an innovation from “probably not a good idea” is to assess the impact of metrics that they care about. At which point you are often told “We’re late.”
In May of this year I was invited to take part in a month long group discussion on CPSquare where my consulting practice was the topic. This is the first question I answered, it was prompted by my opening statement.
Q: I was particularly struck by how the work you do tends to focus around communication and change. I’m wondering if there are any emergent patterns in this area that you have uncovered? How do communities of practice facilitate your work (assuming that they do)?
A: Here are a couple of quick lessons learned:
- Most sustainable changes are nurtured in communities of practice.
- The idea of a lone inventor is accurate as far as it goes but most real innovation requires a reinforcing cascade of inventions.
- The distinction between early customer and co-inventors or co-innovators is often artificial.
When we have a new technology we look very hard for communities that are already working with it, or related technologies or are focused on managing or addressing the problem or opportunity we would like to aim the technology at.
Related Blog Posts
- Entrepreneurs Need a Community of Practice Not a Movement
- Cultivating Communities To get More Customers
- June 2006 SDForum Interview
CPSquare exploration of SKMurphy consulting practice
- “Sharing My Practice” Discussion with CPSquare: Intro
- Real Innovation Requires a Community of Practice Fostering a Cascade of Inventions
- Innovation Often Obsoletes Assumptions, Political Boundaries, and Work Process
- Changing Management’s View of an Innovation From “Probably Not a Good Idea” to “We’re Late”
In May of this year I was invited to take part in a month long group discussion on CPSquare where my consulting practice was the focus. This is the introductory statement I posted to explain a little bit about my background and what I do.
I worked in Electronic Design Automation on board, chip, and system design in the 80’s and 90’s. This gave me an appreciation of the value domain specific visual languages for representing geometric, physical, logical, electrical, and temporal properties and relationships. Since I had studiously avoided electronics and anything related to hardware in my education I had to concentrate on the poorly understood problems of data management and applying computers to the design of computers.
I also learned that electronic systems design required a team of experts from different disciplines collaborating to create something new. A chip design team needs to reach a working consensus on a range of problems in different domains. One paradox over the roughly two decades I worked in system design was that solving a problem in one domain moved the constraint to another one, so that you a group that was critical for one or two generations has to let others take the lead as new challenges dominate.
When I was getting ready to apply to colleges I had a long conversation with a friend’s father who worked as a fighter aircraft designer at McDonnell Douglas. He was an expert in materials and mechanical design. He said that one of the challenges his organization faced was that aircraft survivability from the 1940’s through the 60’s had been driven by airframe and engine design as combat took place at close range using machine guns. As Gatling guns gave way to missiles there were many fewer combat engagements within visual range: avionics and electronic counter-measures, which had become important starting in the second half of the World War 2, now came to dominate the equations governing survivability. The challenge was that the organization was dominated by folks with a clear understanding of airframe design and they needed to learn how to incorporate guidance from many new disciplines.
I think this challenge of integrating not only the evolution of knowledge in a particular domain but fostering effective communication and collaboration among experts in different domains was what led me originally to CPSquare. I was working at Cisco in a hardware design best practices effort and I read an article by Etienne Wenger on cultivating communities of practice in the Harvard Business Review. It was eye opening.
These days I work primarily with teams of two to five engineers or scientists who are experts in a field and are challenged with explaining the benefits of their services or software so that they can get their startup off the ground. I spend some time trying to understand the details of the technology but for the most part try and draw a box around it and understand the inputs, outputs, timeframe, and costs that a prospective customer will need to appreciate before deciding to engage.
The incorporation of a new technology into a business process often changes existing political boundaries, frequently obsoletes old assumptions, establishes new processes and ways of working together, and requires shared experimentation between the customer and startup for shared learning.
I am happy to answer any questions folks may have on challenges I face or issues that I wrestle with. I have learned a lot from my participation in CPSquare events over the years and am happy to take part in this exercise.
For more background on my current practice and some of the things that have influenced me please take a look at some of these blog posts:
- Your First Dozen Enterprise Customers
Entrepreneurs need a community of practice to improve their skills, not a movement they can join as a fad. I don’t consider myself a disciple or part of a movement. I consider myself a practitioner. I am a huge fan of Saras Sarasvathy, Clayton Christensen, Peter Drucker, Gary Klein, and Gerald Weinberg.
Situation — you have joined an on-line forum or e-mail list where participants discuss issues related to your product or applications or needs that your product is used for. Someone posts a question in an on-line forum along the lines of:
- What tools are people using to solve problem X or need Y?
- What are the pros and cons of choosing tool A vs. tool B (where you offer tool A)?
- What are the strengths and weaknesses of solution B vs. solution C (where you still offer tool A)?
Recognize that you and vendor B and vendor C are all stakeholders in promoting the category: why do people select a commercial solution instead of rolling their own or using free or open source alternatives. In general you want to adopt the tone and perspective of a knowledge user not a cheerleader or advocate. This is a different situation than someone walking up to you at a trade show booth and asking for a sales pitch.
When there is very little context provided by the person asking the question it’s often better to start with some additional objective questions to better understand their particular needs, constraints, workflow or overall situation.
Acknowledge that both tool B and tool C are good solutions unless they are not at all appropriate. Mention other solutions that are also viable.
Point to objective third party write-ups of how to make the decision. Help the poster walk around the issues; don’t just advocate for your offering. Software, whether installed or SaaS, is the promise of an ongoing relationship with a customer, not a one time transaction. You are not selling a wedding dress–something that will normally only be purchased and used once in a lifetime–you are selling a tool that your customer will rely on going forward. You want to act like a trusted advisor not a used car salesperson.
If you are selling a tool or service that is normally only used once (e.g. how do I migrate my data from X to Y and I am not going back) then focus on the results and how to measure them. Explain your process steps and quality control measures.
Be frank about the weaknesses or shortcomings of your offering that are relevant to the situation described in the question or uncovered in response to your request for more context. Acknowledging shortcomings increases credibility; if a user were writing in they would talk about relevant shortcomings of the solution they were recommending.
Offer one or two reasons why named customers have told you they chose your solution. Tie these back to the objective questions you asked in the beginning.
It’s critical to understand the problem the customer is trying to solve so that you highlight relevant capabilities that your product or alternatives offer for the particular use case. While the sales team at the Jaguar dealership cannot figure out how those poor guys selling Fiats make any money because no one ever walks into their dealership who wants a Fiat, consumer Reports still covers both in their buyer’s guide. Public comments in a forum should be more like a buyer’s guide than a sales pitch.
Summary: your fundamental goal is to be viewed as a valuable contributor to the community.
- Building credibility is the result of a series of posts that allow you to be viewed as a member in good standing.
- Good posts normally include one or more of the following
- Objective questions aimed at a better understanding of situation and context for decision.
- Objective statements either about your offerings shortcomings or assessments from third parties.
- Real stories from customers that are relevant to the situation.
“My own view is,” I began, but no one listened.
At the next pause, “I always say,” I remarked, but again the loud talk went on.
Someone told a story. When the laughter had ended, “I often think—”; but looking round the table I could catch no friendly or attentive eye. It was humiliating, but more humiliating the thought that Sophocles and Goethe would have always commanded attention, while the lack of it would not have troubled Spinoza or Abraham Lincoln.
Find A Peer Group Interested In What You Have To Say
Entrepreneurship can be a lonely activity. Translating an insight into a successful product in the market requires both the ability to reflect and the ability to adapt and refine your ideas. One advantage that a peer group can offer is a diversity of perspectives, another is to offer the right question when you are stuck to help you see the path again. You have to take the time to refine your ideas and hone their presentation, but a supportive group of peers can often help you continue to refine and improve it.
Related Blog Posts
- Real Innovations Requires a Community of Practice Fostering a Cascade of Innovations
- Entrepreneurs Need a Community of Practice Not a Movement
- Wynton Marsalis on Humility, Self-Mastery, and Learning
- Circle the Chairs
- A Serious Conversation Can Change Your Life
Two Community of Practice Articles
by Etienne Wenger
Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge – Seven Principles for Cultivating Communities of Practice
by Etienne Wenger, Richard McDermott, and William M. Snyder
These articles provide a good introduction to what communities of practice are and why business leaders find them useful as an approach to knowing and learning..
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Additional Book Reviews
Federated entrepreneurship groups in different cities should following their own paths that leverage unique local strengths and advantages.