He’s Only in Field Service

The most important early customers for your startup usually turn out to be quite different from who you think they’re going to be.

He’s Only in Field Service
When I was at Zilog, the Z8000 peripheral chips included the new “Serial Communications Controller” (SCC). As the (very junior) product marketing manager I got a call from our local salesman that someone at Apple wanted more technical information than just the spec sheets about our new (not yet shipping) chip. I vividly remember the sales guy saying, “It’s only some kid in field service. I’m too busy so why don’t you drive over there and talk to him.”  (My guess is that our salesman was busy trying to sell into the “official” projects of Apple, the Lisa and the Apple III.)

Zilog was also in Cupertino near Apple, and I remember driving to a small non-descript Apple building at the intersection of Stevens Creek and Sunnyvale/Saratoga. I had a pleasant meeting and was as convincing as a marketing type could be to a very earnest and quirky field service guy, mostly promising the moon for a versatile but then very buggy piece of silicon. We talked about some simple design rules and I remember him thanking me for coming, saying we were the only chip company who cared enough to call on him (little did he know.)

I thought nothing about the meeting until years later. Long gone from Zilog I saw the picture of the original Macintosh design team. The field service guy I had sold the chip to was Burrell Smith who had designed the Mac hardware.

The SCC had been designed into the Mac and became the hardware which drove all the serial communications as well as the AppleTalk network which allowed Macs to share printers and files.

Some sales guy who was too busy to take the meeting was probably retired in Maui on the commissions.

Your Customers are Not Who You Think
For years I thought this “million unit chip sale by accident” was a “one-off” funny story. That is until I saw that in startup after startup customers come from places you don’t plan on.

Unfortunately most startups learn this by going through the “Fire the first Sales VP” drill: You start your company with a list of potential customers reading like a “who’s who” of whatever vertical market you’re in (or the Fortune 1000 list.) Your board nods sagely at your target customer list.  A year goes by, you miss your revenue plan, and you’ve burned through your first VP of Sales.  What happened?

What happened was that you didn’t understand what “type of startup” you were and consequently you never had a chance to tailor your sales strategy to your “Market Type.” Most startups tend to think they are selling into an Existing market – a market exists and your company has a faster and better product. If that’s you, by all means hire a VP of Sales with a great rolodex and call on established mainstream companies – and ignore the rest of this post.

Market Type
But most startups aren’t in existing markets.  Some are resegmenting an existing market–directed at a niche that an incumbent isn’t satisfying (like Dell and Compaq when they were startups) or providing a low cost alternative to an existing supplier (like Southwest Airlines when it first started.) And other startups are in a New Market — creating a market from scratch (like Apple with the iPhone, or iPod/iTunes.)

(“Market Type” radically changes how you sell and market at each step in Customer Development. It’s one of the subtle distinctions that at times gets lost in the process. I cover this in the Four Steps to the Epiphany.)

market-type

Five Signs You Can Sell to a Large Company
If you’re resegmenting an existing market or creating a new market, the odds are low that your target list of market leaders will become your first customers. In fact having any large company buy from you will be difficult unless you know how to recognize the five signs you can get a large company to buy from a startup:

  • They have a problem
  • They know they have a problem
  • They’ve been actively looking for a solution
  • They tried to solve the problem with piece parts or other vendors
  • They have or can acquire a budget to pay for your solution

I advise startups to first go after the companies that aren’t the market leaders in their industries, but are fighting hard to get there. (They usually fit the checklist above.) Then find the early adopter/internal evangelist inside that company who wants to gain a competitive advantage. These companies will look at innovative startups to help them gain market share from the incumbent.

Sell to the Skunk Works
The other place for a startup to go is the nooks and crannies of a market leader.  Look for some “skunk works” project where the product developers are actively seeking alternatives to their own engineering organization.  In Apple’s case Burrell Smith was designing a computer in a skunk works unbeknownst to the rest of Apple’s engineering.  He was looking for a communications chip that could cut parts cost to build an innovative new type of computer – which turned out to be the Mac.

Lessons Learned

  • Early customers are usually not where you first think they are
  • Where they are depends on Market Type
  • Look for aggressive number 2’s or 3’s who are attacking a market leader
  • Look for a “skunk works” inside a market leader

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an early version of this story appeared on folklore.org

Ask and It Shall be Given

Once I recovered from burnout at Zilog, I was working less and accomplishing more. I even had time to find a girlfriend who was a contractor to the company.  One of her first comments was, “I didn’t know you even worked here.  Where were you hiding?”  If she only knew.

What’s the Worst that Can Happen?
Our small training department had been without a manager for months and finding a replacement didn’t seem to be high on the VP of Sales list. We four instructors would grumble and complain to one another about our lack of leadership.  Then it hit me – no one else wanted to be manager – what was the worst that could happen? I walked into the VP of Sales’ office and with my knees trembling, I politely asked for the job. I still remember him chuckling as I nervously babbled on what I good job I would do, what I would change for the better in the department, why I was qualified, etc.  He said, “you know I figured it would be you to come in here and ask for the job. I was wondering how long it would take you.”  I was now manager of Training and Education at Zilog.

All I had to do was ask.

Zilog Correspondence Course Matchbook Cover

Zilog Correspondence Course Matchbook

From that day forward, in my business and personal relationships, I would calculate the consequences of a “No” for an answer against the benefits of getting a “Yes.”  The math said that it was almost always worth asking for what you want. And the odds in your favor are even higher, as most of your peers wouldn’t even get into the game due to some unspoken belief that in a meritocracy, good things will come to those who wait. Perhaps if you have a union job based on seniority, but not in any startup I’ve ever seen.

For entrepreneurs good things come to those who ask.

What’s Marketing?
As part of the sales organization, I thought I kind of figured out what the function of the sales department was. (In reality it would be another 20 years.) And I understood engineering since I interacted with them almost daily.  And since Zilog still had a semiconductor fab next door, I learned what manufacturing did in a chip company, as every training class wanted to see their chips being made. But the one group that had me stumped was something called “marketing.”  “Explain it to me again,” I’d ask.

After a year and a half of running training and teaching the new Z-8000 and its peripheral chips, I began to figure out that one of the jobs of marketing was to translate what engineering built into a description that our salesmen could use to talk to potential customers.  I distinctly remember this is the first time I head the phrases “features and benefits.”  And since I saw our ads (but didn’t quite understand them,) I knew marketing was the group that designed them, somehow to get customers to think our products were better than Intel and Motorola’s.

But Intel was kicking our rear.

One day I heard there was an opening in the marketing department for a product marketing manager for the Z-8000 peripheral chips.  The department had hired a recruiter and was interviewing candidates from other chip companies. I looked at the job spec and under “candidate requirements” it listed everything I didn’t have: MBA,
5-10 years product marketing experience, blah, blah.

I asked for the job.

The response was at first less than enthusiastic. I certainly didn’t fit their profile. However, I pointed out that while I didn’t have any of the traditional qualifications I knew the product as well as anyone. I had been teaching Z8000 design to customers for the last year and a half. I also knew our customers.  I understand how our products were being used and why we won design-in’s over Intel or Motorola.  And finally, I had a great working relationship with our engineers who designed the chips.  I pointed out it that it would take someone else 6 months to a year to learn what I already knew – and I was already in the building.

A week later Zilog had a new product marketing manager, and I had my first job in marketing.

Now all I needed to do was to learn what a marketeer was supposed to do.

MBA or Domain Expert
Years later when I was running marketing departments I came up with a heuristic that replicated my own hire: in a technology company it’s usually better to train a domain expert to become a marketer than to train an MBA to become a domain expert.  While MBA’s have a ton of useful skills, what they don’t have is what most marketing departments lack – customer insight.  I found that having a senior marketer responsible for business strategy surrounded by ex-engineers and domain experts makes one heck of a powerful marketing department.

Entreprenuers Know How to Ask
Successful entrepreneurs have the ability to ask for things relentlessly. In the face of rules that stand in their way they find a way to change the rules. (To an entrepreneur comments like, “you need an MBA, we don’t fund companies like yours, we don’t buy from start-ups, you have to go through our vendor selection committee” are just the beginning of a negotiation rather than the end.) Entrepreneurs are fearless, persistent and uninhibited about asking – whether it’s asking to assemble a team, get financing, sell customers, etc. or whatever is necessary to build a company.   If you are on the path to be a successful entrepreneur, hopefully you are already asking for things you want/need/aspire to.  If not, don’t wait.  Get started asking.  It is a skill you need to either have or develop.

Lessons Learned

Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it will be opened to you.

King James Bible, New Testament – Matthew 7:7

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The Road Not Taken

At Zilog I was figuring out how to cope with job burnout.  And one of my conclusions was that I needed to pick one job not two. I had to decide what I wanted to do with my career – go back to ESL, try to work for the Customer, or stay at Zilog?

While it may seem like an easy choice, few people who love technology and who work on black projects leave.  These projects are incredibly seductive.  Let me explain why.

National Efforts
In World War II the U.S. put its resources behind a technical project that dwarfed anything every built – the atomic bomb.  From a standing start in 1942 the U.S. scaled up the production of U-235 and plutonium from micrograms to tens of kilograms by 1945. We built new cities in Hanford, Oak Ridge and Los Alamos and put 130,000 people to work on the project.

During the cold war, the U.S. government kept up the pace.  Hundreds of thousands of people worked on developing strategic weapons, bombers, our ICBM and SLBM missile programs, and the Apollo moon program. These programs dwarfed the size that any single commercial company could do by itself.  They were national efforts of hundreds of companies employing 10’s or 100’s of thousands of engineers.

ESL – National Technical Means of Verification
The project I was working on at ESL fit this category. The 1970’s and ‘80’s were the endgame of the cold war, and the U.S. military realized that our advantage over the Soviet Union was in silicon, software and systems. These technologies which allowed the U.S. to build sensors, stealth and smart weapons previously thought impossible or impractical, would give us a major military advantage.  Building these systems required resources way beyond the scope of a single company.  Imagine coming up with an idea that could work only if you had your own semiconductor fab and could dedicate its output to make specialized chips just for you.  Then imagine you’d have to get some rockets and put this reconnaissance system in space – no, make that several rockets. No one laughed when ESL proposed this class of project to “the customer.”

If you love technology, these projects are hard to walk away from.

The Road Not Taken
At first, I thought my choice was this: working on great technology at ESL or continuing to work on these toy-like microprocessors at Zilog.

But the more I thought about it, the choice wasn’t about the hardware or systems.  There was something about the energy and passion Zilog’s customers had as they kept doing the most unexpected things with our products.

While I couldn’t articulate at it at the time (it would take another 25 years) at ESL the company and the customer had a known problem and were executing to building a  known solution, with a set of desired specifications and PERT charts telling them what they needed to do and in what order to achieve the goal.  There was a ton of engineering innovation and coordination along the way, and the project could have failed at any point. But the insight and creativity occurred at the project’s beginning when the problem and solution was first being defined.  Given where I was in the hierarchy, I calculated that the odds of me being in on those decisions didn’t look high – ever.

In contrast, my customers at Zilog had nothing more than a set of visions, guesses and hallucinations about their customers; who they were, what they wanted to achieve and what was the right path to get there.  At these startups both the problem and solution were unknown.

Startups were not just smaller versions of a large company, they were about invention, innovation and iteration - of business model, product, customers and on and on. Startups were doing discovery of the problem and solution in real-time.  I could see myself doing that – soon.

Unbeknownst to me, I was facing a choice between becoming an entrepreneur or working for a large company.

I chose a path and never looked back.

——

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost – The Road Not Taken – 1916

Lessons Learned

  • There is no “right” choice for a career
  • There’s only the choice you make
  • Don’t let a “career” just happen to you
  • A startup is not a smaller version of a large company

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Burnout

If you hang around technology companies long enough, you or someone you know may experience “burnout” – a state of emotional exhaustion, doubt and cynicism.  Burnout can turn productive employees into emotional zombies and destroy careers. But it can also force you to hit the pause button and perhaps take a moment to reevaluate your life and your choices.

Hitting “burnout” changed the trajectory of both ends of my career in Silicon Valley. This post, which is divided in two parts, is the story of the first time it happened to me.

Zilog
Zilog was my first Silicon Valley company where you could utter the customer’s name in public. Zilog produced one of the first 8-bit microprocessors, the Z-80 (competing at the time with Intel’s 8080, Motorola 6800, and MOS Technology 6502.)

I was hired as a training instructor to teach microprocessor system design for the existing Z-80 family and to write a new course for Zilog’s soon to be launched 16-bit processor, the Z-8000. Given the hardware I had worked on at ESL, learning microprocessors wasn’t that hard but figuring out how to teach hardware design and assembly language programming was a bit more challenging.  Luckily while I was teaching classes at headquarters, Zilog’s field application engineers (the technical engineers working alongside our salesmen) would work side-by-side with our large customers as they designed their systems with our chips. So our people in the field could correct any egregious design advice I gave to customers who mattered.

Customers
The irony is that Zilog had no idea who would eventually become its largest customers.  Our salesmen focused on accounts that ordered the largest number of chips and ignored tiny little startups that wanted to build personal computers around these chips (like Cromemco, Osborne, Kaypro, Coleco, Radio Shack, Amstrad, Sinclair, Morrow, Commodore, Intertec, etc.) Keep in mind this is still several years before the IBM PC and DOS. And truth be told, these early systems were laughable, at first having no disk drives (you used tape cassettes,) no monitors (you used your TV set as a display,) and no high level programming languages.  If you wanted your own applications, you had to write them yourself. No mainframe or minicomputer company saw any market for these small machines.

Two Jobs at Once
When I was hired at Zilog part of the deal was that I could consult for the first six months for my last employer, ESL.

Just as I was getting settled into Zilog, the manager of the training department got fired.  (I was beginning to think that my hiring managers were related to red-shirted guys on Star Trek.)  Since the training department was part of sales no one really paid attention to the four of us.  So every day I’d come to work at Zilog at 9, leave at 5 go to ESL and work until 10 or 11 or later.  Repeat every day, six or seven days a week.

Meanwhile, back at ESL the project I was working on wanted to extend my consulting contract, the company was trying to get me to return, and in spite of what I had done on the site, “the customer” had casually asked me if I was interested in talking to them about a job.  Life was good.

But it was all about to catch up to me.

Where Am I?
It was a Friday (about ¾’s through my work week) and I was in a sales department meeting. Someone mentioned to me that there were a pile of upcoming classes heading my way, and warned me “remember that the devil is in the details.”  The words “heading my way” and “devil” combined in my head. I immediately responded, “well that’s OK, I got it under control – as long as the devil coming at me isn’t an
SS-18.”  Given that everyone in the room knew the NATO codename for the SS-18 was SATAN, I was thinking that this was a witty retort and expected at least a chuckle from someone.

I couldn’t understand why people were staring at me like I was speaking in tongues. The look on their faces were uncomfortable.  The VP of Sales gave me a funny look and just moved on with the agenda.

VP of Sales?  Wait a minute.. where am I?

I looked around the room thinking I’d see the faces of the engineers in the ESL M-4 vault, but these were different people.  Who were these people?  I had a moment of confusion and then a much longer minute of panic trying to figure out where I was.  I wasn’t at ESL I was at Zilog.  As I realized what I had said, a much longer panic set in.  I tried to clear my head and remember what else I had said, like anything that would be really, really, really bad to say outside of a secure facility.

As I left this meeting I realized I didn’t even remember when I had left ESL or how I had gotten to Zilog.  Something weird was happening to me.  As I was sitting in my office looking lost, the VP of Sales came in and said, “you look a bit burned out, take it easy this weekend.”

“Burned out?” What the heck was that? I had been working at this pace since I was 18.

Burnout
I was tired.  No I was more than tired, I was exhausted. I had started to doubt my ability to accomplish everything. Besides seeing my housemates in Palo Alto I had no social life. I was feeling more and more detached at work and emotionally drained. Counting the Air Force I had been pounding out 70 and 80 hour weeks nonstop for almost eight years. I went home and fell asleep at 7pm and didn’t wake up until the next afternoon.

The bill had come due.

Recovery
That weekend I left the Valley and drove along the coast from San Francisco to Monterey. Crammed into Silicon Valley along with millions of people around the San Francisco Bay it’s hard to fathom that 15 air miles away was a stretch of California coast that was still rural. With the Pacific ocean on my right and the Santa Cruz Mountains on my left, Highway 1 cut through mile after mile of farms in rural splendor.  There wasn’t a single stop-light along 2-lane highway for the 45 miles from Half Moon Bay to Santa Cruz.  Looking at the green and yellows of the farms, I realized that my life lacked the same colors.  I had no other life than work. While I was getting satisfaction from what I was learning, the sheer joy of it had diminished.

As the road rolled on, it dawned on me that there was no one looking out for me. There was no one who was going to tell me, “You’ve hit your limit, now work less hours and go enjoy yourself.” The idea that only I could be responsible for taking care of my happiness and health was a real shock.  How did I miss that?

At the end of two days I realized,

  • This was the first full weekend I had taken off since I had moved to California
    3 years ago.
  • I had achieved a lot by working hard, but the positive feedback I was getting just encouraged me to work even harder.
  • I needed to learn how to relax without feeling guilty.
  • I needed a life outside work.

And most importantly I needed to pick one job not two. I had to make a choice about where I wanted to go with my career–back to ESL, try to work for the Customer or stay at Zilog?

More about that choice in the next post.

Lessons Learned

  • No one will tell you to work fewer hours
  • You need to be responsible for your own health and happiness
  • Burnout sneaks up on you
  • Burnout is self-induced.  You created it and own it.
  • Recovery takes an awareness of what happened and…
  • A plan to change the situation that got you there

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Rocket Science 5: Who Needs Domain Experts

What Business Are We In?
While the Rocket Science press juggernaut moved inexorably forward, a few troubling facts kept trying to bubble up into my consciousness. The company was founded to build games with embedded video to bring Hollywood stories, characters, and narratives to a market where “shoot and die” twitch games were in vogue. But underlying the company’s existence was a fundamental hypothesis we refused to see or test – customers would care if we did.

In the game business of the early 1990’s video was at best a brief narrative, a distraction you maybe watched once, not the core of the game. Our potential customers didn’t seem to be calling for Hollywood stories, characters and narrative. That’s OK, because we knew better. We thought we had figured out what the next generation of games was going to be. We were thinking we were in the movie business, but video games were more akin to pinball; both pinball and movies were entertainment but you would never confuse them with each other. Successful pinball companies didn’t hire Hollywood talent.

Meanwhile our company was pouring an enormous amount of dollars into building tools and video compression technology, while also hiring a lot of high-priced Hollywood talent like art directors, and script and story editors.

We Don’t Need Domain Experts
When I looked around at our executive staff, there wasn’t a single founder who was a gamer. Worse, there wasn’t a single person on our executive team who had come from a game company.  Nor was there anyone with game experience on our board. As the company grew a sense of unease started gnawing at the outer fringes of the “you’re in trouble” part of my brain. Meanwhile my partner was in heaven working with his newly hired group of game designers directing and producing our first games. When I pointed out my rising apprehension his response was, “I’ve been playing games since I was 10. I know what’s great and what’s not. We agreed this part of the company was my responsibility. Don’t worry the games are going to be great.” Given my fiduciary responsibility to my board and my investors did his blasé answer force me to grab him by the collar and scream, “Snap out of it, we’re in trouble!”

Nah. Instead I said, “Oh, OK, glad it’s all under control.” Then I went back to raising more money and getting more press for our soon to be spectacular games.

Hire Advice I Can Ignore
But the nagging little voice in the back of my head that said, “This doesn’t feel right,” wouldn’t go away.  So I hired a VP of Marketing from Sega, one of the video game platforms on which our games would run.  After only two weeks on the job, he came into my office and said, “Have you’ve seen the games we are building?”  What kind of question was that?   Of course I had seen pieces of the video we shot and beautiful storyboards. “No,” he insisted, “Have you seen the game play, the part that supposed to keep  players addictively glued to the game console for hours?”   Hmm.  “No, not really, but my partner owns the studio and tells me it’s spectacular and everyone will love it.  Don’t bother him; he knows what he’s doing.  Go spend some time outside the building talking to potential distribution partners.  Tell them how great it’s going to be and see how many pre-orders we can get.”

A month later the VP of Marketing appeared in my office again.  “Steve I have to tell you some bad news, I just showed our potential channel partners and customers a few completed pieces of the games we had. They think the games stink.”

loadstar

Now I know I heard his words because years later I can still remember them well enough to write them down.  But somehow the translation between my ears and what I was supposed to do with what I was hearing shut down. Was my response to stop development of the games?  Bring in some outside professionals to review our progress?  Call a board meeting and say we may have a serious problem?  Nah. I said, “That can’t be true! The press is saying we are the hottest super group around.  Look, we’re on the cover of Wired magazine.  They think we’re brilliant.  Our VCs think we are visionary. Stop annoying our game designers and start working on selling and marketing the games.”

Hindsight
In hindsight it’s easy to laugh.  Saying you knew how to build great games because you played them all your life was like saying, “Hey I  eat out a lot so why don’t I open a restaurant.” Or “I’ve seen a lot of movies so let’s start a movie studio.”  Only in Silicon Valley could we have got funded with this idea, and not surprisingly, it was our technology that had the VC’s confused. It was more like we had invented the world’s best new kitchen utensils and wanted to open a restaurant, or had built the world’s finest movie cameras and wanted to start a movie studio. Our venture backers and our executive team confused our technology and our tools — and our passion for the games business — with any practical experience in the real business we were in.  We were an entertainment business – and not a very subtle entertainment business.  As we were about to find out, if video game players wanted a cinematic experience, they went to the movies, they didn’t buy a video game.  Our customers wanted to kill, shoot or hunt for something.  Fancy video narratives and plots were not video games.

Interest Alignment
Why VC’s invested in companies like ours is what’s great and bad about entrepreneurship.  A Venture Capitalist I respect reminded me that he thought about investment risk as either:

  • investing $1 million in 10 companies and have all ten succeed.  With each of those ten companies returning 2x their money for $20 million. Or
  • investing in 10 companies and having 8 fail  – but the remaining two companies returning 20x their money for $40 million.

His point was that it was in the VC’s interest in having entrepreneurs swing for the fences.

However the VC’s are managing a portfolio while you, the entrepreneur are managing one company – yours.  While VC’s might love you and your firm, a 2x return isn’t why they’re in business.  It’s nothing personal, but your interests and your VC’s may not be aligned. (More on this in future posts.)

The Search for the Black Swan
What keeps founders and their investors going is the the dream/belief that your startup will be the Black Swan – a company that breaks all the obvious rules, ignores tradition and does something unique and spectacular and with a result that is unpredicted and financial returns that are breathtaking.

Think of the Microprocessor, Personal Computer, Internet, Twitter, Youtube, Facebook, Google, the iPhone. Creating those technologies and companies required entrepreneurs willing to follow their own vision and convincing  others that the path is worth following.

The mistake isn’t having a vision and taking risks.  The mistake is assuming you are a Black Swan and continuing to ignore the facts as they pile up in front of you.

Customer Development
There was nothing wrong about Rocket Science having a vision radically different than the conventional wisdom.  We could have been right and invented a new form of gaming and entertainment. What went awry was continuing to execute on the vision when all the evidence in front of us told us our hypothesis was wrong.  We compounded the problem when we failed to have an honest discussion about why it made sense to ignore the evidence.  (A tip-off is when you start saying, “they just don’t get it yet.”)

At Rocket Science, hubris took over and was about to lead to the fall.

Customer Development says having a vision, faith and a set of hypotheses are a normal part of the startup experience.  But it is critical to build in a process for testing those hypothesis outside the building and listening to the responses – or you might as well throw your money in the street.

Lessons learned?

  • While a lack of relevant domain expertise is not always fatal, believing you don’t need any is.
  • Founders need to validate their vision in front of customers early and often.
  • Your goals and your VC’s goals may not be aligned.  Make sure they are.

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Rocket Science 4: The Press is Our Best Product

At Rocket Science while my partner Peter was managing the tools and game development, I was managing everything else. Which at this stage of the company was marketing and financing.

Our “Hollywood meets Silicon Valley” story played great in Silicon Valley, they ate it up in Hollywood, and the business press tripped over themselves to talk to us.  The story had universal appeal, and we spun the tale and keep the buzz going.  It worked. Judging by the ink we had gotten, we were the hottest company in the game business, with stories in Fortune, Forbes, Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and the cover of Wired magazine. Yet we hadn’t shipped a single product.

While it felt wonderful at the time, this was a very bad idea.

Wired 2.11 Cover

Everyone Else is an Idiot
The theme of our press blitz was all about how we were going to show the old tired game companies the right way to make video games. Our press infuriated the established companies who had spent years building games that sold well, but had zero press recognition.  (They all accurately predicted our demise because of our lack of game expertise.)  Ah, the arrogance of inexperience. Fortunately I’ve never been good at lying, to be effective in communicating a story I truly had to believe in what I was saying.  At the time I was a true believer that Rocket Science was going to change the gaming world. The positive effect of the tidal wave of press was as a door opener for us to raise money from corporate partners.  Companies in the entertainment business around the world knew who we were, and were interested in meeting us, if only to see what the hype was about. Our VP of Business Development had no problems getting meetings and fund raising was easy.

The Digital Dream Team
Way before the Internet phenomenon, we had created “Rocket Science the brand” that was much bigger in size and importance than Rocket Science the company. One magazine called us the “Digital Dream Team”, young, edgy and hip, and by the looks of the company (great building, nice furniture, and well dressed 20-year olds) we were trying to live up to the reputation.  All this activity occurring before we actually shipped a product.  We were larger than life, but as one potential investor told us, “You guys are all hat and no cattle.”

Believing Your Own BS is Toxic
Lots of noise and smoke before a product ships seems to be a toxic byproduct of enthusiastic entrepreneurs. Every generation of new technology seems to find a willing audience in naïve journalists and eager readers.  However, when the smoke clears the surviving companies are more than likely the ones that focussed on execution, not on creating a cacophony of press releases. If Rocket Science wasn’t a clear enough lesson in the danger of premature enthusiasm, the dot-com bubble that followed should have been. The only difference between us and the Internet bubble that would follow was that we did branding on the cheap by creating our image with public relations, whilethe dot-bomb era was to do it by spending enormous sums on advertising (those large venture rounds had to get spent somewhere.)

Hindsight is wonderful.  For years the one solace I was able to take from the Rocket Science debacle was that I had got the branding right. Then I watched the criminally expensive dot-bomb-bust branding activities to see how futile and wasteful it was to brand a company before it has shipped products.

To a Hammer Everything Looks Like a Nail
In hindsight my failure was that I executed to my strength – telling a compelling story – without actually listening to customer feedback.

It wasn’t that I didn’t know how to listen to customers.  It wasn’t that I didn’t have a smart VP of Marketing who was getting early feedback from customers and screaming that the games didn’t match the hype.  It’s that as CEO I was too busy talking to the press and raising money to hear customer comments directly.

I had outsourced customer feedback and ignored the input. In fact, hearing input that contradicted the story I was telling created cognitive dissonance.  So while the words may have passed through my ears I couldn’t “hear” it.  Not being able to hear negative customer input is an extremely bad idea.

Out of the Ashes
A few of the key tenets of Customer Development, came from the ashes.  The Customer Discovery lessons of “get outside the building and test your hypothesis with customers,” and “the founders need to hear the results,” came from this debacle.

The Customer Validation lesson of, “no formal launch until you have early sales validating the product and sales process” was also born here.  Given the lukewarm feedback we were getting from potential customers and channel buyers we should have dramatically dialed back the hype until the follow-on games could match it. Given the talented people we had, there’s no doubt they would have done so.  Instead the huge mismatch between expectations and reality of our first games diminished the brand and demoralized the company – we never recovered.

Lessons Learned

  • PR is not a product- it is a demand creation activity to fill a sales channel
  • The product needs to come close to the hype
  • Fire the CEO who insists on press and PR before they understand customer feedback
  • Branding is a process that should happen after you have customers

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Rocket Science 3: Hollywood Meets Silicon Valley

What do you mean you don’t want to hear about features?
I was now a CEO of Rocket Science, and having a great time building the company (more about that in future posts.) Unfortunately, while I had gone through phases of video game addiction in my life, in no way could I be described as even a “moderate hard-core gamer,” which ruled me out as a domain expert.  So I got out out of the building to meet and understand our customers and distribution partners. I remember after a month or two of talking to 14-22 year old male gamers (our potential target market,) I realized that for the first time in my career I had no emotional connection to my customers or channel partners.

I was about 90 days into the company when I began to realize there was something very different about this business. In previous companies I could talk about technology details and how the product features could solve a customers problem. But people didn’t buy video games on features and they weren’t looking to solve a problem.  I was in a very, very different business.

I was in the entertainment business.

There couldn’t have been a worse choice for CEO in Silicon Valley.

Alarm bell one should have started ringing – for me and my board.

Rocket Science logo

Hollywood Meets Silicon Valley was an Oxymoron
A key premise of our new company was that our video compression and authoring technology would revolutionize how games were made and played. We believed that by putting full motion video (i.e. movies) into video games we could tell stories, build characters, have narratives and bring all the 100 years of craft and cinematic experience of Hollywood to the sterile “shoot and die” twitch games that were currently in vogue.  (This wasn’t just some random Silicon Valley fantasy. My partner had convinced several major Hollywood names that this was the inevitable consequence of the merger of Hollywood and Silicon Valley.  And at the time it was a plausible scenario.)

But in reality our passionate belief that video would transform gaming was just our hypothesis. There was zero proof in the marketplace that was the case. And we weren’t going to be bothered to go out and prove ourselves wrong with facts.  (Why should we – our VC’s had already told us what geniuses we were by fighting to even get into the deal to fund us.  Never mind that no one on our board was in the game business or even played games.)

Alarm bell two should have started ringing – for me and my board.

Swing For the Fences
Since we were so smart we were going to ramp up and build not one game, but an entire game studio based on this hypothesis.  Why shouldn’t we.  Doing one game and seeing customer reaction meant a) acknowledging that some of our assumptions might be wrong, and 2) wasting time.  We were all about scale and swinging for the fences.  That’s what VC funded companies do, don’t they?

Alarm bell three should have started ringing – for my partner and me.

Tools Are the Not the Product
We were going to build an easy to use authoring system that would revolutionize how games were made. (My partner had convinced several of the key members of the Apple Quicktime team to join us.) Our tools group became as important as our content group. Unfortunately, the market was going to remind us that games are about game play.

Customers don’t care about your tools regardless of what business you’re in. Customers of software applications don’t say, “wow, elegant code base.” In movies theater-goers don’t leave talking about your cameras, just whether they were entertained, and in restaurants diners don’t care about your cooking implements, what matters is what the food tasted like.  The tools may provide efficiencies, but what customers care about is your final product. (Later on, way too late, we’d remind ourselves it’s the game stupid.)

Alarm bell four should have started ringing louder for me.

Lessons learned

  • Never, ever, start a company when you’re not passionate about the company, product and customers
  • Always validate your key assumptions on what makes your company tick
  • Swing for the fences is your VC’s strategy.  Make sure it is yours.
  • Don’t confuse your passion for your tools with why your customers will buy your product.
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