In 1985 Ardent Computer was determined to create a market niche for personal supercomputers. To understand our potential markets, we started by analyzing the marketing literature from Cray Research then crisscrossed the country talking to prospective customers – scientists and researchers in advanced corporate R&D centers and universities – to understand their needs.
A week might start with a visit to the MIT Media Lab, the next day at Princeton in the Aerospace Engineering department, then off to General Motors’ advanced research group, across to the computer science department at the University of Illinois, up to Minneapolis to meet with ETA, Control Data and Cray, and across the country to Seattle to speak with Boeing’s advanced propulsion group before returning to to the geophysics department at Stanford.
After six months, we hypothesized that our most likely customers were scientists and engineers who used one of five applications: computational fluid dynamics, finite element analysis, computational chemistry and seismic data processing and reservoir simulation.
At Boeing we had learned aircraft designers needed to calculate the airflow and turbulence around wings and engines. Instead of building a new wing to test designs, numerical simulation would allow them to use a supercomputer to build a virtual model of a wing on the screen and use an application called computational fluid dynamics to watch the resulting airflow without ever flying a plane. If they didn’t like what they saw (say the wing had more drag than expected), they could change the design and rerun the simulation.
At General Motors we heard from mechanical engineers who needed to calculate the strength, breaking point and failure modes of structures – everything from piston rods to bumpers. Their interest was easy to understand. Before computer simulation, they would test real objects until they physically broke (or get sued when something important broke, blew up, or collapsed.) Now applications called finite element analysis could calculate these stresses and failure modes on a computer screen.
A third simulation market, this one new and just emerging, allowed biologists to examine how drugs would interact by simulating them on a computer. A precursor to today’s biotech revolution, these computational chemistry applications allowed the active docking sites of potential drugs to be modeled and tested on a computer screen rather than in a test tube.
Finally, we could see that petroleum engineers at oil companies like Chevron and Exxon were using computers in exploration and extraction with seismic data processing and reservoir simulation, applications which were moving oil companies into the supercomputer age.
Traveling around the country had helped me begin to understand how these customers currently did their work, what journals they read, where they got their funding, what other software they ran on their machines, etc. I came back to the company and described the day-in-the-life of each type of customer.
This was one of the happiest times in my life as a marketer. I had known nothing about supercomputers and numerical simulation applications; now there wasn’t a day that went by that I wasn’t learning something new. As I traveled to some of the most arcane trade shows and conferences (AIAA, SPE, MSC, etc.), my hotel room was stacked with the journals and textbooks about each vertical market just to keep up with the people we were meeting. (I was a marketer, not an engineer and most of the fine points were way over my head – and probably not just the fine points. But reading their literature allowed me to discuss the problems and opportunities with customers.)
You Know You’re Getting Close to Your Customers When They Offer You a Job
I believed that good marketers used their own products. I got facile enough with a few of the applications that I could even run some of them myself. I could build simple finite element models with Patran and set up a run of the Nastran analysis codes.
Later on in the company’s life I went to give a lunch-time seminar to Chevron’s La Habra research center on the use of graphics supercomputers in petroleum applications. I spoke about the state of the art in computational reservoir simulation and what could be accomplished using finite difference and finite element methods on the new class of machines that were coming from companies like ours. During the question and answer session my heart was in my throat since like any good marketer, my depth of knowledge was no more than one level away from being a complete idiot. At the end of the talk the head of the research facility came up to me and said, “That was a great talk. We’re glad your company hired a real petroleum engineer to come speak to us. We hate when the sales and marketing types come down and try to get us to buy something.”
For one of the few times in my life I was at a loss for words, and I was completely unprepared for what came next. “Here’s my card, if you ever want to consider a career in Chevron research. We’d be happy to talk to you.”
Marketing was really fun.
- To sell to customers you need to understand them: how they work, what they do and what problem you will solve for them.
- You can’t understand customers from inside your building.