The Customer Development process is the way startups quickly iterate and test each element of their business model, reducing customer and market risk. The first step of Customer Development is called Customer Discovery. In Discovery startups take all their hypotheses about the business model: product, market, customers, channel, etc. outside the building and test them in front of customers.
At least that’s the theory. Helping out some friends I got to see firsthand the consequence of skipping Customer Discovery.
It’s A Marketing Problem
After I retired I would get calls from VC’s to help with “marketing problems” in their portfolio companies. The phone call would sound something like: “We have a company with great technology and a hot product but at the last board meeting we determined that they have a marketing problem. Can you take a look and tell us what you think?”
A week later I was in the conference room of the company having a meeting with the CEO.
We Have a Marketing Problem
“So VC x says you guys have a marketing problem. How can I help?” CEO – “Well, we’ve missed our sales numbers for the last six months.” Me – “I’m confused. I thought you guys have a marketing problem. What does this have to do with missing your sales plan? CEO – “Well our VP of Sales isn’t making the sales plan and he says it’s a marketing problem, and he’s a really senior guy.”
Now, I’m intrigued. The CEO asks the VP of Sales to join us in the conference room. (Note that most VP of Sales’ have world-class antenna for career danger. Being invited to chat with the CEO and an outside consultant that a board member brought in creates enough tension in a room to create static discharge.)
No One is Buying Our Product
“Tell me about the marketing problem.” VP of Sales – “Marketing’s positioning and strategy is all wrong.” Me – “How’s that?” VP of Sales – “No one is interested in buying our product.”
If you’ve been in marketing long enough you recognize the beginning of the sales versus marketing finger pointing. (It usually ends up bad for all concerned.) Sales’ is on the hook for making the numbers and things aren’t looking good.
Six is a Proxy for Burn Rate
“How many salespeople do you have?” VP of Sales – “Six in the field, plus me.” Later I realized six salespeople without revenue to match was a proxy for an out of control burn rate that now had the boards serious attention.
There’s Always One in Boston
“Is there a salesperson in Boston?” VP of Sales – “Sure.” Me – “What sales presentation is he using? VP of Sales – “The corporate presentation. What else do you think he’d be using?” Me – “Let’s get him on the phone and ask.”
Sure enough we’d get the sales person on the phone and find out that he stopped using the corporate presentation months ago. Why? The standard corporate presentation wasn’t working, so the Boston sales rep made up his own. (I asked for the Boston sales rep because in the U.S. they’re furthest from the Silicon Valley corporate office and any oversight.)
We call the five other sales people and find that they are also “winging it.”
Early Orders Were a Detriment
I learned that the founders received their initial product orders from their friends in the industry and through board members personal connections. These “friends and family orders” made the first nine months of their revenue plan. With that initial sales “success” they began to hire and staff the sales department per the ”plan.” That’s how they ended up with seven people in sales (plus three more in marketing.)
But now the bill had come due. It turned out that these “friends and family orders” meant the company really hadn’t understood how and why customers would buy their product. There was no deep corporate understanding about customers or their needs. The company had designed and built their product and assumed it was going to sell well based on their initial early orders. Marketing was writing presentations and data sheets without having a clue what real problems customers had. And without that knowledge, sales essentially was selling blind.
Advice You Don’t Want to Hear
My report back to the VC? Missing the sales numbers had nothing to do with marketing. The problem was much, much worse. The company had failed to do any Customer Discovery. Neither the CEO, VP of Sales or VP of Marketing had any idea what a repeatable sales model would look like before they scaled the sales force. Now they had a sales force in Brownian motion in the field, and a marketing department changing strategy and the corporate slide deck weekly. Cash was flowing out of the company and the VP of Sales was still hiring.
I suggested they cut the burn rate back by firing all the salespeople in the field, (keeping one in Silicon Valley,) and get rid of all of marketing. The CEO needed to get back to basics and personally get out of the building in front of customers to learn and discover what problems customers had and why the company’s product solved them.
The VC’s response? “Nah, it can’t be that bad, it’s a marketing problem.”
I’ll leave it to you to guess what the VC’s did six months later.
- Premature Scaling of sales and marketing is the leading cause of hemorrhaging cash in a startup.
- Scale sales and marketing after the founders and a small team have found a repeatable sales model.
- Early sales from board members or friends are great for morale and cash but may not be indicative of learning and discovering a business model.