When Microsoft Threatened to Sue Us Over the Letter “E”

By 1997 E.piphany was a fast growing startup with customers, revenue and something approaching a repeatable business model. Somewhere that year we decided to professionalize our logo (you should have seen the first one.) With a massive leap of creativity we decided that it should it should have our company name and the letter “E” with a swoop over it.

1997 was also that year that Microsoft was in the middle of the browser wars with Netscape. Microsoft had just released Internet Explorer 3 which for the first time was a credible contender.  With the browser came a Microsoft logo.  And with that same massive leap of creativity Microsoft decided that their logo would have their product name and the letter “E’ with a swoop over it.

One of E.piphany’s product innovations was that we used this new fangled invention called the browser and we ran on both Netscape and Microsoft’s. We didn’t think twice about.

That is until the day we got a letter from Microsoft’s legal department claiming similarity and potential confusion between our two logos.

They demanded we change ours.

I wish I still had their letter. I’m sure it was both impressive and amusing.

I had forgotten all about incident this until this week when Doug Camplejohn, E.piphany’s then VP of Marketing somehow had saved what he claims was my response to Microsoft’s legal threat and sent it me.  It read:

Response Letter to Bill Gates

Dear Bill,

We are in receipt of your lawyer’s letter claiming Microsoft’s
ownership of the look and feel of the letter “e”.  While I understand
Microsoft’s proprietary interest in protecting its software, I did not
realize (until the receipt of your ominous legal missive) that one of
the 26 letters in the English language was now the trademarked
property of Microsoft.

Given the name of your company, claiming the letter “e” is an unusual
place to start. I can understand Microsoft wanting exclusive rights to
the letter “M” or “W”, but “e”?  I can even imagine a close family
member starting your alphabet collection by buying you the letters “B”
or “G” as a birthday present.  Even the letters “F” “T” or “C” must be
more appealing right now then starting with “e”.

In fact, considering Microsoft’s financial health and legal prowess
you may want to consider buying a symbol rather than a letter.
Imagine the value of charging royalties on the use of the dollar “$”
sign.

I understand the legal complaint refers to the similarities of our use
of “e” in the Epiphany corporate logo to the “e” in the Internet
Explorer logo.  Given that the name of my company and the name of your
product both start with the same letter, it doesn’t take much
imagination to figure out why we both used the letter in our logos,
but I guess it has escaped your lawyers.

As to confusion between the two products, it is hard for me to
understand why someone would confuse a $250,000 enterprise software
package (with which we require a customer to buy $50,000 of Microsoft
software; NT, SQL Server and IIS), with the free and ever present
Internet Explorer.

Given that Microsoft sets the standard for most things in the computer
industry, I hope we don’t open the mail next week and find Netscape
suing us for using the letter “N”, quickly followed by Sun’s claim on
J”.  Perhaps we can submit all 26 letters to some sort of standards
committee for arbitration.

Come to think of it, starting with “e” is another brilliant Microsoft
strategy.  It is the most common letter in the English language.

Steve Blank

Epilogue
Given later that year Microsoft ended up being a large multi-million dollar E.piphany customer all I can assume is that cooler heads prevailed (more than likely our new CEO,) and this letter was never sent and the threatened lawsuit never materialized.

Ironically, since the turn of the century Microsoft has done great things for entrepreneurs. Their BizSpark and DreamSpark programs have become the best corporate model of how a large company can successfully partner with startups and students worldwide.

But I am glad we helped keep the letter E in the public domain.

At times not losing is as important as winning

At times not losing is as important as winning.

Customer Validation
E.piphany was an 11-month-old startup with 31 people and on fire. We had closed four $100,000 deals for our customer relationship management software.

Joe Dinucci, our VP of Sales, was hot on the trail of our next big order. He had just demo’d our product to his friend, the CFO of Autodesk. After seeing the demo, the CFO walked Joe over to the office of Autodesk’s VP of sales, and said to her, “I think this product might solve your sales reporting problem.”

After a demo she agreed it would.

Joe came back to our company excited. If we won the Autodesk account it could be worth half a million dollars or more.

They Have A Problem and Know It
At the time Autodesk’s sales organization was frustrated with their IT department. It took weeks or months for Sales to get financial, sales results and customer reports from IT. Autodesk’s VP of Sales fit the profile of a earlyvangelist: she understood she had a pressing problem (couldn’t get timely data needed to forecast sales), she was searching for a solution (beating up the Autodesk CIO on a weekly basis to solve her problem), she had a timetable for a solution (now) and her company had committed budget dollars to solve this problem (they spend anything to stop missing forecasts.)

A Match Made in Heaven
For the next several weeks, the entire E.piphany engineering department worked with Autodesk’s sales operation team to build a prototype using real Autodesk data. Joe made a compelling ROI (Return On Investment) presentation to the VP of Sales and the CFO. E.piphany and Autodesk seemed like a match made in heaven and it looked like we had a $500,000 deal that could close in weeks.

Not quite.

The CIO
The CFO casually mentioned that as IT would install and maintain the system, they would have to recommend and sign off on an E.piphany purchase. As the CIO worked for the CFO, Joe paid what he thought was a courtesy call on Autodesk’s CIO.

The CIO didn’t say much in the presentation (warning, warning) and he passed Joe on to his manager of data warehouse development. What Joe didn’t know was that months ago, this IT group has been tasked to solve Sales’ reporting problems and was struggling with the complexity and difficulty of extracting data from SAP.

Joe was aware of the tense history between Autodesk sales and its IT department, but given how happy the VP of Sales was with E.piphany’s prototypes plus Joe’s personal relationship with the CFO, he didn’t see this as a serious obstacle. Joe believed the IT organization had nothing but technical piece parts to compete with E.piphany’s complete solution. Given E.piphany had a vastly superior solution, Joe believed there was no logical way they could recommend to the CIO to deploy anything else but E.piphany.

Wrong.

The IT Revolt
Unbeknownst to Joe a revolt was brewing in Autodesk’s IT organization. “Sales keeps asking for all these reports and now they are telling us what application to buy?  If we deploy E.piphany’s entire solution, we’ll all be out of jobs. But if we recommend software tools from another startup, we could say we’re solving the needs of the Sales VP and still keep our jobs.“

Late in the afternoon, Joe got a call from a friend in Autodesk’s IT department warning that they were give the order to another startup. And the CIO would approve the recommendation and pass this to his boss, the CFO, the next day.

We’re Going to Lose
Joe arrived in my office, his face making it clear he brought bad news. E.piphany was now about to lose a half million-dollar Autodesk sale. Joe looked at his shoes while he muttered his frustrations with internal Autodesk politics.

We had a long discussion about the consequences if we lost. It was one thing for a startup to lose to a large company like Oracle or IBM. But to lose the sale to another startup with an inferior product would have been psychologically devastating to our little startup. E.piphany’s product development team had spent weeks inside the account, and they believed the deal was all but won. The competitor would trumpet the sales win far and wide and use the momentum to get more sales.

We couldn’t afford to lose this sale. What could we do?

The Third Way
It struck me that there might be more than two outcomes.Sales had defined the problem as a win or lose situation. But what if we added a third choice?  What if we formally, publicly and noisily withdrew from the account? The worst case was that we could tell our engineering team that we should have won but the game was rigged. While we certainly wouldn’t win the business, withdrawing would solve the more emotionally explosive issue of losing. (And In the back of my mind, I believed this third way had a chance of giving us the winning hand.)

At first Joe hated the idea. Like every great sales guy, he was eternally optimistic about the outcome. However, I wasn’t in the mood to put the company’s future at risk on the testosterone levels of our sales guy. Withdrawing by claiming that Autodesk’s IT staff had already decided that it was “any solution but ours” was making the best of a deteriorating sales situation.

Joe called his friend the CFO, waiting until after 5pm, when he was sure he wasn’t in his office, and left him a message: “Thanks for introducing us to the VP of Sales and your technical staff. We really appreciate the opportunity to work with you. Unfortunately it looks like this deal isn’t going to happen. You have a bunch of smart guys working for you, but they are determined to make sure that the status quo won’t change. We have limited resources and can’t continue to give demos and hold meetings when the outcome is predetermined. My guess is we’ll be back in six to nine months when the VP of Sales is still unhappy. I’m going to call her and let her know that we can’t put in the system that she wanted, but I thought I’d check-in with you first. Thanks again for the opportunity.”

The “Take Away” Gambit
This is known as the “take-away” gambit. I believed that by pulling the deal away, there was at least a 50% chance the CFO would do what I knew he didn’t want to – go to his CIO and help him make the “right” decision. I understood that a potential downside consequence of this maneuver was an uncooperative IT organization when we tried to install the product, but by then their check would be in the bank, and I had a plan to win them over.

Joe was concerned that we had just lost the account, but he made the call and left the message.

Two hours later Joe got a call back from the CFO who said,, “Wait, wait! Don’t pull out. Why don’t you come up and meet with me tomorrow morning. I’ve chatted with my staff and we’re now ready for a contract proposal.”

Autodesk became our third paying customer. Over the next year they paid us over $1million for our software.

After a full-court charm offensive, the IT person who wanted anyone but us became our biggest advocate. She keynoted our first user conference.

Lessons Learned

  • In complex B-to-B sales, multiple “Yes” votes are required to get an order.
  • A single “No” can kill the deal.
  • Understanding the saboteurs in a complex sale is as important as understanding the recommenders and influencers
  • We needed a selling strategy that took all of this into account.
  • In a startup not losing is sometimes more important than winning.

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Lying on your resume

It’s not the crime that gets you, it’s the coverup.
Richard Nixon and Watergate

Getting asked by reporter about where I went to school made me remember the day I had to choose whether to lie on my resume.

I Badly Want the Job
When I got my first job in Silicon Valley it was through serendipity (my part) and desperation (on the part of my first employer.)  I really didn’t have much of a resume – four years in the Air Force, building a scram system for a nuclear reactor, a startup in Ann Arbor Michigan but not much else.

It was at my second startup in Silicon Valley that my life and career took an interesting turn. A recruiter found me, now in product marketing and wanted to introduce me to a hot startup making something called a workstation. “This is a technology-driven company and your background sounds great. Why don’t you send me a resume and I’ll pass it on.” A few days later I got a call back from the recruiter. “Steve, you left off your education.  Where did you go to school?”

“I never finished college,” I said.

There was a long silence on the other end of the phone. “Steve, the VP of Sales and Marketing previously ran their engineering department. He was a professor of computer science at Harvard and his last job was running the Advanced Systems Division at Xerox PARC. Most of the sales force were previously design engineers. I can’t present a candidate without a college degree. Why don’t you make something up.”

I still remember the exact instant of the conversation. In that moment I realized I had a choice. But I had no idea how profound, important and lasting it would be. It would have been really easy to lie, and what the heck the recruiter was telling me to do so. And he was telling me that, “no one checks education anyway.” (This is long before the days of the net.)

My Updated Resume
I told him I’d think about it. And I did for a long while. After a few days I sent him my updated resume and he passed it on to Convergent Technologies. Soon after I was called into an interview with the company. I can barely recall the other people I met, (my potential boss the VP of Marketing, interviews with various engineers, etc.) but I’ll never forget the interview with Ben Wegbreit, the VP of Sales and Marketing.

Ben held up my resume and said, “You know you’re here interviewing because I’ve never seen a resume like this.  You don’t have any college listed and there’s no education section.  You put “Mensa” here,” – pointing to the part where education normally goes. “Why?” I looked back at him and said, “I thought Mensa might get your attention.”

sgb 1980 resume at 26

sgb 1980 resume at 26

Ben just stared at me for an uncomfortable amount of time. Then he abruptly said, “Tell me what you did in your previous companies.” I thought this was going to be a story-telling interview like the others. But instead the minute I said, “my first startup used CATV coax to implement a local-area network for process control systems (which 35 years ago pre-Ethernet and TCP/IP was pretty cutting edge.) Ben said, “why don’t you go to the whiteboard and draw the system diagram for me.”  Do what? Draw it?? I dug deep and spent 30 minutes diagramming trying remember headend’s, upstream and downstream frequencies, amplifiers, etc.  With Ben peppering me with questions I could barely keep up. And there was a bunch of empty spaces where I couldn’t remember some of the detail. When I was done explaining it I headed for the chair, but Ben stopped me.

“As long as you’re a the whiteboard, why don’t we go through the other two companies you were at.”  I couldn’t believe it, I was already mentally exhausted but we spent another half hour with me drawing diagrams and Ben asking questions. First talking about what I had taught at ESL – (as carefully as I could.) Finally, we talked about Zilog microprocessors, making me draw the architecture (easy because I had taught it) and some sample system designs (harder.)

Finally I got to sit down.  Ben looked at me for a long while not saying a word. Then he stood up and opened the door signaling me to leave, shook my hand and said, “Thanks for coming in.” WTF? That’s it?? Did I get the job or not?

That evening I got a call from the recruiter. “Ben loved you. In fact he had to convince the VP of Marketing who didn’t want to hire you. Congratulations.”

Epilogue
Three and a half years later Convergent was now a public company and I was a Vice President of Marketing working for Ben. Ben ended up as my mentor at Convergent (and for the rest of my career), my peer at Ardent and my partner and co-founder at Epiphany.  I would never use Mensa again on my resume and my education section would always be empty.

But every time I read about an executive who got caught in a resume scandal I remember the moment I had to choose.

Lessons Learned

  • You will be faced with ethical dilemmas your entire career
  • Taking the wrong path is most often the easiest choice
  • These choices will seem like trivial and inconsequential shortcuts – at the time
  • Some of them will have lasting consequences
  • It’s not the lie that will catch up with you, it’s the coverup
  • Choose wisely

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Unrequited Love

If there’s only one passionate party in a relationship it’s unrequited love.

Here’s how I learned it the hard way.

The Dartmouth Football Team
After Rocket Science I took some time off and consulted for the very VC’s who lost lots of money on the company. The VC’s suggested I should spend a day at Onyx Software, an early pioneer in Sales Automation in Seattle.

In my first meeting with Onyx I was a bit nonplussed when the management team started trickling into their boardroom. Their VP of Sales was about 6’ 3” and seemed to be almost as wide. Next two more of their execs walked in each looking about 6’ 5” and it seemed they had to turn sideways to get through the door. They all looked like they could have gotten jobs as bouncers at a nightclub. I remember thinking, there’s no way their CEO can be any taller – he’s probably 5’ 2”. Wrong. Brent Frei, the Onyx CEO walks in and he looked about 6’ 8’ and something told me he could tear telephone books in half.
I jokingly said, “If the software business doesn’t work out you guys got a pretty good football team here.”  Without missing a beat Brent said, “Nah, we already did that. We were the Dartmouth football team front defensive three.”  Oh.

But that wasn’t the only surprise of the day. While I thought I was consulting, Onyx was actually trying to recruit me as their VP of Marketing. At the end of the day I came away thinking it was a smart and aggressive team, thought the world of Brent Frei as a CEO and knew Onyx was going to succeed – despite their Microsoft monoculture. With an unexpected job offer in-hand I spent the plane flight home concluding that our family had already planted roots too deep to move to Seattle.

But in that one day I had learned a lot about sales automation that would shape my thinking when we founded Epiphany.

I Know A Great Customer
A year later my co-founders and I had formed Epiphany. As other startups were quickly automating all the department of large corporations (SAP-manufacturing, Oracle-finance, Siebel and Onyx-Sales) our first thought was that our company was going to automate enterprise-marketing departments. And along with that first customer hypothesis I had the brilliant hypothesis that my channel partner should be Onyx. I thought, “If they already selling to the sales department Epiphany’s products could easily be cross-sold to the marketing department.”

So I called on my friends at Onyx and got on a plane to Seattle. They were growing quickly and doing all they could to keep up with their own sales but they were kind enough to hear me out. I outlined how our two products could be technically integrated together, how they could make much more money selling both and why it was a great deal for both companies. They had lots of objections but I turned on the sales charm and by the end of the meeting had “convinced them” to let us integrate both our systems to see what the result was. I made the deal painless by telling them that we would do the work for free because when they saw the result they’d love it and agree to resell our product. I left with enough code so our engineers could get started immediately.

Bad idea.  But I didn’t realize that at the time.

It’s Only a Month of Work
Back at Epiphany I convinced my co-founders that integrating the two systems was worth the effort and they dove in. Onyx gave us an engineering contact and he helped our team make sense of their system. One of the Onyx product managers got engaged and became an enthusiastic earlyvanglist. The integration effort probably used up a calendar month of our engineering time and an few hours of theirs. But when it was done the integrated system was awesome. No one had anything like this. We shipped a complete server up to Onyx (this is long before the cloud) and they assured us they would start evaluating it.

A week goes by and there’s radio silence – nothing is heard from them. Another week, still no news. In fact, no one is returning our calls at all. Finally I decide to get on a plane and see what has happened to our “deal.”

Instead of being welcomed by the whole Onyx exec staff, this time a clearly uncomfortable product manager met me. “Well how do like our integrated system?” I asked. “And by the way where is it? Do you have it your demo room showing it to potential customers?” I had a bad feeling when he wouldn’t make eye contact. Without saying a word he walked me over to a closet in the hallway. He opened the door and pointed to our server sitting forlornly in the corner, unplugged. I was speechless. “I’m really sorry” he barely whispered. “I tried to convince everyone.” Now a decade and a half later the sight of server literally sitting next to the brooms, mops and buckets is still seared into my brain.

I had poured everything into making this work and my dreams had been relegated to the janitors closet. My heart was broken. I managed to sputter out, “Why aren’t you working on integrating our systems?

Just then their VP of Sales came by and gently pulled me into a conference room letting a pretty stressed product manager exhale. “Steve, you did a great sales job on us. We really were true believers when you were in our conference room. But when you left we concluded over the last month that this is your business not ours. We’re just running as hard and fast as we can to make ours succeed.”

Unrequited Love
I realized that mistake wasn’t my vision. Nor was it my passion for the idea. Or convincing Onyx that it was a great idea. And besides not being able to tell me straight out, Onyx did nothing wrong. My mistake was pretty simple – when I left their board room a month earlier I was the only one who had an active commitment and obligation to make the deal successful. It may seem like a simple tactical mistake, but it in fact it was fatal.  They put none of their resources in the project – no real engineering commitment, no dollars, no orders, no joint customer calls.

It had been a one-way relationship the day I had left their building.

It would be 15 years before I would make this mistake again.

Lessons Learned

  • When you don’t charge for something people don’t value it
  • When your “partners” aren’t putting up proportional value it’s not a relationship
  • Cheerleading earlyvangelists are critical but ultimately you need to be in constant communication with people with authority (to sign checks, to do a deal, to commit resources, etc.)
  • Your reality distortion field may hinder your ability to realize that you’re the only one marching in the parade
  • If there’s only one passionate party in a deal it’s unrequited love

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The $10 million Photo and other VC Stories

While on vacation I had a phone interview with Kevin Ohannessian of Fast Company who wanted a few “funding stories.”  Here are two of them. Apologies for the rambling stream of consciousness.  The original interview in Fast Company can be seen here.

Throw in the Photo and You Have a Deal
When we were trying to raise money for E.piphany, my last startup, I was negotiating with a venture capital firm called Infinity Capital. They really wanted to invest, but it was the beginning of the bubble, and I wanted (what was then) an absurd valuation. All we had were six slides, and I wanted a $10 million post-money valuation. But it was my eighth startup and my partner Ben was even more experienced: ex VC, ex Harvard Computer Science professor, genius at building products and teams. I had sat on a board of an Electronic Design Automation company with this VC, and we had gotten to know each other. So when I wanted to start a company he wanted to fund us. We had gone back and forth with them on valuation, but this was a new firm and they wanted to close a deal with us.

After about our fifth meeting I’m in their conference room. I say, “Why can’t you guys do a $10 million post money valuation?” Picking the biggest number I could think of for three founders without a product a semi-coherent idea and badly written slides. Finally they admitted, “Steve, we’re a new fund; everybody will think we are idiots if we do that.” I said, “All right. Can you do some other number close to my number?” So I stepped out of the room as they caucused, and they called me back in 10 minutes later and said, “So listen. We can do $9.99 million.” I’m trying to play poker with the deal, and one of the partners at the time was a great photographer–the firm had big prints of his on the walls. I was really in love with the one in the boardroom. So without thinking, when they made me that offer, trying to keep a straight face, I reached behind me, grabbed the photo off the wall and slammed it on the desk, and said, “If you throw this photo in, you got the deal!”

The $10 Million Photo

The look on their face was utter astonishment. I was thinking it was because I was being creative by throwing the photo in, but then I noticed that this cloud of dust was settling around me. I turn around and looked at the wall and it turned out the photo had been bolted into the drywall. And there was now a hole–I literally ripped a part of their boardroom wall off as I was accepting the offer. Without missing a beat they said, “Yes, you can have the photo. But we’re going to have to deduct $500 to repair our wall.” And I said, “Deal.” And that’s how E.piphany got its Series A.

Invest in the Team
Before we closed our Series A with Infinity, I had called on Mohr, Davidow Ventures, the firm which had funded my last company, Rocket Science. The senior partner at the time was Bill Davidow, a marketing legend and a hero of mine who had also funded other Enterprise software companies. I went in and pitched Bill the idea about how to automate the marketing domain. He gave me 15 minutes, then as politely as he could do it, walked me out the door and said, “Stupidest idea I ever heard, Steve. Enterprise software means across the Enterprise. Marketing is just one very small department.” As he was walking me out, I remember as I physically crossed the threshold of the door that: A. He was right, and B. I figured out how to solve the problem of making our product useful across the entire enterprise. So E.piphany went from a bad idea to a good idea by being thrown out by a VC who gave me advice that made the company. He has reminded me since, “Sometimes you invest in the idea, but you should always be investing in the people. If I would’ve remembered who you were, I would’ve known you would figure it out.”

(Kleiner Perkins would do the Series B round for E.piphany. After our IPO Infinity’s and Kleiner Perkins’ investment in Epiphany would be worth $1 billion dollars to each of them.)

I still have the photo.

Back from vacation soon.
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Checklists for Chaos, The Path to Success

In a startup the search for a business model is chaotic, unpredictable and uncertain. Yet the Customer Development process uses a series of checklists to ensure that you walk through the Customer Discovery and Validation steps. In addition it explicitly calls for synchronization and confirmation of the steps by the entire team.

Surely a checklist and discussion gets in the way of progress in a fast moving startup? Here’s how using it helped E.piphany rather than hindered it.

Tell Them What You’re Hearing
When E.piphany was a small struggling startup in Mountain View, we had a weekly Friday afternoon beer and wine fest, no different than what hundreds of other startups were doing. (Insurance companies in the valley should check the accident rates for Friday traffic.) The company headcount was mostly engineers accomplishing the impossible on a regular basis while a few of us were outside the building trying to do what we would call today Customer Discovery and Validation.

A Checklist for Chaos
While all startups are chaotic, we had been through enough of them (E.piphany was my 8th) to realize that we could understand our potential customer better if we had a standard checklist and process of how to approach complex enterprise sales. These started with the business model hypotheses in Customer Discovery (who’s the customer, channel, pricing model, etc.)

Customer Hypothesis Checklist

I remember that for the first few weeks of the company, my partner Ben and I would give the usual rah-rah platitudes about how great things were going to motivate the engineers.  Then one week Ben turned to me and said, “Why don’t you really tell them what you’re doing and what you’re hearing.”  Uh oh. Thinking about all the ups and downs of sales in a startup and twists and turns in strategy and positioning I wondered if it would be demoralizing. “Do you think they can handle the truth?”  We talked about it and realized our motto for our weekly meeting would be, “Don’t panic when we change the strategy. Only panic if we ask you to rearchitect the product.”  (Today’s version would be “Don’t worry when we pivot the business model, only panic if we ask you to develop the product with a Waterfall methodology.”)

Sharing the Checklist
Soon after, our Friday’s meetings would start with me describing the highs and lows of the week: who we called on, what they said and what happened (essentially walking engineering through the series of checklists as we went through Customer Discovery and Validation. And what I had to report was mostly us getting a “not interested” or “we don’t get it” from a prospective customer.

Almost immediately the most unexpected things started happening at our Friday meetings.

Don’t Treat Them Like Mushrooms
First, I thought that not pumping up engineering every week would demotivate the team. Reality turned out 180 degrees from what I expected. Engineering was much smarter. When it became clear that my partner and I were not going to treat them like mushrooms (keep them in the dark and feed them sx!t) but let them know what was really going on, they engaged on a much different level.

You’re Explaining it Wrong
Second, as I was reporting on my sales calls a few of the engineers realized that I was describing technical professionals in large companies who were just like them. When I detailed how I was explaining the product, our own engineers said, “You’re explaining it wrong. Even I wouldn’t buy it from us if you told me that.” The first time I heard that I was speechless. Who the hell were these engineers telling me how to market and sell our product?  My first instinct was to cycle through all the “my business card says I’m the expert here and you just write code.”

Then I realized – they were right. Our engineers were just like the customer, and if they didn’t think our product description made sense, no one else would.  So in front of the entire company, I threw out our positioning and we started to discuss how to better articulate what we were doing. (I think we invented our meta-data architecture diagram that Friday.) It was great to realize that instead of just me trying to figure out customer feedback, that every Friday I’d have the collective wisdom of engineering engaged.

Confirming the Checklist
Synchronizing our Discovery and Validation had a third benefit. Engineering now felt that they had a stake in making the process better and took a great interest in that mysterious and elusive “customer.”  Soon engineers were spending lots of time talking to customers. More importantly they had a vested interest in getting the process right.

Synchronizing the Discovery and Validation checklists with the entire company made us collectively smarter, faster and gave us a shared understanding of our objective – build great products that customers wanted.

Checklists and synchronization were part of the reason why we grew from $0 to $125 million in three years.

Lessons Learned

  • Customer Discovery and Validation in any type of startup requires a series of checklists (see Appendix B of the Four Steps to the Epiphany)
  • The checklists require the team to share their findings for confirmation and synchronization

Listen to the post here: Download the Podcast here

Less is More, More or Less

In Customer Development the goal of a minimum feature set is to pare the features of the first product release to the minimum necessary for early customers.

But finding what those “minimum” features are can be an adventure.

All the Data and Not a Drop to Think
We started Epiphany to solve the “too much data but not enough insight” problem. During the 1990’s large corporations had bought different software applications to automate each part of their enterprise – finance, customer support, manufacturing, sales, etc. Yet the data these applications collected were accessed via reporting tools from the IT organization. More importantly, the data existed in “virtual silos” with each functional system walled off from the other. The finance system didn’t talk to the sales system which didn’t know the manufacturing system even existed. (Queries like – compare the sales data of green dresses versus the blue ones, with how many of each does manufacturing have in inventory, and what does finance say the gross margin by region of these product are – would be hard to answer because it required combining data from three incompatible applications.) It might take days or even weeks to get a report. And if that question led to another one, add more days or weeks to get the next answers back. And once you got the data you asked for, it still took weeks or months for a marketer to tease out any customer insight and trends from the data. And if you actually want to respond to shifting customer behavior by running a new marketing campaign (ads, email, etc.,) it would again take weeks or months.

An Epiphany
Initially our engineering team designed three products to solve these problems: an On-Line Analytical Processing (OLAP) tool – think of it as a multi-dimensional Excel to search through reams of customer data, data mining tools to search for patterns in customer data, and a campaign manager to combine all the data and generate customer specific ads/emails. And underneath these products was our own data warehouse (a place to store all this different data) and our own tools to Extract, Transformation and Load (ETL) customer information from existing enterprise applications like SAP, PeopleSoft, Oracle Financials, etc. And back then the radical notion was that you could view this information anytime and anywhere through this new technology called a web browser.

You’re An Idiot
As a founder my first job was Customer Discovery – getting out of the building to listen to customers and see whether our understanding of what problems customers had was correct, and if so whether our product as spec’d would solve that problem.  Over time one of our hypothesis was that our product should be a great fit for companies who had lots of customers, tons of data on them and wanted to quickly come up with new marketing campaigns.

We had put together an advisory board, and one of our advisors was the VP of Database Marketing at Schwab. She was incredibly generous with her time and said that our system might work in their application. She introduced me to five other Database Marketing executives who essentially said, “If you get a system working at Schwab, we’ll have to buy one as well.” You couldn’t get much better than that. I thought we had found our first Earlyvangelist and first market.

But each time we met and she looked at the technical details of our system, and politely told me I was an idiot and my engineering department was even dumber. It took two meetings before I finally got what she was trying to tell me – we understood her problem all right, but our architecture was missing the most important feature to solve it. Our database schema didn’t include “householding” and without this feature was she could never buy our system. (Householding means recognizing that two or more people at the same physical address live together. This feature was crucial to direct marketers who did not want to send multiple ads to the same address.) Our data warehouse didn’t have the concept of householding in its schema. And no amount of sales and marketing hand waving was going to fix the problem.

Founder Too
My engineering co-founder and I had a great relationship. If I thought I discovered a customer with a feature we were missing he was coming out to hear it himself.  Just don’t waste his time on the first “getting to know you” meetings. We had agreed that Schwab and the database marketing application sounded like the right fit for the technology so he was as eager as I was to figure out what we were missing. So now, a week later, he’s in San Francisco with me listening to the Schwab VP of Database Marketing and her engineering team go into a deep technical dive about what our software needed to do. My partner asked five or ten questions, everybody nods and the meeting was over.

What Do You Mean Page 6?
We got back into my car for the drive back from San Francisco to our office in Silicon Valley. 5 miles goes by and we’re talking about the weather. 10 miles goes by and he’s talking about his kids, and 20 miles goes by and we’re talking about my kids.  Finally, unable to stand it any longer, I ask, “Ben, what are we going to do about the Householding feature that Schwab asked for?”  In an innocent and deadpan voice, he replied, “Well just take a look at page 6 of our spec.” I had to think for another couple of seconds until I said, “What do you mean page 6? Our spec only has 5 pages!”

He looked at me and smiled as he said, “Not any more.”

Our first order from Schwab came the next week.

We had just iterated the product and refined the minimum feature set.

A week later we sat down to figure out what other feature we would toss out to make room for this one.

Lessons Learned

  • Founders’ start with a hypothesis of what the minimum feature set is.
  • Your customers teach you which features actually matter by whether they will buy.
  • You swap (not add) features as you learn what will optimize market share of earlyvangelists.

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