Tesla and Adobe: Why Continuous Deployment May Mean Continuous Customer Disappointment

For the last 75 years products (both durable goods and software) were built via Waterfall development. This process forced companies to release and launch products by model years, and market new and “improved” versions.

In the last few years Agile and “Continuous Deployment” has replaced Waterfall and transformed how companies big and small build products. Agile is a tremendous advance in reducing time, money and wasted product development effort – and in having products better match customer needs.

But businesses are finding that Continuous Deployment not only changes engineering but has ripple effects on the rest of its business model. And these changes may have unintended consequences leading to customer dissatisfaction and confusion.

Smart companies will figure out how to educate their customers and communicate these changes.

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The Old Days – Waterfall Product Development
(skip this part of you’re conversant in Waterfall and Lean.)

Waterfall

In the past both hardware and software were engineered using Waterfall development, a process that moves through new product development one-step-at-a-time.

  • Marketing delivers a “requirements” document to engineering.
  • Then engineering develops a functional specification and designs the product.
  • Next comes the work of actually building the product – implementation.
  • Then validation ensures the product was built to spec.
  • After the product ships, it’s maintained by fixing flaws/bugs.

Customers would get their hands on a product only after it had gone through a lengthy cycle that could take years – enterprise software 1-2 years, new microprocessors 2-4 years, automobiles 3-5 years, aircraft a decade.

Waterfall – The Customer View
When customers purchased a product they understood that they were buying this year’s model.  When next year’s model arrived, they did not expect that  the Ford station wagon or Maytag washer they purchased last year would be updated to match all the features in the new model. (Software at times had an upgrade path, often it required a new purchase.)

Waterfall allowed marketers to sell incremental upgrades to products as new models. First starting in the fashion business, then adopted by General Motors in the 1920’s annual model year changeovers turned into national events. (The same strategy would be embraced 75 years later by Microsoft for Windows and then Apple for the iPhone.)

As the press speculated about new features, companies added to the mystique by guarding the new designs with military secrecy. Consumers counted the days until the new models were “unveiled”.

With its punctuated and delineated release cycles, waterfall development led consumers to understand the limited rights they had to future product upgrades and enhancements (typically none.) In other words, consumer expectations were bounded.

Waterfall Releases

At the same time, manufacturers used new model changeovers to generate excitement over new features/versions convincing consumers to obsolete perfectly functional products and buy new ones.

Agile Development: Continuous Delivery and Deployment
In contrast to Waterfall development, Agile Development delivers incremental and iterative changes on an ongoing basis.

Agile Dev

Agile development has upended the familiar consumer expectations and company revenue models designed around the release cycles of Waterfall engineering. In a startup this enables deployment of Minimum Viable products at a rapid pace. For companies already in production, Continuous Deployment can eliminate months or years in between major releases or models. Companies can deliver product improvements via the cloud so that all customers get a better product over time.

While continuous delivery is truly a better development process for engineering, it has profound impacts on a company’s business model and customer expectations.

Continuous Delivery/Deployment – The Marketers View
Cloud based products has offered companies an opportunity to rethink how new business models would work. Adobe and Tesla offer two examples.

Tesla
While most of the literature talks about continuous Delivery/Deployment as a software innovation for web/mobile/cloud apps, Tesla is using it for durable goods – $100,000 cars – in both hardware and software.

Tesla Model S on the road

First, Tesla’s Model S sedan downloads firmware updates on a regular basis. These software changes go much further than simply changing user interface elements on the dashboard. Instead, they may modify major elements of the car from its suspension to its acceleration and handling characteristics.

Secondly, in a break from traditional automobile practices, rather than waiting a year to roll out annual improvements to its Model S, Tesla has been continuously improving its product each quarter on the assembly line.  There are no model years to differentiate a Tesla Model S built in 2012 from one built this year. (The last time this happened in auto manufacturing was the Ford Model T.)

Adobe
Adobe, which for decades sold newer versions of its products – Photoshop, Illustrator, etc. – has now moved all those products to the cloud and labeled them the Adobe Creative Cloud. Instead of paying for new products, customers now buy an annual subscription.

Photoshop package

The move to the cloud allowed Adobe to implement continuous delivery and deployment. But more importantly the change from a product sale into a subscription turned their revenue model into a predictable annuity. From an accounting/Wall Street perspective it was a seemingly smart move.

Continuous Delivery/Deployment – The Customer View
But this shift had some surprises for consumers, not all of them good.

As many companies are discovering, incremental improvement doesn’t have the same cachet to a consumer as new and better. While it may seem irrational, inefficient and illogical, the reality is that people like shiny new toys. They want newer things. Often. And they want to be the ones who own them, control them and decide when they want to change them.

Adobe
While creating a predictable revenue stream from high-end users, Adobe has created two problems. First, not all Adobe customers believe that Adobe’s new subscription business model is an improvement for them. If customers stop paying their monthly subscription they don’t just lose access to the Adobe Creative Suite software (Photoshop, Illustrator, etc.) used to create their work, they may lose access to the work they created.

Second, they unintentionally overshot the needs of students, small business and casual users, driving them to “good-enough” replacements like Pixelmator, Acorn, GIMP for PhotoShop and Sketch, iDraw, and ArtBoard for Illustrator.

The consequence of discarding low margin customers and optimizing revenue and margin in the short-term, Adobe risks enabling future competitors. In fact, this revenue model feels awfully close to the strategy of the U.S. integrated steel business when they abandoned their low margin business to the mini-mills.

Tesla
What could go wrong with making a car incrementally better over time? First, Tesla’s unilateral elimination of features already paid for without consumers consent is a troubling precedent for cloud connected durable goods.

Second, Telsa’s elimination of model years and its aggressive marketing of the benefits of continuous development of hardware and software have set its current customers expectations unreasonably high. Some feel entitled to every new hardware feature rolled into manufacturing, even if the feature (i.e. faster charging, new parking sensors,) was not available when they bought their cars – and even if their car isn’t backwards compatible.

Model years gave consumers an explicit bound of what to expect. This lack of boundaries results in some customer disappointment.

Lessons Learned

  • Continuous Delivery/Deployment is a major engineering advance
  • It enables new business models
  • Customers don’t care about your business model, just it’s effect on them
  • While irrational, inefficient and illogical, people like shiny new toys
  • Subscription revenue models versus new purchases require consumer education
  • If your subscription revenue model “fires” a portion of your customers, it may enable new competitors
  • Companies need to clearly communicate customer entitlements to future features

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When Product Features Disappear – Amazon, Apple and Tesla and the Troubled Future for 21st Century Consumers

One of the great innovations of the 21st century are products that are cloud-connected and update and improve automatically. For software, gone are the days of having to buy a new version of physical media (disks or CD’s.) For hardware it’s the magical ability to have a product get better over time as new features are automatically added.

The downside is when companies unilaterally remove features from their products without asking their customers permission and/or remove consumers’ ability to use the previous versions. Products can just as easily be downgraded as upgraded.Loser

It was a wake up call when Amazon did it with books, disappointing when Google did it with Google Maps, annoying when Apple did it to their office applications – but Tesla just did it on a $100,000 car.

It’s time to think about a 21st Century Bill of Consumer Product Rights.

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Amazon – Down the Memory Hole
In July 2009 facing a copyright lawsuit Amazon remotely deleted two books users had already downloaded and paid for on their Kindles. Amazon did so without notifying the users let alone asking their permission. It was a chilling reminder that when books and content are bits instead of atoms, someone can change the content – or simply disappear a book – all without users’ permission. (The irony was the two books Amazon deleted were Animal Farm and 1984.)

Google – Well It Looks Better
In July 2013 Google completely redesigned Google Maps – and users discovered that on their desktop/laptop, the new product was slower than the one it replaced and features that were previously available disappeared. The new Google Maps was worse then one it replaced – except for one key thing – its User Interface was prettier and was unified across platforms. If design was the goal, then Google succeeded. If usability and functionality was a goal, then the new version was a step backwards.

Apple – Our Code Base is More Important than Your Features
In November 2013 Apple updated its operating system and cajoled its customers to update their copies of Apple’s iWork office applications – Pages (Apple’s equivalent to Microsoft Word),  Keynote (its PowerPoint equivalent), and Numbers (an attempt to match Excel). To get users to migrate from Microsoft Office and Google Docs, Apple offered these iWorks products for free.iwork

Sounds great– who wouldn’t want the newest version of iWorks with the new OS especially at zero cost?  But that’s because you would assume the new versions would have more features. Or perhaps given its new fancy user interface, the same features? The last thing you would assume is that it had fewer features. Apple released new versions of these applications with key features missing, features that some users had previously paid for, used, and needed. (Had they bothered to talk to customers, Apple would have heard these missing features were critical.)

But the release notes for the new version of the product had no notice that these features were removed.

Their customers weren’t amused.

Apple’s explanation? “These applications were rewritten from the ground up, to be fully 64-bit and to support a unified file format between OS X and iOS 7 versions.”

Translated into English this meant that Apple engineering recoding the products ran out of time to put all the old features back into the new versions. Apple said, “… some features from iWork ’09 were not available for the initial release. We plan to reintroduce some of these features in the next few releases and will continue to add brand new features on an ongoing basis.

Did they think anyone wouldn’t notice?

Decisions like this make you wonder if anyone on the Apple executive staff actually understood that a “unified file format” is not a customer feature.

While these examples are troubling, up until now they’ve been limited to content or software products.

Tesla – Our Problems are Now Your Problems
In November 2013 Tesla, a manufacturer of ~$70,000 to $120,000 electric cars, used a software “update” to disable a hardware option customers had bought and paid for – without telling them or asking their permission.

Tesla Model SOne of Tesla features is a $2,250 “smart air suspension” option that automatically lowers the car at highway speeds for better mileage and stability. Over a period of 5 weeks, three Tesla Model S cars had caught fire after severe accidents – two of them apparently from running over road debris that may have punctured the battery pack that made up the floor pan of the car. After the car fires Tesla pushed a software release out to its users. While the release notice highlighted new features in the release, nowhere did it describe that Tesla had unilaterally disabled a key part of the smart air suspension feature customers had purchased.

Only after most of Telsa customers installed the downgrade did Tesla’s CEO admit in a blog post,  “…we have rolled out an over-the-air update to the air suspension that will result in greater ground clearance at highway speed.”

Translation – we disabled one of the features you thought you bought. (The CEO went on to say that another software update in January will give drivers back control of the feature.) The explanation of the nearly overnight removal of this feature was vague “…reducing the chances of underbody impact damage, not improving safety.” If it wasn’t about safety, why wasn’t it offered as a user-selected option? One could only guess the no notice and immediacy of the release had to do with the National Highway Safety Administration investigation of the Tesla Model S car fires.

This raises the question: when Tesla is faced with future legal or regulatory issues, what other hardware features might Tesla remove or limit in cars in another software release? Adding speed limits?  Acceleration limits? Turning off the Web browser when driving?  The list of potential downgrades to the car is endless with the precedent now set of no obligation to notify their owners or ask their permission.

In the 20th century if someone had snuck into your garage and attempted to remove a feature from your car, you’d call the police. In the 21st century it’s starting to look like the normal course of business.

What to Do
While these Amazon, Google, Apple and Tesla examples may appear disconnected, taken together they are the harbinger of the future for 21st century consumers. Cloud-based updates and products have changed the landscape for consumers. The product you bought today may not be the product you own later.

Given there’s no corporate obligation that consumers permanently own their content or features, coupled with the lack of any regulatory oversight of cloud-based products, Apple’s and Tesla’s behavior tells us what other companies will do when faced with engineering constraints, litigation or regulation. In each of these cases they took the most expedient point of view; they acted as if their customers had no guaranteed rights to features they had purchased. So problem solving in the corporate board room has started with “lets change the feature set” rather than “the features we sold are inviolate so lets solve the problem elsewhere.”

There’s a new set of assumptions about who owns your product. All these companies have crafted the legal terms of use for their product to include their ability to modify or remove features. Manufacturers not only have the means to change or delete previously purchased products at will, there’s no legal barrier to stop them from doing so.

The result is that consumers in the 21st century have less protection then they did in the 20th.

What we can hope for is that smart companies will agree to a 21st Century Bill of Consumer Product Rights. What will likely have to happen first is a class-action lawsuit establishing consumers’ permanent rights to retain features they have already purchased.

Some smart startups might find a competitive advantage by offering customer-centric products with an option of “no changes” and “perpetual feature rights” guarantee.

A 21st Century Bill of Consumer Product Rights

  • For books/texts/video/music:
    • No changes to content paid for (whether on a user’s device or accessed in the cloud)
  • For software/hardware:
    • Notify users if an update downgrades or removes a feature
    • Give users the option of not installing an update
    • Provide users an ability to rollback (go back to a previous release) of the software

Lessons Learned

  • The product you bought today may not be the product you have later
  • Manufacturers can downgrade your product as well as upgrade it
  • You have no legal protection

Update: a shorter version of the post was removed from the Tesla website forum

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Strangling Innovation: Tesla versus “Rent Seekers”

The greatest number of jobs is created when startups create a new market – one where the product or service never existed before or is radically more convenient. Yet this is where startups will run into anti-innovation opponents they may not expect. These opponents have their own name –  “rent seekers” – the landlords of the status-quo.

Smart startups prepare to face off against rent seekers and map out creative strategies for doing so…. First, however, they need to understand what a rent seeker is and how they operate…

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Recently, the New York and North Carolina legislatures considered a new law written by Auto Dealer lobbyists that would make it illegal for Tesla to sell cars directly to consumers. This got me thinking about the legal obstacles that face innovators with new business models.

Examples of startups challenging the status quo include: Lyft, SquareUber, Airbnb, SpaceX, Zillow, BitcoinLegalZoom, food trucks, charter schools, and massively open online courses. Past examples of startups that succeeded in redefining current industries include Craigslist, Netflix, Amazon, Ebay and Paypal.

While Tesla, Lyft, Uber, Airbnb, et al are in very different industries, they have two things in common: 1) they’re disruptive business models creating new markets and upsetting the status quo and 2) the legal obstacles confronting them weren’t from direct competitors, but from groups commonly referred to as “rent seekers.”

Rent Seekers
Rent seekers are individuals or organizations that have succeeded with existing business models and look to the government and regulators as their first line of defense against innovative competition. They use government regulation and lawsuits to keep out new entrants with more innovative business models. They use every argument from public safety to lack of quality or loss of jobs to lobby against the new entrants. Rent seekers spend money to increase their share of an existing market instead of creating new products or markets. The key idea is that rent seeking behavior creates nothing of value.

These barriers to new innovative entrants are called economic rent. Examples of economic rent include state automobile franchise laws, taxi medallion laws, limits on charter schools, auto, steel or sugar tariffs, patent trolls, bribery of government officials, corruption and regulatory capture. They’re all part of the same pattern – they add no value to the economy and prevent innovation from reaching the consumer.

No regulation?
Not all government regulation is rent or rent seeking. Not all economic rents are bad. Patents for example, provide protection for a limited time only, to allow businesses to recoup R&D expenses as well as make a profit that would often not be possible if completely free competition were allowed immediately upon a products’ release. But patent trolls emerged as rent seekers by using patents as legalized extortion of companies.

How do Rent Seekers win?
Instead of offering better products or better service at lower prices, rent seekers hire lawyers and lobbyists to influence politicians and regulators to pass laws, write regulations and collect taxes that block competition. The process of getting the government to give out these favors is rent-seeking.

Rent seeking lobbyists go directly to legislative bodies (Congress, State Legislatures, City Councils) to persuade government officials to enact laws and regulations in exchange for campaign contributions, appeasing influential voting blocks or future jobs in the regulated industry. They also use the courts to tie up and exhaust a startups limited financial resources.

Lobbyists also work through regulatory bodies like FCC, SEC, FTC, Public Utility, Taxi, or Insurance Commissions, School Boards, etc.   Although most regulatory bodies are initially set up to protect the public’s health and safety, or to provide an equal playing field, over time the very people they’re supposed to regulate capture the regulatory agencies. Rent Seekers take advantage of regulatory capture to protect their interests against the new innovators.

PayPal – Dodging Bullets
PayPal consistently walked a fine line with regulators. Early on the company shutdown their commercial banking operation to avoid being labeled as a commercial bank and burdened by banks’ federal regulations. PayPal worried that complying with state-by-state laws for money transmission would also be too burdensome for a startup so they first tried to be classified as a chartered trust company to provide a benign regulatory cover, but failed. As the company grew larger, incumbent banks forced PayPal to register in each state. The banks lobbied regulators in Louisiana, New York, California, and Idaho and soon they were issuing injunctions forcing PayPal to delay their IPO. Ironically, once PayPal complied with state regulations by registering as a “money transmitter” on a state-by-state basis, it created a barrier to entry for future new entrants.

U.S. Auto Makers – Death by Rent Seeking
The U.S. auto industry is a textbook case of rent seeking behavior. In 1981 unable to compete with the quality and price of Japanese cars, the domestic car companies convinced the U.S. government to restrict the import of  “foreign” cars. The result? Americans paid an extra $5 billion for cars. Japan overcame these barriers by using their import quotas to ship high-end, high-margin luxury cars, establishing manufacturing plants in the U.S. for high-volume lower cost cars and by continuing to innovate. In contrast, U.S. car manufacturers raised prices, pocketed the profits, bought off the unions with unsustainable contracts, ran inefficient factories and stopped innovating. The bill came due two decades later as the American auto industry spiraled into bankruptcy and its market share plummeted from 75% in 1981 to 45% in 2012.

unplug tesla

Innovation in the Auto Industry
According to the Gallup Poll American consumers view car salesman as dead last in honesty and ethics. Yet when Tesla provided consumers with a direct sales alternative, the rent seekers – the National Auto Dealers Association turned its lobbyists loose on State Legislatures robbing consumers in North Carolina, New York and Texas of choice in the marketplace.

In these states it appears innovation be damned if it gets in the way of a rent seeker with a good lobbyist.

Much like Paypal, it’s likely that after forcing Tesla to win these state-by-state battles, the auto dealers will have found that they dealt themselves the losing hand.

Rent seeking is bad for the economy
Rent seeking strangles innovation in its crib. When companies are protected from competition, they have little incentive to cut costs or to pay attention to changing customer needs. The resources invested in rent seeking are a form of economic waste and reduce the wealth of the overall economy.

Schumpeter’s theory of creative destruction – that entry by entrepreneurs was the disruptive force that sustained economic growth even as it destroyed the value of established companies – didn’t take into account that countries with lots of rent-seeking activity (pick your favorite nation where bribes and corruption are the cost of doing business) or dominated by organized interest groups tend to be the economic losers. As rent-seeking becomes more attractive than innovation, the economy falls into decline.

Startups, investors and the public have done a poor job of calling out the politicians and regulators who use the words “innovation means jobs” while supporting rent seekers.

What does this mean for startups?
In an existing market it’s clear who your competitors are. You compete for customers on performance, ease of use, or price. However, for startups creating a new market – one where either the product or service never existed before or the new option is radically more convenient for customers –  the idea that rent seekers even exist may come as a shock. “Why would anyone not want a better x, y or z?” The answer is that if your startup threatens their jobs or profits, it doesn’t matter how much better life will be for consumers, students, etc. Well organized incumbents will fight if they perceive a threat to the status quo.

As a result disrupting the status quo in regulated market can be costly. On the other hand, being a private and small startup means you have less to lose when you challenge the incumbents.

impossibleIf you’re a startup with a disruptive business model here’s what you need to do:

Map the order of battle

  • Laughing at the dinosaurs and saying, “They don’t get it” may put you out of business. Expect that existing organizations will defend their turf ferociously i.e. movie studios, telecom providers, teachers unions, etc.
  • Understand who has political and regulator influence and where they operate
  • Figure out an “under the radar” strategy which doesn’t attract incumbents lawsuits, regulations or laws when you have limited resources to fight back

Pick early markets where the rent seekers are weakest and scale

  • For example, pick target markets with no national or state lobbying influence. i.e. Craigslist versus newspapers, Netflix versus video rental chains, Amazon versus bookstores, etc.
  • Go after rapid scale of passionate consumers who value the disruption i.e. Uber and Airbnb, Tesla
  • Ally with some larger partners who see you as a way to break the incumbents lock on the market. i.e. Palantir and the intelligence agencies versus the Army and IBM’s i2, / Textron Systems Overwatch

AirBnb – Damn the torpedoes full speed ahead
For example, Airbnb, thrives even though almost all of its “hosts” are not paying local motel/hotel taxes nor paying tax on their income, and many hosts are violating local zoning laws. Some investors and competitors may be concerned about regulatory risk and liability.  AirBNB’s attitude seems to be “build the business until someone stops me, and change or comply with regulations later.”  This is the same approach that allowed Amazon to ignore local sales taxes for the last two decades.

When you get customer scale and raise a large financing round, take the battle to the incumbents. Strategies at this stage include:

  • Hire your own lobbyists
  • Begin to build your own influence and political action groups
  • Publicly shame the incumbents as rent seekers
  • Use competition among governments to your advantage, eg, if  New York or North Carolina doesn’t want Tesla, put the store in New Jersey, across the river from Manhattan, increasing New Jersey’s tax revenue
  • Cut deals with the rent seekers. i.e. revenue/profit sharing, two-tier hiring, etc.
  • Buy them out i.e. guaranteed lifetime employment

Lessons Learned

  • Rent seekers are organizations that have lost the ability to innovate
  • They look to the government to provide their defense against innovation
  • Map the order of battle
  • Pick early markets and scale
  • With cash, take the battle to the incumbent

Listen to the post here: or download the Podcast here

Who’s Doing the Learning?

In a startup instead of paying consultants to tell you what they learned you want to pay them to teach you how to learn.

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Roominate, one of my favorite Lean LaunchPad teams came out to the ranch last week for a strategy session. Alice and Bettina had taken an idea they had tested in the class – building toys for young girls to have fun with Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, and started a company. The Roominate dollhouse building kits are being sold via their own website and soon, retail channels. They’ve shipped over 5,000 to enthusiastic parents and their daughters.

Roominate kit

As soon as they had designed the product, they found a contract manufacturer to build the product in China. Alice and Bettina are hands-on mechanical and electrical engineers, so instead of assuming everything would go smoothly, they wisely got on a plane to Dongguan China and worked with the factory directly. They learned a ton.

But we were meeting to talk about sales and marketing. They outlined their retail channel and PR strategy and told me about the type of consultants they wanted to hire.

Hiring Channel Sales
“So what would the retail channel consultant do?” I asked.  Alice looked at me like I was a bit slow, but went on to describe how this consultant was going to take their product around to buyers inside major retail chains like Target, Toys R Us, Walmart, and others to see if they could get them to buy their product. “That sounds great.” I said, “When are you leaving for the trip?”  They looked confused.  “We’re not going on any of these calls.  Our consultant is going and then he’s going to give us a report of how willing these stores are to carry our product.”  Oh…

I said, “Let me see if I understand this correctly. What if a buyer asks, can you make a custom version of your product? Can your consultant answer that question on the spot? What if a buyer said no? Will your consultant know what questions to ask right then to figure out how to get them to yes?”  I let this sink in and then offered, “Think about it for a minute. You’re going to pay someone else to learn and discover if your product fits this channel, and you’re are not going to do any of the learning yourself?  You didn’t skip the trip learning how to manufacture the product. You got on a plane yourself and went to China. Why doesn’t this sound like the right thing to do for channel sales?”  They thought about it for a moment and said, “Well we feel like we understand how to build things, but sales is something we thought we’d hire an expert to do.”

Hiring PR Agencies
We had an almost identical conversation when the subject turned to hiring a Public Relations agency.  Bettina said, “We want to drive customer demand into our channel.”  That’s smart I thought, a real clear charter for PR.  “What are they going to do for you?” I asked.  “Well all the agencies we interview tell us they can survey our customers and come up with our positioning and then help us target the right blogs, influencers and press.

This felt like déjà vu all over again.

I took a deep breath and said, “Look this is just like the channel consultant conversation. But in this case it’s even clearer.  Didn’t you get started by testing out every iteration with girls and watching firsthand what gets them excited? Don’t you have 5,000 existing customers? And haven’t you been telling me you’ve been talking to them continuously?”  They nodded in agreement.  I suggested, “Why don’t you guys take a first pass and draft a positioning brief with target messages, think through who you think the audiences are, and you take a first pass at who you think the press should be.  The team looked at me incredulously.  “You want us to do this? We don’t know the first thing about press, that’s why we want to hire the experts.”  It was the answer I expected.Roominate project

“Let me be clear,” I explained.  “At this moment you know more about your customers than any PR agency will.  You’ve spent the last six months testing positioning, messages, and talking to the press yourself.  What I want you to do is spend an hour in a conference room and write up all you learned.  What worked, what didn’t, etc.  Then summarize it in a brief – a one, max two-page document that you hand to prospective PR agencies.  And when you hand it to them say, “We know you can do better, but here’s what we’ve learned so far.”” They thought about it for a while and said, “We want to hire a PR agency so we don’t have to do this stuff. We’re too busy focusing on getting the product right.”

I pushed back, reminding them, “Look, half the agencies that see your brief are going to decline to work with you. They make most of their money doing the front-end work you already did.  You do need to hire a PR agency, but I’m suggesting that you start by raising the bar on where they need to start.”

You Need to Do the Learning
Thinking that founders hire domain experts to get them into places and do things they don’t have any clue about is a mistake most founding CEOs make.  It’s wrong. If you plan to be the CEO who runs the company, you need these resources teaching you how to do it, not reporting their results to you.  For Roominate I suggested that Alice and Bettina needed to try to find a channel consultant who would take them along on the sales calls and have the founders meet buyers directly.  Why?  Not to turn them into channel sales people but to hear customer objections unfiltered. To get data that they – and only they, not a consultant – could turn into insight about iterations and pivots about their business model.  And to see how the process works directly.

A year from now when they will be hiring their first VP of Channel Sales, they want the interview to go something like,  “Well we sold the first three channel partners ourselves – what can you do for us?”

The same is true for hiring the PR agency.  The conversation should be, “Here’s what we learned, but we know this is your expertise.  Tell us what we’re missing and how your firm can do better than our first pass.”

As a founder –  when you’re searching for a business model make sure that you’re the ones doing the learning… not the outsourced help.

There’s Not Enough Time
The biggest objections I get when I offer this advice is, “There’s not enough time in the day,” or “I need to be building the product,” or the more modern version is, “I’m focused on product/market fit right now.”

The reality is that they’re all excuses. Of course product and product/market fit are the first critical steps in a startup –  but outsourcing your learning about the other parts of the business model are the reasons why your investors will be hiring an operating executive as your replacement – once you done all the hard work.

Lessons Learned

  • You need to do the learning not your consultants
  • Most consultants will think that’s their secret sauce and not want your business
    • The smart ones will realize that’s how they’ll build a long-term relationship with you
    • Hire them
  • Not understanding the other parts of your business model is a reason investors hire an operating executive

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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.

Listen to the post here: or download the podcast here

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

Listen to the post here: Download the Podcast here

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