Bonfire of the Vanities

When I was in my 20’s, I was taught the relationship between marketing and sales over a bonfire.

Over thirty years ago, before the arrival of the personal computer, there were desktop computers called office workstations. Designed around the first generation of microprocessors, these computers ran business applications like word processing, spreadsheets, and accounting. They were an improvement over the dumb terminals hanging off of mainframes and minicomputers, but ran proprietary operating systems and software. My third startup, Convergent Technologies (extra credit for identifying the photo on page 2) was in the business of making these workstations.

The OEM Business
Convergent’s computers were bought and then resold by other computer manufacturers – all of them long gone: Burroughs, Prime, Monroe Data Systems, ADP, Mohawk, Gould, NCR, 4-Phase, AT&T. Convergent had assembled a stellar team with founders from Digital Equipment Corporation and Intel and engineers from Xerox PARC.  And once we went public, we hired a veteran VP of Sales from Honeywell.

As the company’s revenues skyrocketed, Convergent started a new division to make a multi-processor Unix-based mini-computer. I had joined the company as the product marketing manager and now found myself as the VP of marketing for this new division. We were a startup inside a $200 million company. A marketer for 5 years, I thought I knew everything and proceeded to write the data sheets for our new computer.

Since this new computer was very complicated – it was a pioneer in multi-processing– I concluded it needed an equally detailed data sheet. In fact, when I was done, the datasheet describing our new computer, proudly called the MegaFrame, was 16 pages long. I fact-checked the datasheet with my boss (who would be my co-founder at Epiphany) and the rest of the engineering team.  We all agreed it was perfect. We’d left no stone unturned in answering every possible question anyone could ever have about our system. As we typically did, I printed up several thousand to send out to the sales force.

The day the datasheets came back from the printers, I sent the boxes to the sales department in Convergent’s corporate headquarters, a separate building across the highway, and sent a copy to our CEO and the new VP of Sales.  (I was thinking it was such a masterpiece I might get an “attaboy” or at least a “wow, thanks for doing all the hard work for our sales organization.”)

So when I got a call from the VP of Sales who said, “Steve, just read your new datasheet. Why don’t you come over to corporate.  We have a surprise for you,” I smugly thought, “They probably thought it was so good, I’m going to get a thank you or an award or maybe even a bonus.”

Fahrenheit 451
I got in my car to make the five minute drive over the freeway. Turning into the parking lot, I noticed smoke coming from the far end of the lawn. As I parked and walked closer I noticed a crowd of people around what seemed to be an impromptu campfire.  “What the heck??” As an ex Sales and Marketing VP, our CEO had a Silicon Valley reputation for outrageous stunts so I wondered what it was this time –  a spur-of-the-moment BBQ? A marshmallow roast?

Heading to a meeting with the VP of Sales, I almost walked past the crowd into the building  until I heard the VP of Sales call me over to the fire. He was there with our CEO feeding things into the fire.  In fact as I got closer, it looked like the campfire was being entirely fed by paper.  “Here, toss these in,” they said as they handed me a stack of…

Oh, my g-d they’re burning my datasheets!!!

The Bonfire of the Vanities
I stood there stunned as I realized that my 16-page carefully constructed, brilliantly written, technically accurate datasheets were being destroyed en masse. I guess I was speechless for so long that the VP of Sales took pity on me and asked, “Steve, do you know we have a sales force?” I managed to stammer out, “Yes, of course.”  He asked, “Do you know how much we pay them?”  Again, I managed to answer, “A lot.” Then he got serious and started to explain what was going on. (In the meantime our CEO watched my reaction with a big grin on his face.) He said, “Steve, I’ve never seen such a perfect datasheet. It answers every possible question a prospective customer could have about our product. The problem is that our computer sells for $150,000. No one is going to buy it from the datasheet. In fact, reading these, the only thing your datasheet will do is give a prospective customer a reason for saying “no” before our salespeople ever get to talk to them.

“Do you mean you want a datasheet with less information?!”  I asked, not at all sure that I was hearing him correctly. “Yes, exactly. Your job in marketing is to get customers interested enough to engage our sales force, to ask for more information or better, to set up a meeting.  No one is going to buy our computer from a datasheet, but they will from a salesman.”

Marketing to Match the Channel
It took me a few weeks to get over the lesson, but it stuck.  When selling a physical product through direct sales, Marketing’s job is to drive end user demand into the sales channel.  Marketing creates a series of marketing activities at each stage of the sales funnel to generate awareness, then interest, then consideration and finally purchase. 

Ironically, over the last decade, I’ve seen web startups have the opposite problem. For web sites with an ecommerce component, the site itself is supposed to both create demand and close the sale. Web designers have to do the work of both the marketing and the sales departments.

Lessons Learned

  • Marketing materials need to match the channel
  • Marketings job in direct sales channels with consultative sales need to drive demand to the salesforce
  • Indirect channels require marketing material with more information than a direct channel
  • Web sites that sell products combine sales and marketing
  • Confusing these can get you your own bonfire

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Why Pioneers Have Arrows In Their Backs

First-Mover Advantage is an idea that just won’t die. I hear it from every class of students, and each time I try to put a stake through its heart.

Here’s one more attempt in trying to explain why confusing testosterone with strategy is a bad idea.

First mover advantage – great bad idea
The phrase “first mover advantage” was first popularized in a 1988 paper by a Stanford Business School professor, David Montgomery, and his co-author, Marvin Lieberman.[1]

This one phrase became the theoretical underpinning of the out-of-control spending of startups during the dot-com bubble. Over time the idea that winners in new markets are the ones who have been the first (not just early) entrants into their categories became unchallenged conventional wisdom in Silicon Valley. The only problem is that it’s simply not true.

The irony is that in a retrospective paper ten years later (1998), [2] the authors backed off from their claims. By then it was too late. Using this idea to differentiate themselves as the hot new Silicon Valley VCs, some of his former business school students made this phrase their rallying cry. Soon every other VC was using the phrase to justify the reckless “get big fast” strategies of dot-com startups during the Internet Bubble.

Fast Followers – a better idea
In fact, a 1993 paper by Peter N. Golder and Gerard J. Tellis had a much more accurate description of what happens to startup companies entering new markets.[3] In their analysis Golder and Tellis found almost half of the market pioneers (First Movers) in their sample of 500 brands in 50 product categories failed. Even worse, the survivors’ mean market share was lower than found in other studies. Further, their study shows early market leaders (Fast Followers) have much greater long-term success; those in their sample entered the market an average of thirteen years later than the pioneers. What’s directly relevant from their work is a hierarchy showing what being first actually means for startups entering new or resegmented markets:


Innovator First to develop or patent an idea
Product Pioneer First to have a working model
First Mover First to sell the product 47% failure rate
Fast Follower Entered early but not first 8% failure rate

The Race to Fail First
What this means is that first mover advantage (in the sense of literally trying to be the first one on a shelf or with a press release) is not real, and the race to be the first company into a new market can be destructive. Therefore, startups whose mantra is “we have to be first to market” usually lose. What startups lose sight of is there are very few cases where a second, third, or even tenth entrant cannot become a profitable or even dominant player. (The rules are different in the life-sciences arena.)

Ford vs. GM, Overture vs. Google
For example, Ford was the first successfully mass produced car in the United States. In 1921, Ford sold 900,000 Model Ts for 60 percent market share compared to General Motors 61,000 Chevys, a 6 percent market share. Over the next ten years, while Ford focused on cost reductions, General Motors built a diverse and differentiated product line. By 1931 GM had 31% of the market to Ford’s 28%, a lead it has never relinquished.  Just to make the point that markets are never static, Toyota, a company that sold its first car designed for the US market in 1964, is poised to surpass GM as the leader in the US market. The issue is not being first to market, but understanding the type of market your company is going to enter.

If the car business is too removed from high tech as an example, how about the story of Overture. In 1998 Goto.com, a small startup (later Overture, now part of Yahoo!), created the pay per click search engine and advertising system and demo’d it at the TED conference.

It was not until October 2000 that Google offered its version of a pay per click advertising system  -AdWords -allowing advertisers to create text ads for placement on the Google search engine.

Google is a $25 billion dollar company with most of its revenue from AdWords.

Overture was acquired by Yahoo for $1.6 billion.

Implicit Customer Discovery and Validation in Fast Followers
Why do fast followers win more often?  It’s pretty simple. First Movers tend to launch without really fully understanding customer problems or the product features that solve those problems. They guess at their business model and then do premature, loud and aggressive Public Relations hype and early company launches and quickly burn through their cash.. This is a great strategy if there’s a bubble occuring in your market or you are going to bet it all on flipping your company for a sale. Otherwise the jury is in. There’s no advantage. [4]

Astute fast-followers recognize that part of Customer Discovery is learning from the first-mover by looking at the arrows in their backs. Then avoiding them.

Lessons Learned

  • Believing in First Mover Advantage implies you understand your business model, customers problems and the features needed to solve those problems.
  • That’s unlikely.
  • Therefore you’re either going to burn through your cash or pray that the hype can help you can flip your company.
  • None of the market leaders in technology were the first movers

[1] Montgomery, M. Lieberman.1988  “First Mover Advantage.” Strategic Management Journal, Volume 9, Issue S1, pages 41–58, Summer 1988.

[2] Montgomery, M. Lieberman “First-mover (dis)advantages: retrospective and link with the resource-based view.” Strategic Management Journal Volume 19, Issue 12, pages 1111–1125, December 1998

[3] P. N. Golder and G. J. Tellis. 1993. “Pioneer Advantage: Marketing Logic or Marketing Legend?” Journal of Marketing Research, 30(2):158–170.

[4] Did First-Mover Advantage Survive the Dot-Com Crash? . M. Lieberman 2007

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Turning on your Reality Distortion Field

I was catching up over coffee and a muffin with a student I hadn’t seen for years who’s now CEO of his own struggling startup.  As I listened to him present the problems of matching lithium-ion battery packs to EV powertrains and direct drive motors, I realized that he had a built a product for a segment of the electric vehicle market that possibly could put his company on the right side of a major industry discontinuity.

But he was explaining it like it was his PhD dissertation defense.

Our product is really complicated
After hearing more details about the features of the product (I think he was heading to the level of Quantum electrodynamics) I asked if he could explain to me why I should care. His response was to describe even more features. When I called for a time-out the reaction was one I hear a lot. “Our product is really complicated I need to tell you all about it so you get it.”

I told him I disagreed and pointed out that anyone can make a complicated idea sound complicated. The art is making it sound simple, compelling and inevitable.

Turning on your Reality Distortion Field
The ability to deliver a persuasive elevator pitch and follow it up with a substantive presentation is the difference between a funded entrepreneur and those having coffee complaining that they’re out of cash. It’s a litmus test of how you will behave in front of customers, employees and investors.

30-seconds
The common wisdom is that you need to be able to describe your product/company in 30-seconds. The 30 second elevator pitch is such a common euphemism that people forget its not about the time, it’s about the impact and the objective.  The goal is not to pack in every technical detail about the product. You don’t even need to mention the product. The objective is to get the listener to stop whatever they had planned to do next and instead say, “Tell me more.”

How do you put together a 30-second pitch?

Envision how the world will be different five years after people started using your product. Tell me. Explain to me why it’s a logical conclusion. Quickly show me that it’s possible. And do this in less than 100 words.

The CEOs reaction over his half- finished muffin was, “An elevator pitch is hype. I’m not a sales guy I’m an engineer.”

The reality is that if you are going to be a founding CEO, investors want to understand that you have a vision big enough to address a major opportunity and an investment. Potential employees need to understand your vision of the future to decide whether against all other choices they will join you. Customers need to stop being satisfied with the status quo and queue up for whatever you are going to deliver. Your elevator pitch is a proxy for all of these things.

While my ex student had been describing the detailed architecture of middleware of electric vehicles I realized what I wanted to understand was how this company was going to change the world.

All he had to say was, “The electric vehicle business is like the automobile business in 1898.  We’re on the cusp of a major transformation. If you believe electric vehicles are going to have a significant share of the truck business in 10 years, we are going to be on the right side of the fault zone.  The heart of these vehicles will be a powertrain controller and propulsion system. We’ve designed, built and installed them. Every electric truck will have to have a product like ours.”

75 words.

That would have been enough to have me say, “Tell me more.”

Lessons Learned

  • Complex products need a simple summary
  • Tell me why I should quit my job to join you
  • Tell me why I should invest in you rather than the line outside my door
  • Tell me why I should buy from you rather than the existing suppliers
  • Do it in 100 words or less.

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Building a Company with Customer Data – Why Metrics Are Not Enough

Gathering real-world feedback from customers is a core concept of Customer Development as well as the Lean Startup. But what information to collect?

Only 57 Questions
Yesterday I got an email from an ex-student lamenting that only 2% of their selected early testers responded to their on-line survey. The survey said in part:

The survey has 57 questions, the last three of which are open ended, and should take about 20 minutes to complete.  Please note that you must complete the entire survey once you begin.  You cannot stop along the way and have your responses to that point saved.

If it wasn’t so sad it would be funny. I called the founder and noted that there are SAT tests that are shorter than the survey. When I asked him if he actually had personally left the building and talked to these potential customers, or even had gotten them on the phone, he sounded confused.  “We’re a web startup, all our customers are on the web.  Why can’t I just get them to give me the answers I need this way?”

Continual Data Flow
Customer Development suggests that founders have continual and timely customer, channel and market information.

Founders need three views of information to truly understand what is going on:

  • First-hand knowledge
  • A “birds-eye” view
  • The view from the eyes of customers and competitors

First-hand knowledge
First-hand knowledge is “getting outside the building” and talking to potential or actual customers. Customer Development proposes that the best way to get customer data is through personal observation and experience—getting out from behind your desk and getting up close and personal with customers, competitors, and the market.

Web startups are at real disadvantage here as founders may confuse web metrics, A/B testing and on-line surveys as the entirety of first-hand knowledge – for most web business models they are not.  In fact, this mistake can be a “going out of business” strategy.  Metrics tell you that something is happening.  A/B testing can tell you that one something is better than another. But neither can tell you why. And getting answers back from customers only with on-line surveys when you can’t watch their pupils dilate or hear the intonation of their voice is not something I’d build a business on.

Of course you need to collect metrics, do A/B testing and run online surveys. It’s just that without having founders “get outside the building”, you are missing a key point of Customer Development – the numeric data you collect may be blinding you to the fact that you’re more than likely working to optimize the wrong business model. Customer needs are non-deterministic.

“Birds-eye view”
The second picture founders need is a synthesized “birds-eye view” of the customer, market and competitive environment. You assemble this view by gathering information from a variety of sources: web sites, social media (Facebook, Twitter, blogs, et al) sales data, win/loss information, market research data (i.e. compete.com, Alexa, etc.,) competitive analyses, and so on. From this big-picture view, founders try to make sense of the shape of the market and the overall patterns in the unfolding competitive and customer situation. At the same time, they can gauge how well industry data and the actual sales match the company’s revenue and market-share expectations.

(Just remember that most market research firms are excellent at predicting the past. If they could predict the future, they’d be entrepreneurs.)

My test for how well you understand this “order of battle” is to hand the founder a marker, have them go up to the whiteboard and diagram the players in the market and where they fit. (Try it.)

See through the eyes of customers and competitors
The third view is of the action as seen through the eyes of customers and competitors. Put yourself in your customers’ and competitors’ shoes in order to deduce possible competitors’ moves and anticipate customer needs. In an existing market this is where you ask yourself, “If I were my own competitor and had its resources, what would my next move be?” In looking through the eyes of a customer, the question might be, “Why should I buy from this company versus the incumbent.” In a new or resegmented market, the questions might be “Why would more than a few early adopters use this app, web site or buy this product? How would I get my 90-year grandmother to understand and buy this product?”

Think of this technique as playing chess. You need to be looking at all the likely moves from both sides of the chessboard. What would we do if we were our competitors? How would we react? What would we be planning? After a while this type of role playing will become an integral part of everyone’s thinking and planning.

Putting it All Together
First-hand knowledge is clearly the most detailed and essential, but offers a narrow field of view. Founders who focus only on this information risk losing sight of the big picture.

The “birds-eye view” provides a view of the market but lacks the critical detail. Founders who focus only on this image risk missing the “ground truth.”

Seeing through the eyes of customers and competitors is a theoretical exercise limited by the fact that you can never be sure what your customers and competitors are up to.

The combination of all three views helps founders form an accurate picture of what is going on in their business and help them hone in on product/market fit.

Even with information from all three views, founders need to remember there will never be enough information to make a perfect decision.

Building an Information Culture
The most important element of data gathering is what to do with the information once you collect it. Customer information dissemination is a cornerstone of Lean and agile companies. This information, whether good or bad, must not be guarded like some precious commodity. Large company cultures reward executives who hoard knowledge or suppress bad news. In any of my companies, that is a firing offense.

All news, but especially bad news, needs to be shared, dissected, understood, and acted upon.

This means that understanding poor click-through rates, retention numbers and sales losses are more important than understanding sales wins; understanding why a competitor’s products are better is more important than rationalizing ways in which yours is still superior. Winning startups build a startup culture that reward not punish messengers of bad news.

Lessons Learned

  • Three views of information: First-hand knowledge, “birds-eye” view, view from the eyes of customers and competitors
  • Web startups can fall into the trap of confusing metrics, testing and surveys with Customer Interaction.
  • Goal is to build an information culture to help you get to product/market fit.

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Ardent War Story 4: You Know You’re Getting Close to Your Customers When They Offer You a Job

In 1985 Ardent Computer was determined to create a market niche for personal supercomputers. To understand our potential markets, we started by analyzing the marketing literature from Cray Research then crisscrossed the country talking to prospective customers – scientists and researchers in advanced corporate R&D centers and universities – to understand their needs.

A week might start with a visit to the MIT Media Lab, the next day at Princeton in the Aerospace Engineering department, then off to General Motors’ advanced research group, across to the computer science department at the University of Illinois, up to Minneapolis to meet with ETA, Control Data and Cray, and across the country to Seattle to speak with Boeing’s advanced propulsion group before returning to to the geophysics department at Stanford.

Simulation applications
After six months, we hypothesized that our most likely customers were scientists and engineers who used one of five applications: computational fluid dynamics, finite element analysis, computational chemistry and seismic data processing and reservoir simulation.

At Boeing we had learned aircraft designers needed to calculate the airflow and turbulence around wings and engines. Instead of building a new wing to test designs, numerical simulation would allow them to use a supercomputer to build a virtual model of a wing on the screen and use an application called computational fluid dynamics to watch the resulting airflow without ever flying a plane. If they didn’t like what they saw (say the wing had more drag than expected), they could change the design and rerun the simulation.

At General Motors we heard from mechanical engineers who needed to calculate the strength, breaking point and failure modes of structures – everything from piston rods to bumpers. Their interest was easy to understand. Before computer simulation, they would test real objects until they physically broke (or get sued when something important broke, blew up, or collapsed.) Now applications called finite element analysis could calculate these stresses and failure modes on a computer screen.

A third simulation market, this one new and just emerging, allowed biologists to examine how drugs would interact by simulating them on a computer.  A precursor to today’s biotech revolution, these computational chemistry applications allowed the active docking sites of potential drugs to be modeled and tested on a computer screen rather than in a test tube.

Finally, we could see that petroleum engineers at oil companies like Chevron and Exxon were using computers in exploration and extraction with seismic data processing and reservoir simulation, applications which were moving oil companies into the supercomputer age.

Traveling around the country had helped me begin to understand how these customers currently did their work, what journals they read, where they got their funding, what other software they ran on their machines, etc. I came back to the company and described the day-in-the-life of each type of customer.

This was one of the happiest times in my life as a marketer. I had known nothing about supercomputers and numerical simulation applications; now there wasn’t a day that went by that I wasn’t learning something new. As I traveled to some of the most arcane trade shows and conferences (AIAA, SPE, MSC, etc.), my hotel room was stacked with the journals and textbooks about each vertical market just to keep up with the people we were meeting. (I was a marketer, not an engineer and most of the fine points were way over my head – and probably not just the fine points. But reading their literature allowed me to discuss the problems and opportunities with customers.)

My Velvet Painting Period

My Velvet Painting Period

You Know You’re Getting Close to Your Customers When They Offer You a Job
I believed that good marketers used their own products. I got facile enough with a few of the applications that I could even run some of them myself. I could build simple finite element models with Patran and set up a run of the Nastran analysis codes.

Later on in the company’s life I went to give a lunch-time seminar to Chevron’s La Habra research center on the use of graphics supercomputers in petroleum applications. I spoke about the state of the art in computational reservoir simulation and what could be accomplished using finite difference and finite element methods on the new class of machines that were coming from companies like ours.  During the question and answer session my heart was in my throat since like any good marketer, my depth of knowledge was no more than one level away from being a complete idiot. At the end of the talk the head of the research facility came up to me and said, “That was a great talk. We’re glad your company hired a real petroleum engineer to come speak to us. We hate when the sales and marketing types come down and try to get us to buy something.”

For one of the few times in my life I was at a loss for words, and I was completely unprepared for what came next.  “Here’s my card, if you ever want to consider a career in Chevron research. We’d be happy to talk to you.”

Marketing was really fun.

Lessons learned:

  • To sell to customers you need to understand them:  how they work, what they do and what problem you will solve for them.
  • You can’t understand customers from inside your building.

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Ask and It Shall be Given

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

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

All I had to do was ask.

Zilog Correspondence Course Matchbook Cover

Zilog Correspondence Course Matchbook

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

For entrepreneurs good things come to those who ask.

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

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

But Intel was kicking our rear.

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

I asked for the job.

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons Learned

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

King James Bible, New Testament – Matthew 7:7

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Rocket Science 4: The Press is Our Best Product

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

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

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

Wired 2.11 Cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons Learned

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

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