Why Too Many Startups (er) Suck

This is a guest post by my Startup Owner’s Manual co-author Bob Dorf.

——————-

While statistics are weak on startup success rates, the worst one I’ve seen suggests that 2 in 1000 venture backed startups will ever achieve $100-million or more in valuation. Another stat puts that number at 2% rather than 0.2%.  Either way, the “hurdle” for successful, scalable startups is high, and it gets higher every day as customer acquisition challenges continue to increase.

I’ve spent more than four decades founding, coaching, teaching and investing in startups, and nothing breaks my heart more than meeting a starry-eyed founder who says “we’re almost ready to show it to people.”  The “it” is a physical or web product they’ve often been locked-down, pounding away at, for many weeks.

In my view, this is the nastiest of all startup sins: failing to involve customers and their feedback from literally the first day of a startup’s life, keeping the most vital opinions silent—those of the eventual customers—for far longer than necessary.

When I hear this comment, as I do far too often, I switch to pleading mode: “Please.  Take a week. Get some feedback. Does anybody really care, or are they giving you polite nods and little more.  This generally leads to the second biggest reason too many startups suck: they’re solving a non-problem.

Does anybody care? Many Startup Owner’s Manual readers ask why Steve Blank and I are adamant that Customer Discovery happen in two separate, distinct phases: “problem” discovery and, later, “solution” discovery. There’s just no other way but, as Steve Blank has said for a decade, to “get out of the building” and talk to the only folks who matter—your customers.

Building a solution to a problem of moderate or lukewarm interest to users is a long-term death sentence for startups, where founders will almost certainly commit to 20,000 hours of their lives(or 5 years of 80-hour workweeks) in order to “beat the odds” and deliver a breakout success: a sustainable, scalable, profitable business.

Why, then, are so many founders so reluctant to invest even 500 or 1,000 hours upfront to be sure that, when they’re done, the business they’re building will face genuine, substantial demand or enthusiasm.  Without passionate customers, even the most passionate entrepreneur will flounder at best.  Dropbox is a great example. It scaled like lightning by solving an urgent, painful problem for millions of consumers. The product is so good, helpful, and easy to use that it literally almost does its own marketing organically through the product’s viral nature, just as Hotmail and Gmail have done since inception.

What’s the honest trajectory?  There can only be one Mark Zuckerberg, and at last look he’s young and healthy.  Can every startup skyrocket like Facebook or Square or Google? It’s downright impossible.  The solution: understand your startup’s “honest trajectory” and align objectives of the founding team and—importantly—its investors to define and agree about what “success” looks like.  Thousands of entrepreneurs would be a lot happier if their focus was a solid, growable, defensible niche business that might never go public or be worth $100-million.  There’s a ton of money to be made “in the middle,” a broad swath between struggling or gasping for cash and ringing the bell at the NASDAQ.

Find the right trajectory for your business and focus not only on reaching it, but on assuring that the result is a sustainable, repeatable profit engine that can perform and grow healthily over time. Use Customer Development to identify and refine the potential profitable niche and stay in close contact with customers as you build, to be sure you’re building something they’ll want to have…and keep.

Stand Out in the Crowd: If you’re solving an important problem, make sure your solution stands out in the crowd.  Hundreds of entrepreneurs I’ve met never spent an entire day Googling their industry, other ways to solve “their” problem, and few have spent time “playing consumer,” trying to find “their” own product, or one like it, and creating a “market map” that assesses all the competitive solutions, their strengths/weaknesses, and where the new product fits clearly and distinctly in its competitive environment.  If you can’t figure this out on your own, and relate it to customers succinctly, it’s a certainty that your customers never will.

Going Forward is NOT About Standing Still:  Another of my high-frequency “sad” moments happens when visiting with a team that is consistently “flatlining,” or delivering minimal or trivial user growth week after week or worse.  Clearly, something’s horribly wrong, and everyone just keeps showing up, doing their jobs, without attacking the core problem that’s almost always a lack of palpable customer enthusiasm.  What’s the point? What are they waiting for? It’s time to bring the leadership team into a room, dissect each key element of the business model, and identify pivots that are worth exploring smartly—where else—with customers.

Going Forward Is Often About Going Backward First:  Entrepreneurs pride themselves in their problem-solving abilities, tenacity, and willingness to run through brick walls to make things “go.”  More often than not, the DNA strand that makes entrepreneurs great is the one that’s their undoing when confronted with “flatlining” user adoption, growth, referrals, or frequency.  These entrepreneurs need to switch smartly out of “do” mode and return to the earliest “discovery” steps to find a distinctive, exciting solution to a seriously painful customer need or problem.

It’s the only way to make a startup not suck.
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The Lean LaunchPad Online

You may have read my previous posts about the Lean LaunchPad class taught at Stanford, Berkeley, Columbia, Caltech and for the National Science Foundation.

Now you too can take this course.

I’ve worked with the Udacity, the best online digital university on a mission to democratize education, to produce the course. They’ve done an awesome job.

The course includes lecture videos, quizzes and homework assignments. Multiple short video modules make up each 20-30 minute Lecture. Each module is roughly three minutes or less, giving you the chance to learn piece by piece and re-watch short lesson portions with ease. Quizzes are embedded within the lectures and are meant to let you check-in with how completely you are digesting the course information. Once you take a quiz, which could be a multiple-choice quiz or a fill in the blank quiz, you will receive immediate feedback.

Sign up here

——–

Why This Class?

Ten years ago I started thinking about why startups are different from existing companies.  I wondered if business plans and 5-year forecasts were the right way to plan a startup.  I asked, “Is execution all there is to starting a company?”

Experienced entrepreneurs kept finding that no business plan survived first contact with customers. It dawned on me that the plans were a symptom of a larger problem: we were executing business plans when we should first be searching for business models. We were putting the plan before the planning.

So what would a search process for a business model look like? I read a ton of existing literature and came up with a formal methodology for search I called Customer Development.

That resulted in a new process for Search: Customer Development + traditional product management/Waterfall Engineering. It looked like this:

This meant that the Search for a business model as a process now could come before execution. So I wrote a book about this called the Four Steps to the Epiphany.

And in 2003 the Haas Business School at U.C. Berkeley asked me to teach a class in Customer Development.  With Rob Majteles as a co-instructor, I started a tradition of teaching all my classes with venture capitalists as co-instructors.

In 2004 I funded IMVU, a startup by Will Harvey and Eric Ries. As a condition of my investment I insisted Will and Eric take my Customer Development class at Berkeley. Having Eric in the class was the best investment I ever made. Eric’s insight was that traditional product management and Waterfall development should be replaced by Agile Development.  He called it the “Lean Startup.”

Meanwhile, I had said startups were “Searching” for a business model, I had been purposefully a bit vague about what exactly a business model looked like. For the last two decades there was no standard definition.  That is until Alexander Osterwalder wrote Business Model Generation.

This book was a real breakthrough. Now we understood that the strategy for startups was to first search for a business model and then after you found it, put together an operating plan.

Now we had a definition of what it was startups were searching for. So business model design + customer and agile development is the process that startups use to search for a business model.

And the organization to implement all this was not through traditional sales, marketing and business development groups on day one. Instead the founders need to lead a customer development team.

And then to get things organized Bob Dorf and I wrote a book, The Startup Owners Manual that put all these pieces together.

But then I realized rather than just writing about it, or lecturing on Customer Development, we should have a hands-on experiential class. So my book and Berkeley class turned into the Lean LaunchPad class in the Stanford Engineering school, co-taught with two VC’s – Jon Feiber and Ann Miura-Ko. And we provided dedicated mentors for each team.

Then in the fall of 2011, the National Science Foundation read my blog posts on the Stanford version of the Lean LaunchPad class.  They said scientists had already made a career out of hypotheses testing, and the Lean LaunchPad was simply a scientific method for entrepreneurship. They asked if I could adapt the class to teach scientists who want to commercialize their basic research. I modified the class and recruited another great group of VC’s and entrepreneurs – Jim Hornthal, John Burke, Jerry Engel,Bhavik Joshi and Oren Jacob – to teach with me.

We taught the first two classes of 25 teams each, and then in March of 2012 trained faculty from Georgia Tech and the University of Michigan how to teach the class at their universities. Georgia Tech and the University of Michigan faculty then taught 54 teams each in July of this year and will teach another 54 teams in October.

We then added four more schools – Columbia, Caltech, Princeton and Hosei – where our team taught the Lean LaunchPad. We also developed a 5-day version of the class to complement the full semester and quarter versions.

Then last month we partnered with NCIIA and taught 62 college and university educators in our first Lean LaunchPad Educators Program.

And now we’ve spent weeks in the Udacity studio putting the lecture portion of the Lean LaunchPad class online.

Sign up and find out how to start a company!

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Entrepreneurship is hard but you can’t die

We Sleep Peaceably In Our Beds At Night Only Because Rough Men Stand Ready To Do Violence On Our Behalf

Everyone has events that shape the rest of their lives.  This was one of mine.

——-

I’ve never been shot at. Much braver men I once worked with faced that every day. But for a year and a half I saw weapons of war take off every day with bombs hanging under the wings. It never really hit home until the day I realized some of the planes didn’t come back.

Life in a War Zone
In the early 1970’s the U.S. was fully engaged in the war in Vietnam. Most of the fighter planes used to support the war were based in Thailand, or from aircraft carriers (or for some B-52 bombers, in Guam.)  I was 19, in the middle of a hot war learning how to repair electronics as fast as I could. It was everything life could throw at you at one time with minimum direction and almost no rules.

It would be decades before I would realize I had an unfair advantage. I had grown up in home where I learned how to live in chaos and bring some order to my small corner of it. For me a war zone was the first time all those skills of shutting out everything except what was important for survival came in handy. But the temptations in Thailand for a teenager were overwhelming: cheap sex, cheap drugs (a pound of Thai marijuana for twenty dollars, heroin from the Golden Triangle that was so pure it was smoked, alcohol cheaper than soda.) I saw friends partying with substances in quantities that left some of them pretty badly damaged. At a relatively young age I learned the price of indulgence and the value of moderation.

What a great job
But I was really happy. What a great job – you work hard, party hard, get more responsibility and every once in awhile get to climb into fighter plane cockpits and turn them on. What could be better?

Near the beginning of the year when I was at an airbase called Korat, a new type of attack aircraft showed up – the A-7D Corsair. It was a single seat plane with modern electronics (I used to love to play with the Head Up Display.) And it was painted with a shark’s mouth. This plane joined the F-4’s and F-105 Wild Weasels (who went head-to-head with surface-to-air missiles,) and EB-66’s reconnaissance aircraft all on a very crowded fighter base.  While the electronics shop I worked in repaired electronic warfare equipment for all the fighter planes, I had just been assigned to 354th Fighter Wing so I took an interest in these relatively small A-7D Corsair’s (which had originally been designed for the Navy.)

He’s Not Coming Back
One fine May day, on one of my infrequent trips to the flight line (I usually had to be dragged since it was really hot outside the air-conditioned shop), I noticed a few crew chiefs huddled around an empty aircraft spot next to the plane I was working on. Typically there would have been another of the A-7’s parked there. I didn’t think much of it as I was crawling over our plane trying to help troubleshoot some busted wiring. But I started noticing more and more vans stop by with other pilots and other technicians– some to talk to the crew chief, others just to stop and stare at the empty spot where a plane should have been parked. I hung back until one of my fellow techs said, “Lets go find out what the party is about.”

We walked over and quickly found out it wasn’t a party – it was more like a funeral.  The A-7 had been shot down over Cambodia.  And as we found out later, the pilot wasn’t ever coming home.

An empty place on the flight line
While we were living the good life in Thailand, the Army and Marines were pounding the jungle every day in Vietnam. Some of them saw death up close. 58,000 didn’t come back – their average age was 22.

Everyone shook their heads about how sad. I heard later from “old-timers” who had come back for multiple tours “Oh, this is nothing you should have been here in…” and they’d insert whatever year they had been around when some days multiple planes failed to return. During the Vietnam War ~9,000 aircraft and helicopters were destroyed. Thousands of pilots and crews were killed.

It’s Not a Game
I still remember that exact moment – standing in the bright sun where a plane should be, with the ever present smell of jet fuel, hearing the engines of various planes taxing and taking off with the roar and then distant rumble of full afterburners – when all of a sudden all the noise and smells seemed to stop – like someone had suddenly turned off a switch. And there I had a flash of realization and woke up to where I was. I suddenly and clearly understood this wasn’t a game. This wasn’t just a big party. We were engaged in killing other people and they were equally intent on killing us. I turned and looked at the pilots with a growing sense of awe and fear and realized what their job – and ours – was.

That day I began to think about the nature of war, the doctrine of just war, risk, and the value of National Service.

Epilogue
Captain Jeremiah Costello and his A-7D was the last attack aircraft shot down in the Vietnam War.

Less then ninety days later the air war over Southeast Asia ended.

For the rest of my career when things got tough in a startup (being yelled at, working until I dropped, running out of money, being on both ends of stupid decisions, pushing people to their limits, etc.), I would vividly remember seeing that empty spot on the flightline. It put everything in perspective.

Entrepreneurship is hard but you can’t die.
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Vision versus Hallucination – Founders and Pivots

A founder’s skill is knowing how to recognize new patterns and to pivot on a dime. At times the pattern is noise, and the vision turns out to be a hallucination. Knowing how to sort between vision and  hallucination can avoid chaos inside your startup.

———

Yuri, one of my ex students started a big-data analytics company last year. He turned his PhD thesis into a killer product, got it funded and now was CEO of a company of 30. It was great to watch him embrace the spirit and practice of customer development. He was constantly in front of customers, listening, selling, installing and learning.

And that’s where the problem was.

I got to spend time inside his company while I was using their software to analyze early-stage ventures. What I saw reminded me of some of the best and worst things I did as a founder.

A Pivot a Week
It seemed like once a week Yuri would come back from a customer meeting brimming with new insights. “We’re building the wrong product!” he’d declare. “We got to pivot now.” Tossing their agile development process and at times their entire business model in the air, the company would go into fire-drill mode and engineering would start working on whatever his latest insight was.

Other weeks Yuri would be buffeted by the realities of his burn rate, declining bank account and depressing comments from customers. This time he’d be back in the building declaring “We’re going to be out of business in 3 months if we don’t get our act together.”  I even heard him say to a customer, “If we don’t get your order we’ll just have to close up in 90 days.”

As a consequence everyone was afraid to make a decision because they couldn’t guess what Yuri wanted to do that week. Some of the engineers figuring if the founder was declaring they were toast in 90 days were updating their resumes. The company already was gaining a reputation as one without a coherent strategy.

I cringed when I saw this – it sounded like me early in my career. I would come back from customer visits convinced that what I just learned was the “real” solution to the company’s future and havoc would reign.

Unfortunately for Yuri’s company, while there were three other founders, Yuri was the CEO and none of them had the stature to tell him that his “insights” were damaging his company.

So when we had a few minutes alone I offered Yuri that he was misusing the word “pivot” and confusing it with “whatever I feel like at the moment.” I said, “You got to realize you’re not just a smart engineer anymore; 30 people are dropping everything they’re doing when you make these pronouncements.”

Pivot as an excuse
I wasn’t surprised when he pushed back, “I’m just getting out of the building and listening to customers. All I’m doing is pivoting based on their feedback.”  By now I’ve heard this more times than I liked. “Yuri, one of the things that you make you a great founder is that you have insight others don’t. But like all great founders some of these insights are simply hallucinations. The problem is you and other founders want immediate action every time you have a new idea.”

“That’s a mistake.”

“A pivot is a substantive change to one or more of components to your business model. You’re using “Pivot” as an excuse to skip the hard stuff – keeping focused on your initial vision and business model and integrating what you’ve heard if and only if you think it’s a substantive improvement to your current business model. There is no possible way you can garner enough information to pivot based on one customers feedback or even 20. You need to make sure it’s a better direction than the one you are already heading in.”

Sit on it for awhile
I said, “Sit on your great insights for 72 hours and see if they still seem good after reflection. Better, during that time brainstorm them with someone you trust.  If not your co-founders, someone outside the company.”

I offered that at Epiphany, my partner Ben’s office was the first place I would go when I thought I had new “insights.” And we’d run them to the ground for days before we’d even let anyone else know. Most of the time after a few days of thought, these insights were really not much better than the current course the company was on. Or by then other customers would tell us something quite different. And the rule was we weren’t changing anything about the product architecture until Ben and I agreed. Which required Ben hearing from the same customers I did.

Change Value Proposition Last
Second, that he needed to recognize that changing the value proposition – the features of the products/services he was offering – was a lot more traumatic for a startup than changing other parts of the business model.

He should make sure that there aren’t other parts of the business model (revenue model, pricing, partners, channel, etc.) that couldn’t change before he declares “we’re building the wrong product.”

In searching for product/market fit (the right match between value proposition and customer segment) the product should be the last part you think of changing – not the first – as the cost of upending your product development organization is high.

And to make sure everyone knew what he was doing, he might want to consider letting the entire company know “don’t worry when I’m talking about changing our business model every week – it’s a natural part of searching – only worry if I ask you to change the value proposition every month.”

Find a Brainstorm Buddy
Finally, I suggested that he find someone he respects on his advisory board, who he was comfortable brainstorming with and would tell him when he has a bad idea.

Yuri sat quietly for awhile. I wasn’t sure he had heard a thing I said, until he said “Wait 72 hours? I can do that.  Now can I call you when I have a hot new idea?

Lessons Learned

  • Founders are great at seeing things others don’t – at times it’s a vision, most often it’s a hallucination
  • Founders want immediate action – often they call it a pivot
  • A Pivot should not be an excuse for a lack of a coherent strategy or a lack of impulse control
  • Disconnect your insights from your mouth for 72-hours
  • If you can unilaterally overrule your co-founders there are no brakes on you
  • Your board members are not your brainstorm buddies-find others you trust

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The Lean LaunchPad Class Online

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

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

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

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

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

They demanded we change ours.

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

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

Response Letter to Bill Gates

Dear Bill,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steve Blank

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

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

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

At times not losing is as important as winning

At times not losing is as important as winning.

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

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

After a demo she agreed it would.

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

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

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

Not quite.

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

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

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

Wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons Learned

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

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