The Leading Cause of Startup Death – Part 1: The Product Development Diagram

When I started working in Silicon Valley, every company bringing a new product to market used some form of the Product Development Model.  Thirty years later we now realize that its one the causes of early startup failure. This series of posts is a brief explanation of how we’ve evolved from Product Development to Customer Development to the Lean Startup.

The Product Development Diagram
Emerging early in the twentieth century, this product-centric model described a process that evolved in manufacturing industries. It was adopted by the consumer packaged goods industry in the 1950s and spread to the technology business in the last quarter of the twentieth century. It has become an integral part of startup culture.

At first glance, the diagram, which illustrates the process of getting a new product into the hands of waiting customers, appears helpful and benign.  Ironically, the model is a good fit when launching a new product into an existing, well-defined market where the basis of competition is understood, and its customers are known.

The irony is that few startups fit these criteria. (None of mine did.)  We had no clue what our market was when we first started. Yet we used the product development model not only to manage product development, but as a road map for finding customers and to time our marketing launch and sales revenue plan. The model became a catchall tool for all schedules, plans, and budgets. Our investors used the product development diagram in our board meeting to see if we were “on plan” and “on schedule.” Everyone was using a road map that was designed for a very different location, yet they are surprised when they end up lost.

Product Development Diagram

Product Development Diagram

To see what’s wrong with using the product development model as a guide to building a startup, let’s first examine how the model is currently used to launch a new product. We’ll look at the model stage-by-stage.

Concept and Seed Stage
In the Concept and Seed Stage, founders capture their passion and vision for the new company and turn them into a set of key ideas, which quickly becomes a business plan, sometimes on the back of the proverbial napkin. The first thing captured and wrestled to paper is the company’s vision.

Then the product needs to be defined: What is the product or service concept? What are the features and benefits? Is it possible to build? Is further technical research needed to ensure that the product can be built?

Next, who will the customers be and where will they be found? Statistical and market research data plus potential customer interviews determine whether the ideas have merit.

After that there’s a discussion of how the product will reach the customer and the potential distribution channel. The distribution discussion leads to some conclusions about competition: who are they and how they differ. The startup develops its first positioning statement and uses this to explain the company and its benefits to venture capitalists.

The distribution discussion also leads to some assumptions about pricing. Combined with product costs, an engineering budget, and schedules, this results in a spreadsheet that faintly resembles the first financial plan in the company’s business plan. If the startup is to be backed by venture capitalists, the financial model has to be alluring as well as believable. If it’s a new division inside a larger company, forecasts talk about return on investment.  in this concept and seed stage, creative writing, passion, and shoe leather combine  in hopes of convincing an investor to fund the company or the new division.

Product Development
In stage two, product development, everyone stops talking and starts working. The respective departments go to their virtual corners as the company begins to specialize by functions.

Engineering focuses on building the product; it designs the product, specifies the first release and hires a staff to build the product. It takes the simple box labeled “product development” and makes detailed critical path method charts, with key milestones. With that information in hand, Engineering estimates delivery dates and development costs.

Meanwhile, Marketing refines the size of the market defined in the business plan (a market is a set of companies with common attributes), and begins to target the first customers. In a well-organized startup (one with a fondness for process),  the marketing folk might even run a focus group or two on the market they think they are in and prepare a Marketing Requirements Document (MRD) for Engineering. Marketing starts to build a sales demo, writes sales materials (presentations, data sheets), and hires a PR agency. In this stage, or by alpha test, the company traditionally hires a VP of Sales who begins to assemble a sales force.

Alpha/Beta Test
In stage three, alpha/beta test, Engineering works with a small group of outside users to make sure that the product works as specified and tests it for bugs. Marketing develops a complete marketing communications plan, provides Sales with a full complement of support material, and starts the public relations bandwagon rolling. The PR agency polishes the positioning and starts contacting the long lead-time press while Marketing starts the branding activities.

Sales signs up the first beta customers (who volunteer to pay for the privilege of testing a new product), begins to build the selected distribution channel, and staffs and scales the sales organization outside the headquarters. The venture investors start measuring progress by number of orders in place by first customer ship.

Hopefully, somewhere around this point the investors are happy with the company’s product and its progress with customers, and the investors are thinking of bringing in more money. The CEO refines his or her fund-raising pitch and hits the street and the phone searching for additional capital.

Product Launch and First Customer Ship
Product launch and first customer ship is the final step in this model, and the goal the company has been driving for. With the product working (sort of), the company goes into “big bang” spending mode. Sales is heavily building and staffing a national sales organization; the sales channel has quotas and sales goals. Marketing is at its peak. The company has a large press event, and Marketing launches a series of programs to create end-user demand (trade shows, seminars, advertising, email, and so on). The board begins measuring the company’s performance on sales execution against its business plan (which typically was written a year or more earlier, when the entrepreneur was looking for initial investments).

Building the sales channel and supporting the marketing can burn a lot of cash. Assuming no early liquidity (via an IPO or merger) for the company, more fund raising is required. The CEO looks at the product launch activities and the scale-up of the sales and marketing team, and yet again goes out, palm up, to the investor community. (In the dot-com bubble economy, the investors used an IPO at product launch to take the money and run, before there was a track record of success or failure.)

The Leading Cause of Startup Death
If you’ve ever been involved in a startup, the operational model no doubt sounds familiar. It is a product-centric and process-centric model used by countless startups to take their first product to market.  It used to be if you developed a plan on model that looked like this your investors would have thought you were geniuses.

In hindsight both you and your investors were idiots. Following this diagram religiously will more often than not put you out of business. The diagram was developed to be used by existing companies doing product line extensions – not startups creating new markets or resegmenting existing ones. Most experienced entrepreneurs will tell you that the model collapses at first contact with customers.

VC’s who still believe in the product development model in the 21st century offer no value in building a company other than their rolodex and/or checkbook.

Coming next Part 2: What’s Wrong with Product Development as a Model?

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The End of Innocence

I love TechCrunch. If you’re a startup raising money or just want to see your name online, there’s not a better blog on the web.  Reading this TechCrunch post made me remember the first time I saw someone confront a worldview they didn’t expect.

TechCrunch PRDiscovering that your worldview is wrong or mistaken can be a life-changing event. It’s part of growing up but can happen at any age. What you do when it happens shapes who you’ll become.

Dinner in a Strange Land
When I was in my mid 20’s working at ESL, I was sent overseas to a customer site where the customers were our three-letter intelligence agencies. All of us knew who they were, understood how important this site was for our country, and proud of the work we were doing. (Their national technical means of verification made the world a safer place and hastened the end of the Soviet Union and the Cold War.)

As a single guy, I got to live in a motel-like room on the site while the married guys lived in town in houses and tried to blend in with the locals. When asked what they did, they said they worked at “the xxx research facility.”  (Of course the locals translated that to “oh do you work for the yyy or zzz intelligence agency?”)

One warm summer evening I got invited over to the house of a married couple from my company for a BBQ and after-dinner entertainment – drinking mass quantities of the local beer. The quintessential California couple, they stood out in our crowd as the engineer (in his late 20’s, respected by his peers and the customer) had hair down to his shoulders, sharply contrasting with the military crewcuts of the customers and most of the other contractors.

His wife, about my age, could have been a poster child for the stereotypical California hippie surfer, with politics that matched her style – antiwar, anti government, antiestablishment.

One of the rules in the business was that you didn’t tell your spouse, girlfriend, significant other who you worked for or what you worked on – ever. It was always a welcome change of pace to leave the brown of the unchanging desert and travel into town and have dinner with them and have a non-technical conversation about books, theater, politics, travel, etc. But it was a bit incongruous to hear her get wound up and rail against our government and the very people we were all working for. Her husband would look at me out the corner of his eyes and then we’d segue the conversation to some other topic.

That evening I was there with three other couples cooking over the barbie in their backyard. After night fell we reconvened in their living room as we continued to go through the local beer. The conversation happened to hit on politics and culture and my friend’s’ wife innocently offered up she had lived in a commune in California. Well that created a bit of alcohol-fueled cross-cultural disconnect and heated discussion.

Until one of the other wives changed a few lives forever with a slip of the tongue.

Tell Me it Isn’t True
One of the other wives asked, “Well what would your friends in the commune think of you now that your husband is working for intelligence agencies x and y?”

As soon as the words came out of her mouth, I felt time slow down. The other couples laughed for about half a second expecting my friend’s wife to do so as well. But instead the look on her face went from puzzlement in processing the question, to concentration, as she was thinking and correlating past questions she had about who exactly her husband had been working for. It seemed like forever before she asked with a look of confusion, “What do you mean agencies x and y?”

The laughter in the room stopped way too soon, and the room got deathly quiet. Her face slowly went from a look of puzzlement to betrayal to horror as she realized that that the drunken silence, the dirty looks from other husbands to the wife who made the agency comment, and the wives now staring at their shoes was an answer.

She had married someone who never told her who he was really working for. She was living in a lie with people she hated. In less than a minute her entire worldview had shattered and coming apart in front of us, she started screaming.

This probably took no more than 10 seconds, but watching her face, it felt like hours.

I don’t remember how we all got out of the house or how I got back to the site, but to this day I still remember standing on her lawn staring at strange constellations in the night sky as she was screaming to her husband, “Tell me it isn’t true!”

The next day the site supervisor told me that my friend and his wife had been put on the next plane out of country and sent home (sedated) along with the other couple that made the comment. By the time I came back to the United States, he was gone from the company.

It’s been thirty years, but every once an awhile I still wonder what happened to the rest of their lives.

———-

The End of Innocence
In much smaller ways I’ve watched my children and now my students discover that their worldview is wrong, mistaken or naive. I’ve watched as they realize there’s no Santa Claus and Tooth Fairy; the world has injustice, hypocrisy and inequality; capitalism and politics don’t work like the textbooks and money moves the system; you can’t opt out of dying, and without regulation people will try to “game” whatever system you put in place.

Learning to accept the things you can’t change, finding the courage to change the things you can and acquiring the common sense to know the difference, is part of growing up.

While I love TechCrunch, the post and the quote about the PR agency (“one PR firm has discovered a dynamite strategy, throw ethics out the window”) left me wondering; how do PR agencies interact with TechCrunch and other blog and review sites? Is this behavior an outlier or is it the norm in the PR industry?

Or is it just someones end of innocence?

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Download the podcast here or here

Coffee With Startups

I’ve just met four great startups in the last three days.

An Existing Market
All four were trying to resegment an “Existing Market.” An existing market is one where competitors have a profitable business selling to customers who can name the market and can tell you about the features that matter to them. Resegmentation means these startups are trying to lure some of the current or potential customers away from incumbents by either offering a lower cost product, or by offering features that appealed to a specific niche or subset of the existing users.

Some of the conversations went like this:

Startup 1
Entrepreneur -“I’m competing against Company x and have been following the Customer Development process and I’ve talked to lots of customers.”
Me – “Have you used Company x’s product? Do you know have they distribute their product? Do you know how they create demand? Do you know how many units they are selling? Do you know the archetype of their customers?
Entrepreneur -“Well no but my product is much better than their product and I have this great idea….”

Rule 1: In an existing market Customer Development means not only understanding potential customers, but your competitors in detail – their product features, their sales channels, their demand creation strategy, their business model, etc.

Startup 2
Entrepreneur -“I’m competing against Company x and we are going to offer a lower-cost, web-based version. We’re about to ship next week.”
Me –“That’s a great hypothesis, do customers tell you that they’d buy your version if it was cheaper or on the web?
Entrepreneur -“Well no but my product is much cheaper and everyone’s on the web and I have this great idea….”

Rule 2: In an existing market Customer Development means understanding whether your hypothesis of why customers will buy match reality. This is easy to test. Do this before you write code you may end up throwing away.

Startup 3
Entrepreneur -“I’m competing against Large Company x and we solve problems for a set of customers – I’ve talked to many of them and they would buy it.”
Me – “So what’s the problem?”
Entrepreneur – “We just started letting early customers access the product and adoption/sales isn’t taking off the way we thought it would. We only have 20 customers, and Large Company x has millions.”
Me – “How are you positioning your product?”
Entrepreneur – “We tell potential customers about all our features.”

Rule 3: In an existing market directly compare your product against the incumbent and specifically describe the problems you solve and why Company x’s products do not.”

Startup 4
Entrepreneur -“I have something really, really new. No one has anything like it.”
Me – “Isn’t it kind of like Twitter but better?”
Entrepreneur – “You don’t get it.”

Rule 4: You may want to think twice positioning as a New Market. If customers immediately get an analogy for your product, don’t dissuade them. Save the “New Billion Dollar Market” positioning for the investors, not customers.

Lessons Learned

  • Deeply understand the incumbents that make up the Existing Market
  • The “hypotheses tested to lines of code written” ratio ought to be high
  • Position against the incumbents weaknesses – their customers will tell you what they are
  • Existing Markets adoption rates are measured in % market share gained, New Markets have adoption rates which may occur in your company’s lifetime

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Touching the Hot Stove – Experiential versus Theoretical Learning

I’m a slow learner.  It took me 8 startups and 21 years to get it right, (and one can argue success was due to the Internet bubble rather then any brilliance.)

In 1978 when I joined my first company, information about how to start companies simply didn’t exist. No internet, no blogs, no books on startups, no entrepreneurship departments in universities, etc.  It took lots of trial and error, learning by experience and resilience through multiple failures.

The first few months of my startups were centered around building the founding team, prototyping the product and raising money. Since I wasn’t an engineer, my contribution was around the team-building and fund raising.

I was an idiot.

Customer Development/Lean Startups
In hindsight startups and the venture capital community left out the most important first step any startup ought to be doing – hypothesis testing in front of customers- from day one.

I’m convinced that starting a company without talking to customers is like throwing your time and money in the street (unless you’re already a domain expert).

This mantra of talking to customers and iterating the product is the basis of the Lean Startup Methodology that Eric Ries has been evangelizing and I’ve been teaching at U.C. Berkeley and at Stanford. It’s what my textbook on Customer Development describes.

Experiential versus Theoretical Learning
After teaching this for a few years, I’ve discovered that subjects like Lean Startups and Customer Development are best learned experientially rather than solely theoretically.

Remember your parents saying, “Don’t touch the hot stove!”  What did you do?  I bet you weren’t confused about what hot meant after that. That’s why I make my students spend a lot of time “touching the hot stove” by talking to customers “outside the building” to test their hypotheses.

However, as hard as I emphasize this point to aspiring entrepreneurs every year I usually get a call or email from a past student asking me to introduce them to my favorite VC’s.  The first questions I ask is “So what did you learn from testing your hypothesis?” and “What did customers think of your prototype?”  These questions I know will be on top of the list that VC’s will ask.

At least 1/3 of the time the response I get is, “Oh that class stuff was real interesting, but we’re too busy building the prototype. I’m going to go do that Customer Development stuff after we raise money.”

Interestingly this response almost always comes from first time entrepreneurs.  Entrepreneurs who have a startup or two under their belt tend to rattle off preliminary customer findings and data that blow me away (not because I think their data is going to be right, but because it means they have built a process for learning and discovery from day one.)

Sigh.  Fundraising isn’t the product.  It’s not a substitute for customer input and understanding.

Sometimes you need a few more lessons touching the hot stove.

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He’s Only in Field Service

The most important early customers for your startup usually turn out to be quite different from who you think they’re going to be.

He’s Only in Field Service
When I was at Zilog, the Z8000 peripheral chips included the new “Serial Communications Controller” (SCC). As the (very junior) product marketing manager I got a call from our local salesman that someone at Apple wanted more technical information than just the spec sheets about our new (not yet shipping) chip. I vividly remember the sales guy saying, “It’s only some kid in field service. I’m too busy so why don’t you drive over there and talk to him.”  (My guess is that our salesman was busy trying to sell into the “official” projects of Apple, the Lisa and the Apple III.)

Zilog was also in Cupertino near Apple, and I remember driving to a small non-descript Apple building at the intersection of Stevens Creek and Sunnyvale/Saratoga. I had a pleasant meeting and was as convincing as a marketing type could be to a very earnest and quirky field service guy, mostly promising the moon for a versatile but then very buggy piece of silicon. We talked about some simple design rules and I remember him thanking me for coming, saying we were the only chip company who cared enough to call on him (little did he know.)

I thought nothing about the meeting until years later. Long gone from Zilog I saw the picture of the original Macintosh design team. The field service guy I had sold the chip to was Burrell Smith who had designed the Mac hardware.

The SCC had been designed into the Mac and became the hardware which drove all the serial communications as well as the AppleTalk network which allowed Macs to share printers and files.

Some sales guy who was too busy to take the meeting was probably retired in Maui on the commissions.

Your Customers are Not Who You Think
For years I thought this “million unit chip sale by accident” was a “one-off” funny story. That is until I saw that in startup after startup customers come from places you don’t plan on.

Unfortunately most startups learn this by going through the “Fire the first Sales VP” drill: You start your company with a list of potential customers reading like a “who’s who” of whatever vertical market you’re in (or the Fortune 1000 list.) Your board nods sagely at your target customer list.  A year goes by, you miss your revenue plan, and you’ve burned through your first VP of Sales.  What happened?

What happened was that you didn’t understand what “type of startup” you were and consequently you never had a chance to tailor your sales strategy to your “Market Type.” Most startups tend to think they are selling into an Existing market – a market exists and your company has a faster and better product. If that’s you, by all means hire a VP of Sales with a great rolodex and call on established mainstream companies – and ignore the rest of this post.

Market Type
But most startups aren’t in existing markets.  Some are resegmenting an existing market–directed at a niche that an incumbent isn’t satisfying (like Dell and Compaq when they were startups) or providing a low cost alternative to an existing supplier (like Southwest Airlines when it first started.) And other startups are in a New Market — creating a market from scratch (like Apple with the iPhone, or iPod/iTunes.)

(“Market Type” radically changes how you sell and market at each step in Customer Development. It’s one of the subtle distinctions that at times gets lost in the process. I cover this in the Four Steps to the Epiphany.)

market-type

Five Signs You Can Sell to a Large Company
If you’re resegmenting an existing market or creating a new market, the odds are low that your target list of market leaders will become your first customers. In fact having any large company buy from you will be difficult unless you know how to recognize the five signs you can get a large company to buy from a startup:

  • They have a problem
  • They know they have a problem
  • They’ve been actively looking for a solution
  • They tried to solve the problem with piece parts or other vendors
  • They have or can acquire a budget to pay for your solution

I advise startups to first go after the companies that aren’t the market leaders in their industries, but are fighting hard to get there. (They usually fit the checklist above.) Then find the early adopter/internal evangelist inside that company who wants to gain a competitive advantage. These companies will look at innovative startups to help them gain market share from the incumbent.

Sell to the Skunk Works
The other place for a startup to go is the nooks and crannies of a market leader.  Look for some “skunk works” project where the product developers are actively seeking alternatives to their own engineering organization.  In Apple’s case Burrell Smith was designing a computer in a skunk works unbeknownst to the rest of Apple’s engineering.  He was looking for a communications chip that could cut parts cost to build an innovative new type of computer – which turned out to be the Mac.

Lessons Learned

  • Early customers are usually not where you first think they are
  • Where they are depends on Market Type
  • Look for aggressive number 2’s or 3’s who are attacking a market leader
  • Look for a “skunk works” inside a market leader

Listen to the blog post here

Download the podcast here or here

an early version of this story appeared on folklore.org

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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Rocket Science 3: Hollywood Meets Silicon Valley

What do you mean you don’t want to hear about features?
I was now a CEO of Rocket Science, and having a great time building the company (more about that in future posts.) Unfortunately, while I had gone through phases of video game addiction in my life, in no way could I be described as even a “moderate hard-core gamer,” which ruled me out as a domain expert.  So I got out out of the building to meet and understand our customers and distribution partners. I remember after a month or two of talking to 14-22 year old male gamers (our potential target market,) I realized that for the first time in my career I had no emotional connection to my customers or channel partners.

I was about 90 days into the company when I began to realize there was something very different about this business. In previous companies I could talk about technology details and how the product features could solve a customers problem. But people didn’t buy video games on features and they weren’t looking to solve a problem.  I was in a very, very different business.

I was in the entertainment business.

There couldn’t have been a worse choice for CEO in Silicon Valley.

Alarm bell one should have started ringing – for me and my board.

Rocket Science logo

Hollywood Meets Silicon Valley was an Oxymoron
A key premise of our new company was that our video compression and authoring technology would revolutionize how games were made and played. We believed that by putting full motion video (i.e. movies) into video games we could tell stories, build characters, have narratives and bring all the 100 years of craft and cinematic experience of Hollywood to the sterile “shoot and die” twitch games that were currently in vogue.  (This wasn’t just some random Silicon Valley fantasy. My partner had convinced several major Hollywood names that this was the inevitable consequence of the merger of Hollywood and Silicon Valley.  And at the time it was a plausible scenario.)

But in reality our passionate belief that video would transform gaming was just our hypothesis. There was zero proof in the marketplace that was the case. And we weren’t going to be bothered to go out and prove ourselves wrong with facts.  (Why should we – our VC’s had already told us what geniuses we were by fighting to even get into the deal to fund us.  Never mind that no one on our board was in the game business or even played games.)

Alarm bell two should have started ringing – for me and my board.

Swing For the Fences
Since we were so smart we were going to ramp up and build not one game, but an entire game studio based on this hypothesis.  Why shouldn’t we.  Doing one game and seeing customer reaction meant a) acknowledging that some of our assumptions might be wrong, and 2) wasting time.  We were all about scale and swinging for the fences.  That’s what VC funded companies do, don’t they?

Alarm bell three should have started ringing – for my partner and me.

Tools Are the Not the Product
We were going to build an easy to use authoring system that would revolutionize how games were made. (My partner had convinced several of the key members of the Apple Quicktime team to join us.) Our tools group became as important as our content group. Unfortunately, the market was going to remind us that games are about game play.

Customers don’t care about your tools regardless of what business you’re in. Customers of software applications don’t say, “wow, elegant code base.” In movies theater-goers don’t leave talking about your cameras, just whether they were entertained, and in restaurants diners don’t care about your cooking implements, what matters is what the food tasted like.  The tools may provide efficiencies, but what customers care about is your final product. (Later on, way too late, we’d remind ourselves it’s the game stupid.)

Alarm bell four should have started ringing louder for me.

Lessons learned

  • Never, ever, start a company when you’re not passionate about the company, product and customers
  • Always validate your key assumptions on what makes your company tick
  • Swing for the fences is your VC’s strategy.  Make sure it is yours.
  • Don’t confuse your passion for your tools with why your customers will buy your product.
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