Unintended Lessons

Last week I drove my daughter on an east coast college tour (1500 miles, 8 colleges in 6 days.) We started in North Carolina eating BBQ and enjoying the Southern culture, went through Washington D.C checking out the shopping in Georgetown, saw beautiful horse country in Pennsylvania and upstate NY and headed down into the bays and coves of Connecticut filled with sailboats.

We had some great conversations in the car, but one stuck in my mind. It was something I never thought about, and when I first heard it I thought it was a terrible thing to have taught her. She said, “Dad, one of the great things you and Mom did was never tell us how much things cost.”

Whoa, when I first heard her say that, I thought she meant that we raised a spoiled kid who had and an unlimited sense of entitlement. For a minute it was a pretty depressing thought for a parent. But on further questioning what came out was a bit more interesting and rewarding.

She said, “Dad what I meant was that growing up we loved when we traveled. And I remember staying in everything from little motels to big hotels and resorts, from National parks in Alaska to trips in India. And as kids we never had any idea which was cheap and which was expensive. Now that I’m older, I’m starting to know what things cost.  And I realize you guys never told us we had to enjoy something any more or less because of the priceIt made me realize that the goal is not to get the most expensive things, but to go and get what you enjoy.”

It was a lesson we never intended to consciously teach.

It made me wonder how many other lessons we taught without knowing.

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Let’s Fire Our Customers

As a board member, investor and consumer, I’ve encountered companies firing their customers.  While this sounds inexplicable to an outside observer, sometimes it makes sense.  Other times it’s just plain dumb.

Pattern Recognition
One of the great things about being an entrepreneur is that you are constantly running a pattern recognition algorithm against a continual collection of customer and market data.  For me this was one of the joys of entrepreneurship – constant learning and new insights.  But at times it’s why entrepreneurs can sink their own companies.

The Founder’s New Insight
Smart founders are never satisfied with simply executing their current business model, they are constantly observing, orienting and deciding whether their current business model can be made better. This tendency is a two edged sword: by iterating strategy a startup can dramatically improve the size and trajectory of the company, but at times this process can be the bane of venture investors (and why they have prematurely grey hair.) When a startup finds a repeatable sales process and steadily increasing revenue, its investors wants to harvest the rewards and build a culture of “execution.” However, if the founder is still running the company, the last thing he wants is a company complacent with day-to-day execution.

This disconnect – between a founder’s endorphin rush from learning, discovery, insight and acting – versus investors needs for stability, execution and liquidity – is the basis of lots of founder/board travails.  (More on this in later posts.)  But the purpose of this post is what happens when a founder (or large company CEO) finds a better business model.

Let’s Fire Our Customers
Part of the DNA of great entrepreneurs is a bias towards decisive and immediate action. However, when a startup gets past its early days and has acquired a substantial customer base, an insight about a better path, if executed and communicated poorly, can lead to disaster.

I’ve seen startup CEO’s realize that their company could be much more profitable if they only could get rid of some portion of their existing customers. (It’s a natural part of learning about your customers and business model.) But instead of spending the time to move these unprofitable customers politely to some other company, (hopefully a competitor) founders tend to want to do it immediately. “Get it done, now. These customers are idiots and I don’t want them anymore.” The founder has seen the future and wants to get there immediately. And while technically correct, and eventually the company ought to fire unprofitable customers, the result when done by impatient founders is most often less than optimal.

While it is “just business,” many customers form emotional bonds sometimes with products, other times with the company itself. In fact, if you’re doing your job right as a startup, you’re encouraging customers to be passionate about your company and products. When you abruptly break that connection you can quickly generate hordes of hurt, disappointed and now disgruntled customers, who feel jilted and badmouth the company to other potential or existing customers.

If you’ve had taken the time to fire them politely with a bit more panache and patience, they’re likely to break less furniture as they leave. Entrepreneurs overlook that the customers you fire badly are ones who will do damage to your company for a long, long time (even if the impact of their departure is an increase in profitability.)

The problem isn’t about a founder’s instinct to make a strategic shift.  It’s the “do it now” impatience and minimal communication once you have a sizeable customer base. Startups with a customer base need to maintain an ongoing dialog with their customers – not make a set of announcements when the founder thinks it’s time for something new.

This is why entrepreneurship is an art. When you have a critical mass of customers, there’s a fine line between sticking with the status quo too long and changing too abruptly.

You’ve Been an Idiot For Sticking With Us
This behavior is not just limited to startups.  I’ve watched new CEO’s brought into large existing consumer products companies to turn around a failing strategy. Their new strategy included a complete revamp and simplification of the product line. Yet instead of making their existing customers feel like partners in the turnaround, these smart CEO’s publicly announce that the current product line is obsolete.  (“Can’t you see we’re busy reinventing the company?”)

Ok, that’s a great strategy inside the boardroom, but what are you doing to transition your customers to your new strategy?  Nothing? No trade-up program?  No discount for existing users?  No tools to transition your customers data to the new and improved but incompatible product(s)? Congratulations, you’ve just fired your existing customer base. Instead of having loyal customers willing to work with you, you’ve told them, “You own a product we no longer care about. You’ve been an idiot for sticking with us.” The company now needs to acquire new customers rather than upgrade it’s existing ones. (Usually about 10x more expensive.)

(eBay’s shift from a full range auction site to selling used and off-season goods is an example. Microsoft forcing users of Windows XP to have to format their disks to upgrade to Windows 7 seems to fit this pattern as well.)

The fact that this strategy seems to play out often seems to be symptomatic of turnaround CEO’s transferring their impatience and disdain for the company’s old strategy and products onto that of their loyal customers.

Customers who have been told they were idiots for being loyal tend to leave sadly and with regret.  And they rarely come back.

Lessons Learned

  • The art of firing customers is as important as the art of acquiring them
  • Don’t confuse your impatience with getting to the new strategy with the damage badly fired customers can do.
  • New strategic direction in companies with loyal customers have different consequences then when you had no customers
  • Acquiring new customers are a lot more expensive that converting existing ones.

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Customer Development Manifesto: The Path of Warriors and Winners (part 5)

The first four posts of the Customer Development Manifesto described the failures of the Product Development model. This post describes a solution – the Customer Development Model. In future posts I’ll describe how Eric Ries and the Lean Startup concept provide the equivalent model for product development activities inside the building and neatly integrates customer and agile development.

Most startups lack a process for discovering their markets, locating their first customers, validating their assumptions, and growing their business. A few successful ones do all these things. The difference is that the ones that succeed invent a Customer Development model. This post describes such a model.

The Customer Development Model
Customer Development is designed to solve the problems of the Product Development model I described in the four previous posts.  Its strength is its rigor and flexibility. The Customer Development model delineates all the customer-related activities in the early stage of a company into their own processes and groups them into four easy-to-understand steps: Customer Discovery, Customer Validation, Customer Creation, and Company Building. These steps mesh seamlessly and support a startup’s ongoing product development activities. Each step results in specific deliverables.

The Customer Development model is not a replacement for the Product Development model, but rather a companion to it.  As its name should communicate, the Customer Development model focuses on developing customers for the product or service your startup is building.

The Customer Development Model

The Customer Development Model

Four Steps
While startups are inherently chaotic (and will never be run from a spreadsheet or checklist inside your building,) the Four Steps of Customer Development are designed to help entrepreneurs leverage the chaos and turn it into actionable data;

  • Customer Discovery focuses on testing hypotheses and understanding customer problems and needs – in front of customers – by the founders
  • Customer Validation is where you develop a sales model that can be replicated and scaled
  • Customer Creation is creating and driving end user demand to scale sales
  • Company Building transitions the organization from one designed for learning and discovery to a well-oiled machine engineered for execution.

Market Type
Integral to the Customer Development model is the notion that Market Type choices affect the way the company will deploy its sales, marketing and financial resources. Market Type changes how you evaluate customer needs, customer adoption rate, how the customer understands his needs and how you should position the product to the customer, etc. As a result different market types modify what you do in in each step of Customer Development.

Customer Development is Iterative
Learning and discovery versus linear execution is a major difference between this model and the traditional product development model. While the product development model is linear in one direction, the customer development model is a circular track with recursive arrows.The circles and arrows highlight the fact that each step in Customer Development is iterative. That’s a polite way of saying, “Unlike product development, finding the right customers and market is unpredictable, and we will screw it up several times before we get it right.” (Only in business school case studies does progress with customers happen in a nice linear fashion.) The nature of finding a market and customers guarantees that you will get it wrong several times.

The Customer Development model assumes that it will take several iterations of each of the four steps until you get it right. It’s worth pondering this point for a moment because this philosophy of “It’s OK to screw it up if you plan to learn from it”  is the heart of the methodology.

The Facts Reside Outside Your Building
Customer Development starts by testing your hypotheses outside the building. Not in planning meetings, not in writing multiple pages of nicely formatted Marketing Requirements Documents, but by getting laughed at, ignored, thrown out and educated by potential customers as you listen to their needs and test the fundamental hypotheses of your business.

Failure Is an Option
Notice that the circle labeled Customer Validation in the diagram has an additional iterative loop going back to Customer Discovery. As you’ll see later, Customer Validation is a key checkpoint in understanding whether you have a product that customers want to buy and a road map of how to sell it. If you can’t find enough paying customers in the Customer Validation step, the model returns you to Customer Discovery to rediscover what you failed to hear or understand the first time through the loop.

Customer Development is Low Burn by Design
The Customer Development process keeps a startup at a low cash burn rate until the company has validated its business model by finding paying customers. In the first two steps of Customer Development, even an infinite amount of cash is useless because it can only obscure whether you have found a market. (Having raised lots of money tempts you to give products away, steeply discount to buy early business, etc., all while saying “we’ll make it up later.”  It rarely happens that way.) Since the Customer Development model assumes that most startups cycle through these first two steps at least twice, it allows a well-managed company to carefully estimate and frugally husband its cash. The company doesn’t build its non-product development teams (sales, marketing, business development) until it has proof in hand (a tested sales road map and valid purchase orders) that it has a business worth building. Once that proof is obtained, the company can go through the last two steps of Customer Creation and Company Building to capitalize on the opportunity it has found and validated.

Customer Development is For Winners and Warriors
The interesting thing about the Customer Development model is that the process represents the best practices of winning startups. Describe this model to entrepreneurs who have taken their companies all the way to a large profitable business, and you’ll get heads nodding in recognition. It’s just that until now, no one has ever explicitly mapped their journey to success.

Even more surprising, while the Customer Development model may sound like a new idea for entrepreneurs, it shares many features with a U.S. war fighting strategy known as the “OODA Loop” articulated by John Boyd and adopted by the U.S. armed forces in both Gulf Wars – and by others.

The next post provides more details about each of the four steps in the Customer Development model.

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Can You Trust Any VC’s Under 40?

Over the last 30 years Wall Street’s appetite for technology stocks have changed radically – swinging between unbridled enthusiasm to believing they’re all toxic. Over the same 30 years, Venture Capital firms have honed their skills and strategies to match Wall Streets needs to achieve liquidity for their portfolio companies.

You have to wonder: does the VC you have on your board today have the right skill set to help you succeed in today’s economic environment?

What Do VC’s Do?
One of the biggest mistakes entrepreneurs make is misunderstanding the role of venture capital investors. There’s lots of lore, emotion, and misconceptions of what VC’s do or don’t do for entrepreneurs. The reality is that VC’s have one goal – to maximize the amount of money they return to their investors. To do this they have to accomplish five things;

1) get deal flow – via networking and legwork, they identify likely industries, companies and teams with the potential for rapid growth (less than 10 years),

2) evaluate those companies and teams on the basis of technology, market opportunity, and team.  (Each VC firm/partner has a different spin on what to weigh more.)

3) invest in and take equity stakes in exchange for capital.

4) help nurture and grow the companies they invest in.

5) liquidate their investment in each company at the highest possible price.

Going Public
VC’s make money by selling their share of your company to some other buyer – hopefully at a large multiple over what they originally paid for it. From 1979 when pensions funds began fueling the expansion of venture capital, the way VC’s sold their portion of your company was to help you take your company “public.” Your firm worked with an investment banking firm that underwrote and offered stock (typically on the NASDAQ exchange) to the public. At this Initial Public Offering your company raised money for its use in expanding the business.

In theory when you went public, everyone’s shares were now tradable on the stock exchange, but usually the underwriters required a six month “lockup” when company insiders (employees and investors) couldn’t sell. After the end of the lockup, venture firms sold off their stock in an orderly fashion, and entrepreneurs sold theirs and bought new cars and houses.

Five Quarters of Profitability
During the 1980’s and through the mid 1990’s startups going public had to do something that most companies today never heard of – they had to show a track record of increasing revenue and consistent profitability. Underwriters who would offer the stock to the public typically asked for a young company to show five consecutive quarters of profits. There was no law that said that a company had to, but most underwriters wouldn’t take a company public without it. (On top of all this it was considered very bad form not to have at least four additional consecutive quarters of profits after an IPO.)  While there was an occasional bad apple, the public markets rewarded companies with revenue growth and sustainable profits.

What this meant for entrepreneurs and VC’s was simple, profound and unappreciated today: VC’s worked with entrepreneurs to build profitable and scalable businesses. In this time, building a successful business meant building a company that had paying customers quarter after quarter. It did not mean building a startup into a company to flip or hype on the market with no earnings or revenue, but building a company that had paying customers.

Your Venture Capitalists on your board brought your firm their expertise to build long-term sustainable companies. They taught you about customers, markets and profits.

The world of building profitable startups as the primary goal of Venture Capital would end in 1995.

The IPO Bubble – August 1995 – March 2000
In August 1995 Netscape went public, and the world of start ups turned upside down. On its first day of trading, Netscape stock closed at $58/share, valuing the company at $2.7 billion for a company with less than $50 million in sales. (Yahoo would hit $104/share in March 2000 with a market cap of $104 billion.) There was now a public market for companies with no revenue, no profit and big claims. Underwriters realized that as long as the public was happy snapping up shares, they could make huge profits on the inflated valuations (regardless of whether or not the company should have ever been public.)

And some companies didn’t even have to go public to get liquid. Tech acquisitions went crazy at the same time the IPO market did. Large companies were acquiring technology startups just to get in the game at the same absurd prices.

What this meant for entrepreneurs and VC’s was simple– the gold rush to liquidity was on. The old rules of building companies with sustainable revenue and consistent profitability went out the window. VCs worked with entrepreneurs to brand, hype and take public unprofitable companies with grand promises of the future. The goals were “first mover advantage,” “grab market share” and “get big fast.” VCs or entrepreneurs who talked about building profitable businesses were told, “You just don’t get the new rules.” And to be honest, for four years, these were the new rules. Entrepreneurs and VCs made returns 10x, or even 100x larger than anything ever seen. (No value judgments here, VCs were doing what the market rewarded them for, and their investors expected – maximum returns.)

(And since Venture Capital looked like anyone could do it, the number of venture firms soared as fast as stock prices.)

Venture Capitalists on your board developed the expertise to get your firm public as soon as possible using whatever it took including hype, spin, expand, and grab market share because the sooner you got your billion dollar market cap, the sooner the VC firm could sell their shares and distribute their profits.

The boom in Internet startups would last 4½ years until it came crashing down to earth in March 2000.

The Rise of Mergers and Acquisitions -– March 2003 -2008
After the dot.com bubble collapsed, the IPO market (and most tech M&A deals) shutdown for technology companies. Venture investors spent the next three years doing triage, sorting through the rubble to find companies that weren’t bleeding cash and could actually be turned into businesses. With Wall Street leery of technology companies, tech IPOs were a receding memory, and mergers and acquisitions became the only path to liquidity for startups and their investors. For the next four or five years, technology M&A boomed, growing from 50 in 2003 to 450 in 2006.

What this meant for entrepreneurs and VCs was a bit more complex– the IPO market was all but closed (with the Google IPO in 2004 as a brilliant exception), but it was possible find a buyer for your company. The valuations for acquisitions were nothing like the Internet bubble, but there was a path to liquidity, difficult as it was. (Every startup wanted to believe they could get acquired like YouTube for $1.4 billion.) VCs worked with entrepreneurs to build their company with an eye out for a chance to flip it to an acquirer. The formula for exits was a variation of the formula they used in the Internet bubble, morphing into: brand, hype and sell the company.

In the Fall of 2008,  the credit crisis wiped out mergers and acquisitions as a path to liquidity as M&A collapsed with the rest of the market.

So what’s left?

2009 – Back to The Future
The bad news is that since the bubble most VC firms haven’t made a profit. It may just be that the message of building companies that have predictable revenue and profit models hasn’t percolated through the VC business model. (Perhaps in direct proportion to the number of “freemium” and “eyeballs” web deals funded.)

It may be that the venture business will have to return to the old days of helping entrepreneurs build companies – not hype them, not spin them, but actually make them worth something to customers and investors.

The question is: do VC’s still have what it takes to do so?

Next time you sit in a board meeting with your VCs, step back a bit from the moment and listen to their advice like you are hearing them for the first time. Are these VC’s who know how to build a company?  Is the advice they are giving you going to help you build a repeatable and scalable revenue model that’s profitable quarter after quarter?

Or were they trained and raised in the bubble and M&A hype and still looking for some shortcut to liquidity?

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Customer Development Manifesto: Market Type (part 4)

This series of posts of the “Customer Development Manifesto” describes how the failures of the Product Development model for sales and marketing led to the Customer Development Model. In future posts I’ll describe how Eric Ries and the Lean Startup concept provided the equivalent model for product development activities inside the building and neatly integrates customer and agile development.

13. Not All Startups Are Alike
There’s an urban legend that Eskimos-Aleuts have more words to describe snow than other cultures. While that’s not true, it is a fact that entrepreneurs only have one word for “startup.”  This post points out that the lack of adequate words to describe very different “types” of startups can lead not only to confusion in execution but also at times to disaster.

The product development model treats all startups like they are in an Existing Market – an established market with known customers. With that implicit assumption, startups hire a VP of Sales with a great rolodex and call on established mainstream companies while marketing creates a brand and buzz to create demand and drive it into the sales channel (web, direct salesforce, etc.)

Most startups following the Product Development Model never achieve their revenue plan and burn through a ton of cash not knowing what hit them.

They never understood Market Type.

Why does Market Type matter?
Depending on the type of market it enters, a startup can have very different rates of customer adoption and acceptance and their sales and marketing strategies would be dramatically different. Even more serious, startups can have radically different cash needs.  A startup in a New Market (enabling customers to do something they never could before,) might be unprofitable for 5 or more years, (hopefully with the traditional hockey stick revenue curve,) while one in an Existing Market might be generating cash in 12-18 months.

Handspring in a Existing Market
As an example, imagine it’s October 1999 and you are Donna Dubinsky the CEO of a feisty new startup, Handspring, entering the billion dollar Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) market.  Other companies in the 1999 PDA market were Palm, the original innovator, as well Microsoft and Hewlett Packard.  In October 1999 Donna told her VP of Sales, “In the next 12 months I want Handspring to win 10% of the Personal Digital Assistant market.”  The VP of Sales swallowed hard and turned to the VP of Marketing and said, “I need you to take end user demand away from our competitors and drive it into our sales channel.”  The VP of Marketing looked at all the other PDAs on the market and differentiated Handspring’s product by emphasizing its superior expandability and performance.  End result?  After twelve months Handspring’s revenue was $170 million.  This was possible because in 2000, Donna and Handspring were in an Existing Market.  Handspring’s customers understood what a Personal Digital Assistant was. Handspring did not have to educate them about the market. They just need to persuade customers why their new product was better than the competition – and they did it brilliantly.

Palm in a New Market
What makes this example really interesting is this: rewind the story 4 years earlier to 1996. Before Handspring, Donna and her team had founded Palm Computing, the pioneer in Personal Digital Assistants. Before Palm arrived on the scene, the Personal Digital Assistant market did not exist. (A few failed science experiments like Apple’s Newton had come and gone.) But imagine if Donna had turned to her VP of Sales at Palm in 1996 and said, “I want to get 10% of the Personal Digital Assistant market by the end of our first year.”  Her VP of Sales might had turned to the VP of Marketing and said, “I want you to drive end user demand from our competitors into our sales channel.” The VP of Marketing might have said, “Let’s tell everyone about how fast the Palm Personal Digital Assistant is and how much memory it has.”  If they had done this, there would have been zero dollars in sales.  In 1996 no potential customer had even heard of a Personal Digital Assistant.  Since no one knew what a PDA could do, there was no latent demand from end users, and emphasizing its technical features would have been irrelevant. What Palm needed to do first was to educate potential customers about what a PDA could do for them. In 1996 Palm was selling a product that allowed users to do something they couldn’t do before. In essence, Palm created a New Market. In contrast, in 2000 Handspring entered an Existing Market. (“Disruptive” and “sustaining” innovations, eloquently described by Clayton Christensen, are another way to describe new and existing Market Types.)

The lesson is that even with essentially identical products and team, Handspring would have failed if it had used the same sales and marketing strategy that Palm had used so successfully. And the converse is true; Palm would have failed, burning through all their cash, using Handspring’s strategy.  Market Type changes everything.

Market Type Changes Everything
Here’s the point. Market Type changes how you evaluate customer needs, customer adoption rate, how the customer understands his needs and how you should position the product to the customer. Market Type also affects the market size as well as how you launch the product into the market. As a result different market types require dramatically different sales and marketing strategies.

As a result, the standard product development model is not only useless, it is dangerous. It tells the finance, marketing and sales teams nothing about how to uniquely market and sell in each type of startup, nor how to predict the resources needed for success.


Next: Part 5 of the Customer Development Manifesto – why your goals and those of your venture investors may not be the same –  the last post on what’s broken in the Product Development Model.

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The Customer Development Manifesto: The Startup Death Spiral (part 3)

This post is part 3 of the “Customer Development Manifesto” series and makes more sense if you read part 1 and part 2.

This post describes how following the traditional product development can lead to a “startup death spiral.”  In the next posts that follow, I’ll describe how this model’s failures led to the Customer Development Model – offering a new way to approach startup sales and marketing activities. Finally, I’ll write about how Eric Ries and the Lean Startup concept provided the equivalent model for product development activities inside the building and neatly integrates customer and agile development.

12. The Startup Death Spiral: The Cost of Getting Product Launch Wrong
By the time of first customer ship, if a startup does not understand its market and customers, failure unfolds in a stylized ritual, almost like a Japanese Noh play.

Three to six months after first customer ship, if Sales starts missing its numbers, the board gets concerned. The VP of Sales comes to a board meeting, still optimistic, and provides a set of reasonable explanations – “our pipeline looks great, but orders will close next quarter” or “we’ve got lots of traffic to our site, we just need to work on conversion.” The board raises a collective eyebrow. The VP of Sales goes back and exhorts the troops to work harder.

To support sales, Marketing tries to “make up a better story,” and the web site and/or product presentation slides start changing (sometimes weekly or even daily). Morale in Sales and Marketing starts to plummet.

Meanwhile, if you have a direct sales force smart salespeople realize that the sales strategy and marketing materials the company headquarters provided don’t work. Each starts inventing and testing their own alternatives about how to sell and position the product. They try different customers, different customer contacts, different versions of the presentations, etc. Instead of a Sales team and organized to sell with a consistent and successful sales roadmap generating revenue, it is a disorganized and unhappy organization burning lots of cash.

You’re Just Not Selling it Right
By the next board meeting, the VP of Sales looks down at his shoes and shuffles his feet as he reports that the revenue numbers still aren’t meeting plan. Now the board collectively raises both eyebrows and looks quizzically at the CEO. The VP of Sales, forehead bathed in sweat, leaves the board meeting and has a few heated motivational sessions with the sales team.

Fire the First VP of Sales
By the next board meeting, if the sales numbers are still poor, the stench of death is in the air.  No one wants to sit next to the VP of Sales. Other company execs are moving their chairs to the other side of the room. Having failed to deliver the numbers, he’s history. Whether it takes three board meetings or a year is irrelevant; the VP of Sales in a startup who does not make the numbers is called an ex-VP of Sales.

Now the company is in crisis mode. Not only hasn’t the sales team delivered the sales numbers, but now the CEO is sweating because the company is continuing to burn cash at what now seems like an alarming rate. Why is it only alarming now? Because the company based its headcount and expenses on the expectation that the Sales organization will bring in revenue according to plan. The rest of the organization (product development, marketing, support) has been burning cash, all according to plan, expecting Sales to make its numbers. Without the revenue to match its expenses, the company is in now danger of running out of money.

Blame it On Marketing
In the next 3-6 months, a new VP of Sales is hired. She quickly comes to the conclusion that the company’s positioning and marketing strategy were incorrect. There isn’t a sales problem, the problem is that marketing just did not understand its customers and how to create demand or position the product.

Now the VP of Marketing starts sweating. Since the new VP of Sales was brought on board to “fix” sales, the marketing department has to react and interact with someone who believes that whatever was created earlier in the company was wrong. The new VP of Sales reviews the sales strategy and tactics that did not work and comes up with a new sales plan. She gets a brief honeymoon of a few months from the CEO and the board.

In the meantime, the original VP of Marketing tries to come up with a new positioning strategy to support the new Sales VP. Typically this results in conflict, if not outright internecine warfare. If the sales aren’t fixed in a short time, the next executive to be looking for a job will not be the new VP of Sales (she hasn’t been around long enough to get fired), it’s the VP of Marketing—the rationale being “We changed the VP of Sales, so that can’t be the problem. It must be Marketing’s fault.”

Time for an Experienced CEO
Sometimes all it takes is one or two iterations to find the right sales roadmap and marketing positioning that connects a startup with exuberant customers ready to buy. Unfortunately, more often than not, this is just the beginning of an executive death spiral. If changing the sales and marketing execs doesn’t put the company on the right sales trajectory, the investors start talking the “we need the right CEO for this phase” talk. This means the CEO is walking around with an unspoken corporate death sentence. Moreover, since the first CEO was likely to have been one of the founders, the trauma of CEO removal begins. Typically, founding CEOs hold on to the doorframe of their offices as the investors try to pry their fingers off the company. It’s painful to watch and occurs in a majority of startups with first-time CEOs after First Customer Ship.

In flush economic times the company may get two or three iterations to fix a failed launch and bad sales numbers. In tougher times investors are tighter with their wallets and make the “tossing good money after bad” calculations with a more frugal eye. A startup might simply not get a next round of funding and have to shut down.

Any of this sound familiar? Part 4 of the Customer Development Manifesto to follow.

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The Customer Development Manifesto: Reasons for the Revolution (part 2)

This post makes more sense if you read part 1 of the Customer Development Manifesto.

This post describes how the traditional product development model distorts startup sales, marketing and business development.  In the next few posts that follow, I’ll describe how thinking of a solution to this model’s failures led to the Customer Development Model – that offers a new way to approach startup sales and marketing activities. Finally, I’ll write about how Eric Ries and the Lean Startup concept provided the equivalent model for product development activities inside the building and neatly integrates customer and agile development.

8. The Lack of Meaningful Milestones for Sales, Marketing and Business Development
The one great thing about the product development methodology is that it provides an unambiguous structure with clearly defined milestones. The meaning of alpha test, beta test, and first customer ship are pretty obvious to most engineers. In contrast, sales and marketing activities before first customer ship are adhoc, fuzzy, and don’t have measurable, concrete objectives. They lack any way to stop and fix what’s broken (or even to know if it is broken.)

What kind of objectives would a startup want or need for sales and marketing? Most sales executives and marketers tend to focus on execution activities because at least these are measurable. For example, some startup sales execs believe hiring the core sales team is a key objective. Others focus on acquiring early “lighthouse” customers (prominent customers who will attract others.) Once the product begins to ship, startup sales execs use orders and revenue as its marker of progress in understanding customers. (Freemium models have their own scorekeeping.) Marketers believe creating a killer web presence, corporate presentation, are objectives. Some think that hiring a PR agency, starting the buzz and getting coverage in hot blogs or on  the cover of magazines at launch are objectives.

While these objectives provide an illusion of progress, in reality they do little to validate the business plan hypotheses about customers and what they will buy. They don’t help a startup move toward a deep understanding of customers and their problems, discovering a repeatable road map of how they buy, and building a financial model that results in profitability.

9. The Use of a Product Development Model to Measure Sales
Using the product development diagram for startup sales activities is like using a clock to tell the temperature. They both measure something, but not the thing you wanted.

Here’s what the product development diagram looks like from a sales perspective.


A VP of Sales looks at the diagram and says, “Hmm, if beta test is on this date, I’d better get a small sales team in place before that date to acquire my first ‘early customers.’ And if first customer ship is on this date over here, then I need to hire and staff a sales organization by then.” Why? “Well, because the revenue plan we promised the investors shows us generating customer revenue from the day of first customer ship.”

I hope this thinking already sounds inane to you. The plan calls for selling in volume the day Engineering is finished building the product. What plan says that? Why, the business plan, crafted with a set of hypotheses now using the product development model as a timeline for execution. This approach is not predicated on discovering the right market or learning whether any customers will actually shell out cash for your product. Instead you use product development to time your readiness to sell. This “ready or not, here we come” attitude means that you won’t know if the sales strategy and plan actually work until after first customer ship. What’s the consequence if your stab at a sales strategy is wrong? You’ve built a sales organization and company that’s burning cash before you know if you have demand for your product or a repeatable and scalable sales model. No wonder the half-life of a startup VP of Sales is about nine months post first customer ship.

“Build and they will come” is not a strategy, it’s a prayer.

10. The Use of a Product Development Model to Measure Marketing
The head of Marketing looks at the same product development diagram and sees something quite different.


For Marketing, first customer ship means feeding the sales pipeline with a constant stream of customer prospects. To create this demand at first customer ship, marketing activities start early in the product development process. While the product is being engineered, Marketing begins to create web sites, corporate presentations and sales materials. Implicit in these materials is the corporate and product “positioning.” Looking ahead to the product launch, the marketing group hires a public relations agency to refine the positioning and to begin generating early “buzz” about the company. The PR agency helps the company understand and influence key bloggers, social networks, industry analysts, luminaries, and references. All this leads up to a flurry of press events and interviews, all geared to the product/web site launch date. (During the Internet bubble, one more function of the marketing department was to “buy” customer loyalty with enormous advertising and promotion spending to create a brand.)

At first glance this process may look quite reasonable, until you realize all this marketing activity occurs before customers start buying—that is, before the company has had a chance to actually test the positioning, marketing strategy, or demand-creation activities in front of real customers. In fact, all the marketing plans are made in a virtual vacuum of real customer feedback and information. Of course, smart marketers have some early interaction with customers before the product ships, but if they do, it’s on their own initiative, not as part of a well-defined process. Most first-time marketers spend more of their time behind their desks inside the building then outside talking to potential customers.

This is somewhat amazing since in a startup no facts exist inside the building – only opinions.

Yet even if we get the marketing people out from behind their desks into the field, the deck is still stacked against their success. Look at the product development diagram. When does Marketing find out whether the positioning, buzz, and demand creation activities actually work? After first customer ship. The inexorable march to this date has no iterative loop that says, “If our assumptions are wrong, maybe we need to try something different.”

11. Premature Scaling
The Product Development model leads Sales and Marketing to believe that by first customer ship, come hell or high water, they need fully staffed organizations leads to another disaster: premature scaling.

Startup executives have three documents to guide their hiring and staffing; a business plan, a product development model and a revenue forecast.  All of these are execution documents – they direct the timing and hiring of spending as if all assumptions in the business plan are 100% correct. As mentioned earlier there are no milestones that alert a startup to stop or slow down hiring until you have proven until you understand you customers. Even the most experienced executives succumb to the inexorable pressure to hire and staff to “plan” regardless of the limited customer feedback they’ve collected to this point in Alpha and Beta test.

Premature scaling is the immediate cause of the startup Death Spiral.  More on this in the next post.


Part 3 of the Customer Development Manifesto to follow.

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