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 [audio http://traffic.libsyn.com/albedrio/steveblank_hplewis_073009_FULL.mp3]

Download the podcast here or here

an early version of this story appeared on folklore.org

Customer Development Fireside Chat

I did a fireside chat with a few entrepreneurs interested in Customer Development at Draper Fisher Jurvetson, the venture firm behind such Skype, Baidu, Overture, ….

Ravi Belani was nice enough to set it up, blog about the talk and film it.  The relevant part starts about 4:30 into the video (wait for it to download.)

Lessons Learned

  • Most entrepreneurs start a company with hypothesis not facts
  • None of these hypothesis can be tested in the building
  • Therefore – Get out of the building
  • “Market Types” matter
  • Find a market for the product as specified

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Convergent Technologies: War Story 1 – Selling with Sports Scores

When I was a young marketer I learned how to listen to customers by making a fool of myself.

Twenty eight years ago I was the bright, young, eager product marketing manager called out to the field to support sales by explaining the technical details of Convergent Technologies products to potential customers.

The OEM Business
Convergent’s business was selling desktop computers (with our own operating system and office applications) to other computer manufacturers – most of them long gone: Burroughs, Prime, Monroe Data Systems, ADP, Mohawk, Gould, NCR, 4-Phase, AT&T.  These companies would take our computers and put their name on them and resell them to their customers.

Business customers were starting to ask for “office automation solutions” – word processing, spreadsheets, graphing software on a desktop.  This was just before the IBM PC hit the desktop so there were no “standard” operating systems or applications for desktop platforms. Computer hardware companies were faced with their customers asking for low-cost (relatively) desktop computers they had no experience in building. Their engineering teams didn’t have the expertise using off-the-shelf microprocessors (back then “real” computer companies designed their own instruction sets and operating systems.) They couldn’t keep up with the fast product development times that were enabled by using standard microprocessors. So their management teams were insisting that they OEM (buy from someone else) these products.  Convergent Technologies was one of those OEM suppliers.

Their engineers hated us.

I was traveling with the regional sales manager who had called on these companies, gotten them interested and now needed someone from the factory to provide technical details and answer questions about how the product could be configured and customized.

See How Smart I Am
As the eager young marketer on my first sales call, as soon as we shook hands I was in front of the room pitching our product and technical features. I knew everything about our operating system, hardware and applications – and I was going to prove it.  I talked all about how great the new products were and went into excruciating detail on our hardware and operating system and explained why no one other than our company could build something so brilliantly designed. (This being presented to another company’s proud engineering team who was being forced to buy product from us because they couldn’t build their own in time.)  After I sat down I was convinced the only logical conclusion was for the customer to tell us how many they wanted to buy.

The result wasn’t what I expected. The customers didn’t act particularly excited about the product and how brilliantly I presented it. I do believe some actually rolled their eyes.  They looked at their watches, gave our sales guy a quizzical look and left.

After the meeting our sale rep took me aside and asked if “perhaps I wouldn’t mind watching him on the next call.“

Sports Scores
The next day, as I drove to our next meeting the sales guy was intently reading the sports section of the newspaper and as I glanced over he seemed to be writing down the scores.  I wondered if he had a bookie.  When we got to the meeting he reminded me to be quiet and follow his lead.

We shook hands with the customers, but instead of launching into a product pitch (or better, letting me launch into the pitch) he started asking how their families were.  He even remembered the names of their wives and kids and some details about schools or events. (I couldn’t believe it, here we were wasting precious time and the dumb sales guy is talking about other stuff.)

Just as I thought we were going to talk about the product, he then mentioned the previous nights football game. (Damn, another five minutes down the tube as the whole room chimed in with an opinion as we talked about something else unimportant.)

The Customer is a Genius
Then instead of talking about our products he segued the conversation into their products. He complemented their elegantly designed minicomputers and made some astute comment about their architecture (now I’m rolling my eyes, their computers were dinosaurs) and asked who were the brilliant designers.  I was surprised to see that they were in the room.  And soon the conversation were about architectural tradeoffs and then how customers didn’t appreciate the elegant designs and how the world was going to hell in a handbasket because of these commodity microprocessors.  And our sales guy was agreeing and commiserating.  (And I’m thinking why is he doing all this, just tell these idiots that the world has passed them by and they need to buy our stuff and lets get an order.)

The engineers spoke about all the pressure they were getting from management to build desktop personal computers rather than their traditional minicomputers. And that their management wanted these new systems on a schedule that was impossible to meet. Then our sales guy says something that makes me stop breathing for a while.  “I bet if your management team would give you guys the resources you guys could build desktop computers better than anyone, even better than us.”  There’s a unanimous agreement around the table about how great they were and how bad management was.

The Consultative Sale
Our sales guy then quietly asked if there was any way we could help them.  (Help them?!! We’re here to sell them our stuff, why can’t we just present what we got and they’ll buy it.)  The VP of Engineering says, “well we don’t have the resources or time, and as long as you know we could build better computers then you guys, why don’t you tell us the details about your computers.”

I had just watched a master of the consultative sale.

Engineers as Salesmen
I thought (and still do) that this sales guy walked on water. He had spent 12 years at DEC, first as a hardware engineer designing part of the PDP-16, then as the marketing manager for the LSI-11 and then into sales.

Making sales calls with him taught me what a world class salesperson was like.  It also made me understand what kind of support sales people needed from marketing and what marketing programs were wasted motion.

It also made me realize that there are times you don’t want any sales people in your company.

Startups and Sales
If you read this post you can come away with the impression that every startup with a direct salesforce needs a consultative sales team.  Not true.

The answer depends on your answer to two questions:

  1. which step in the Customer Development process are you on?
  2. what Market Type is your startup?

Customer Development and Selling Strategy
If you’ve just started your company you are in customer discovery.  If you’ve tried to slog your way through my book on Customer Development you know that I’m insistent that the founders need to be the ones getting outside the building (physically or virtually) to validate all the initial hypotheses of the business model and product.  If you hire a VP of Sales with the idea that they can do customer discovery you violated the first principle of Customer Development – this isn’t a step the can be outsourced to a non-founder.

Customer Development DiagramHiring a VP of Sales in customer discovery typically sets a startup back. It’s only after you’re done with customer discovery and are in the final steps of customer validation (building a repeatable and scalable sales process) that you start hiring a sales executive.

The next thing you need to do is match your sales team with your market type.

Market Type and Sales Teams
If you remember from a previous post, startups fall into four Types of Markets. You need to hire the right type of sales people for the type of market.

market-typeIf you are in a New Market, (delivering what Clayton Christensen calls disruptive innovation) the market doesn’t even have a name and customers have no clue on how your product works or how it could help them.  This market cries out for a sales force that can help educate and guide the market to making the right choices.  Your sales team is an extension of your marketing department.  The same is true if you are in an existing marketing and trying to sell to a niche or a segment of the market based on your knowledge of their particular needs.  Both New Markets and Resegmented Niche Markets required a skilled consultative sales force.

This is very different from the sales team you would hire to sell in an existing market or a cheaper product.

If you’re in an existing market and you have a superior product, by all means tout your features and specifications.  However, your product itself will be doing a lot of the selling.  If it is demonstrably better as you claim your marketing department needs to communicate that competitive advantage and your sales curve should look linear as you take share from the existing incumbents.

If you are resegmenting an existing market a product with a cheaper alternative, by all means tout your price.  Your marketing department should be all over this.  In both cases you really don’t need a skilled/consultative sales force.  A sales team with a great rolodex will do.

Sales by Market Type

Sales by Market Type

Lessons Learned

  • Get out of the building (physically or virtually)
  • Sales calls aren’t your IQ test or PhD defense
  • Stop talking and listen to the customers problem
  • Hire a sales team at the Customer Validation step
  • Match the sales team to market type

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Faith-Based versus Fact-Based Decision Making

I’ve screwed up a lot of startups on faith.

One of the key tenets of entrepreneurship is that you start your company with insufficient resources and knowledge.

Faith-based Entrepreneurship
At first, entrepreneurship is a Faith-based initiative.  There is no certainty about a startup on day-one.  You make several first order approximations about your business model, distribution channels, demand creation, and customer acceptance. You leave the comfort of your existing job, convince a few partners to join you and you jump off the bridge together.

At each startup I couldn’t wait to do this.  No building, no money, no customers, no market?  Great, sign me up.  We’ll build something from scratch.

You start a company on a vision; on a series of Faith-based hypotheses.

Fact-based Execution
However, successfully executing a startup requires the company to become Fact-based as soon as it can.

Think about all the assumptions you’ve made to get your business off the ground.  Who are the customers?  What problems do they have?  What are their most important problems?  How much would they pay to solve them?  What’s the best way to tell them about our product?…

Ad infinitum. These customer and market risks need to be translated into facts as soon as possible.

You can blindly continue to execute on faith that your hypothesis are correct.  You’ll ship your product and you’ll find out if you were wrong when you run out of money

Or you can quickly get out of the building and test whether your hypothesis were correct and turn them into facts.

In hindsight, when I was young, this where I went wrong.  It’s a lot more comfortable to hang on to your own beliefs than to get (or face) the facts.  Because at times facts may create cognitive dissonance with the beliefs that got you started and funded.

Customer Development
This strategy of starting on faith, and quickly turning them into facts is the core of the Customer Development process.


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Vertical Markets 3: Reducing Risk in Startups

This post makes sense when you read the previous two vertical markets posts first.

Reducing Risk – Simulation versus Customer Development
If you remember the first part of this discussion, startups face two types of risk; invention risk and/or customer/market risk.  In either type of startup you want to put in place processes in place to reduce risk.

Simulation to Reduce Invention Risk
If you’re in a vertical where “invention risk” is dominant, then you want to do everything you can to manage and reduce those risks. Simulation allows you to build test, fail, and iterate without actually building the physical device. (You can use static methods like Monte Carlo simulation, or dynamic methods using continuous or discrete simulation.) But however you do it, in companies with invention risk you want to simulate as much of process as possible, as early as possible. For some markets you can design a model of your product on a computer and conduct experiments with the computer model to understand whether it will work, long before you actually build it. For example, in the semiconductor business engineers spend enormous time, money and effort on simulation, the process of actually building the chip in software and running tests to see how well it will perform – well before they ever get to first silicon. And the holy grail of the biotech business is another simulation process called computer aided drug discovery, which someday might be used to streamline the drug discovery and development process. 

Customer Development to Reduce Risk
Conversely, if you’re in a startup where the greatest set of risks are about failing to find the right customers/markets you would look for processes to reduce those risks.  The Customer Development Process I teach and write about is designed to do just that.

Customer Development Diagram

The Customer Development Model

The Customer Development model says that when you start your company customer needs are unknown.  You may have a set of hypothesis about them but you really don’t know.  The Customer Development process puts you in continuous contact with customers to test your concept, fail, and iterate way before you actually ship the product. It allows you to systematically replace each business-critical hypothesis with facts.

(When I wrote the Four Steps to the Epiphany, the Customer Development text, I hadn’t yet thought about what vertical markets it might be appropriate for.)

Since my class was using the Customer Development text, I updated this diagram on to reflect in which markets the process was appropriate.  For example, I told my students doing life sciences projects it would be 5-10 years before they needed to worry about customers. However, for the Web 2.0 companies they needed to start the Customer Development process now.

Customer Development by Vertical - Click to Enlarge

Customer Development by Vertical - Click to Enlarge

(As a reminder, if you’ve slogged you way through the Customer Development textbook, you know the Customer Development process says your business plan is just a series of untested hypothesis (unless you’re a domain expert.)  So starting with the vision of your product, get out of the building, and see if you can find customers and a market for the product as specified. In contract to the linear execution via business plan, the Customer Development process is built on low-cost and continuous learning and iterating.)

Two Sides of the Same Coin
Simulation and Customer Development are simply two sides of the same coin.  They both have offer startups a path of getting it wrong often and early without go out of business.

The next Vertical Markets post will put all the pieces together.

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