Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Markets, Customers and Angels' Risk Aversion

Famous entrepreneur and Stanford Technology Ventures Program lecturer,Steve Blank reports that business failure from technology failure (the business' technology encounters operational conditions under which it cannot perform as hoped) is about 10%. Business failure from misunderstood and miscalculated markets, market failure, is about 90%. Why?  I propose that the nature of the "entrepreneurial brain" has much to do with it.

Entrepreneurs by nature are innovators, problem solvers: they perceive a need (more convenience, more speed, less cost, whatever) and instinctively start seeking a solution, a fix. That initiative and independent thinking is the power of entrepreneurs, but is also a curse. Asking  "what do others think" does not come as automatically. So, the entrepreneur finds a solution to "the problem", a problem possibly perceived by only one person, himself, and presumes it is a widespread need.  Then, enamored with the conceptual "solution" (s)he commits time, effort and treasure to create a prototype.  Sometime for lack of sufficient resources a detour is needed into fund raising to finance the idea now morphed into a business venture.  

Eventually a product is ready for sale and the surprises start coming: customers are not as enthusiastic about it as hoped, they have difficulty using the product because of a million reasons, or they could benefit from using it, but other circumstances prevent its adoption (e.g. supply chain disruption, legacy systems, not invented here, etc.). In a few words our entrepreneur has invented a Bricklin or a Segway, an innovative design with definite benefits but overall unsuitable for the larger market originally targeted. The outcome is then outright failure or a walking zombie of a business.

In product and software development there are long standing disciplines (use case analysis) to ensure that acceptable performance will be possible in specific instances of use.  Use case is a discipline that forces  asking questions, and more questions, and more questions.  The same discipline is needed with respect to markets and customers. Here are the questions to ask:

What are your customers top problems?
How much will they pay to solve them?
      Could they do nothing and get by?
Does your product concept solve them?
      Do your prospective customers agree with you on this? [Your guess that they do is the issue we are trying to avoid!]
Draw a day-in-the-life of a customer (the customer's use case) 
      before & after your product adoption
      what will the product improve
      what will the product hinder/change/complicate
Draw the org chart of users & buyers
     are they the same?
     we must satisfy both, but buyers control
     who has a vested interest in favor or against adoption?
     who is the loser if adopted?
     can your customer afford to upset the loser?
Are there enough buyers NOW to make it worthwhile?
Can we scale our processes to match the market size?

The only way to know for sure is for the founders to go out (out of the office, in the real world) and ask the customers.  Go out and ask are obvious, but would marketing consultants be able or even better at doing this research? Definitely NOT.  Consultants can go out with clipboards to get data and analyze it, but at this stage the critical component is intimate understanding of BOTH the customer and the product concept/prototype.  Only the founders-inventors can "feel" both sides of the equation and catalyze a workable solution based on the customers' responses.  If the consultants could do it, they would have been the inventors-founders.

So, early on, even before prototypes, go out and ask your intended customers how your product will meet their needs and what issues it will cause and LISTEN. The product will almost inevitably be modified by this effort, but at much lower cost than building and rebuilding prototypes or final products. You may discover that your product is perfect at a perfect price with the expected benefits, etc.  Too bad that its adoption would kill another more important part of your customer business and therefore your customer would have to be mad to adopt your product.

Validating your value proposition in person and directly with the customers (taking into account all vested interests involved)  may just reduce the probability of your business' market failure from 90% to something less. Any improvement will likely appease your angel investors' risk aversion.

Marco Messina

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1 comment:

hedge said...

Great advice. I've started doing this with my company. In some cases we learned to go in another direction. In other cases our assumptions and strategies were just what Turbo140 users wanted.

Excellent post!