Someone asked me the other day what magic did I use to resurrect one of my startups from almost certain death. What tremendous insight did I bring to bear or epiphany did I have to change my company from having closed sales of less than $10,000 over two years to annual sales of almost $5mm over four years with a 70% compounded annual growth rate?
The answer is simple. I talked to the customer.
This is fundamentally the most important thing that early stage companies can do and for engineers usually the most overlooked part of the creative process. We (remember, I’m an engineer) tend to think that building a great company is all about the technology and fundamentally if build the best technological solution then the rest is easy… “Build it and they will come!”
What I’m describing is a basic failure we all make in the creative process that we know exactly what the customer wants. The hard truth is – when it comes to thinking we know what the customers want – we are usually wrong.
Yes, we know complex algorithms, innovative ways to fabricate complex materials, highly efficient ways to harvest the sun’s energy and store energy in portable devices… but we don’t know what the customer is thinking!
This is not a simple problem as you are dealing with two fundamentally opposing issues that make great entrepreneurs: A tenacious attitude to succeed no matter what anyone says and the processing of feedback we receive from people we share our ideas with.
The Center for Entrepreneurship helps students, faculty and staff members who have business and product ideas wrestle with these issues constantly and ultimately it’s a process that we know needs continual improvement. There is, however, a fundamental rule that usually holds true and that is “talk to the customer”. But more importantly, when you are with those customers – the really great entrepreneurs will actually “listen” more than talk. The gold nuggets are usually right there in front of you and are made in an off-hand comment. Something said in jest or anecdotally may be the key to unlocking a huge revelation.
So, when my company was faced with this fundamental problem of almost zero product sales and I stepped into the CEO role I rolled up my sleeves, jumped in my car and visited face to face with the people we were trying to sell our product to. I didn’t skype them, phone them, text them or email. You have to get the customer comfortable with you and a personal engagement is the way to do this. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly it is the non-verbal communication of the customer that give away the important clues. You can see the excitement in how they are leaning forward or using their hands when talking about a problem – or the rolling of their eyes when an idea you just described doesn’t meet the same resonance with them as you thought it might.
The multiple customers I talked to led me closer and closer to a problem that existed in our product… a technology implementation we had chosen that we thought was especially innovative was actually killing our sales! Our assumption to leverage an existing IT system that was already in place at our customer’s site was actually the reason people wouldn’t buy the product – despite its novelty. Once we removed that barrier and changed the product to play nice and not touch this other existing system we removed a huge barrier and started us down the path to rebuilding the company and generating sales!
There really isn’t any magic in this – just basic hard work, looking closely at the problem, asking questions and, above all else… talking to the customer!