One storyline archetype with universal and enduring appeal is that of the Student and Master. The most interesting variant of this is where you have an arrogant student that comes to believe that he should take his master’s place. Sometimes this student is the main character (e.g., Anakin Skywalker in “Star Wars” or Noboru Yasumoto in “Red Beard”). Often, though, this student is a skilled, though inferior talent juxtaposed against another student that will become a true master (e.g., Elle Driver vs The Bride in “Kill Bill” or Tai Lung vs Po in “Kung Fu Panda”). Sometimes the master dies; sometimes the master lives; sometimes the student learns a lesson. In any case, by the end of the story, we usually have insight into what being a master really means.
“We Are All Made of Stars”
I believe we were all born with the talent to do something great. If we can figure out what that is and work hard at it, we will eventually become masters at it. As I’ve watched my kids grow (the oldest is 7), I’ve seen that each of them was born with their own set of skills. No one ever taught them these things—they just came with certain talent and personality built in.
Working Hard is Not Enough
You have to work hard to master something. There’s no way around that. If you’re meant to master something, it will be fun, rewarding work. If not, then it will just be work. It’s funny, but it can be hard to figure out if your work is fun.
In college, I studied Chemical Engineering, which is unfortunate because I didn’t really like chemical engineering. The only course I really enjoyed was process control, and the only reason I enjoyed it was because you got to work with software. Looking back, I really should have been in Computer Science. Anyways, one day, I remember complaining about how hard my coursework was when a friend (who majored in English) remarked, “Aren’t you supposed to be good at that?”. I thought of how to explain that it was just intrinsically hard when I realized she was right.
If you’re working hard at something that you can kind of do, but you complain about it a lot, chances are you will never master it. You’re supposed to be good at what you’re supposed to master. Working hard is not enough.
Student and Master
In the workplace, you often see someone with experience (a master/potential master) mentoring a junior colleague (the student) who’s just starting out. Maybe the master has even given the student a shot at doing what they do. This can be a tricky situation if the student doesn’t have the talent to master this role.
Part of the problem is that most anyone can work hard to learn the basics of a role and show steady progress. Things may be appear to be going great. However some students, at some point, won’t be able to advance. They may show poor judgment or may not be able to pick up a necessary skill. Working harder won’t work. The student may be good enough to reach a certain level, but will go no further.
This is where the student/master relationship changes. The student may think the master is holding them back. The student may feel that they have learned enough and they’re ready to move on. This may be where a dramatic conflict occurs. Often, this is where friendships end.
In the ideal circumstance, it’s not this way. A student with true potential working with a master is a powerful combination. Of course, there may still be dramatic tension—the student may still be arrogant, may still chafe at having to pay his dues, but ultimately the true student learns. The best illustration of this is “Red Beard”. If you haven’t seen this amazing movie, do check it out. It’s directed by Akira Kurosawa, a master director if there ever was one. Not sure if he had a student. If not, what a shame…
Starting a company because you want to solve a problem you’ve personally experienced can be a great thing. Since you already know what you want, you can get started right away. You’ll have a clear vision of your product and will be able to focus your effort on important, key features instead of being distracted by the bells and whistles that don’t really address the core problem.
Of course, there are downsides. If most of your market isn’t interested in the problem you’re going after, your product will have limited appeal. Also, if you don’t really have to talk to your market, you probably won’t, and you’ll miss out on key connections and relationships that can help get things moving as you try to sell your product for the first time.
Of course, before you sell anything, someone has to try it first…
Your First Alpha Customer
Getting your first alpha customer is a huge milestone in your startup’s life, especially if you haven’t talked to your market very much. It validates your product idea. It shows that you have something to offer, that you are actually solving a problem that someone (other than you) cares about.
Your first alpha customer will give you constructive feedback. They’ll help guide your product development and tell you what’s really important. They’ll identify compelling features that you hadn’t thought to add. They’ll help you validate and revise your positioning matrix. If you solve their problems well, they’ll give you quotes for your website and point you to other potential customers.
Your first alpha customer will help you iron out the wrinkles in your product and help you figure out how to deploy and maintain it. They’ll help take your product across the finish line so it’s really ready to sell.
Getting Your First Alpha Customer
Finding your first alpha customer can be tricky. I think the only way to really approach this is to leverage your relationships. If you’ve worked for another company for a while and left on good terms, they might be an option. Former vendors and suppliers might work. If you have a board of directors/advisors, they may open up their networks to help you get started.
When you do find your first alpha customer, it may feel like you’re doing a lot of taking in the relationship (they’re giving you a chance, they’re spending time to get you going, they trust that you know how to solve their problem, etc.), but it really should be a win-win situation. They get to influence the product while it’s still flexible. They might get a (nearly) custom-built product for free. If your product actually solves an important problem, you will be solving that problem for them. In addition, one of the biggest benefits of this relationships is that they get to deal with you, not a sales rep or a field engineer or a junior consultant. They’re dealing with the guy that knows his stuff. That’s huge.
Treat Your First Alpha Customer Right
Even though your relationship should be a win-win, your alpha customer is taking the initial risk. They’re putting their faith in you. That’s worth a lot. This might be the first tangible, positive, market feedback you’ve gotten so far. Make sure you listen to them. Fix issues quickly. Always deploy high quality product. Make it run well. Streamline their experience.
Practice doing what you should eventually do for all your customers. 🙂
A friend of ours, James McIntyre, is a B2B technical marketer and one of the stars at McClenahan Bruer Communications in Portland. A while back I asked his advice on what I should do in terms of marketing my product. The first thing he said was to put a positioning matrix together. I looked confused; he elaborated.
What is a Positioning Matrix?
A positioning matrix is a document that helps organize your thoughts on how to describe your product (or service) to a particular type of person in a particular market. Whenever you communicate to your market (via a website, e-mail, presentation, sales call, etc.), your positioning matrix can help ensure that your message is consistent and focused.
Parts of a Positioning Matrix
I don’t think there’s a standard form for this, but what we’re using has the following structure:
- A column for each type of customer/user in your market
- A Vision Statement row cutting across all users that summarizes the overall product message
- For each type of customer/user, a positioning statement describing your product
- Value Statements that answer “What’s in it for me?” for each type of person
- Differentiators that answer “How is this different from other products?” for each type of person
- Sound bites that should strike a chord for each type of person in your market
- A 50 word statement describing the product/service
- A 100 word statement describing the product/service
Using a Positioning Matrix
To give you a better idea of what a positioning matrix is and how to use it, I’ve posted my company’s matrix here: Lakeway’s Positioning Matrix.
One place where this has already proven valuable was in the redesign of my company’s website. It helped focus our message, especially as we developed the Flash movie on our homepage. If you’re curious, take a look at the movie, compare to our positioning matrix and feel free to let me know what you think.
Composing a Positioning Matrix
It takes a lot of thought, reflection and feedback to draft a meaningful positioning matrix. The company where James McIntyre works offers this as one of their services. If you’re starting out and have funding, I recommend you check them out.
If you’re bootstrapping (as I am), this may not be an option, so roll up your sleeves, block out some time, brew some tea, and start thinking about why your company exists, what it does for your customers, and how it’s different from everything else out there…and make sure you revise it after you start talking to your market!
A few years ago, when I was just starting my startup, I asked Frank Helle (CEO of Axian) if he had any advice. He said that Guy Kawasaki was in town talking about starting companies, and that I should attend. At the time, I didn’t know who Guy Kawasaki was, and for some reason, I didn’t think google him either (I don’t think I used “google” as a verb at that time).
On the day of his talk, I paid my $20 fee to get in and sat near the front (since you can see the speaker better). Just before he was about to start, I looked around at the audience and was surprised that the whole room was full. As soon as Guy started his talk, I could see why. He was a remarkable speaker and had so much pragmatic advice that I didn’t bother taking notes — I was just going to buy his book Art of the Start. If you’re thinking about starting a company, this is something you should really take a look at.
A mantra is not a vision statement
One of the interesting points he made was having a “mantra” for your company. This isn’t a vision statement or a mission statement (which are usually lifeless and awful). This is the reason your company exists, a short phrase that sums up the ideals and goals of your company. It’s hard to come up with this, so we didn’t have one for quite a while (actually it took us over 2 years to come up with our mantra).
A mantra is not a tagline
One thing a mantra is not is a tagline. We hear taglines all the time: “What can Brown do for you?”, “I’m lovin’ it”, “Just do it”. A tagline is part of a campaign for branding a company. It isn’t the reason a company exists. Nike doesn’t exist to “just do it”. Guy came up with one possible mantra for Nike: “Authentic athletic performance”. This doesn’t have the zing of their tagline, but it is more enduring and provides more guidance.
Although a tagline isn’t a mantra, it still takes time to develop. It took my company about a year before we came up with something that worked (my wife thought of it — she’s very smart). Our tagline is “Get Your Priorities Straight.” It’s a nice tagline. It’s short, it’s accurate, and it’s a little confrontational (something key for the kind of startup we have). However, it’s not a mantra.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve had to describe my company’s product (Frontier), to a number of people in a number of different ways. One day, my company’s mantra just popped into my head: “Reduce workplace stress”. This is really at the core of my company. That’s why I came up with the concept for Frontier. That’s why I took the time to think about it and develop it.
People spend most of their lives at work. A lot of their time at work is spent under stress. Stress is a bad thing that can spill over into every aspect of people’s lives. If we can figure out how to reduce workplace stress in a real way (not just treat the symptoms), we will have done something to improve (and maybe change) the world. That’s something worth spending time on. That’s why I keep going. That’s why my company will succeed…eventually 🙂
What do you get if you start with “Enter the Dragon“, add some Jack Handey, throw in a couple of “Cal Pocket/hash browns”, move it to South Street, steep it in Portland, and then fold in some Gen X? Why, that’s a recipe for “Rino’s Reflections”!
Interestingly enough, if you take a look at the Jack Handey site, you’ll see that the header image I choose for this blog is remarkably (and coincidentally) similar to what they picked for theirs. I hope my posts don’t end up looking like they’re making fun of me. Out of curiosity, I went to the Jack Handey site and clicked on a random quote generator and got this:
It’s easy to sit there and say you’d like to have more money.
And I guess that’s what I like about it. It’s easy.
Just sitting there, rocking back and forth, wanting that money.