A few months ago, Eric Ries gave a talk as part of Stanford’s e-corner series (“e” stands for entrepreneur). I remember listening to the first part of his talk, but for some reason I never finished it. I finally ran across it again, so I decided to listen to the whole thing. I’m glad I did.
He described a whole range of lessons learned from the various startups he’s been part of (in fact his blog is called Lessons Learned). One lesson that I found particularly relevant to me was that all successful startups “pivot”. When a startup introduces a product to a set of potential customers, they usually learn that some of their assumptions about the market were wrong. Customers will let the founders know this by saying things along the lines of “Well this is an interesting product, but what would be really useful would be X”. This feature may only be tangentially relevant to your current product. However, if several people ask for X, there might be something there. A pivot is re-orienting your product so it can do X or building a new product that does X in a viable way. You keep one foot in your current product and “pivot” to place your other foot in the new product. If you make a series of pivots based on customer feedback, you will home in on what your customers will buy.
While this sounds easy, it’s actually very hard, in practice, for an entrepreneur to do. After all, you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about a problem and building a solution to it. When you hear someone say your product is “interesting” and ask for X, your first reaction is to dismiss this idea out of hand. You may be right; you may be wrong. It’s hard to tell. Maybe your product is too far ahead of the market (e.g., WebTV, Newton). Maybe you’ve created a disruptive technology that has to find its niche first (e.g., 2.5″ hard drives in laptops). In any case, when several people ask for X after you’ve shown them your product, perhaps it’s time to listen.
Time for Lakeway to Pivot
For the past few years, we’ve been driving very hard at developing Frontier. It’s a beautiful application that addresses key management problems that, before Frontier, have defied solution. However, for the past two years, whenever I show Frontier to engineering executives, they always seem to ask for X. After listening to Eric’s talk, I’ve thinking more seriously about how X and Frontier could live together. I think I’ve come up with something that could work. I guess it’s time to pivot and see what happens…
P.S. No, I’m not going to tell you what X is 🙂
The SDForum (which stands for “Software Development Forum — not San Diego Forum 🙂 ) has a nice program where you can meet with a VC for 30 minutes, not to pitch, but to get some advice 1-1. I went to a session last week on Sand Hill Road and thought I might share the advice I got.
Rino: How do I find customers in enough pain to try Frontier?
VC: Target potential customers more. Find customers that are similar to your current customers. Ask your current customers how they market themselves and look there. Have e-mail and phone versions of your hook and elevator pitch. Be aggressive with e-mail.
Rino: What do you mean by aggressive?
VC: Keep e-mailing people every couple of weeks. Don’t stop until they ask you to.
Rino: We’ve got a lot of depth on the software, technical and UI side, but we don’t have anyone with Marketing or Sales experience. Should we be trying to find someone to join our team?
VC: Not at this stage. Your first goal is to find a set of core customers. This is something you can do without a sales person. You need to go out and target your customers very precisely. Figure out who would benefit the most from your product. Understand the value proposition that you’re pitching.
Rino: Our product represents a paradigm shift in the way people manage projects and engineering teams. Do you have any advice on how we might find people who are willing to try something different with a tremendous upside — the people that Steve Blank calls “Earlyvangelists”?
VC: You need to outline exactly what a customer needs to change in order to use your tool. Write this down explicitly. The bigger the change, the harder the sell. If you can find a way to have the tool adapt to the way they do business right now, that’s probably your best angle.