Make it simple to buy

Are you unwillingly driving customers away from you by having a complex, ‘inside out’ business model? You should definitely check.

If you do, you should do your utmost to align your business model with how your customers are running their business and make an effort to just slide right in as the perfect solution to whatever pain, they’re experiencing.

The above dawned on me recently when I had a conversation with some great startup people about their business, their business model and their pricing strategy. While everything they said made perfect sense from their point-of-view, I realized something:

Every time their product was presented to a potential customer, the customer essentially had to first understand the startups preferred way of doing business before making an assessment as to whether their way of doing business and the product would make sense to get into their own business.

This seemed strange for a couple of reasons:

First, we know that the market is hugely competitive, and that complexity has the potential to kill any deal, if there is a simple alternative just there for the taking.

Second, we know that closing a sale means reducing the steps and reasons to say ‘No’ to a bare minimum. Whenever you introduce any kind of friction, you’re essentially adding potential opportunities for your future customer to just say ‘No’ to whatever it is, you’re offering.

So what to do instead?

Make an effort to understand your potential customers, how they do business, and what the challenges and pains are that your product could easily help them overcome. And then package your product in such a way that you’re the obvious solution for them to say ‘Yes’ to – every single time it’s presented to them.

There is really no excuse for making buying your product too complicated for customers.

(Photo by Ibrahim Boran on Unsplash)

Can churn be good?

Churn is inherently a bad thing for any startup. You don’t want to lose customers or revenue. At least not in the 99% of the cases.

But churn can also be spun into a good thing.

Churn is an opportunity for you to learn, what you can improve and do better. Because by churning, customers are essentially telling you that you’re not bringing enough value to them.

Hence churn is an opportunity for you to think about how you can deliver more value going forward. And start doing so. But you of course first need to understand why they churn – really understand it:

If they have chosen a competitor, figure out why? Is it a matter of features? Flow? Price? Or something completely different?

Should the churn make you reconsider your roadmap priorities? Or how you market and sell your product so expectations are better aligned, and you get better at understanding who the right and best customers are for you?

Etc.

There are plenty of opportunities to learn from churn, and you should. Unless churn happens because a customer goes bankrupt, each churning customer is an opportunity to understand the market, the customers and your value proposition to them better.

So take the time. Don’t neglect churn or accept it by relentlessly focusing on growth in new customers to compensate for the customers, who leave. First of all, it will be an issue when growth becomes harder to sustain. And second, and most importantly, you miss out on an opportunity to do better going forward. And reduce future churn.

(Photo by Junseong Lee on Unsplash)

The new reality

Currently it’s not for the fainhearted to follow the developments on the worlds stock exchanges. 15 years of bull market has been replaced by an ugly bear which seems to send anything with an incling of tech down, down, DOWN in the market. Well, it pretty much sends everything down to an extend where it can resemble a stock massacre. 

The development in stock quotes is not interesting in itself – things go up, and they come down again. What’s interesting is the shift to a new reality that the movements are an indicator for; the end of ‘free’ money, rising inflation, rising costs of production and a shortage of both key components and talent. It is truly challenging times. 

In the face of such adversity, you can be forgiven for giving up and just wanting to bury your head in the sand until this whole things blow over. Because how do you cope, let alone adapt to this new reality? Most of us have never tried anything like it, so we’re in uncharted waters trying to learn how to swim before we drown.

But it’s exactly when you have to develop a key ability in an instant that you’re perhaps the most capable of doing so. There is just no workaround. So when the immediate shock gives way, it’s time to assess where you are, and what all this means for you and your startup and start adapting to the new normal. And I think there are a couple of things, you need to address and get used to.

First of all, you need to control your burn and your business fundamentals. The good times where it was growth at all costs, and nobody cared about the cost are over, as far as I see it. Going forward there will be much more scrutiny on your commercial model, and whether its viable or not. If it is and you can prove it to investors, you will still be able to attract funding to grow and seize opportunities (more on that in a bit) that may present itself. Furthermore you avoid getting into a situation where you need to raise new funding with your back against the wall. That’s a bad situation to be in in general – now it’s just plain terrible for you. So don’t go there. 

Second, be aware that a lot of the ‘smart’ growth tactics you have deployed in the past and probably semi-automated probably won’t have anything near the same effect anymore. Your customers don’t have the same spending power or urge to spend, as they had before, and you will most likely see cutbacks towards skipping things that are considered non-essential. And let’s be honest; a lot of what’s available out there are non-essentials that few customers would truly miss, if they had to cut it. 

With that there is also an opportunity. An opportunity to put your automated growth machine on the back burner and instead spend some time and energy on talking to customers face-to-face, listen and really understand where they are at, what they truly need and how your product applies to those things. You wan’t to ensure that you truly understand how your product is truly – and please don’t blow smoke in your own eyes here – essential for them, so you’re still considered valuable and thus they will continue using and paying for your product. 

Willingness to pay is going to be the only metric that matters here. Forget about most other metrics right now. If you can’t get your customers to pony up the cash for what you provide and have them continue doing so, you have a serious challenge. It’s that simple. 

The benefit of this simplicity is that once you get this right, you will know that you have the strongest possible foundation that will pretty much insulate you and your startup from market turmoil. You will know for a fact that what you do and deliver is essential to your customers, and that any future downturn will hurt a lot of others before it hurts you. 

Knowing that is priceless. It allows you to get a bit out of the crisis “all hands on deck”-mode and start thinking about the future and pursue interesting opportunities. What do I mean by that? Could be that one of your competitors don’t have the same stamina that you do and suddenly provides an opportunity to consolidate. Consider it. If it makes sense, and you can get the financing right, consider doing it. Exploit the crisis of others for your own benefit. 

Do whatever it takes. And understand down to your very core that this is a new reality we’re looking and have to operate in.  

(Photo by Tobias Bjerknes on Unsplash)

Join the club

If you’re looking for a great business model, look no further than to the subscription model. The idea of having a customer pay for your product or service on a recurring basis over and over again for all eternity is mouthwatering. Of course customers seldom stick around for that long, but I am sure you get my point; the subscription business model is where you want to land in terms of both profitability, predictability and viability.

But the subscription business model also has its huge risks. And the primary one at that is the obvious risk that some day your customer will wake up and for whatever reason decide that she doesn’t want your product anymore – and then she cancels her subscription and leave. Gone is the ongoing revenue, the nice profit margins, the predictability of your business growth and the viability of your business model. You’re left with wondering what went wrong, a challenge to replace the customer with a new one – and cost you won’t get covered in the short term.

Nevertheless the subscription model works. It has mechanics that works like clockwork; smaller customers love the ability to stay on one month at a time and have the flexibility to say yes and no, when they need to access your product. Bigger customers love the ability to sign longer term deals, so they don’t have to spend time on handling the expense every thirty days. There are winning scenarios for all.

The question thus becomes if there is another way of looking at the subscription model from another angle than one of pure financial mechanics and convenience? Potentially one that lets you work with the model in the context of your startup and enable you to build an offering around your subscription model that will add rocket fuel to the value of the offering, while significantly reducing the risk of customer churn?

It can be little surprise that I think there is. And basically it has to do with framing the model in a slightly different context; moving it from a pure business model to a strategy about creating a sense of belonging with customers.

If you want you could call it a club. I have always been fascinated with clubs and their ability to get people from different walks of life together in supporting the same cause or team. I am especially fascinated when that sense of belonging to and supporting something endures during times of hardship. Times where you might have every reason to walk away, but you decide to stay because you are addament or perhaps just hopeful that better times and success are just around the corner.

Those dynamics have power and real merit, and I think it could make sense to try and work on transforming those into a startup context; i.e. how can you create your own ‘club’ and a sense of belonging with customers, where they will stay with you almost no matter what because what you’re delivering to them is above and beyond the product or service as it is right now.

In order to become a club, you need to define a mission and a sense of purpose that customers will want to buy into. While I realize that most startups – and other companies for that matter – have vision and mission statements ad nauseam, this is different.

This is no afterthought. This is absolutely core. This is what you and your customers need to believe can become true at some point in time that is not too distant out in the future. Where do you plan to take your customer? What’s the promise, you deliver to them? How does ‘the promised land’ look and feel once you get there? Is the attraction, benefits and value of it enough so that customers will buy into it, because they can already sense it now?

Next up you need to figure out what the perks of belonging to this club are, as you embark on your journey together. Just as with any other form of endeavor, you cannot succeed without gas on the engine, so what is your gas? How are you going to keep the engine running and provide your customers something that is more than enough to keep them engaged and believing in the ultimate destination? And, importantly, what is the cost of keeping them happy along the way? Is it at all tenable, and if not what can you do to ensure it becomes so?

It is about creating fans of what you do. Kevin Kelly described the 1000 true fans theory years ago that basically says that if you can find 1000 true fans, who will buy whatever it is, you produce, you’re set. At least as an indenpendent provider. But there is no reason why that shouldn’t be scalable to a startup scenario; consistently building a following that is passionate enough about the quest you’re on that they will be buying into everything you do the path towards the end goal.

When you manage to do that you not only delight fans and retain them for the onward journey. You also have the potential to look into decreasing price sensitivity, aka you can start working with your pricing. Fans are not necessarily that picky – they will support you a long, long way before they start being concerned – and most of them will (at least if you operate in the B2B space) be deploying other peoples money. For them the price concern will be even less important – provided of course that you stay the course and stay loyal to what keeps you together.

That in turn will enable you to get to predictable growth. You will start being able to pretty accurately model the potential of adding new things to the mix and as a part of that also figure out when the timing is right to adjust the price in return for added benefits from the ‘club’ membership. I am not suggesting it becomes easier as such, as these things are still very complex to get right. But I am suggesting that it should be much more fun, since you have got the mechanics of the model working on your behalf.

So with all the above things being said, what do you need to create a ‘club’ feeling around your product or services and give customers the sense of belonging and wanting to belong to your cause? The answer, of course, is the right mix of talent and the financial means to get there.

To address the finances first, I am pretty bullish that if you can come up with a model where you can show investors the predictability, reliability and viability of your model from a financial perspective, they will be keen to support it. Investors are always looking for growth opportunities, and if those come in tandem with manageable risk at an acceptable level, it starts getting interesting for them. So that will most likely not be the biggest challenge.

The bigger challenge is likely going to be to find and attract the talent that will make the model work for you. Because it takes some special skills both within storytelling but especially within customer success and support. Furthermore it also takes a mindset that gives above and beyond the short term optimization one. If you are looking to making this model work and base your startups growth and future success on it, you need to be clear with both the team and your investors that you’re in it for the long term.

That’s what it takes to create a real movement that is above normal considerations for retention and will deliver the predictable growth and bottom line year after year; a club people will feel passionate about.

(Photo by David Jackson on Unsplash)

No-code sort of FTW

Back in the day when you wanted to build a startup you either needed to be or to find a skilled developer in order to get anything done. This hard requirement was one of the reasons why developers generally won the designation ‘rockstars’ on most ambitious startup teams; you simply couldn’t do without them.

You still can’t if you want to build something that’s solid enough to scale. But in order to figure out whether your idea has any merit at all, there is a lot of things you can do with No-code tools; software platforms that basically allow you to configure your application rather than code it from scratch.

There is an argument to be made that No-code tools have been around for years. Some say that Object Oriented Programming tools were essentially the precursor to the No-code tools of today with the UI being the main differentiator. Whether that’s true or not, I do not know, but fact of the matter is that the ability to ‘build’ applications have been democratized to people outside the hardcore developer realm.

And that’s a good thing. Because it allows more people to build more applications. And aside from the proportion of duds among them, chances are that more really cool applications – small scale, yes – will be built as a result of this. And that’s all good.

For founders it is amazing because it does three things: It solves the problem of having to find a hard-to-find-hard-to-get developer, before you can get anything done. It allows you to roll the sleeves up yourself and put your money where you mouth is and just get something out there to start getting some feedback from the market. And it allows you to get an understanding whether there is anything there there, before you go out and look for investment in order to build the full-blown thing, which also means you will need to give less equity up in order to get the investment, you need. In theory at least.

But aside from the lack of true scalability there is one obvious pitfall from betting on No-code platforms that founders should be aware of;

No-code tools shouldn’t be seen as an excuse for not being diligent about delivering real value to users and customers. It shouldn’t be an approach used on the ‘Fail fast’-terminology that IMHO has mostly been used as an excuse for not really caring about quality of what you offer.

What founders need to be mindful of is that it’s real people – potential customers – they are putting their solutions in front of. And with the competition in almost every sector out there being rampant, you as a founder can little afford to basically p*** off the same people that are going to be your bread and butter in the future. If you do so they will have plenty of other opportunities to get the problem solved, and they will – most likely – never look your way again.

This also goes to a point which I think is often sadly neglected, when we talk about startups and founders venturing out to do great things: It’s never about you. It is about the customers you serve, and the problems they have that you help them solve.

That is – front and center – the recipe for your startups success, and thus it would be helpful, if we got a bit more empathy for the customer into a lot of startup conversations rather than focus most of our attention on the founders and their credentials. Yes, they are crucial. But successful founders don’t exist without happy customers.

Why is this a relevant discussion in the context of No-code platforms? It is because with the ease of shipping also comes a responsibility to ship something that’s worthwhile. The good things about things being hard to get out the door is that you have amble time to reflect during the process and ensure that things work, when they go out, and that the things, you ship, are shipped for a reason. While it obviously slows founders down a bit, I think the process is overall healthy and has a net positive long term impact on both the product and the ultimate success of the startup.

For that same reason No-code platforms shouldn’t be seen as a shortcut to success but as a way to get more insights quickly on what’s truly worthwhile building in order for a startup to achieve ultimate success.

(Photo by KOBU Agency on Unsplash)

The satisfaction trap

With the end of free money being upon us, we will undoubtedly start to wonder more about how we spend our money. That will also manifest itself to the digital products and services we use, where we will be more keen to ensure that we feel, we get real value for our money.

But not only will we do that. We will also insist more on trying things out for free to get a sense of the value at hand, before we decide to commit our money towards a given service.

This poses both an opportunity and a threat to startups.

While the idea of offering something for free and then convert to a paying customer is by no means foreign to startups – it’s called the ‘freemium model’ for a reason – startups need to be very aware that they are not being lured into the trap of having to offer too much for free with slim prospects of ever making the conversion happen.

The nightmare scenario to avoid is one where the startup will need to deliver the full experience and go above and beyond to prove it’s worth to a potential customer only for that customer to choose something different or just stay with their current solution. That scenario will incur excessive cost on the startup with no prospect of recouping that cost, and it goes without saying that that will not be a viable model going forward.

Getting this right is a delicate balance to be sure. Because while a startup won’t want to be caught in the trap, the broad expectation on the customer side is to be delighted every step of the way when trying out a new product or service to see if it fits the customers business needs.

The most successful startups at striking this balance will be the ones who understand precisely what’s needed in order to delight customers – no more, no less – in order to turn them into paying customers. Furthermore, the best startups will understand the need to develop models of payment for their services that grows with the customers needs, keep them engaged while at the same time ensuring that the underlying business model is viable not only in the long term but also in the shorter term.

This is a delicate balancing act, and in order to get it right it will most probably require deep insights into the customers domain area to understand what’s important drivers of customer delight and what aren’t. This again will force startups to reconsider their hiring practices within customer success in order to make it less about generic skills and more about understanding the customers and what they’re actually looking to achieve within their line of work.

Ultimately the point is that not only is the era of free money and uncaring customers over. The era of ‘one size fits all’ customer success and growth strategies is also over. It will take focus, dedication, experience and insight to delight the right kind of customers going forward;

Those that actually end up paying their bills.

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Are you interesting?

There is a lot of talk about the effectiveness of content marketing for startups. And while I don’t doubt that it has some effect for some, I am firmly in the camp where I would advice anyone to up their game significantly, if they want to do content.

Because there is som much ‘blah’ put there that’s just not interesting at all.

Compare it to a party, where you meet someone you have never met before. You talk casually.

What’s the most interesting conversation?

The one where the guy across from you just babble on in banal terms without even making the slightest effort to understand whether you’re interested or even paying attention.

Or the one who actually engages in a conversation, brings new perspectives to something you care about or at the very least can relate to and leave you wiser and eager to know more?

Of course you would choose the latter one.

And that’s my point:

Content marketing is the first one. Thinly disguised as being ‘customer centric’ it is essentially about the sender and demonstrates a lack of understanding and/or real interest in who you are and what challenges you are facing. Basically, it doesn’t care.

The latter one is content where you from an angle of curiosity explore the field, you’re working in making sure that you bring fresh perspectives to your field and basically is worth the time and investment for others to follow and engage with.

That kind of content doesn’t need to be hard to produce. It just takes someone who knows what he or she is talking about and with a willingness to write about it from time to time and a openness towards getting it out there and potentially get some interesting feedback.

It’s an approach that doesn’t fit very well with outsourcing to an agency, because it takes knowledge, real insights and – crucially – the authenticity and presence that you can only bring to the table, when the one putting the content out there is deeply immersed into the field herself – day in, day out.

That’s what will make it interesting and worth following. And that is what could be a great and efficient building block for building and nurturing relationships.

If you can go that route, you have a number of potential advantages looking at you compared to your competitors, who stick with the old, ineffective content marketing playbook:

You can essentially become a real thought leader. You can get valuable feedback from customers and other constituents that can have an impact on your business. And ultimately you can drive new leads to the business that will both be worth significantly more over time from a commercial point of view but will also be way cheaper to connect with than other means of advertising.

Because all it takes is essentially your insights, willingness to share and openness towards connecting.

(Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash)

Bad market feedback

One of the hardest things for many startups is dealing with bad market feedback; the sense that what you have been trying to bring to the world just isn’t being that well received at all.

It is the flipside of doing market testing and validation. While obviously the right thing to do, we always go into a test in the hope that results will be good and support our hypothesis. Yet, many times it just won’t happen.

What to do then?

Obviously the answer is not not to do any testing. That’s just stupid; it won’t make the bad feedback go away – it will just present itself way later when you have put a lot more energy and ressources into a product that ultimately might be failing.

The answer of course is to (1) learn to deal with bad market feedback and (2) think about how you deal with particular feedback based on what it is that you’re testing.

The best way to deal with bad market feedback is to remember that the market and the customers are always right. If you get bad feedback it is a sign that something in what you’re doing is off; the wrong approach, the wrong customer segment, maybe even the wrong product.

You get the feedback, internalize it, redo and come back much stronger. And you understand and accept that there are no points for insisting you’re right and the market is wrong. None.

On the second point, you can grade how you do testing and work with bad market feedback. While it of course sucks to get very bad feedback for your product as such, getting bad market feedback for an outlier idea or approach is actually really, really valuable.

Let’s assume that you have been playing with an idea of getting a sub-set of your feature set earlier to market in order to start generating revenue. It’s not entirely ‘on strategy’ when you look at your vision, but you want to start generating revenue as soon as possible.

Should you do that? Or should you stay the original course?

Test it.

If you get bad market feedback from testing that outlier approach, you will have learned that (a) clearly your idea is not going to be a runaway hit and (b) maybe the opportunity you saw to get an early product out and essentially diversify is a bad one and will only take away focus and ressources from your main effort. If that is the case, you will be happy that the bad market feedback has helped you and your team dodge a future bullet.

So, in summary, bad market feedback can be extremely good and valuable feedback, as it can help you focus on what’s really important and utilize your ressources in the best possible way. So make sure you don’t get distracted on a personal level and take it in as a defeat that leaves you stuck in f***.

It’s not.

(Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash)