Making the vision operational

You start out with a vision. You fight to develop your product. You ship. And you get so caught up by day-to-day operations and fixing things that you don’t have time to think about the vision or – more importantly – put initiatives in place for the longer term that will ensure you continue driving towards it.

Does it sound familiar? When I look around, I see it happening a lot.

And I can understand why that is. Having a product in market with real customers using it is just completely different from being in R&D mode. And getting the revenue in from customers who are happy users of your product, because you listen and service them well, just feel like the ultimate validation of what you set out to do – even if you’re only just establishing a beachhead.

Getting stuck can be so easy. One day after another passes, where you’re in operations mode trying to fix things, optimize and move a couple of steps forward in the process. But you are essentially stuck. Because you’re potentially neglecting the very initiatives that are going to enable you to push even further, grow to the next level and drive the value of the business up.

I would argue that if you are in this situation, it is more or less a miracle if you end up anywhere near realizing the vision, you set out with. Or more importantly: Capture the value you could have captured, if you had been able to run a tight ship, constantly moving forward and upwards.

Don’t count on miracles to happen. Instead invest the time in ensuring you both have a day-to-day operational side and a longer term strategic side working on the next important projects crucial to the growth of your business. In my opinion that’s the best insurance policy you can take out on your startup becoming truly successful.

Of course the obvious question is what it takes in order to maintain a balanced approach and ensure you succeed on a broad spectrum? Well, I have a few ideas and suggestions.

First of all make a conscious decision to set out a portion of your time as founder to only think about and work on projects that are longer term (+6 months) but crucial to the growth of your business. How much you should set aside varies and is up to you, but I would suggest at least one full day per week. That will get you started.

Next up, drill down on your vision and build your product and business roadmap based on that. Start out with the vision and define a strategy that will provide you with a blueprint for what needs to happen in order for the vision to be able to come true.

When you have the strategy, define which role your product(s) is going to play in order to make the strategy succeed. It will not be the only thing that matters, as execution and GTM plays also play pivotal roles in ensuring success. But the ongoing development of your product(s) and the leaps you can generate through making the right product bets are critical.

What does your product need to be in order to deliver on the strategy and ultimately the vision? What does that imply when it comes to the roadmap? When do you do what? In what order? What are the goals you will setup to monitor, whether your successful with your product or not? How will you remedy mistakes and get on the right patch again? Etc etc.

Make a complete drill-down on what your product strategy and roadmap needs to be in order to deliver on the vision. And make a conscious decision to stick to the plan in the sense that you prioritize ideas, feature requests etc that supports the roadmap, the overall strategy and the vision as much as you can.

When you get to the point where you have those things in place, you can start enjoying the overview that comes from having a plan and working towards executing it. You will find further enjoyment in the fact that even while you may from time to time toil with fixing bugs or some other operational matter, you’re still by and large working in the right overall distraction. Fixing things doesn’t become the end but just one of many means to an end.

And that’s a huge difference. Also to the ultimate success of your business.

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Have you got a sales quota?

The thing that truly separates a corporate job from a job at the startup is the chance to have an outsized impact on solving a problem for customers. More often than not the distance between problem, potential solution and the ability to get that solution in front of customers to test out is way short for a startup than for a corporate.

But there is also another thing that separates the two. And it’s one which is directly linked to the above discussion about impact. It is the opportunity to see outsized returns on the investment of time and ressources you put into succeeding.

Having an incentive programme at a startup is pretty normal. It’s a part of the overall compensation and incentive plan in the company, which helps to ensure that the right talent can be attracted and that people stay motivated outside what their immediate role requires of them. But being part of an incentive programme is perhaps not enough. Perhaps we need to take it one step further.

How about we talk about assigning measurable sales targets or quotas outside of the sales team? What would happen if we started putting the same kind of targets on fx product peoples backs as we do with sales? Would that make a difference for the product, it’s ability to delight customers and – following on from that – generate sales? Perhaps it would.

It has always seemed quite odd to me that a lot of startups despite having a shared stated vision and mission seldom follow it up by assigning specific market facing targets but instead confine these to sales. I know that all departments have their own set of internal KPIs they’re working hard to achieve, but since you could easily argue that startup success is impossible without market facing goals, it makes little sense that they are not evenly distributed across the organisation.

Of course sales should always be accountable for turning leads into deals and revenue that can be booked. But sinde the core foundation of sales is the availability of an attractive product that delivers value above and beyond what customers pay for it, it makes perfect sense to assign the same kind of quotas to both product and R&D. After all, we all have a shared interest in becoming a success in the market place.

Naturally, the first couple of arguments against this line of thought is that people outside sales are not exactly motivated by doing sales (hence the reason they chose a different line of work) and they don’t always feel empowered to influence how and under which terms the product is being sold to customers. I have full sympathy for these arguments, but I think there are ways to work around it.

First of all, it should be ensured that whatever sales quota is being assigned outside sales is directly related to the overall vision and mission of the startup. It should not only be about assigning a dollar amount or a number of installs. It should be set up in a way that it encompasses the storytelling about what it is, you’re trying to achieve – big picture style. That way a quota essentially becomes a recurring reminder of what you’re doing, who you’re doing it for, and how you’re progressing towards achieving your ambition.

Second, it should also be ensured that there are boundaries for how sales sell the product. Especially if it’s done through reps. No opportunity for promising customers anything other than what’s already in the product. No opportunity to put extra workload on the teams back at the office for coming up with new features or a new take on a feature just to satisfy an painful customer. Sales has to show some respect here for the team members who have agreed to take on some objectives which don’t come natural to them.

After all it is a team effort, where everybody help each other out, and where there is total transparency about how things are going, and how successful we all are. Wasn’t that what was agreed in the first place, when the startup was founded and the first team members started to join? That you’re in this together in other to succeed with a higher purpose?

Of course it was. Or should be, at least. And viewed from that lens it isn’t awkward to put sales quotas on people outside the sales team. Quite the contrary; it makes total sense in order to ensure the alignment against vision and mission of everybody on the team.

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Helping university research count

It is always a pleasure when you have the opportunity to go out and share some of the experiences and learnings, you have had, to an audience who need the insights in order to improve their odds of turning ideas into successful startups.

I had such an opportunity the other day, when I visited the Panum Institute at the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences at University of Copenhagen to talk about how to de-risk your business idea to a group of 60 Nordic researchers and ph.d.-students.

I thoroughly enjoy hanging out with researchers. One of the reasons is that I am deeply fascinated by what they do, how they work and how brilliant they are at coming up with novel discoveries. Part of my fascination is probably also that I know that I will never be in their league, and what is beyond reach somehow fascinates me.

But then there are – luckily – other things I think I am quite knowledgable about. One of those crucial areas is how to bridge the gap from the lab to the market, i.e. how to bring great research to life in the form of products and services that meet a real demand and can thus form the basis for a great business.

Getting in front of researchers to share that knowledge is key, I believe, because there is so much potential in ensuring that top class research gets a real life after the lab.

Today a lot of great research ends up in big corporations, and as such that is fine, because it ensures that the technology gets out there and gets used. But you have to ask yourself, what could happen if more of that research became spinouts in their own right creating new opportunities, new jobs and contributing to economic growth in society? That, to me, is the really exciting part.

For this to happen researchers need help. And a lot of it. When I meet young spinouts as part of the Danish Open Entrepreneurship programme, the spinouts fall into a couple of different buckets.

There are those that are really specialized, deeply techie and so niche, you just know it’s never going to be a company in itself but will most likely be acquired by some bigger corporate as a tech/IP acquisition.

And then there are those, where you immediately get a sense of how it could become a company in its own right with a product speaking clearly to a significant future customer base and with that the opportunity to actually create an impact and solving a problem.

Those are the interesting ones to me. And thus this is where I start to look deeper into the team. And what I see here is most often:

Deeply brilliant and experienced researchers with a big wish to see their research reach the market but with very little realistic idea about how to actually make that happen. Simply because they have never done it before, it’s not what they feel, they should be spending their time on, and – basically – it’s not what they should spend their time on.

This actually produces an interesting paradox. Because I would argue that when we talk about de-risking an idea for a startup, the process and structure you apply to that is actually very akin to the process you use, when you do research: You define a hypothesis, you test it using experiments, and you capture your learnings. And then you repeat, repeat and repeat until you have – hopefully – reached the intended outcome.

So you would argue that of all people, researchers are actually very well equipped to do de-risking for their own startups. Yet, a lot of the researchers struggle with this process. The reasons may wary, but I believe it has a lot to do with the fear of getting a ‘No’; the fear that what you have worked so hard on and been so committed to, will not get the anticipated reaction when you go outside the lab.

For the very same reason this is exactly where its great to get help from someone, who is not only more experienced about doing market research and de-risking but who is also not so personally attached to the research and technology in question. By admitting your own limitations and partnering up with someone to drive the external facing side of the emerging spinout, you may actually get very far with very little.

Why is that? Because the researcher already understands the mechanisms in de-risking, and you thus don’t have to spend time talking through the process and explain the mechanics. You can focus on getting the most critical hypothesis defined, design the experiments and capture the learnings. It can actually become quite an efficient process, and you could argue that only a little more than sheer mentoring for the researcher(s) could get you a long way.

However, mentoring is not enough. An equal commercial partner is needed for the researcher to increase the chances of ultimate startup success. And while getting help on the market de-risking in itself is a huge plus, the right people also bring a few other benefits that are equally important to the chances of success:

First of all, researchers need someone outside their research circle to help determine, when research and technology is ‘good enough’ to start testing. I seldom meet researchers who have a pragmatic view on this – the tendency is always to stay a bit longer in the lab, run yet another experiment, optimize the technology even further etc. In a worst case scenario what that essentially means is you can stay in the lab forever and never get the technology out to use.

Second – and a bit connected to the point above – researchers need someone to help them establish and secure a sense of urgency. While this is not the same thing as wanting to rush things through, it is about helping researchers figuring out how to get to market as quick as possible in order to both gather feedback and learnings from the market but also show investors that the case is on track to be viable.

Of course there are limitations as to what you can launch early, if you fx operate within a regulated industry, but the point is that there are always things you can do to start putting the spinout on the map, and researchers generally need help doing that.

Finally, a partner can help researchers deal with the very real issue that the envisioned outcome is by no means the same as the journey to get there. Too many researchers have the notion that the complex part of turning their research into a product that can be marketed is the actual research.

In fact, it often turns out that getting the product to market and commercializing it is every bit as complex, rocky and bumpy a journey as the research. Partners with experience in taking things to market know this because they have the battle scars themselves to prove it. Researchers don’t – by and large – have this and would thus be well advised to add this experience and expertise to their team early on. If for nothing else then at least for sparring them the pain of experiencing these hardships themselves. And potentially see their startup become an unnecessary casualty in the process.

So in summary, there is a lot of things, ‘business people’ can do to help researchers realize the full potential of their research. The right commercial people are just as important and valuable as materials needed in the lab to perform the actual research. They are each others yin and yang, and together they can achieve the outcome great researchers with a passion for affecting change have:

Making the research count where it’s needed.

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Kill your darlings

Imagine if you were as good at killing product features, as you are at coming up with new ones? It’s an interesting concept, don’t you think?

I have often found that one of the major stumbling blocks towards innovation and increased success is parts of what you already have. The more legacy, you build up, the harder it becomes to really push ahead, as there will always be some sort of argument to be had for spending your time and effort on trying to improve legacy features or products rather than come up with new, largely untested ones.

But you should really consider going on an internal product and feature killing spree in order to weed out those elements of your product(s) that may once have been your darling(s) but now are not really adding value anymore.

And I think there are two very compelling arguments for why you should go through this exercise in regular intervals.

First of all, if you don’t do it, be sure that your competitors are going to. Because aside from coming up with their own bright, innovative ideas, they are looking for weaknesses to exploit in your product(s). And those are most likely exactly the same ones as the ones, you should be putting out of their misery yourself.

Second, by eliminating features and products you don’t really need anymore, you get yourself in a much better position to grow your future business. You free up valuable ressources that you would otherwise have needed to spend keeping these outdated features alive, and you also have the opportunity to use the exercise as an inspirational tour towards what you need to build next. Because maybe, just maybe, there is something in the old that will be a powerful guidance towards what should come next.

It is truly a helpful exercise to do every once in a while, and it helps keep your startup at its toes by always being on the edge and attacking (pardon my French) the market in an aggressive form with great products and features rather than trying to protect something, which you deep down know can’t really – and shouldn’t – be defended over the longer term.

I fully realize it can be an awkward feeling to go about killing features rather than giving birth to new ones, but just remember that you’re doing it, because your darlings have served their purpose, and now it’s time to let them provide room for something new and even better.

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Who are you selling to?

Let me admit it straight from the bat: I have an overwhelming fondness for business models that addresses the users wallet directly.

Not in terms of forcing them to splash the cash but in terms of delivering products, services and experiences that solve meaningful problems and challenges to people, which they are both willing an able to pay for.

Having said that I of course also realize that there are product and services, it makes little or no sense to sell to others than enterprises or even public customers.

But there is another consideration I think is important to make, when you’re thinking about how to get your product or service to market:

Is your product or service one that grows bottom-up or one that will only get a decent chance, if it’s implemented top down?

Normally, we would probably think that products coming from below would have the greatest chance of being successful. I think this is true to the extend that the user experience is superior, and the product is solving a problem that is well recognized by all by at the very least being more efficient at it.

But what if the product or service requires a ‘leap of faith’ in order to be given a chance and get an opportunity to prove its real worth in delivering value to users?

Here, perhaps, it would often be better to go the entreprise route; find the internal champion of whatever problem or challenge your innovation is looking to address, making him/her see the light and how they could benefit from your product or service, and then let them buy it and roll out across the org.

The more new – and not in a consumer-friendly ‘shiny thing’ – kind of way a product is, the more I think you should bet on this enterprise approach. People can be unforgiving after one or two tries, and the corporate culture of moving slow but getting there in time might end up serving you well.

I guess, my overall point is this:

Look at your product or service and get crystal clear on the level of buy-in, it needs in order to be successful in a B2B context. The more buy-in it needs, the more patience you will need, and the more you should probably go the classic enterprise sales route.

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Always stay alert

Just because you have made it once, doesn’t mean that you have made it forever.

Just as you replaced an incumbent by delivering a better, smarter, cheaper or whatever solution to your customers pains, somebody else could come in tomorrow and do to you what you did to them.

Just as you worked tenaciously to get to where you are today and be successful, numerous other players are plotting the same way against you as we speak.

So always stay alert. Always be ready to change and transform what you’re doing in order to stay ahead.

The second you stop doing that you risk becoming a lame duck.

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Find focus in a story

I have always found that one of the most efficient ways to establish a focus is to start with the desired outcome and then tell the story about what everything will be like, when that outcome is achieved.

My experience is that by doing that you can build a narrative of a desired future state that is so compelling that you’re willing to do your utmost to get there. Which of course means doing whatever is necessary to stay the course during the journey.

Of course, sometimes thing won’t go according to plan, and there will always be some deviations along the road. And in extreme cases you may even need to pivot. But no matter what you still have your story to stick with to help inspire you to continue despite the odds stacked against you.

You can call these stories many things. Some call it ‘purpose’ but personally I find it a bit to inefficient to stick to. I like going that bit deeper into the story and make it more tangible by putting scenarios and faces towards it. I find that by making it personal, it gives me more energy and allows me to focus better. But maybe that’s just a matter of individual taste.

No matter how you go about doing it, having a compelling story about the outcome you’re trying to achieve with everything that you do is always a good idea. It will bring you energy, when you need it, and it will also help you in figuring out, when you have arrived, and you can truly celebrate your achievement.

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(In)efficiency rocks

Maybe the headline is a bit controversial, but let me try to explain what I mean.

Oftentimes I see products that are super efficient in who they are targeted towards. You can see from the product and the words being used to tell about it that the team behind has been guided by a very clear idea of who they were building the product for.

All that is good. In some respects. But potentially limiting in others.

Of course it’s great to have alignment with who you are solving a problem for as it should increase your chances of getting Product Market-fit for your product. The flipside however is that that exact approach has a risk of you being limited in your thinking and thus in what your product could do and become, if you had a bigger perspective.

A lot of this has to do with setting the right strategy, and even though many will claim that they have had thoughtful strategy processes, it is also rather safe to say that not all people who work on developing strategies are great strategists.

If for instance the people in charge of developing your product strategy are very minded on a specific outcome, chances are that they will build the plan that suits their purpose and delivers on what they wanted in the first place. And they might very well not be the best or most profitable plan.

Thus what you should do is first of all to ensure that your strategy planning has the right source of altitude from the beginning, so you really get the broadest possible view of the horizon. And then you should go about being inefficient in building your product.

Now, that sounds pretty horrible, so what does it mean?

Essentially it just means that you should resist the urge to have a specific, narrow outcome in mind and build your product towards that. Yes, you might be able to get a very efficient process going towards that goal, but the goal itself may well turn out to be limiting.

Instead by taking a more inefficient approach you’re being open towards outcomes. Your mind becomes broader, and your thinking in terms of how your product can be applied and for whom will be bigger and ultimately have greater chance of profitability. Provided of course that the features and value proposition of the product itself is still razor sharp.

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