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it’s not for the fainhearted to follow the developments on the worlds stock exchanges. 15 years of bull market has been replaced by an ugly bear which seems to send anything with an incling of tech down, down, DOWN in the market.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)

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.

(Photo by Diana Polekhina on Unsplash)

Short term joy, long term agony

One of the things that I have been spending a lot of time on these last couple of years is the subject of university research and how to transform the best of it into viable spinouts that can go on to solve real problems in the world.

There is no doubt that the potential within this space is huge. There is a lot of very good research coming out of universities, and there sure are enough big problems to creatively deploy that research towards.

However, there are various pitfalls that make it hard to create spinouts that are truly viable and have the potential to conquer the market and solve the problems that were envisioned at founding.

In a series of posts, I will be trying to address these, based on my experience. And what better way than to start out with one of the real kickers:

Ownership. Now and in the future.

Whenever you start a company, who gets what is always a solid discussion and potential point of contention. And it is no different when it comes to building spinouts.

Often the research team will have a pretty strong idea about what their research is worth, and of course that value assessment is going to skyrocket the more breakthrough the innovation is.

This self-valuation also leads to outsize demands on ownership, and you can argue it is a valid point. I mean, if a team has spent years doing great research, and outsiders only come in to take it to market, shouldn’t the original team get the brunt of the equity?

That depends.

If the goal just is to create a spinout, get it registered and give it a go, sure. But if the goal is to build a viable company that will be here for long term, grow and deliver on the mission, it is by no means a sure thing.

Basically the reason for that is that you need ressources to grow and succeed. Ressources come in two main shapes and forms: People and funding.

People – great people you need to build your spinout and make it successful – will only join if they’re incentivized to do so. Especially if they are to have a key role in the early team. That means for founders – ie researchers – that they need to reallocate up front a sizeable portion of their equity for incentives, ex a warrant programme.

Failure to do so will leave you with a spinout that will have nothing but the original team, lack muscle and knowhow for important tasks and never go anywhere.

The other type of ressource is funding. And it is tied to the talent doing the actual work that will ultimately ensure commercial success and deliver the investors a sizeable return on the risk, they’re taking by investing.

If investors – especially sizable ones who can deliver the size of checks needed to make it big – see that early team members, ie researchers, are insisting on sitting on equity for doing nothing in the day-to-day business, while those who are supposed to do the work either get to little or get nothing at all and thus won’t join, it is a walk-away.

The result?

The spinouts run into a wall. It will be absent of needed talent and absent of funding. And its changes of converting promising, potentially breakthrough, research into market success and ultimate contribute to solving the core problem, the company was founded on, will be slim to none.

And it will be primarily because the founding team – predominantly the researchers – confused short term success with long term success.

The lesson here?

Think about the long term and think about what is needed to get to the success that you envision. Think about the things you will have to do to ensure you get to that point and make a decision:

Am I in this for the long haul to affect a change where my research solves a big problem? Or am I in this purely for myself and my own retirement?

(And yes, I know it can be a combo, but that’s beside the point here).

If the answer is the latter, be aware that you will struggle and – most likely – fail before you get to where you want to be.

If the answer is the former, come to peace with the fact that you have to sacrifice something to get a bigger reward.

Not only will your equity be worth something rather than nothing (in the above example). You will also be far better positioned to achieve success because you enable those factors that are absolutely necessary for you to succeed.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)

Jumpstart your insights

When we try to figure out what the jobs, pains and gains of our future customers are, it is tempting to do all the research from scratch.

But maybe you don’t have to. Maybe there are forums where you can get a pretty good feeling, before you spend a lot of time doing surveys, interviews and observe the behaviour of your customers.

One place to look is in competing products. Especially the ones that seem to do rather well.

Get your hands on them, try them out and reverse engineer the problem statements that lies behind the form and feature(s) of the product.

What is the core feature of the product? Does it cater to a specific target audience? Which? And why? And what is the core assumption behind how it’s done?

If you spend a bit of time reverse engineering the competition for jobs, pains and gains, you will probably get a pretty good idea about what the real jobs are that determines whether a customer buys and uses said product or not.

And then it becomes a question of your future product doing it better, cheaper or whatever. But preferably better since that will serve you well, when you start to focus on retention.

After all you shouldn’t make it as easy for another competitor to snatch away your customers from you, as it (perhaps) was for you, should you?

Another place where you can look for insights into the jobs, pains and gains of your future customers is social media. I know for a fact it can be a pure gold mine for insights into what needs, your product could serve.

The great thing about social media – and especially more niche oriented groups – is that people are unfiltered. They will be looking for advice and guidance, and the more they look for it, the bigger a felt need it is for them.

That is not to say that you should do everything, a community tells you to do. Of course you shouldn’t, and often the conversation ventures in a lot of different directions.

But if you take the time to look for signals – tone of voice, mentions of a specific problem again and again etc. – there is actually a ton of things, you can take away with you.

That should set you off to a good start before you start doing a lot of classic user and market research too.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)

Theory vs reality

Theory is NOT always reality.

Case in point:

A politician might think that incentivizing public employees through rating and a cash bonus is a great idea and will lead to better outcomes for all; not least those who are at the receiving end of the service and says thanks by providing a top rating.

But a public employee knows from experience that such a system will create a stampede towards the citizens who are nice, no hassle and provide the better ratings leading to the higher rewards, while those in need who may be cross, downright angry, unable to rate or just provides a poor rating will risk being left behind. Because in a rewards driven system no one (or at least very, very few) wants to pay the price of caring without getting the reward.

Right there is the difference between theory – or ideology of any sort – and reality.

For that very same reason it is super important not to be stuck in an ivory tower thinking you can outsmart reality.

You can’t. Your great ideas will most likely fail. It goes for ideology and politics, and it goes for business and startups as well.

But you can navigate reality. But it takes respect for reality. And that is achieved by immersing yourself in it and get your hands dirty, before you try to figure everything out.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)

Read up

The other day I spent a good chunk of the day browsing the web reading up on reviews on how current solutions address a particular problem we are looking at giving a new spin on at inQvation Studio. It was most illuminating.

Of course there is always the risk of you being biased by the idea(s) already in your head, when you do something like that. But no matter what getting insigths into what is already out there and why it’s (not) working is absolutely essential for early and very simple validation.

So, the next time you think about an idea and whether it has the potential to make a dent, start by going online and read up on those that went before you. Chances are that customers reviews, anecdotes and so forth will provide you with a much better starting point that anything you can dream up in that creative mind of yours all in your own. It’s real out there.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)

When tech matters

Having worked with technology and product development for close to 20 years, I have never considered myself someone who was fascinated by technology for technologys own sake. Rather I have been – and continue to be – fascinated by what kind of problems technology can help solve.

Case in point: New search seems to indicate that in a not too distant future, Amazons Alexa can predict a lot of cases of cardiac arrests by listening in on your breathing patterns potentially saving thousands of lives in the process by triggering an emergency call and making sure that help arrives in time.

It is a huge win, if it somes to market. Of course there are all the usual caveats about privacy, surveillance and such, but if the promise is that a device can potentially save your life, is that a tradeoff you as a customer is willing to make? My bet is that it will be for a lot of people. Because this kind of appliance of technology truly matters in the deepest most personal sense of the word.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)