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it’s not for the fainhearted to follow the developments on the worlds stock exchanges. 15 years of bull market has been replaced by an ugly bear which seems to send anything with an incling of tech down, down, DOWN in the market.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

Customer check-in

One thing I find very fascinating is that for a lot of startups there seems to be an almost inverse relationship between the energy put into acquiring and onboarding customers versus the energy put into keeping them as happy customers for the long term.

Of course most startups do customer satisfaction surveys, NPS scores etc, but how often do you actually reach out to some of your customers to engage in a real conversation about how it’s going, how they use your product and what challenges they are experiencing?

Thought so.

The challenge tends to become more complex the more you’re driven by SaaS-metrics like MRR and ARR. Yes, it is vital that you understand these, but what difference will it make, if in essence you have very little understanding of what is going on behind the scenes, in the heads and minds of your customers?

One of many reasons that Amazon has become so extremely successful over the years is that they have always been extremely customer obsessed. They have always been looking towards understanding the customer, the journey and experience better and better in order to develop their many offerings.

And they have been remarkably successful to say the least.

You will most probably not be the next Amazon, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t steal a page our of their playbook and become totally customer obsessed.

Lesson one in that course is to start treating an existing customer and the relationship you have and want to expand with that one over time with the same amount of energy, you put into acquiring new customers.

(Photo by Sebastian Herrmann on Unsplash)

Keep winning

When looking at B2B startups, it’s super easy to get impressed by a well-executed growth model that brings new customers in in droves. Of course it is; sales is an art and can be a super tricky one at that, so every time a startup succeeds in closing a deal, it’s reason to celebrate.

But what I personally like to celebrate more is their ability to keep their customers happy by ensuring a high retention and thus a super low churn.

That – to me – is the most powerful indicator of a startup delivering real value to customers by successfully solving a problem, the customer has.

When I meet with startups there are always convincing narratives about how to find and attract new customers and close the deal. But with startups who already have their first product in market, I often find that the story becomes slightly less convincing, when we talk about retention and churn.

Sometimes the story about retention becomes so weird or non-logical that I just assume that the startup in question has a real problem in that department, and they are more than reluctant to share that with me. That – in all honesty – is a huge flag.

Having to work hard on retaining your customers is hard work and honest work. Because even though you may have a great product, lots of other startups or big corporations are out to get your customers with everything from a slightly better product to one that is just a lot cheaper (and perhaps even loss making) than what you have to offer.

You need to have a plan for keeping retention high, and you need to execute on it like your life depended on it. To some extent it does; at least the prospects of your startup ever becoming a viable business.

You need to show that you understand what’s going on, and that you understand what you need to do to keep your customers engaged, happy and finding the best value in your product. And you need to always optimize that approach to ensure that your win didn’t only happen once, when you closed the deal, but that by keeping the customer, you essentially have what it takes to keep on winning.

When you have that, it’s truly worth celebrating.

(Photo by Arisa Chattasa on Unsplash)

Solve my problem, please

Normally, we’re used to seeing startups looking to solve the problems of their customers.

But lately, I have realized that there is actually quite a lot of startups, who are essentially asking their customers to solve their own problems.

I typically see it in outreach emails asking me to go to a service or a product and do something specific; update something, try out a new feature or something of that nature. And it’s all perfectly fine.

But it also sends a signal that something is off; something is less than ideal. We have encountered a problem or a challenge on our end, and you, our dear customer, should ideally help us fix it.

Essentially, what you’re often communicating in this way is a shortcoming. Something you didn’t get right in the first place, and now you’re looking to compensate or perhaps even fix the issue.

You could of course argue that there is no other way than outreach to tell about new offers, features etc., and to a large extend, you would be right about that.

However, I could also make the argument that if you had a truly sticky product that your customers were so habitually using they knew it inside and out, they would find out these things themselves, and there would be little need to do outreach to already existing customers.

In summary: When your need to do outreach to your customers is on the increase, ask yourself where in your product or service, your core offering may be broken or less than ideal.

That is the problem, you should solve. Yourself.

(Photo by Michal Matlon on Unsplash)