Getting inspired by others

How many times have you met a startup, which has claimed to be ‘Uber for X’, ‘AirBnb for Y’ or another version of something already in existence and hugely popular? Many times. And every time it has been cringeworthy.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is all bad taking your cues from others, who have threaded the path before you and been successful at it. Far from it.

The difference is in how you do it.

You should NEVER do it in public. That’s the first lesson.

If you want to take inspiration and map your journey against someone who have done it before, do it in a war room of sorts; a place – physical or digital – where you can lay their playbook out, study it, plot your initiatives and try to follow their plan forward.

Pick the best, optimize it to your own reality so you get a feel for it and use it in your operations. By all means. If for no other reason because you have validation from those who have gone before you that the approach is effective.

Don’t talk about what you do. Just execute. Most people with even limited insight into the market will quickly spot the resemblance, but since your not being vocal about it, it will just seem like you have been inspired by the way others have done before you.

That’s happening all the time in the world of business, and it’s a perfectly cool way of executing your way to success.

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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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Map your GTM options

When I meet with young startups there is one thing that often springs to mind on the commercial side:

The tendency towards picking a business model on the shelf, often inspired by what others are doing, and settle on that as the model going forward without much further thought than that.

The reasoning seems to be that since others have chosen it (and some perhaps even succeeded with it) it will probably also be good enough for this startup. Plus you get the feeling that you have achieved something and can cross off a to do-item from your long list.

I think this approach is premature and may actually be damaging for the prospects of the startup in the long run.

Because what if the model doesn’t work? Do you just pick another then and repeat the same process? And what if the model, you have chosen, puts investors off because it’s too complex, hard and time consuming to succeed?

Forget about just picking a more or less random business model (I know, it’s not entirely random, but I am sure you get my point, ed.).

Map your go-to-market options out instead, as they relate very closely to a viable business model going forward.

Do a mind map. Put your end user/customer in the center. And then start mapping the various ways you can close a sale with that customer using different models, approaches and value propositions.

Figure out what needs to be true – the key assumptions – for each of the avenues and test the assumptions with customers, experts etc.

With a bit of luck and quite a lot of work you will be able to define the path of least resistance to the customer and notably to the customers wallet.

And that’s exactly what you need. That’s your future business model. Developed and understood by you, so you can effectively go and execute on it. Not something just taken from a shelf that you actually may have very little idea about how to make work for you and your startup.

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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.

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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.

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Cash value of communication

Often times I meet people who question the value of a focused, operational communications strategy. The argument is that there are plenty of other more important jobs to get done before looking coherently at communications.

Allow me as a former communications professional to take a step back and look at the kind of value, great communication can unlock for a startup. I will do so over a couple of posts here, and today I will be looking at one of the really easy ones to measure:

Sales.

Normally, when we think of sales, we think it of it as an effort to get our offer in front of the right people in order for them to make a decision on whether they want to buy our solution or not. The more we work diligently with sales, the better we will be at getting it in front of the right people, the more hot leads will be created, the better conversation rates will be and – ultimately – the more we will sell.

Ok.

So what role does communications play in that? Let’s look at it from a structured operational perspective:

Let’s assume you have your OKRs in place. You know what your objectives for the upcoming quarter(s) are, and you have identified the measurable key results that will support you in understanding what kind of progress you’re making towards reaching those goals.

If we look at sales, the objective could be to launch a new product successfully, and a key result could easily be to get 200 new hot leads and book 50 first sales meetings.

Ok. Where does communication come into play here?

Easy.

When you look at the job of getting 200 new leads, you need to figure out where to find them but – more importantly – WHAT to tell them in order to get them interested, so they become a hot new lead, you can work with.

In order to know what to tell them, you need to have a clearly crafted value proposition and a wording of it that resonates with the intended target audience, so you can optimize your conversion.

That’s all about communication and getting the actual words right.

Furthermore, in order to be on the radar of your future customers, when you try to convert them into hot leads, you need to have created awareness and a presence about your startup, your brand and, most importantly, your product(s). And you need to have done so in a way that is available and convincing in a way that sits well with your future customers.

That’s all about communication, too.

Finally, when you have the sales meetings, you need to ensure that the people you meet get hooked enough to buy. They need to be convinced by those final killer arguments for why your product is the solution to their problem, and doing so in a scalable way requires not only a solid structure but also – again – the most effective words.

Surprise, that’s communication too.

All in all a focus on great end effective communications is a powerful an extremely valuable driver for driving sales. It’s not just a marketing job – and yes, marketing is communications too. And communications is not only about PR and looking good on SoMe.

So do yourself a favor and prioritize your communications efforts in your startup. Doing it right can – almost – be translated to money in the bank.

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It takes a full team

One of the great misconceptions in working to build a startup from scratch is that you need only be great at one thing – typically product development – and then you can wing and learn the rest.

Why do I think it’s a wrong approach?

First of all, you’re essentially working on a wrong assumption about what’s needed to become really successful. Because just as innovation, product development and delivery takes skill and experience, so do the ‘boring’ business parts.

In essence it may actually be more difficult to build a business than develop a product; when you’re developing a product you can get very far with your own skills (provided they’re good enough), but when you move out into the market, the whole world goes into flux, the interdependencies are huge and the risk as well. And it just takes a pretty steady set of hands to work that infinite space.

Second, you risk spending your time, energy and ressources on the wrong things. If you’re a stellar developer, you should be focusing on development. Full stop. You should now water down and defocus your unfair advantage by taking on tasks, you don’t feel confident in and – lets face it – basically care very little about.

You should leave all those things to people who have the same qualities as yourself – but within the business/market facing aspects of your startup.

In summary, the key message here is that it ALWAYS takes a full team to succeed. And since you cannot by everywhere and bring your A game to every aspect of getting a successful business up and running, make sure that you get A players in all positions and show them faith and trust that they’re capable people who knows what’s needed to be successful.

That’s the best way for you to maximize your chances of success.

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The crisis plan

One of the worst things you can do is to try and make important decisions when you’re under great stress. While it can sometimes be necessary, the chances that you get it right are rather slim.

The best way to mitigate the risk of ending in that situation is to always have a contingency plan; a pretty straightforward plan that says what you are going to do if the shit hits the fan, and you need to get into full crisis mode.

Will the contingency plan always fit the crisis situation spot on? Of course not. But it will give you a much better vantage point to deal with the crisis from than – worst case – sheer panic.

A good contingency plan should focus on how you plan to deal with the really tough questions, if you need to:

How do you minimize your burn to the essentials without risking killing your company in the process? How do you deal with your team and let them in on what is happening in the best way possible? And following on from that: How do you scale your organization to the new reality in the best possible way?

These are all super hard decisions that no one are comfortable making. But by at least having given it some thought well in advance, when things are still looking good and going in the right direction, you’re able to address them with much more clear eyes and a sharp mind.

You can always hope and work towards ensuring that you will never get to use the plan. But at least you will have one. And that’s a huge difference.

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