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Secrets of When and How to Talk to Customers at a Startup

Posted by Bob Warfield on October 9, 2014

elephant-with-blind-menJason Lemkin says forget building wireframe UI’s and start out interviewing 20 customers, because you just won’t understand your customers until you do.  Here’s the gist of why you need 20 interviews before you do anything else:

And you have to do 20.  I know it’s hard to get to 20.  But it’s the right number:

  • You need the First 5 Interviews just to truly understand the white space and the current opportunity.  Yes, you probably think you already understand it.  But you are the vendor, not the purchaser.  You need to understand your prospective app from the purchaser’s perspective, for real.
  • You need the Next 5 Interviews to confirm your pattern recognition.  You learn from the first 5, you confirm in the next 5.
  • You need Interviews 11-20 to Nail Your Pitch and Hone Your Thesis.  Once you truly understand the white space from a buyer’s perspective, and you’ve figured out the nuances and challenges … it’s time to nail your pitch for real.  And by doing this, you’ll also hone your thesis and strategy.   That’s what interviews 11-20 are.  To get real critical feedback on what you’ve learned.  To learn about corner cases that may in fact be critical insertion points for you to win.  To dig in on what is really 10x better, not just 2x or 5x better.

And let me tell you, at least from my experience, don’t expect all 20 to be positive.  Many of My 20 Interviews in both my start-ups were very critical.  Or worse, lukewarm.  Lukewarm is even worse, because it says yeah it’s sort of interesting … but no way I’d buy … and implicitly … your idea is a huge waste of time.  I’d rather get the negative feedback ;)

I get the Steve Jobs thing.  You just have to build it.  You do.  But this is SaaS.  You’re solving a business’ problem.  They don’t know how to solve it, or what you should build.  But they do now how to express their problem.  Acutely, and thoughtfully.

Here’s the funny thing–in some ways I agree with Jason and in others I totally disagree.  It depends really on what it is you’re trying to learn from your 20 interviews.  Jason says you’re trying to understand the white space and the current opportunity and that you’re trying to nail your pitch and hone your thesis.  He’s thinking about it like a Sales Guy, more power to him, someone in your company ought to be.  But there’s more to life and startups than Sales Guys.

Here is what I worry about validating in the early days of any startup:

1.  What is the problem we’re trying to solve for customers?

2.  Is it a real problem?  Do a large portion of customers believe they have this problem?

3.  Will the solution we’ve imagined actually solve that problem?  Do the customers agree that it solves their problem?  Can we charge enough to make a real business for this solution?

4.  Do we have a pitch that communicates we have a real and effective solution quickly?

I see Jason’s 20 interviews as helping to solve #2 and #4, but not really making much impact on #1 and #3.  Moreover, I see #4 as being pretty tactical, unless, of course, you need that finely honed pitch to convince investors.  It’s tactical because we won’t need it until it’s actually time to get customers to deploy beta product.  In other words, we have quite a lot of time to solve it.  #3 is not so tactical.  In fact, if we don’t solve #3 right up front, we could easily spend the bulk of our time building a product that we think solves the customer’s problem but that customers aren’t confident in.

Let’s drop back and work on each one of these 4 critical questions and see how and when in the startup cycle they should be tackled.

1.  What is the problem we’re trying to solve for customers?

This is a tough one for many entrepreneurs.  I’ve seen a few decide to try to find a hard problem to solve by interviewing potential customers.  What keeps you up at night?  What do you hate about your job?

Ugh.  That seems so hit or miss.  None of the ones I met who’ve tried this got very far with it.  They got problems that software was just simply not the cure for or they got problems that are more conditions of the human race than anything.  Jason says customers, “Know how to express their problem.  Acutely, and thoughtfully.”  Actually, they don’t, not so much.  They know how to resonate with a problem that you’ve stated acutely and thoughtfully.  They know how to resonate when you state a problem as a near miss to how they really think about it.  But customers are not product designers nor company founders for the most part.  They’re severely myopic.  As Henry Ford famously put it,

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

So don’t rely on customers to tell you what the problem is.  Really on them to confirm you’ve found a problem they feel.  Later, they’ll remember it as you having discovered the problem from them, but that’s not really how it works most of the time.

There are a lot of reasons for this.  The myopia is one but another is they just don’t know much about the medium you work in–software.  They have little idea what software can do for them.  They think of most software in terms of software they already have, which is another form of myopia.

You are not going to figure out that problem, in all likelihood, through a few simply interviews.  You’re going to have to live the life of your customers for a while, walk in their shoes, and feel their pain.  You need to know their domain intimately, which is not something that’s going to happen in 20 interviews, no matter how good they are.  That’s how two great Sales Guys wound up creating two great CRM companies–Tom Siebel with Siebel Systems and Mark Benioff with Salesforce.com.  I interviewed with Tom Siebel when he had less than 20 employees and the one thing that was absolutely clear about the man was that he knew the domain and its problems cold.  That’s the kind of solid domain knowledge you really should have in your startup.  Who can you point to who has lived and breathed the problems and knows them cold?

Is that the only way?

No, there are plenty of exceptions.  There are proxies available too.  Finding a large online community of your desired customer can give you huge insights into what their world is all about.  What do they ask questions about most frequently?  What do they complain about frequently?  These communities are so helpful to startups both for gathering information as well as for getting out the word that I’m not sure I’d want to do a startup that couldn’t identify an online community specializing in its customers.  In this age of Content Marketing, it seems to me that such a community would be a very valuable indicator that the market was going to be reachable and at reasonable costs.  I don’t want to have to advertise or cold call my way into existence, though many have certainly done so.

To put this into the perspective of Jason’s 20 interviews, you need domain knowledge for your startup before anything else.  You won’t get it from the 20 interviews, and it is just table stakes that you have to find.  Maybe you’re counting on a founder for it.  Maybe you have the world’s ultimate advisory board.  Maybe you’ve sold to these poeple in a former life and know all about them.  Maybe you’ve spent a year studying and interacting with their online communities.  Whatever it is, you’d better have it.

 

2.  Is it a real problem?  Do a large portion of customers believe they have this problem?

Having gotten your domain knowledge together, you believe you’ve discovered a real problem.  Now that you can articulate that problem, it’s time to confirm it with potential customers.  Jason’s 20 interviews are perfect for this stage.  I don’t know that there is anything magical about 20 or that this even has to be done via interviews.  If you’re going to be using feet on the street to move your product (e.g. a scratch golfin’ highly paid salesforce), you should probably get started with interviews.  If your Sales Guy can’t line up 20 interviews in his sleep, there is something wrong, so may as well set him to the test.  If you weren’t planning to get a Sales Guy until later and you can’t line up 20 interviews on your own, you better get the Sales Guy sooner.  There’s a lot of good that comes from achieving the 20 interviews and here Jason and I agree wholeheartedly.

But in addition to 20 interviews, I highly recommend a few other things.

One of my mentors has used the method multiple times of creating a web site that’s all about the proposed problem and solution.  He sets it up like there’s a product ready to go, except there’s no way to order it.  You can simply request more information.  He gauges the quality of the idea by whether he can get many information requests.  And yes, he understands the need to do some tuning up before giving up.  This is a case where having online communities of your potential customers is awesome.  If you have a simulacrum site as described (looks like a real company and product), you can ask the folks in the community what they think of the company and idea.

If you don’t like that approach because it just feels a little too funky, try my approach.  I started a blog before I started my current company and I waited to see if I could drive significant traffic to that blog discussing the kinds of problems I wanted to solve.  I would talk about how people were solving their problems today, rather than how I proposed to solve them.  I measured traffic using all of the standard web analytics to see what resonated and what did not.  I built a lot of credibility and I had a following already in place that I leveraged to a significant Beta test and significant cash sales when I was finally ready to launch the product.  But, before I started building the product, I knew from how people were reacting to my writings that I understood the customers and their problems very well.  I achieved what I call “Content-Audience Fit” (a precursor to Product-Market Fit).  More about that below under #3.

 

3.  Will the solution we’ve imagined actually solve that problem?  Do the customers agree that it solves their problem?  Can we charge enough to make a real business with this solution?

Here’s where I probably disagree with Jason the most.  He says, “So if you haven’t started yet, as fun as it is to just build the wireframes and get a codin’ … do the 20 Interviews.”

Here’s my problem–as I’ve mentioned, the Customers really can’t articulate their problem unaided.  They can only resonate with your articulation.  We may have to agree to disagree on that, but figuring out how to resonate well is a huge function for Sales precisely because the customer can’t do it for themselves.  They often need help even in how to present it to each other to get buy-in within their organizations.  When you go interview them, you’re going to get a variation on the three blind men encountering an elephant for the first time.  One touches the trunk, and thinks it’s a snake.  Another touched the tale, and thinks it’s like a straw fan swishing back and forth.  While the third touched the legs and pronounced that elephants are like trees.

When it comes to envisioning a solution, especially in software, things get far worse.  At least they have all experienced the problem, even though it may appear to be a snake, a fan, or a tree.  But nobody outside your company even has a glimmering about your proposed solution.

I’ve done lots of focus groups over the years and lots of the kinds of interviews Jason talks about, and I am here to tell you it is pointless to do either if you expect to get feedback about a software solution unless you have at least some wireframes and storyboards to show.  With modern tools, it’s just not that hard to produce these things.  I’m working on our third product at CNCCookbook.  I was able to put together a UI prototype that is substantially what our finished product will be with about 6 weeks worth of effort.  It’s been hugely valuable in securing feedback for the product and I have learned an awful lot from it.  Perhaps the biggest problem it has is people start to mistake it for a finished solution or they assume it’ll be ready much sooner than it will and they get too excited.  They’re ready to buy immediately.

Yes, it may be fun to build wireframes, but it is also fun to have real meaningful conversations with prospective customers about your proposed solution.  You’re going to learn so much more about everything if you can do that around a real demo.  You’ll learn about positioning, sub-problems and edge cases that as Jason says are critical insertion points to win.  You’ll learn whether your proposed solution really fixes the customer’s problem in their eyes.  You’ll feed on the enthusiasm they have for what they see, and that enthusiasm is valuable fuel for your startup, for convincing critical new hires, and for any potential investors you may have.

If it’s really going to be hard for you to get interviews with 20 real prospective customers, people who are solid citizens in their markets and who are not your buddies.  People who will give you the straight scoop, help guide you, and who you’re hoping will be early adopters.  If it’s that important and that tough, I can’t imagine wanting to do it without bringing along a UI mock up.  It isn’t just my current venture, I have done this at every single one of the 7 startups I’ve been with.  I have done it for every new product release.  It’s actually integral to how I approach the Agile Software experience.

If your Sales Guy can’t get 20 meetings, get another one.  If your Product Guy can’t get you a UI prototype quickly, get another one there too.  Both are equally as important.

One more thing–that last part, “Can we charge enough to make a real business with this solution?”  That’s critically important to answer ASAP.  It’s also nearly impossible to get a very good answer to it without a UI prototype.  Yes, they will give you some answers, but I am talking about real answers that will hold water when it’s time to cash the checks. Don’t you want to know whether customers will pay up for what you’re going to build as early as possible?

 

4.  Do we have a pitch that communicates we have a real and effective solution quickly?

This is what I call “Content-Audience Fit“.  I believe achieving that fit needs to come ahead of finishing the product if for no other reason than that you won’t know if the product is finished nor will you be ready to efficiently leverage content for product traction unless you do.

Jason’s 20 meetings go towards this end, but it’ll take more than 20 to really nail your pitch.  Personally, I don’t like to burn real perspective customers, investors, or other scarce as hen’s teeth resources for a company if I can find another way to test this stuff out and perfect it.  The online world and Content Marketing are your gateway to doing so. Once you can resonate with those audiences, break out the Rolodex (kids you’ll have to look up what that is) and start asking for meetings.  You’ll be bringing to that meeting a laundry list of good-as-gold asssets:

-  By this point you have a UI prototype to demo.

-  You have verified that you can talk about the problem and with the audience with enough credibility that they’re at least starting to come to you for answers.

-  You’ve had the opportunity to test a number of things with your growing audience.  You’ve probably even been able to do some surveys.

-  You have a corpus of content that you can point potential meeting invitees to that helps establish your bona fides and gets the conversation off on the right track.  If done right, this can be a warm call and not a total cold call.

Most importantly, none of this is all that expensive or time consuming.  You can do it on your own nickel without waiting for a Series A VC round.  I know I have more than once.  I’d set a goal of 3-6 months to get to this point.  If everyone is firing on all cylinders, you’re producing good content, you’ve gotten through your UI prototype, and you’ve made contact with a decent sized audience, you’ve accomplished a lot at your startup.  You’re right where you need to be.  Now line up those 20 meetings, get in there and make those 20 people your first Beta tests, and hit the ball out of the park for them.  They’ll love you for it and you’ll have set the stage for your next 6 months as you drive to launching the Beta and eventually real Sales.

Posted in bootstrapping, business, enterprise software, saas, strategy, venture | Leave a Comment »

23 Great Websites for Entrepreneurs: Plus Some Radical Advice from an Entrepreneur-Bootstrapper

Posted by Bob Warfield on September 24, 2014

advice_bad timeI recently came across two giant lists of websites for entrepreneurs, courtesy of Jason Lemkin (whose blog is listed in both):

Inc.com 50

Forbes 100

Now for some radical advice: the vast majority of the sites listed in those publications won’t help the vast majority of entrepreneurs at all.  In fact, many of them will be counterproductive in the extreme depending on what your goals are.

I can already hear the refrain:

Whoa, hold it right there Bob–them’s fightin’ words!

True, to a certain extent, but hear me out before you pass hasty judgement.

The vast majority of the sites listed, and I went through both lists carefully, are of interest to those entrepreneurs that are dead set insistent on going the path of Venture Capital.  Nothing wrong with that–I’ve been down that road on the majority of companies I have founded–3 were VC funded and 1, my latest is bootstrapped.  But I always ask every would-be entrepreneur I meet why they want to do a VC-funded startup and I wish I had gotten around to bootstrapping a lot sooner than I did in my life.

I’m not here to sell you on bootstrapping versus VC.  I have other articles that talk about my bootstrapping experiences and there are certainly many who will talk to the virtues of each.  But what I will tell you is this–Venture Capital does not equate to success for entrepreneurs, you can be wildly successful without it, at least unless you need to do a deal that is tremendously world changing or that makes you hundreds of millions of dollars.  If millions of dollars and running your own show will suffice, bootstrapping is an easier and less risky way to get there.   Most of the good VC’s, the ones you’d want on your board, that I talk to will freely admit this.  They encourage lots of entrepreneurs whose ideas and companies are not suited to the VC model to carry on without VC.

When you show an idea to a VC, they are predisposed to see it in VC terms–would it be a good investment for their portfolio?  A lot of their advice is going to boil down to pushing the idea in a direction that makes it a better investment for VC, and this is not necessarily a direction that makes it a better investment for the entrepreneur.  Because of that, I think you, my entrepreneurial friend, need to figure out whether you want to do a pure bootstrap or bootstrap your way into a VC deal as early as possible.   Ideally, you want to figure it out from the start.  If you’re going to do a pure bootstrap, take those long lists of websites for entrepreneurs and cull them carefully.  Most of the blogs written by VC’s, while they can be fun to read, have no bearing or guidance to speak of for your venture.  You know, the one you’re funding out of your own pocket that can’t afford to get a bunch of eyeballs now and figure out how to monetize later.  There are sites listed that want to walk you through all sorts of legal things and other artifices that are really only relevant when there’s quite a lot of money in play.  Not necessarily money in the form of revenue, but money invested and the expectation of Big Money in the future.

So forget most of the VC authored blogs.  Forget blogs that seem to be mostly telling you how to raise VC.  If you don’t have the real deal, you can’t game the VC’s well enough to fool them and you’ll regret it if you do fool them.  Forget most of the blogs by guys who were successful VC founders who want to tell you what worked for them or what they think about everything.  Most of it is too high level and many first time success stories have no idea what they did right versus what was luck.  Forget the inside baseball and gossip rags. AllThingsD and Techcrunch have almost nothing to tell you if you’re not doing a VC-funded startup.  You don’t care who got funded for how much or who bought what for how much.  You don’t care about the latest Culture du Jour piece.  Forget the musings of rich guys who’ve forgotten more about being an entrepreneur than you’ll ever know.  Their vacations to Lake Cuomo may be fun to hear about, but how is that really helping YOU to succeed?  And skip the self-help pump-you-up pieces.  If that stuff works for you, great, but attitude is not enough, and if you don’t really have the eye of the tiger deep down, you better get it before you start down the entrepreneurship road.  You get the idea of what I want to leave out from those big website lists.  Yes, it’s radical and harsh, but what should be left in are sites that give you real actionable insight into how to grow your business.

Let’s face the other thing–the vast majority of small businesses that start up in the world don’t have the luxury of VC money.  They’re restuarants, retailers, machine shops, auto garages, and a host of other things.  This is the world my own bootstrapped company (CNCCookbook) works with.  These people could care less about things that will only work if you can invest millions of dollars over time.  They don’t ever expect to be running a billion dollar company (or maybe they do and don’t want to give away most of it to their financiers).  They’re having the time of their lives starting and running their own businesses.

It is for the audience of those people (having the time of their lives running their own businesses) as well as for any Venture-funded businesses that are interested, that I have put together my own high octane feedstock of sites that will help you build your business.  These are tried and true sites that I read religiously because their insights are actionable and they make me think.  You want deep strategy and tactics that can be made to work for any business, not just VC businesses.  They are in no particular order, so here goes.

Saastr

I have to give Jason the nod here.  After all, he did put me on to writing this article and I do read his blog religiously.  There are many ideas there that are only suited to VC startups, but there are also ideas that I’ve found actionable for my own business.  Jason is a VC, but he did a number of startups before that and it is his operational knowledge that he largely shares.  We go back and forth and I often disagree, but it is always interesting.  Do a search here on Smoothspan for “Jason” and you’ll see some of what I have written about his thinking.  Better yet, just subscribe to his blog in your reader.

Seth Godin’s Blog

If you don’t read anything else, stop, do not pass Go, do not collect $200–read Seth Godin’s Blog!  The daily posts are short and pithy.  Taken in total they constantly explore every aspect of Godin’s unique tribal approach to marketing.  He understands marketing at its core in the way the every small business needs to understand it.  Read his stuff.  Let it provoke your thoughts.  Let it seep in constantly.  It will do you no harm and probably a lot of good.

Firehose Press

This blog is a total unknown.  It’s unadorned and has no editorial content of its own whatsoever.  It’s one of my blogs.  I list it early in this list, because it is a shortcut of sorts.  You see, Firehose Press is what I’d call a “clippings” blog.  I post a brief excerpt of every blog article about building a business or marketing and sales that was valuable to me on Firehose Press.  Believe me, I have a couple of hundred blogs in my reader and having somebody curate all that for you can save a lot of time.  The only question you need to ask is whether my taste in curation results in articles helpful to you.  The answer is easy enough–go look at it and decide.

Signal vs Noise

These guys have some of the original great material on Bootstrapping that really got me fired up to do a Bootstrap.  They are not as prolific on the topic as they once were, but they’re still a good read.  Aside from bringing Ruby on Rails into the world, they’ve built a great company and lifestyle for themselves.  All entrepreneurs should be so lucky.  If you’re on the road to VC and read blog’s like AVC, the corollary for the bootstrapper would be blogs like this one.

Techmeme

I deleted so many other blogs of limited value to me (Techcrunch, ReadWrite, and many others) simply because Techmeme catches and serves up their best stuff.  I scan the headlines quickly and frankly delete most of it.  But at least if I’m off to lunch with a fellow Silicon Valley cohort, I will have heard about the trending topics.  And frequently, I latch onto a whole new source of the really good stuff because it popped on Techmeme.

Totango

These guys are on to some radical thinking.  They want to tie marketing (of a sort) with the customer experience as it unfolds pre- and post-sale.  Being able to do this well is one of the many things that I think will really separate the awesome products from the also-rans.  Read it and think about what they’re doing and how it applies to your software.  I certainly did!

KissMetrics

Analytical marketing insights and ideas.

The Buffer

Productivity hacks for marketing and social media.  My business doesn’t get great value out of Social Media, though I have experimented with it a lot.  Having a resource that helps me squeeze a lot out while investing as little as possible is helpful.

Succesful Software

Andy Brice is a fellow bootstrapper who often has some great insights for that life, at least for software bootstrappers.

Moz Blog

When the Gods of SEO speak, it usually shows up here.  As a dedicated content and inbound marketer, I hang on their every word.  Seriously, SEO is easier than you think and you can do it yourself without a high paid consultant if you pay attention.

SaaS Growth Strategies

More good basic marketing for software companies.  Much of it would work for many kinds of companies.

QuickSprout

Neil Patel can have a lot of good insights to share, but I warn you in advance, you have to penetrate his wall of Marketing Spam to get there.  His site demos every trick in the book to sell you while you’re trying to dodge all those “Let me close you now!” bullets and get a little value.  It’s worth it, but don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Marketing Experiments

Sometimes I just need an idea, something quick to implement or A/B test.  You know, a marketing “snack” I can get done quickly and see if it helps.  Plenty of inspiration for that here.

Marketing Technology Blog

It’s not just about Marketing Technology–lots of actionable strategy and tactics may be found here.

Jeff Bulla’s Blog

Tons of marketing and selling ideas for small business.

Inbound Hub

I love inbound marketing, and these guys popularized it and IPO’d a company on it.  There’s good info here.  With that said, quality seems to have diminished a bit in favor of quantity.  Scan the headlines and cherry pick–there’s still plenty of ripe tasty insights to be had here.

I Love Split Testing

More A/B testing ideas to snack on.  Your business needs to constantly be trying new experiments to optimize its marketing.  Get this kind of feed stock stimulating ideas ASAP.

Heidi Cohen

Great ideas from Heidi for Content Marketing.

Digital Marketing Blog

Every business needs more growth.  Digital Marketing is the cheapest way to get there, so take in all you can stand about the subject.

CopyBlogger

More great ideas for Content Marketing.

Convince and Convert

Content Marketing and Social Media.  Great content on those topics and surprising candor about how some of these things are not always the perfect Silver Bullet.

ClickTale Blog

Take a sexy technology that tracks what user’s are doing on your site almost better than the users even realize and you get some worthwhile insights.

Smoothspan Blog

Another shameless plug for my own content.  Smoothspan frequently covers Strategy as it pertains to this world of entrepreneurship.  The thing about good strategy is its hard to come by, but it is so valuable when you can get a true strategic insight.  Or, as I heard someone say one time:

Strategy is what we do to make winning easy.

I’m a student of Strategy, so I write it up often.

Conclusion:  What’s Here and What’s Missing?

If you made it this far, you will realize that a tremendous number of those websites have to do with helping your business grow.  Many of the things on the Forbes and Inc lists had little to do with that.  They might refer you to sites with CPA terms (I kid you not) or perhaps sites that tell a small business how to secure health insurance.  These are all valuable things, I’m sure, but they’re not life-threatening for small businesses and entrepreneurs.  They’re not problems that can ultimately never be solved, only worked away at indefinitely.  Growth is that sort of problem.  It is both life threatening and a problem you will probably never solve.  You’ll always want more growth and if you stop trying to drive it, your business will likely slow down.  So get used to the idea of constantly absorbing and evaluating new ideas for growth.  It’s all part of being an entrepreneur and it is the oxygen your business needs to keep going.

Posted in bootstrapping, business, strategy, venture | Leave a Comment »

Most Marketing Advice Tells Us How to Market to Marketers

Posted by Bob Warfield on August 18, 2014

free_lunchThink about it–the experts out there writing marketing advice as part of their content marketing strategies are all selling something.  They’re either selling software, consulting, or some other product.  And the audience they’re selling to are marketers.

Sure, many of them have practices or history that involved marketing to non-marketers, but right now what they’re doing is talking about how to market and the audience for that is other marketers.

I noticed a long time ago that what they were saying didn’t work for my own bootstrapped company (CNCCookbook).  It was fascinating to me when things that were repeated so often they seemed like gospel didn’t do me a bit of good, or worse, they actually lowered my conversion rates.

Here are some examples:

-  Infographics:  They’re all the rage.  Personally, I hate them because I am usually reading blogs on an iPad where they take too long to download and then you scroll and scroll and scroll.  But, the intelligentsia largely argues that whizbang infographics are some of the best content you’ll ever produce.  So I have dutifully produced a fair number of them and they’ve all yielded sub-par results.  There are likely a lot of reasons for it.  For example, when marketing to marketers, a lot of the audience are marketers marketing to more marketers.  An infographic that can be shared can have a trickle-down effect in that sort of niche.  In my world, I actually have by far the largest blog in my space and most of the other blogs are by stodgy corporations that aren’t about to share someone else’s infographic.  Disclosure:  I decided to write this article more or less in response to a Neil Patel article on how he is finding Infographics less effective over time too.

-  Controversy:  Lots of authorities have recommended controversy as a way to get read.  Some hugely popular blogs are so snarky I can hardly stand to read them sometimes.  Given my own personal distaste for this kind of thing, I haven’t done much of it, but I did feel it was being recommended so much that I had to at least test it for results.  Nada.  No interest.  Come to think of it, Neil Patel discovered some shortcomings here too.

-  Social Media: I’m down to running robots that post my blog posts at this stage.  Any more investment has never shown much result. Every time Facebook tweaks their algorithm you get less reach and it makes even less sense.  Twitter has never performed for me.  I remain convinced a huge percentage of Twitter users are bots that are incapable of being my customers, and recent Twitter disclosures seem to confirm this.  At best I regard Social Media as an alternative to RSS Readers and Email for a very tiny sliver of my audience.

- AdWords: Never seen these be productive. All the good keywords are hugely expensive due to competition. If you try to go too far out on the long tail, Google refuses to deal with those words saying there isn’t enough traffic.  I was so not surprised to read that eBay cancelled all their AdWords and it didn’t affect revenues.  Of course Google then levied a bunch of search penalties on them for having publicized this and they missed a quarter.

- Removing navigation from landing pages. I’ve tested this many times and every time it reduced the conversion rate. Hard to tell for sure from the analytics, but the bounce rates went up like crazy. My audience are highly technical, have lots of questions, and just didn’t like being stuck on the page with nowhere to go for more information.

-  Headlines on Landing Pages.  This one has been particularly frustrating.  I’m supposed to tell them what problem I am solving in clear and concise terms.  I have tested that endlessly and it gets poor results.  My audience is happiest (so far, I will keep testing this one for years) with a headline that too me seems far from benefit-speak, “Get the Latest Technology.”  I’ve paraphrased it so I don’t have to tell the back story, but that’s it in a nutshell.  People aren’t supposed to respond to that kind of thing.  Who cares what the latest technology is, what solves MY problem?  Yet it consistently beats every benefit-oriented headline I have ever tested, usually by a wide margin.

So what’s the answer?  Should we ignore all the marketing advice?  Should we maybe do the opposite of what they say?

The answer is not nearly so black and white, and if you think it is, you run the risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

What every marketer has to realize (if they don’t already) is that every niche is different.  All of this Marketing Advice that’s available is great, but it isn’t gospel at all.  It’s just ideas.  The one critical deliverable you have to bring to the table to be a successful Marketer is some mechanism that takes all those ideas you want to try and effectively separates the wheat from the chaff.  That’s really the essence of Growth Hacking as I see it.  And the tools you need to do that work have to be Analytics and A/B Testing coupled with a keen analytical mind that thinks in these sorts of terms.  That keen analytical mind is particularly crucial because it is an art and a talent to devise experiments and then gain accurate actionable insights from them.  If you introduce too many variables (often unwittingly), your experiment may not be telling you what you think it is.  This is one reason why I test the Big Gospel ideas many times before I conclude they’re just not working for me.

So, by all means, collect the accumulated wisdom that’s out there, but verify that it actually works for your niche and your business.  I guess that’s what they mean by, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.”

PS

I keep clippings of all the good marketing articles I find in a special blog called “Firehose Press.”  Check it out for a ton of good ideas, and remember, your mileage may vary!

Posted in business, Marketing, service | 1 Comment »

Best Way to Succeed as a Solopreneur: Go For Fewer Customers

Posted by Bob Warfield on July 29, 2014

I’m reading with interest some posts that are hot on Techmeme at the moment from Jared Sinclair and Marco Arment about succeeding with iOS apps and as a Solopreneur.  Jared’s blog post is a cautionary tale for those who would like to bootstrap a small venture well enough to quit their day jobs.

Many weigh in with various comments and based on his latest post, it looks like Jared was inundated with a bunch of notes from people who thought he just didn’t market the app enough.

I’ve been a solopreneur with some part-time helpers trying to make the gig into a multi-person bootstrap for some years now.  I’ve managed to create a business that now throws off more cash than I’ve gotten at any Day Job I ever had short of being an exec at a public company.  It’s been an extremely happy experience and I thank my lucky stars and my awesome customers every day for making it possible.  I want to talk through what Jared has bravely reported about his venture and compare it to what’s different about my own CNCCookbook and talk about how I think those differences matter to a successful solopreneur.

First the Results of Both Companies

Jared starts out presenting his financial results from his iOS app, Unread:

FirstYearSalesUnread

Unread Cumulative Sales in the First Year…

It’s pretty easy to see why Jared is unhappy–most of the action happens shortly after he shipped the initial application.  Yes, there’s steady growth afterward, but the actual sales per week or month (remember, the graph is cumulative) had to be pretty disappointing if you want to live off that income.  The app only costs $4.99, so Unread has actually been extremely successful in terms of the number of customers it has attracted–looks like somewhere between 6,000 and 7,000.

I wanted a way to provide some similar insight into CNCCookbook’s apps, but I’m not as interested in Jared in giving away my exact finances (sorry folks, you’ll just have to do some back of envelope calculating to figure it out).  Here is the cumulative graph of software license years sold for CNCCookbook’s software:

CNCCookbookCumLicYearsSold

CNCCookbook Cumulative License Years Sold…

I’ve been at it for a few years now, and the growth has been steady, almost hockey-stick-like–this is a very happy business!  The big bump between 10/22/12 and 10/22/13 reflects the launch of our second product.  I’m hoping to get another bump like that in the next 6-12 months as I launch our 3rd product.

With all that said, I want to make some suggestions about what I think has made CNCCookbook successful.

Suggestion #1:  Lead With Subscription Pricing for Recurring Revenue

First, what is a “software license year sold?”  CNCCookbook sells both subscriptions and perpetual (you buy the software for life with one payment).  Recurring revenue is essential for Solopreneurs because it means they’re getting new revenue without much new work other than keeping the software vibrant and useful.  Getting new customers is hard work.  In a minute I’ll discuss how CNCCookbook goes about it, but suffice it to say I have created a business where my biggest problem is having enough software to sell my customers moreso than getting the new customers.  Part of that is due to the recurring revenue stream.  If you’re a fan of the SaaS/subscription model as I am, you’ll realize that once one of these revenue engines gets up sufficient momentum, they’re almost unstoppable.

So, my graph shows how many years of subscription were cumulatively sold for both products over time.  I plugged in a figure of “6″ for any lifetime sale because that’s more or less how I think about my lifetime pricing.

Suggestion #2:  You’ll Want Perpetual Pricing Too, and the Subscription Helps Justify a High Price For It

 FWIW, I mostly wind up selling the lifetime version during sales, but that’s okay too because having a fairly expensive lifetime version does a couple of things.  One, it addresses the needs of customers who just don’t like getting tied to a stream of payments.  This is a very real audience, and if you don’t give them an out, you’re not going to reach them.  Why not choose a perpetual price where they’d have to keep resubscribing for so many years before you come out ahead that everyone can see it as a win-win situation?  Why leave the perpetual hole open for a competitor to come in and take over?  Once you have both pricing models, it gives your customers options.  Do they prefer to preserve cash flow?  My subscriptions do that, just like the lease vs buy decision on a car.

Suggestion #3:  Find the Sweet Spot on Price and Insist On It.  You Probably Want Fewer Customers Willing to Pay More.

My first product offering was $69 for one year.  It seemed like a lot to me at the time, but it wasn’t.  It was actually less than the product was worth–I raised that to $79 with no impact on the units whatsoever.  More importantly, it was and is too low for a business you want to have be your sole occupation.  This gets me to the point of my headline–figure out a business model that requires as few customers as you can easily sell to achieve your financial goals.  Jared’s Unread sells for $4.99–pretty typical for an iOS app.  But it took him almost a year of very hard work to produce it and it isn’t paying the bills.  It’s not really a matter of promotion–he has a ton of customers.  It’s a matter of the customers not paying him enough cash for each sale.

A solopreneur can only touch so many people.  You can only get the word out so far.  There is an upper limit on how many people you will have a chance to sell to when you launch, and on how fast you can grow that audience over time.  You need to be cognizant of that fact and find a product opportunity that can be priced accordingly.  Be brutally honest about how many customers you can close.  Forget models that require too many.

Advertising?  Fuhgeddabout it.  No hope in heck.  I’ve estimated that charging for your product is about 2000 times more effective than giving it away free and relying on advertising revenue.  Why make your job 2000 times harder?  It’s so attractive to sell Free until you realize the sheer magnitude of scale you must achieve.  Those are VC-only deals, folks.

Cheap Phone Apps.  Based on the information I’ve seen, Jared’s information, the problems with finding apps in the app store, and the platform owner’s huge tax of 30% on sales, I am strongly thinking phone apps are not a good target for bootstrapping or solopreneurs.  It’s too hard to market the apps, the platform owner has too much control over the walled garden, they get too big a share of your revenues (30% is huge if they’re not driving huge demand your way, and they’re not), and you aren’t able to charge nearly enough in most cases.

Phone apps have been a dilemma for me in my own business.  My audience would love one.  I have done the work to actually keep one code line running on PC, Mac, iOS, and Android, and there has even been a prototype run on iOS.  But the thought of the work involved finishing the app and questions of whether I’ll be cannibalizing my existing sales with sales that have a 30% tax to Apple or some other big guy has given me pause.  The project has been on indefinite hold while I look at other more promising ways to invest my time.

To get an idea of what you need to charge, look at some successful bootstrappers.  Take Basecamp–it’s $150 a month.  There are cheaper plans, but they limit the number of projects.  Eventually you will be likely to upgrade.  At $150 a month, you only need about 140 customers to be making $250K a year.  I see all these Solopreneurs talking about their $60K a year businesses and wonder why they aren’t aiming higher.

Or, if you have something with more mass market appeal, say like Smugmug, you an charge $40-300 a year.  It’s going to take a lot more customers than Basecamp, but if their average sale is say $60 a year, that’s about 4200 customers to do the $250K a year.  Given how many love photography, that again seems like manageable adoption to be able to succeed.  Either number is a lot fewer than Jared has already sold.

I mention that I thought my pricing was too low and I mean it.  $79 a year requires me to find 3200 customers to get to $250K per year.  It can be done, but I surely didn’t get there in 1 year or even 2 years.

If I had my druthers, I’d be looking for a niche that needs circa 1000 to 2000 customers to get to that $250K.  Hence, we are charging $125 to $250 a year or at least $99 a month.  Look around.  There are quite a few SaaS businesses at $99 a month.  I use a bunch of them to help me with CNCCookbook marketing–Wordpress hosting service Page.ly, SurveyMonkey, MailChimp, my shopping cart provider, etc., etc..

Things are priced where they are for a reason, and not simply because it’s what the market will bear.  It is not only what the market will bear, but it is also what can support a happy healthy growing business.

Suggestion #4:  Debug the Marketing and the Market Before You Ever Write A Product

Many solopreneurs are software developers.  I tell my non-developer friends about my business and they are envious, but can’t see how a marketer can get a product written without paying an engineer, at which point they’re no longer solo.  Engineers, OTOH, seem to think they can bump along and do a decent job of marketing.  As my marketer friends are fond of saying–everyone consumes marketing so everyone thinks they are an expert on it.

Here’s the thing: as a software developer, you know you can get the product built.  That’s pretty low risk.  It’s fun to dive in and start slinging code and pretty soon the demo starts showing some life.  But so what?  As I said, you know you can get the product out.  What you don’t know are two very important things:

1.  Are you solving a problem anyone cares about?

2.  Can you successful reach that audience to sell them your product?

Now here is the truly amazing thing:  you can answer both questions with very high confidence as a solopreneur in a relatively short time.  You can even do it fairly comfortably while holding down your Day Job–even better.

There’s a short list of tools and skills you’ll need to master that I’ll get to shortly, but in order to solve those two big marketing problems, you need one critical talent:

You’ve got to be able to tell a story people want to listen to, and you have to be able to do it in writing.

If you can’t tell a story people want to listen to, I think your future as a solopreneur is probably not going to go well because you’re going to be left either needing someone else to tell your story or just buying advertising.  I keep playing with advertising every six months or so.  I am very analytical and well versed in how to do it.  I have conversion hacked landing pages with great results and done tons of A/B ad testing to try to improve the results.  My conclusion each time I try the experiment is that it just isn’t very profitable.  It costs me so much to sell a customer using AdWords that it is hardly worth it.  I’ve talked to a slew of bootstrappers, and their mileage varies.  Many report something similar.  Many do not keep good enough analytics to even know, they just budget for it and spend the money, hoping it will work.  I guess if you want to depend on ads, this is also something you can know up front.  You can try ads that lead to a page and see what it costs you to get people to that page.  The trick is in what they do when they get there.  In my case, they sign up for a free trial.  That’s one conversion event.

The next thing is to convert them from the free trial to a paying customer.  That’s a second conversion event.  I do very well on the latter–about 20% of free trials become paying customers, which is very decent.  Where I fail is getting enough ad click throughs converted to the free trial relative to what the ad costs.  You can do the math:

1.  The ad costs $1.50 per click through, for example.

2.  The page converts 27% to click through to the trial signup.  Conversions for me are better if they don’t sign up on the landing page–that’s being too pushy for my audience.

3.  Once on the trial page, 25% successfully register for the trial.

4.  As mentioned, 20% of the trials convert to paying.

So if I get $79 for the sale, I can afford to pay $79 * 20% * 25% * 27% = about $1 to break even.  $1.50 is very unprofitable.  Even if I can buy ads for 50 cents, which I very seldom can, it still seems like I am giving Google the Lion’s Share of my hard work.   OTOH, if I am Basecamp, all that changes because I am looking at an annual value of $150 * 12 = $1800.  I can afford to pay quite a lot for advertising in that case.

Working through those numbers is how you debug advertising as a marketing possibility.  There’s still one other big advertising drawback even if you can afford it: it doesn’t create a sustainable marketing asset.  Once the ad has run, you quit getting value from it and you must spend more money on ads.  That’s one reason why I much prefer inbound or content marketing.  If you create great Evergreen content, and own the searches for those subjects, you own a marketing asset that keeps on giving without your having to do much.  You can spend time adding even more Evergreen content.  That model scales well for the solopreneur and small resource-limited bootstrap.

With that model, you’re relying on giving away great free information to attract people via referrals and search engine traffic.  This is the one you can really debug well without even starting a product.  This is the one where you need to be able to tell a story.  The reason is that you can start a blog aimed at your audience with an email mailing list for that blog and find out what works.  Do they care about a problem you want to solve with a product?  Write articles about the problem and see if anyone comes to the party.  Can you reach this market?  Go forth, read the relevant blogs, visit the relevant social sites, and find out what they’re talking about.  Find out what they’re interested in.  Start talking about that on your blog.  If they show up, start building your readership.  Collect their emails and start a weekly blog digest newsletter. Track your progress.

Now do some more back of envelope.  How many do you need in your fold?  I’ve typically been able to sell 4 or 5% of the folks on my email newsletter a new product.  So if I must sell 1000 to reach my financial goal, I had better have 20,000 folks reading my email newsletter.  I recommend you spend 6 months to a year building up your online content (blog) and building your newsletter before you even start writing your product.  Get a sense of how long at your current growth rates it will take you to have enough that you can meet your financial goals and plan it so that by the time you finish the product, the audience are already there, eating popcorn in their seats, and waiting to see what you can offer them.

This is what I mean by debugging the Market and Marketing before you start a product.  Nothing could be more frustrating than to turn in a ton of cubic hours building a sweet product only to have it fall far short of your financial goals for it.  You need to discover whether you can tell stories well (or write ad copy or whatever) enough to attract an audience without a product.  If you can do that and give them a sweet product,  you’re much more likely to succeed.

What about those skills and tools I mentioned?  Yeah, there’s time to figure all that out too during that 6 months to a year when you start creating content.  You have to figure out how to run a blog, (I have 4 or 5 kicking around here somewhere).  Just go get WordPress, don’t even mess with anything else.  Figure out how to use plugins.  Don’t write custom code, that’s a distraction.  You need to figure out how to collect the emails.  That’s a WordPress plugin plus an email service.  I use AppSumo’s List Builder (not here, on the CNCCookbook blog) and MailChimp.  Then there’s all the techniques of creating landing pages that convert and SEO and all that jazz.  It’s not that hard.  Seriously.  I have a clipping blog I call Firehose Press.  Every single great marketing how-to article I have ever read is there.  Read it and digest it and you will know nearly everything I know about marketing.  Go back over the articles in this Smoothspan blog.  There’s plenty of posts that chronicle various epiphany’s I’ve had about marketing along the way.

Conclusion

I didn’t write this article to knock Jared’s efforts–he’s done well by getting so many customers.  He obviously built a sweet app.  If I were to suggest differences, it would be in two areas.  Jared had wanted to succeed with his launch and with blog and social media mention.  In my mind, that’s too passive.  You have to create an engine that you can control with a throttle you can push when you need to.  My throttle is to write more and better content.  I suspect that the lack of controller marketing that could be invested in is what made Jared’s sales graph so flat, while a price that was too low is what made it so hard to live on the revenue from the product.

I didn’t write it to beat my chest about what I’m doing.  It doesn’t matter, it isn’t that big a thing, and I don’t believe it will help CNCCookbook in any way despite what some marketing folk say about such things.

I wrote it because I love being a solopreneur and bootstrapper.  I think it is the greatest thing since sliced bread.  I’d really like to see as many people as possible get a shot at it, so I’m trying to pass along what I’ve learned along the way.

As always, there are many strategies that work.  I certainly don’t have the One True Path.  But if I’ve helped clarify things even a little bit, then I will have accomplished what I wanted and I thank you for your patience reading through the post.

Posted in bootstrapping, business, Marketing, strategy | 5 Comments »

Microsoft: World’s Worst Customer Service? (Walmart, Amazon, GE, BestBuy, MacMall, and Paypal Not Far Behind)

Posted by Bob Warfield on July 28, 2014

microsoft-surface-pro-3I recently tried and failed for the fifth time to buy a Microsoft Surface Pro 3.  It’s been a real comedy of errors, but the latest attempt has been by far the most spectacular failure.

Let me start out by saying I really like the Microsoft Surface Pro 3.  I am a perfect candidate for it as I would like to replace the combination of my Macbook Air and iPad with just one device for travel and for demos of my software away from the office.  The business I’m in is software for the CNC Manufacturing world, and while my own software runs on both Mac and PC, most from that world is PC-only.  Hence a device about the size of an iPad that can run desktop Windows software would be a real boon.  The Surface reviews I’ve read have been largely positive, and I played with one at a Microsoft store for long enough to feel like I would be very productive on it.  The keyboard was great and I had little trouble dealing with the Win 8 differences everyone is complaining so much about.  So I resolved to get one.

In fairness, all of my problems have stemmed from one little wrinkle in how I wanted to buy the device.  I’m looking at about $1500 all in, and I wanted an interest free for 12 months deal–the same kind of deal I used to purchase my Macbook Air.  My business is steadily growing and I like the idea of charging most of the cost to the larger version of the business that will exist down the road.  These offers all involve signing up for a credit card, with my Apple Macbook Air it was really no big deal.  I recently had paid off the Macbook Air and so time to get another device.

Here’s what happened.

Fail #1:  Best Buy

Despite haunting the Microsoft Store since the Surface launched in hopes of their offering a deal, no joy.  So I started Googling and wound up at Best Buy.  Looked great, so I attempted to make the purchase.  The online credit card app simply froze up the browser and would neither confirm nor deny I would be able to do the transaction.  Geez, how can a company the size of Best Buy have IT producing forms like this that flat don’t work?  Seems like they’re wasting a lot of opportunity if it happens to very many.

Fail #2:  Walmart

A little more Googling and I discover that Walmart has the same deal.  Great.  Except, oh oh, same problem–the credit card app just fails.  Takes all the info, hit the button to go for it, and nothing happens.  I’m now starting to wonder if the problem isn’t some common third party?  It doesn’t really matter, both these two retail behemoths have lost a $1500 transaction for a stupid reason–their web site didn’t work.

Fail #3:  Amazon

At this point I am thinking it can’t be that hard, SOMEBODY must do this.  So I tried Amazon.  Aha!  They’re offering the no interest deal I want!

I filled out all the information to apply, the application worked (I guess Amazon knows a lot more about software than Best Buy or Walmart), but it turned out to be bait and switch.  Buried in the fine print is a notice that GE Capital would only finance $500 of my $1500 purchase.  Now I have a GE Credit card that will get shredded and never used.  That has to be sub-optimal for both GE and Amazon–they went to all the trouble and cost but are getting no revenue from me.  Not to mention a $500 limit is insulting.  Amazon knows I spend a fortune with them on all sorts of things including Amazon Web Services and have never missed a payment.  Come on guys, do your computers talk at all?  Why offer this stupid $500 credit card on a $1500 purchase?

Fail #4:  PayPal + BillMeLater + MacMall

I went back to the PayPal site to process some orders for my business, and noticed BillMeLater being advertised.  Wow!  I had seen the ads come up every time I had paid for something with PayPal, but I generally just pay cash and had more or less ignored them.  They have a product search that will plug you into a BillMeLater transaction with some merchant that has what you want.  I promptly searched for “Microsoft Surface Pro 3″ and got vectored onto MacMall.  Hmmm, that’s kind of odd to buy a PC from a company that sounds like a Mac company, but why not?  I was getting pretty tired of the chase by now.  I started down the path and promptly noticed I was only going to get 6 months interest free, but again, I was beaten down and ready to do a transaction, so I went ahead.  Filled out all the forms, yada, yada, and BOOM!  I was back to Fail #1 and Fail#2:  PayPal reported that they couldn’t complete the transaction for unspecified reasons (like those other credit card apps just freezing up) and I should try again later.  WTF?!??

Fail #5:  Microsoft + PayPal

Is this becoming Epic Fail, or what?  It’s almost comical by this point.  But, the best is the final episode (so far) and involves Microsoft and Paypal.  I was still focused on the idea of using BillMeLater and it was a new day.  So I had the idea of just seeing who would sell me a Surface Pro 3 and let me pay with PayPal.  I tried Microsoft first, and sure enough.  Excellent!

So I hopped on, performed the transaction, got to the part where you pay PayPal, and for the first time ever (I have made hundreds of PayPal purchases) I saw almost nothing of PayPal and never got the opportunity to use BillMeLater.  Bloody Hell!

I immediately went to PayPal and cancelled the transaction.  There’s a button right there and they accepted and confirmed the cancellation.  Then I went back to the Microsoft Store.  Not so easy to cancel there, I had to call  the dreaded 800 number and wait.  But eventually I got a Service Agent and after answering many strange questions, she assured me that the transaction was cancelled, and that she couldn’t really help me in any way to purchase a Surface with 12 month no interest financing or even to use BillMeLater to make the purchase.  Gee thanks, Microsoft.

So I’m thinking this is pretty silly.  Microsoft must want to be moving these stupid devices and should be making it easier, right?  Maybe I would just go lob a suggestion in to them and maybe someone would get back in touch with me with the right stuff.  I searched in vain both the Microsoft site and the Microsoft Store site for some place I could make the suggestion.  Apparently they are not at all interest in hearing from customers.  I guess I should’ve expected that after getting this far.

Fail #6:  Microsoft + PayPal, Again

This morning I logged into my computer to find 3 email message from Microsoft–a return authorization, a notice that the cancellation had failed, and another notice telling me I should just refuse deliver on the shipment.  Oh boy.  You would think Microsoft could manage to process a cancellation that happened within minutes of an order to avoid needlessly shipping physical goods to a customer who doesn’t want them.  No joy.  So then I bopped over to PayPal to confirm that my cancellation of the prior day was still in place.  The report had been updated to say they were going ahead and paying Microsoft.  WTF?!??  Really?  After both organizations had confirmed the cancellation the prior day?  Are you kidding me?

Now I’m angry.  Both these behemoths had clear instructions from me and had accepted and confirmed.  So, I called PayPal Customer Service.  A nice lady eventually picked up (yeah, lots of voice menus for THEIR convenience) and she confirmed from her screen that I had indeed cancelled payment.  Why then, does my report show this as a transaction that will be paid and why is the cancellation no longer showing?  Well, it looks like the transaction went through before the cancellation could take effect was the response.  OK, why does my balance still not reflect a deduction for the payment then if it’s too late to cancel 24 hours after the cancellation went in and was accepted?  “I’m sorry sir, but it is too late to cancel.  You’ll have to wait 48 hours to see if the seller has refunded your money and if they haven’t, you could file a dispute at that point.”

 

Conclusion

I was really pretty excited about getting a Surface Pro 3 when I started this trek.  I’m shocked at just how many organizations screwed up their Customer Experience along the way and at just how low the bar is set for that Customer Experience to be acceptable to them.  It can’t possibly be a good thing for sales of the Surface for there to be this much friction in the process.  I am hopeful that some one of the organizations involved will read this and contact me with a solution I’d like, but at the same time, I don’t think I’ll hold my breath.

Macbook Air and iPad?  You’ve got a solid year ahead of you still.  Maybe I’ll just wait until the Surface Pro 4.

Posted in amazon, apple, business, customer service, gadgets, Marketing, microsoft surface, mobile, strategy | Leave a Comment »

Authentication as a Service: Slow Progress, But Are We There Yet?

Posted by Bob Warfield on July 11, 2014

BankVaultSmallAuthentication as a Service solves a problem every Cloud Developer, mobile or desktop, has to solve.  As one player in the space, AuthRocket, puts it:

Do you really want to write code for users, forgotten passwords, permissions, and admin panels again?

To that I would add, “Do you really want to have to be a world class expert on that stuff to make sure you don’t leave some gaping security hole out of ignorance?”  I think the answer is a resounding, “NO!” to both questions.  Why do it in this world of Agile Development, Lean Startups, and Minimum Viable Products?  It’s one of those things everyone does (and should do) pretty much the same way from a user’s perspective, so there is no opportunity for differentiation.  You have to do it right because the downside of security problems is huge.  You have to do it right up front to protect your customer’s data and your investment (so nobody gets to use your products for free).  There’s basically very little upside to rolling your own (it’ll only slow you down) and tremendous downside.  Hence, you’d like to buy a service.

I keep going around this block for my own company’s (CNCCookbook) products, and I surely would like to get off that merry g0-round.  I wanted to buy this some time ago, and have written about it for quite a while.  For example, in an article I wrote 4 years ago on PaaS Strategy (Platform as a Service), I suggested login would be an ideal service for a pass to offer with these world:

Stuff like your login and authentication subsystem.  You’re not really going to try to build a better login and authentication system, are you?

I sound just like AuthRocket there, don’t I?  I’m sure that’s not the earliest mention I’ve made, because I’ve been looking for this stuff for a long time now.  As I say, I had to roll my own because I couldn’t find a good solution.  I would still like to replace the solution that CNCCookbook uses with a nice Third-Party service.  I only have few very generic requirements:

-  It has to offer what I need.  Basically that’s Email + Password login with all the account and forgotten password management interactions handled for me.  It would be very nice if they do Federated Login using the other popular web services like Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Google, or whatever.  It would also be very nice if it could do 2 factor login.  The latter two are optional.

-  It has to work well.  I judge this by who has adopted it and how it is reviewed.

-  It has to be here for the long haul.  I’ll judge this by size of customer base and quality of backers.  AuthRocket, for example, is still at the invitation-only Beta stage.  That’s too early for me.  I have mature products and don’t want to have to change out this service too often.

-  It has to be easy for me to access the API’s.  I prefer a nice RESTful API, but I will take a platform-specific API for my chosen development platform: Adobe Flex.  And no, I don’t want to debate that platform, it has worked fabulously well for me, the products are mature, and I am not looking to switch.

-  It has to be easy to tie it back to securing my data in the Amazon Web Services Cloud.

-  Optional Bonus:  It helps me solve the problem of disconnected data access.  My apps are Adobe AIR apps.  You download and can run without a web connection for a period of time.  This is important to my audience, but means I’ve got to use data models that keep local copies and sync with the Cloud when they get connected.

While my apps are not yet available on iOS or Android, all of those things are almost exactly the same problems any Mobile App developer faces.  Therefore, this ought to be a hotbed of activity, and I guess it is, but so far, I still can never seem to find the right solution for me, and I don’t think I’m asking for anything all that crazy.  But, I have yet to find a solution.  Let me tell you a little bit about my 2 most recent near misses.

Amazon Cognito

I was very excited to read about Amazon’s new Cognito service.  At CNCCookbook we’re big Amazon believers, and use all sorts of their services.  Unfortunately, at least until Cognito, they didn’t really have a good service for solving CNCCookbook’s authentication problems.  They had IAM, which is a very complicated, very heavy-weight, very Big Corporate IT kind of solution.  It looked kind of like maybe you could do it if you had to, but you’d still wind up writing all the darned password management stuff and it looked like it was going to be a real ordeal.  Mostly, I think of IAM, as the tool used to define roles for how broad classes of users can access the various other Amazon offerings.  I wanted another service of some kind to be the sort of simpler, friendlier, front end to IAM.  Enter Cognito, and it sure sounded good:

Amazon Cognito lets you securely store, manage, and sync user identities and app data in the AWS Cloud, and manage and sync this data across multiple devices and OS platforms. You can do this with just a few lines of code, and your app can work the same, regardless of whether a user’s devices are online or offline.

You can use Amazon Cognito directly from your mobile app without building or maintaining any backend infrastructure. Amazon Cognito handles secure app data storage and sync, enabling you to focus on your app experiences, instead of the heavy lifting of creating and managing a user data sync solution.

A guy like me loves the part about, “You can do this with just a few lines of code” followed by “without building or maintaining any backend infrastructure.”  Now that’s what I’m talking about, I gotta get me some of this!

It’s nearly all there:

-  Amazon is an outfit that can be trusted for the long haul.

-  REST API’s are no problem, that’s how Amazon prefers to operate.

-  Tie back to other Amazon Web Services?  Puh-lease, who do you think you’re talking to, of course one Amazon Service talks to the others!

-  Sync?  Yeah, baby, that’s what Cognito is all about.  More potential time savings for yours truly.

Oops, just one little shortcoming:  it only does Federated Login via Amazon, Facebook, or Google.  That’s cool and all, but wheres my Email + Password login so I can seamlessly move customers over to it?  Maybe I missed it, maybe it’s coming, or maybe Amazon just doesn’t think it’s important.  Can I live with forcing my users to make sure they have either an Amazon, Facebook, or Google account?  Yeah, I guess maybe, but we sell a B2B app and it sure seems kind of unprofessional somehow.

Amazon, can you please fill this hole ASAP?

Firebase

I hear fabulous things about Firebase, I really do.  People seem to love it.  It’s chock full of great functionality, and on the surface of it, Firebase should fit my needs.  Yet, when I dig in deep, I find that the login piece is kind of a red-headed stepchild.  Yeah, they advertise Email + Password Login, and they even tell you how to do it.  But there’s no RESTful API available for it.  They list all the right operations:

-  Login, and returns a token
-  Create a new user account
-  Changing passwords
-  Password reset emails
-  Deleting accounts
etc.
However, it appears that those things are handled by a client library which is in a very dev platform specific format.  If you use one of their chosen platforms, it’s ok.  If not, you can only use their rest API’s for the Cloud Database–no login functionality.  That’s going nowhere for me.  It would’ve been so much nicer had they packaged what’s in the client library in their Cloud and provided RESTful API’s for the functions I’ve listed.  As I told them when I made the suggestion, that makes their offering accessible to virtually every language and platform with the least effort for them instead of just the few they support.
Conclusion:  Crowd Sourcing?
Hey, I’m open to suggestions and the Wisdom of the Crowd.  Maybe someone out there knows of a service that meets my requirements.  They seem pretty generic and I’m frankly surprised I still can’t find such a thing after all these years of building almost anything you can imagine as a service.  We’re not very far away from it.  Either Amazon or Firebase could add the functionality pretty easily.  I’m hoping maybe I’ll get lucky in the next 6 months or so.  If anyone knows the right people in those organizations (or their competition), pass this post along to them.

 

 

Posted in bootstrapping, business, cloud, mobile, platforms, saas, service, software development | 2 Comments »

Let’s Try Another Verse of Your SaaS Company Does Not Need a Sales Force

Posted by Bob Warfield on May 23, 2014

MorpheusNoSalesForceIt’s time for another installment of what some of the Enterprise Irregulars have called the Jason and Bob show.  Jason and I have disagreed on a fair number of issues over time, though we have also agreed on a lot.  Jason’s had a great run and is now in the rarefied atmosphere of VC’s.  All of his material is thought provoking and well worth a read.

Today, we’re going to talk about Outside Sales or indeed the question of whether SaaS companies must have a sales force at all, inside, outside, or otherwise.

Jason’s post today is “Inbound or Outbound Sales? The Answer is Yes.”  In it, he argues that

There’s a meme, a CommonThink, among certain segments that Outbound Sales is Bad, or at least, a Little Unseemly.  And maybe a lot bit Old School.

That we’re in a new world of sales, a new consultative world, where leads come in, prospects can try and learn before they even talk to a human, and then, a sales rep thoughtfully answers questions, models business process change, and helps them decide how and why, and if, to buy.

And that’s true.  We are in that world.  Inside sales is terrific.  Warm leads are great.  Live trials of easy-to-use-and-deploy web services really have changed the game.

And yet …

The reality is, by revenue, this isn’t the way the majority of the world buys.

My role here today is to cast a dissenting vote, and to explain why.  In fact, this one’s been argued between us before so I’ll just refer you gentle readers to my original response to get the ball rolling:

Does your SaaS company have to have a sales force?

In that article I make the case that, no, your SaaS company doesn’t automatically need Outside Sales. It’s a function of who you need to sell to and that’s a function of what your solution costs. The more money involved in an individual sale, the more likely you need Outside Sales.  This isn’t really news or something I made up, by the way.  I learned it at the knee of one Geoffrey Moore, he of the Chasms and Gorillas and such.  I find it makes a lot of sense to think about how you need to sell based on the size of the transaction involved.  In hindsight, it’s obvious that a very expensive purchase carries a lot of risk and that a large organization will need to involve many people and ultimately a highly placed decision maker to get it done.

Jason does tip his hat to this notion with some remarks about selling to SVP’s, but I believe it’s something that startups need to think really carefully about very early on.  Horses for courses. What’s the right way to sell for my specific product and opportunity?  You need to make a conscious choice during the very early stages of the startup about what your strategy will be in this respect, because it’s going to have a profound impact on what sort of company you’re building, what kinds of skills you will need, and even the capital needs of your venture.

Jason mentions the “meme” that Outbound Sales is Bad.  Surely that’s damning with faint praise, but there are sound reasons why that meme is out there.  He says, “by revenue, this isn’t the way the majority of the world buys,” referring to purchasing without the need for Outside Sales.  Au contrare, Jason.  I don’t believe it and I have never seen any data to support it.  In fact, you don’t have to look far to see that the biggest revenue is associated with offerings that don’t require either inside or outside sales. Think Apple, Walmart, et al. Their selling is totally self-service and marketing-driven. Not software? How about Google or Facebook? Oh, not business enough? What about Github, Amazon Web Services, or many other ventures that are hugely successful.  While we’re at it, let’s look to where the majority of the profit, not the revenue goes and the differences are even more stark in favor of finding models that don’t require Sales.

What if that’s the real opportunity–start something that works and doesn’t require Outside Sales.  Or if you prefer, consider the potential for disruption that going into a market with a product that can work without Outside Sales offers. That’s exactly what PC’s did to the Minicomputer vendors. The Rolex-clad, scratch golfing, Armani suited crowd with good haircuts laughed at the little computer stores and the pathetic IBM PC.  Ken Olson himself laughed at them all the way to the point where DEC disappeared and was never heard from again and in a very short span of time.  Hitting an Outside Sales-driven industry with a solution that requires no sales creates the Mother of all channel conflicts for the poor sales-driven company.  It is just as toxic to companies with Sales Forces as Subscription models are to Perpetual License models.

The other reason the meme is strong is capital requirements.  Outside Sales-driven opportunities are going to require more capital to finance their longer sales cycle.  It’s unavoidable when you have to wind your way through the organizational complexity that’s there to stop a company from foolishly spending its money without proper checks and balances on your expensive solution.  SaaS itself is already capital inefficient because it pulls expenses forward and pushes profit out over time relative to getting it all up front in the Perpetual License model.  We live with it to get to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but what if we could at least mitigate it by selling a product cheap and easy enough that it didn’t need Outside Sales or even Inside Sales?

That’s how the companies I’ve mentioned got to be so big so quickly.  That’s why this so-called meme is a real business strategy that’s disruptive and must be considered by any startup.

Figuring out how to leverage strategies like this in new markets where you can be supremely disruptive to the incumbents is what successful startups are all about.  Don’t be a slave to tradition.  You’re not here to build another SAP.  You’re here to build the next generation by disrupting SAP and Oracle.  SaaS is probably not enough to do that, though some argue otherwise.   I think many of those are confusing disruption with room at the bottom (great link from Jason, BTW).  The thing is, everyone’s doing SaaS now, so what’s different about your story?

 

Posted in bootstrapping, business, enterprise software, Marketing, strategy | Leave a Comment »

Random Thoughts on Customer Engagement, CRM, and Social CRM

Posted by Bob Warfield on May 13, 2014

Can Enterprises learn to talk WITH Customers rather than AT them?

Can Enterprises learn to talk WITH Customers rather than AT them?

I read with interest Paul Greenberg’s, “Random Thoughts on CRM.”  They don’t call Paul the “Godfather of CRM” for nothing, and this post got some old neural circuits firing again just like it was yesterday.

The gist of the article was about how a much larger market, called “Customer Engagement”, will eventually subsume CRM and make CRM just a feature of the larger Customer Engagement matrix.  The process of assimilation is already underway and presumably resistance is futile.  Paul characterizes Customer Engagement as involving all that is CRM plus the following:

 

  • Customer journey management
  • Customer experience management
  • Customer analytics including sentiment and text analysis
  • Social listening
  • Gamification engines and platforms
  • Customer engagement platforms (broad definition here)
  • Feedback management systems including ranking, rating engines)
  • Reputation management engines
  • Customer interaction engines (e.g. Epiphany, Exact Target)
  • Self-service knowledge engines
  • Community platforms
  • Social networks
  • Personalization engines
  • Communications platforms that foster customer communications (parts of unified communications fit the bill here though UC is a lot more than this)
  • Enterprise video chat/conferencing
  • Customer Effort Scoring (score on what you do. Thanks to Esteban Kolsky for this one). How much effort does a customer make
  • Loyalty and Advocacy systems

I wholeheartedly agree, and it was as I was reading that list that I suddenly had my epiphany:

Customer Engagement is nothing more than Social CRM writ large.

Or if you prefer to be a little less dramatic, Customer Engagement is the Second Coming of Social CRM.

Whether you believe Social CRM failed, was an idea before its time, or is simply percolating along and growing steadily, I can’t think of a better way to describe Social CRM than to say that it’s all about Customer Engagement.  The difference between Social CRM and Conventional CRM is almost entirely a matter of perspective:  are you talking WITH your Customers or talking AT your Customers?  CRM talks AT them.  It values them solely as leads to be qualified and sold to or as an expense area in the case of Customer Service to be minimized.  Paul’s list of Customer Engagement activities is nothing more than a list of what sorts of conversations can be had WITH Customers and what tools may be available to facilitate those conversations.

That problem of talking AT your Customers (and yes, “Customer” must be capitalized in this era when those who can’t learn to talk WITH them will start to increasingly lose) is a cultural problem born of seeing Customers as accounting line items and metrics rather than as PEOPLE who can choose to do business with us or not. Social CRM skeptics back in the day (seems so long ago since I was part of that world) danced around the cultural issues–they were sure Social in the Enterprise couldn’t work just because Enterprises were all about Command and Control and not what it takes to be Social.  Not all Enterprises are, BTW.  Companies like Southwest Airlines come to mind as counter-examples.  But by and large, Enterprises are very much about Command and Control.  I believe that a close relative of the Innovator’s Dilemma is what I will dub the “Politician’s Dilemma.”  It’s what happens when an organization grows large enough that the primary skill needed for advancement is not creativity or the ability to make good decisions, it’s the ability to be a good politician.  It’s been the undoing of at least as many large organizations as the Innovator’s Dilemma, and it is also closely related to those pesky cultural problems that prevent Enterprises from seeing Customers as Customers rather than $customers (and I wish I had an even smaller font for “customers” and a bigger one for “$”).

Here’s where I wonder about Paul’s view that Customer Engagement is, in fact, going to eat CRM.  I wonder because I can’t see much evidence these cultural biases that prevent Enterprises from being good at CRM have even remotely diminished.  Perhaps over time the Internet will exact a toll on their callous disregard for real Customer Service.  Certainly the frictionless exchange of information about what a Company’s products are REALLY like and what it is REALLY like to deal with that company help.  But, our fixation in the 80′s, 90′s, and 2000′s with reducing regulation and empowering ever larger monopolies (and hence the 1%) has been a powerful counterbalance to any renewed sense of egalitarianism the Internet brings.  Simply put, it’s business as usual for these companies.

Paul brings up the 4 largest companies in the CRM space:  Salesforce, SAP, Oracle, and Microsoft.  It’s funny, but with the possible exception of Salesforce, you couldn’t ask for a stronger list of the Who’s Who of having abused their customers and maximized their Bully Pulpit Status.  Perhaps by being (or seeming to be) the exception, this is precisely what has driven Salesforce’s growth.  I certainly know people that work there and talk about it in much more glowing terms than the other 3.  Let’s leave Salesforce aside and ask about the other 3:

What are the chances that SAP, Oracle, and Microsoft can actually learn how to talk WITH Customers and not AT $customers well enough to participate in Customer Engagement at a more empathetic level than, say, researchers watching mice in mazes?

I’m not optimistic, and I don’t think Paul is either.  He offers the following critique of the four companies:

  1. Salesforce.com – They are getting so big and so process driven that a lot of the creativity that characterized the company is starting to seep out.
  2. SAP – The continuous politics at this company are forcing it to step on its own feet every time they make progress – and we start again.
  3. Oracle – They are totally locked and loaded into their customer experience messaging and it’s the wrong message to send to the marketplace.  This prevents them from thinking in terms of ecosystems – which is a 21st century requirement for a large company’s success.
  4. Microsoft – They are moving quickly but still don’t have the messaging down at all. They send mixed messaging signals to the market and they are hard to read. They need to clarify this right away, since they have successfully accomplished a radical transformation of their customer-facing applications for the better. Now the world needs to hear it.

Ask yourself whether the essential cultural virtues needed to thrive in a world of Customer Engagement are likely to be strong or weak in the light of those criticisms?  Even for Salesforce, eliminating personal initiative and emphasizing management by excessive process is a sure recipe for stopping any real conversations with Customers.  It’s hard to change for all the same reasons that once the Peter Principle has taken hold, you can step back from it.  People are hired by bosses who hire the sort of people they want to hire.  Bosses who think of Customers as $customers don’t hire people who think “Customer.”  They hire more $customer people.  Sure, you can add a few Customer lovers here or there, but they drown in the sea of $customer people.  It’s a vicious cycle that can’t be undone.  Command and Control never goes softly into that Good Night, least of all because it is very Commandingly In Control.

What does it all mean?

Optimistically, it means that these four will eventually give way to a New Guard of some kind.  I’d like to think that’s true everywhere and in every industry that finally understands the Customer is King.  Taking that view is a powerful Engine of Growth for new ventures.  It is disruptive in much the same way SaaS has been to Enterprise Software because where SaaS was a business model change that could not be achieved, Customer Engagment is a Cultural Model change that is too hard to achieve.  It’s relatively easy to hire a new CEO or merge to make a new entity.  So far, we are tragically short of good Existence Proofs that this New Wave is underway.  There are precious few Southwest Airlines and an endless stream of Ego-Du-Jour companies that power to the forefront or that cling tenaciously to the monopolies they already own.

Fundamentally changing the culture of a company?  That’s darned near impossible.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a successful example of it outside the fawning press releases and interviews telling us how transformative some new CEO has been, all of which turn out to be false hopes.  More’s the pity.

Postscript

Paul Greenberg’s response, via Facebook:

Bob, I read the post. I’m more optimistic than you on this, though I really liked your post. Also, these are random, and to be fair to the Big 4, I also noted what I liked big picture about each of them too. I just don’t have a black and white view of this at all. its a nascent, roiling market at the moment and lots to come of it hasn’t happened yet – and is indeterminate. Also, I agree with you totally that this is what you called Social CRM writ large though my take is a little different. You’ll see more on this in a series of major pieces that will be coming leading to the next book. Social CRM was the progenitor for customer engagement – it didn’t fail, like social business morphing in its short life to digital transformation, social CRM now CRM morphed to something much larger and more encompassing that the parent was/is. CRM becomes the operational components of the engagement market. You are a helluva writer, by the way. Seriously good.

Paul is not just a brilliant CRM analyst, but a gentleman and renaissance man of the sort that is seldom seen these days.  I know him via my past life in Social CRM and the Enterprise Irregulars.  Thanks Paul!

Posted in business, customer service, Marketing, strategy | 1 Comment »

The eBay Turnaround that Never Had to Be: Now Here’s the Rest of the Story

Posted by Bob Warfield on February 13, 2014

Read an interesting account of John Donahoe’s turnaround at eBay in Business Insider.  It’s a fascinating discussion that revolves around relatively few premises for how the turnaround was accomplished.  Here are the money quotes:

He de-emphasized eBay’s auction business and started describing the company as a “technology partner” to retailers small and large. eBay added clients Home Depot, Macy’s, Toys ‘‘R’’ Us and Target, helping them cope with a world dominated by Amazon.

So, making eBay a first class technology partner to large bricks and mortar retailers.  Great idea, more on that in a moment, but first, a couple more quotes from the article:

For example, eBay never bothered to develop sophisticated search technology. This made it dependent on Google ads, which took a bite out of profits. And it made it hard for users to find products they wanted to buy, dragging down sales.

Likewise, eBay under Whitman never developed a product recommendation algorithm to match Amazon’s — despite the fact that Amazon credits 30% of its sales to the tool.

Better search, and the ability to do merchandising and product recommendation like Amazon’s.  What if I told you eBay was offered a finished technology solution to each of these problems way back in 2001 and they completely blew it off as uninteresting for their business?

Trust me, I know, because my startup, which was called PriceRadar.com, was the group offering the technology.  We met numerous times with Jeff Jordan at eBay, and even had offices across the parking lot from eBay headquarters right there in Campbell.  We had built a sophisticated textual data mining technology, and had decided this technology could be hooked up to eBay’s data to produce a unique selling proposition.  We would visit with our customers, who were major bricks and mortars retailers like Sharper Image and West Marine, to name two companies that had worked with us.  Walking into a meeting we came to show them something special, something unexpected.  After sending our web crawler to visit their online catalogs, we could generate a report telling them exactly which of their products they could sell on eBay for just as much as they were selling in their catalogs, how many they could sell without depressing prices, exactly how to optimize their listings including which keywords, what time of day to list and close the auction, which eBay “extras” were worth paying for, and so on and so forth.  The software would even let them allocate quantities of product which we would then list on eBay for them to drop ship when the auctions closed.

The bricks and mortars retailers loved it–it was easy to sign them up.  For them, it was an extremely cheap way to add new customers to their house list.  You know, that list that causes them to dump endless catalogs at your doorstep if you order anything from them?  Our fees combined with eBay’s fees were a pittance compared to their existing marketing costs to add a new name to the house list.  So that’s quote #1, making eBay a first class technology partner to bricks and mortar retaillers.

That’s not all we could do.  The site was called “PriceRadar.com” because it had an extremely powerful search engine that was adept at finding listings that were hopelessly lost if you tried to find them with eBay.  We also tracked affinity patterns–if you bought “X” you were also likely to buy “Y” and “Z”.  Plus, we generated endless analytics that the eBay people had no way to track on their own.  They were always surprised and interested when we visited with this information.  It included things like a fine grained breakdown category by category (and I’m talking our categories, not theirs, a taxonomy of thousands of micro-categories) accounting of exactly where their business was coming from.  So much for quote #2 as well–better search and product recommendation.

So what happened?  Why did eBay pass on this opportunity way back in 2001?

Call it an idea ahead of its time.  We offered them the technology in 2001, but it wouldn’t be until 2005 that they’d start to massively lose market value.  By 2008, Meg Whitman was ready to move on and leave Donahoe as her successor.  All tragically avoidable if the article was right about the cure.  But, that’s just it–you would’ve had to see very far ahead to realize it.  4 more years is forever in High Tech.  It was probably starting to get scary even 2 years after our offer, but still, that’s a long time in the Dog Years these companies live in, and they would’ve handily rationalized early problems as being a temporary effect of the 2001 Dot Com crash that would go away.  Then there was the issue of eBay’s culture at the time.  Business Insider describes it well:

Partly, the issue was obvious: eBay had gotten fat and happy. For 10 years it had been a huge success, riding a wave of Internet adoption. During the mid-2000s, eBay was notorious for meetings that always ended in applause — even when the news was bad.

But eBay also had a problem attracting and retaining innovative, entrepreneurial people into its executive ranks.

The fat and happy part and the lack of innovation were terribly obvious every time we met with them or interfaced with their humongous software back end.  They just didn’t quite seem to understand what we were telling them about better search and what I pitched at the time as “Merchandising like Amazon’s.”  Things were so good it just didn’t seem like it was worth the effort to make things better.  They’d narrowly survived making their technology scale–we used to see the news trucks parked every day at eBay so they could run a story about how the site had gone down.  When you’re getting Boundless Growth and Unbridled Demand just for showing up at work, why rock the boat with any new ideas?

Then there’s that ole bugaboo called, “Innovator’s Dilemma.”  You have to be prepared to cannibalize your own business lest somebody else (like Amazon) decides to do it for you.  The most substantive objection eBay had about our technology was that they were afraid it would alienate the mom and pop businesses that were responsible for the Lion’s Share of eBay’s listings.  The message was something along these lines:

We’re afraid that if you make it super easy for Sharper Image to suddenly have a big eBay presence the mom and pops will take that as eBay competing against them and they won’t like it, they’ll pull out.

I tried hard to explain that they had no place else to go–they were hopelessly dependent on eBay.  There were no other easy partners who could create an e-commerce presence for what had been small bricks and mortar independent retailers.  At PriceRadar, we had interviewed dozens of the most successful resellers on eBay in various categories and learned that many of them had closed their bricks and mortar storefronts because eBay was so lucrative they’d rather sell online out of their home offices than pay the overhead of owning an actual physical shop.  Many of them had unique merchandise that the big retailers didn’t have anyway.  The eBayers would listen politely, smile, and then move on.

If you’re curious, here’s what the old PriceRadar site looked like in 2000:

PriceRadar

We had even signed Gary Burghoff as a spokesman!

That was the Consumer Search front end circa early 2000.  There was another client used by the Retailers to list their products on eBay via our service.  We did a number of unique things at PriceRadar, many were things people said couldn’t be done.  Like downloading all of eBay’s auction data and processing it on SQL Server–the Unix guys all said we’d have to have Unix and Oracle to make it scale, but we didn’t.  We made it through the scaling hurdles that had plagued eBay in a relatively short time, handling their data volumes in our architecture.  Today, it would’ve been called a “Big Data” application, but back then nobody had heard that term.  The search algorithms were very sophisticated and involved a mix of computer algorithms and live human “taxonomy experts” that fine tuned the results by creating special search rules on the micro-categories.  In the end, it was a bust.  When we started, there were lots of auction houses out there, and it seemed like a super sophisticated search engine monetized by retailers who wanted to list was a great plan.  Unfortunately for us, network effects meant that eBay controlled that entire space in a relatively short time.  Once they were the only game in town, they were also the only buyer in town.

Too bad for all concerned eBay didn’t realize we had the solution for a lot of problems that would nearly kill the company.  PriceRadar was a great lesson in market timing and exit strategies in the face of network effects and derivative businesses.  It’s also the failure I regret most as the product and technology were dynamite.

Posted in business, strategy | 2 Comments »

The Problem With Replacing CEO’s, Boards, and Governance at Big Co’s

Posted by Bob Warfield on February 1, 2014

At some point, Silicon Valley VC’s, whom I am not always entirely complimentary of, decided it was easier to teach a Founder to be a decent CEO than it was to teach a Big Co Exec to fill in what they’d lose if a Founder left.  That doesn’t mean they don’t replace CEO/Founders, but it used to be an almost guaranteed matter-of-course.  The VC’s have it right.  We saw that unfold at Microsoft almost to the day Bill Gates handed the reigns to Steve Ballmer.  I believed then and believe now that Microsoft needed a Fighter Pilot and instead got a Moist N’ Easy Snack Cake Salesman.  Sorry Steve, you’re a good man, but you were not the right man for Microsoft.

Now the Microsoft Board is apparently on a path to making Satya Nadella, the President of their Cloud Business, Microsoft’s new CEO.  I read with interest in a WSJ article that he is asking Bill Gates to give him advice on Technology and Strategy.  That was my first red flag for this candidate.  Advice on Technology and Strategy?  Isn’t that exactly what’s been so badly lacking at Microsoft since Ballmer took the reigns?  Did he and Bill Gates just not talk?  Or is it possible that the company actually needs to find someone that knows enough about Tehnology and Strategy to chart their own course and actually dare to get Microsoft to do something different from what hasn’t been working all these years?

I read in The Telegraph the following from one of Nadella’s former computer science professors this ringing endorsement:

Former teacher and MIT director Vinod V Thomas told the Times of India he “cannot vividly recall” Mr Nadella as he “didn’t figure in either ends of the spectrum”, but added that records showed he was “a first-class student who achieved distinction.”

Any attempt to find out what Nadella has been doing for most of his career meets with a brick wall.  We know he did something for Sun Microsystems and that he has been at Microsoft for 22 years.  As the Telegraph article concludes:

Despite his enormous success in the tech industry, Mr Nadella is not the biggest user of Twitter. He has not tweeted since July 2010, and the messages he has posted are enthusiastic, but not particularly enlightening.

That seems to be basically this guys M.O.–he’s quiet, heads down, and steady.

Is this really what Microsoft needs?  Quiet, heads down, and steady?  I mean love her or hate her, at least Marissa Mayer has shaken up Yahoo to an extent.  At least Meg Whitman had done something everyone had heard about before she took over HP.

“But wait,” you say.  Hasn’t Nadella run one of Microsoft’s most important and successful divisions, the Cloud division?  Isn’t that a foward looking part of the empire?  Not really.  It didn’t take any great imagination or strategic prowess to deliver Microsoft to its present Cloud market position.  Microsoft was very late to the Cloud, played it very safe, and has yet to accomplish much there.

Herein lies the problem:  Boards want to hire the safe choice.  They don’t want to hire someone who will shake anything up until it is far too late.  They want consensus.  They want everyone to play nice.  They want to have nice informative Board meetings where they can get their two cents in and everyone in the room will nod sagely and take the advice.

There’s really only a couple of guys I’ve come up with who can make a difference for Microsoft.  Either Bill Gates can come back as CEO, or Jeff Bezos could add Microsoft to Amazon and go from there.  Neither one is apt to happen, so be ready to watch Microsoft flounder further.

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