Many of the product managers we talk to have a visceral reaction to the idea of selling a product before it’s ready. The neon sign flashes: VAPORWARE!!! Some ratty sales guy sold features we haven’t built yet. (GASP!) Someone is going to be pissed.
And in many ways it’s ironic, because one of the most important foundations of a sound product development process is a methodology for early testing. The theory is simple: the earlier you can discover and address a mistake, the less costly it will be to fix that mistake.
Take the following example from software development:
- A problem found in the design phase means you have to modify some specifications.
- A problem found in the development phase means you have to rewrite code.
- A problem found in a limited beta release means you have to recode and revalidate the release.
- A problem found after broad customer adoption means you have to update all your users’ deployments.
But for some reason, people creating new products often overlook perhaps the biggest and most costly potential for failure:
A problem with your core value proposition (what people need, what you deliver, and what they pay for it) could result in many months to a year of lost revenue, wasted expenses, and potentially the scrapping of an entire product.
How many products have you worked on that hold great promise, but fail to gain traction after they are launched. In fact, this may be one of the most common modes of failure for any new product. And it happens to both startups (they fold after years of stagnation) and large companies (they assign huge development & marketing teams to launch a product that silently gets killed off after 18 months of lackluster sales).
From The Field: Bill Andrews and ExaGrid’s Rapid Market Test
But it can be done – and in fact, it can lead to great success. Take the example of Bill Andrews, CEO of ExaGrid. Based in Westborough, MA, ExaGrid makes disk backup with data deduplication systems. Their innovative technology replaces the tape library in the backup process and drastically reduces the time and effort it takes to reliably protect your data. But they didn’t start out that way.
When Bill joined ExaGrid in 2005, the company was searching for a direction. Bill’s first act was to evaluate the markets where ExaGrid’s technology could apply, and once they selected disk-based backup as the most promising, he got on the phones to sell.
“We created a ‘tiger team’ of telesales specialists and engineers who began calling customers,” explains Bill. “They pitched a story to try and get someone to take a meeting, even before we really knew what it was we had.”
Every night the team reviewed their progress, and made changes to their approach. Pretty soon they were getting past the initial phone conversation, and the presentations were getting longer and longer.
Bill continues, “Within 100 days, they were taking orders. And the product wasn’t shipping yet.”
The engineering team was working frantically, side-by-side with the sales team, to deliver on the coherent product requirements that were evolving from their just-in-time sales efforts. And before long, product was flowing into a warm, proven, and active sales channel.
“The most important thing is to be in the market, and to sell,” says Bill. “I’d much rather be dealing with order fulfillment problems brought on by successful selling than an unresponsive market.”
Today ExaGrid has over 1,200 customers and has consistently grown year over year for the past 6 years. ExaGrid holds the #2 market-share position for disk-based backup with deduplication in the mid market to small enterprise. This success shows that the method of finding a market and then ensuring the product fits the market works. ExaGrid is targeting their initial public offering for the second half of 2013.
How To Set Your Selling Up For Success
As specialists in new product sales, we execute these activities on a regular basis. And we’ve learned that there are right ways and the wrong ways to go-to-market with this type of strategy. So here are of the most valuable lessons we’ve learned along the way.
- Focus on a pain point. When you begin selling, you need to apply all your focus on your customers’ primary pain point or unique opportunity. Rather than pitch your solution, pitch their problem. It’s uncomfortable at first, mostly because as humans we like to talk about our accomplishments. But if you can get your customer to “drag you through a mile of broken glass” with them, your solution will be welcome.
- Test a minimum solution to the pain point. Once you have identified your target customer & their pain point, design a test to vet the solution. You don’t need finished product to do this. In fact, I often recommend that customers offer unfinished product – or no product at all. Instead of delivering a software experience, deliver a report over email. Instead of delivering a clean user interface, deliver a messy one. Because if you are right about the pain point and it is real, your customer will put up with even the most ugly product to solve it. The warts are fine, because the frog’s kiss is so nice.
- Plan a long-term relationship, but not long-term usage. Our clients often worry about the implications of long-term usage of an early product. So we advise them to plan for that usage to end. Take the product away. Shut down access. Avoid the distraction of ongoing user feedback in between your market tests. But tell your customers all about it along the way, and cultivate those personal relationships. Because the best signal is when they come calling, asking for your next version because they need a solution so badly.
- Treat your use source as importantly as your individual users. Often, when we acquire early customers we do everything we can to keep them happy and using our products. But many times, we ignore the method by which we secured those users in the first place. User acquisition is critically important to a new product. So focus on a repeatable source for users with a shared pain point. That way, if an individual user stops participating, you know you can always go back to your Google Ads, or LinkedIn groups, or existing client base to secure more.
- Fail gracefully: There are times when you need to tell users, customers, or prospects that the answer they were seeking to their problem isn’t ready yet. We often run advertisements that promise an offering, but after the user takes some action we notify them that the offering isn’t quite ready yet. It’s ok to do these things as long as you manage your users’ experience and cherish the relationship. It’s a great way to get some very valuable test data without requiring a full deliverable.
- If you can’t get a signal – think differently, adapt, and find one. I don’t care how great your product is. If you can’t get other people to realize how what you are doing helps them, you are heading down a very long, arduous road. Take that wonderful product and think differently about it. Find a way to package the great stuff you’ve created into a form that someone will value. Because the sooner you get this engine going, the more valuable your sales engine will be in the long-run.
Don’t Be Afraid To Go Out On a Limb… You Don’t Have Far to Fall
Manage your users and sales process wisely and with respect, and bad things won’t happen:
- People won’t flame you publicly (and no one will care if they do)
- People won’t hate you for your shortcomings
- People won’t challenge your message and claims (unless you give them reason to)
- People won’t remember 6 months later the details of what is happening now
Get Out There!
So get out there – take some risks. Get people excited about your idea. See what they think. Adapt. And sell, sell, sell!