By Marylene Delbourg-Delphis @mddelphis
My friend Louis Montagne, the founder CEO of Bearstech and af83, recently invited me to speak to entrepreneurs at La Cantine, a great coworking space that is part of Silicon Sentier, passage des Panoramas, a beautiful roofed commercial passageway that was build around 1800.
I was impressed by the openness of this audience of entrepreneurs and students planning to become entrepreneurs. While suggesting that they look at entrepreneurship as a journey rather than as an adventure, I focused on the main conditions for success, and especially on one: creating a product that people want. It’s great to have an idea and to be convinced that people will fall in love with your “revolutionary” technology. Yet, it’s wise to keep away from delusions and realize that if you are too “disruptive,” people will have a hard time relating to what you do – if ever. Innovation doesn’t necessarily entail big shake-ups, and is often more about the ability to create something that people want. The iPhone is not the best phone in the world, but people want it!
So how do you know if people are interested in your idea? The simplest way is to ask your future customers what they think. I constantly see entrepreneurs with “almost” finished products but with hardly any prospects in their pipeline — just ideas of large companies that would benefit from the genial solution to a problem they don’t really know they had. And when these startups try to “go to market” for real, what they offer doesn’t correspond to what customers expect – and internal dramas kick in. Given that VCs will tell you “come back when you have customers,” look for customers before looking for VCs, and before you even have a product.
Customers are the most reliable judges of the value you may bring. So engage with them at all the stages of the product creation process and from day one. Leadership is first and foremost the ability to listen.
Idea: After checking the space and who is already on it or how the problem may be addressed by a combination of products, ask people you believe might be your customers. Does your idea make sense to them? You may have a “unique” idea, but that’s not enough. Windmills with wigs are unique, yet will forever belong to a museum of curios. If no customer is interested in your idea, reconsider. The customers you are talking to can’t all be wrong, stupid or incompetent.
Prototype: Once you find a few people who are authentically interested in the idea, start your prototype. Sometimes people like the concept, but have a hard time figuring out how the product will work. So show a prototype and let people play with it. They will give you feedback and will help you refine your concept.
Alphas and Betas: Continue active conversations with customers at all the other stages, from the alpha-1 to the alpha-n, and through the beta process. While doing so, you will have a clear notion of the must-have features from day 1, and the features that you can add over time. Customers are the best guides to help you establish the hierarchy of features. Don’t dream of providing them all at once. You can’t. So be wise. Also, customers will request features that you didn’t think about. Listen carefully and check if this request is specific to one given customer or if others might also want it. If the request appears to be customer-specific, you may offer the feature as a service (and start to be paid), or you may offer an API for vertical developers to offer custom features to your future customers (in other words, start to build an ecosystem by opening your product!).
As you work with your future customers to define a product that they will use, you also accomplish two things:
1) You will know what your competitors offer much better, because early adopters are familiar with other products, or are so frustrated with established players that they will not hesitate to give more details about their pain.
2) You will refine your pitch (and usually make it much simpler); you will create more relevant slideshows and start to write manuals, interesting white papers. In other words, you will start building the company’s literature and culture that all the future customers and employees will leverage.