NEWCASTLE-UPON-TYNE, UK—It is pretty obvious what engineers are good at: designing, making, testing, and improving. The things we are good at designing, making, testing, and improving tend to be complex but inanimate machines, assemblies, devices, units, and equipment.
Basically, we like working with logical stuff that doesn't talk back, unless that is what we intend it to do. We like stuff that doesn't have hard-to-read mood swings or irrational preferences, as human beings do.
What we tend not to be so good at is the one thing that actually decides if our company will be a success -- selling. It's all well and good to be able to sit down for four hours and crank out a great PCB design, but it doesn't actually get you any closer to making money. By costing time and money, it may have moved you further away from making money.
For a startup, having a good product is not what will set you apart. Having a good product is the minimum required to play the game. What is important at the initial startup phase is being able to provide evidence-based answers to some simple questions:
- Is there a group of people who would find this product or service useful?
- Can I tell enough of these people about this product or service?
- Will people pay money for this product or service, and how much?
If you can't answer those questions, then it is time to put down the soldering iron, close the EDA software and text editor, and get out and talk to people. Until you know if there is some kind of market for your product, there is absolutely no point spending time and money developing anything beyond an embarrassingly ugly demonstrator.
How you do this will of course vary depending on your sector, but here are some methods we have found to be very effective in the past. These are all essential the early stages of a sales process, just without the sleaze that sometimes goes along with sales.
- In a B2B situation, don't be afraid to be humble. Explain that you are new to this and you're just trying to work out whether there is a problem in the industry that you can solve. You might be an industry expert, but chances are your perspective is different from that of your ideal customer. Pick up the phone, meet for coffee and ask a lot of questions. So long as it isn't posed as a sales meeting and instead as "an initial conversation to talk through an idea," most people will give you a surprising amount of time and feedback. A handful of meetings like this at an early stage can be a valuable way to determine if your idea has some legs. People like to feel like they are helping and, not simply being pitched at.
- In a B2C product business, the trick is getting feedback from your target market in numbers enough to really mean something. At Radfan, we found that a survey pushed out to our network of contacts with a plea to spread it on worked pretty well. Surveys are dull and time consuming, so don't expect miracles. A small carrot, such as the first product off the production line for one lucky participant, can go a long way to getting some good feedback.
- Another B2C method is to set up a website landing page optimized for your ideal market with some decent copy and images. On that page you should have a "register for information" or, if you're feeling cheeky, a "buy now" button that redirects to a mailing list sign-up form stating that you're not quite there yet. So long as you have some kind of analytics software on the page, you can work out how many people intend to buy the product and thus your conversion rate. Here's the catch, you will need to use either Facebook or Google Ads to buy some targeted traffic for this to be an effective test.
- Gut feeling, otherwise known as "be the customer." Ok, so this one is a little less scientific, but put yourself in your customer's shoes for a moment. What matters to you? How do you feel? How does this product improve your life? Would you really purchase it? Where would you first hear about this product?
Asking these questions, even if you can't answer them all, will help you decide where you need to focus your efforts. The most important thing is to get close to your customers, right from the outset. Your customers are vital to your success, so make sure you've taken the time to get to know them.
It is all too easy for a technical team to want to stay in the comfort zone, doing what it thinks it is good at. It's too easy for the team to think it can outsource the fluffy, cuddly, human stuff that is sales and market research. This is a recipe for disaster.
There is a saying in marketing that reads: "Nothing happens until someone sells something!" I think a small change makes the saying more useful for startups: "Nothing happens until you
In the initial pre-sales startup environment, the something you have to sell is your idea. If you can't do that, then perhaps the idea needs tweaking or dropping.
— Simon Barker is chief technology officer of Radfan, based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England.