Growing up, I was always intrigued by technology. I distinctly remember the National Geographic Magazine with the cover story titled “The Chip.” That cover and Time’s Computer as Machine of the Year for 1982 led to a lifelong career in technology, beginning as a developer, architect and eventually an entrepreneur bringing new enterprise innovations to market.
Bringing new innovation — and challenging existing practices and habits — to market can be one of the scariest moments in business. Four companies and almost 25 years later, since that microchip graced the cover of my favorite magazine, I am still learning. There’s still risk and uncertainty.
But I thought it would be helpful for others who bring new innovations to market to consider my cornerstone beliefs and practices — some of which definitely go against the Silicon Valley grain.
Here is part one of my two-part series that will cover five suggestions: focus on business first; Ocean’s Eleven your team; conquer the “going first” problem; recognize “the moment;” and minimize regrets.
1. Focus On Business Before Bytes
It’s tempting to fall in love with new technology and then wait for people to buy it. But that is a recipe for disaster, as no startup can wait for a market to develop. Instead, the critical issue is to focus on a problem that needs to be solved. Few business leaders in charge of the checkbook care about technology, per se. They care far more about business problems than bytes — finance, human resources, legal, compliance, manufacturing, inventory, customer experience and, above all, operational complexity. And you can learn a lot about those problems by spending more time listening and less time selling.
In the early days of innovation, this listening is not going to give you the perfect technology path. You start with a gut feeling and a sense of conviction about what is needed. It gives you the goal of innovation. It’s not about bits and bytes, but what problems and pains you need to solve. Many customers can’t articulate the exact prescription of how to fix a problem, but they can, in great detail, point out pain points, gaps and missed business opportunities. Where they fall down is painfully apparent to them every day.
This is why it is impossible to predict what the customer’s problem is. No matter how smart you or your product architect is, the reason a customer buys a new product is always different from what the innovator believes.
2. Ocean’s Eleven Your Team
Sixty percent of new ventures fail due to problems with the team. Building teams, hiring new people and finding the right recipe of skills is one of the hardest — and riskiest — parts of business. Now, many repeat entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley use the same team to go from one company to the other. I do not subscribe to this idea and strongly believe in the Ocean’s Eleven model for a new venture. (If you remember the movie, fresh-out-of-prison thief Danny Ocean instantly starts recruiting subject matter experts for his casino heist.) Why? The critical trait among successful teams is trust and respect. If one team member tries to do another’s job, you are doomed to failure.
I see entrepreneurs as being uncomfortable, insecure and paranoid. You have to be obsessed about learning and challenging both your own and the market’s beliefs. I’ve worked with amazing, truly gifted people in my career. And I have always brought different people to new ventures. You gain more of a cross-leverage, cross-pollination view of experiences with some new blood.
I’ve also recruited many former customers (or end users) into my new companies. Why? They understand the pain points from a user’s perspective. It’s easy to believe and defend your solutions — and these folks will challenge you from a customer perspective. And it makes for a great sales tool: There is no bigger commitment than coming to work on an idea that you believe in!
Of course, this is not an all-or-nothing rule. You want to find people who complement your skills and go counter to them to get the best spread of relevant talent or skills possible. Hiring the “same” is for when you start significantly scaling (many customers or tasks that need the exact same skill), not for a startup.
In the second of my two-part series, I’ll talk about conquering the “going first” problem, how to recognize “the moment” in a product marketing strategy and ways to minimize regrets.