It is quite typical for startups to think in stages in a process — and very often have a specific stage for marketing. This seems to be encouraged by the way startup management is taught. (Mankind does love putting things into boxes and reducing projects to sets of steps.)
Yet this practice of establishing a stage for marketing indicates the incredibly weak understanding of marketing found in startups.
Product Must NOT be ‘Completed’ Before Marketing.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked to take on or evaluate products which are “complete” — yet found that for very fixable reasons the product was off-target and would fail once it was presented to the market. Other times we’ve found that the product had far more potential but that the creators had worked from a limited theory and are missing out on far more profitability.
This is one of the reasons I’ve become very concerned about how much engineers and designers are encouraged to do their own customer research. It IS critically important they have direct contact with customers. However, they should not do that without marketing present and involved. Why? Engineers and designers hear what they’re trained to hear — things that affect their ability to make a product. What they don’t hear are those things a marketer is trained to hear — issues related to selling the product once it’s on the market.
Let’s call this massive missing piece “Sellability”.
Startups Need to Start Investigating Sellability Before the Product is Complete — Even before Prototype.
You won’t know if a product is sellable until after marketers are involved. And let me assure you: There are excellent ways to evaluate sellability well before you have working prototypes. I’ve spent a career doing this work — sorting out HOW to sell products and (in the process) learning what would make them sell better or what things inhibit their sales.
Each time I’ve worked on sellability, the product has changed dramatically after our learnings. When what we learn is well realized in the finished product, it always sells better.
So if you WAIT to get marketing involved until after the product is done:
- You may end up spending months and months re-working the product then spend untold dollars re-tooling before you’ll have a product which the market wants to buy.
- You may miss an opportunity for a 100% (for example) larger market which could have come with simple, low cost changes — had you made those changes before finalizing the product.
- In the worst case, you’ll have to walk away because it’s simply too expensive to undo those market errors which were designed into the product.
- There are a few very rare cases where the product is enough to succeed — by accident. When you can learn what makes the product sellable BEFORE putting it on the market, there’s no reason to leave that to chance.
Evaluating sellability doesn’t solve everything nor does it guarantee success. But it absolutely increases your likelihood of success and, when successful, will increase your profit with higher sales and/or lower costs.
Hold off on market size calculations until AFTER evaluating sellability.
As you evaluate sellability, you’ll be able to hone your definition of the market which is likely to buy the product. This may make your market much larger or much smaller. At a minimum, your actual market will be different than the theories you started with. Always.
Unfortunately, the search for investment capital quite often leads to in-depth analysis of the size of the market before companies actually know what market they have. It’s a sad waste of money but hard to argue with the need for the analysis when investors “demand it”.
But investors need to be wiser as well. Potential investors should care far more about “sellability” than the theories they seek out to justify market size for a product that very well might never be able to be sold.
Sellability can only be evaluated through qualitative research with people you think might be likely buyers of the product. (Startups should not trust quantitative research like the traditional “top 2 box” score approach. I’ve helped companies build massive success for products which fail the top 2 box testing yet have tremendous market potential.)
Focus groups are the most productive approach to understanding sellability because we can present a “soft sales pitch” within the context of the groups and use that learning to understand response to the product and the fundamentals of the business area. Interestingly, research respondents have always helped us see how the ideas and product go together most powerfully.
There may be some cases where focus groups aren’t practical. In these cases, one-on-one qualitative interviews can do a lot (but not as much as you’ll get from focus groups).
Can you do this informally? No. Much can be learned from informal testing among friends and acquaintances. So I encourage startup founders as well anyone consulting with startups to learn what can be learned informally (within confidentiality). But informal work a high risk strategy. Friends and acquaintances have reasons to not tell you the truth — it’s likely there’s a lot you won’t learn. This is especially true when considering sellability.
Marketing is NOT a Stage — Get a Seasoned Marketer Involved Early.
Marketing is a core part of everything a startup does. This doesn’t mean you have to “hire” a marketing person immediately. In fact, hiring a marketer too early is pretty much a guaranteed failure — because they’ll be the wrong person for what you need, too junior because they’re all you can afford, or spend their time meddling because they don’t have enough to do.
The smartest thing for startups to do is to hire a thoroughly seasoned marketer — someone who has seen a great many products go to market whether it’s in your industry or not. They should probably have grey hair, would have grey hair if they weren’t using treatments, or be rapidly approaching grey hair — but not be prematurely grey. They should also have experience in all aspects of marketing — sales, product management, product dev, research, analysis, and communication.
Fortunately, if startup founders spend an hour or two a month with this marketer, they won’t have to break the bank paying them yet will gain tremendous assistance and avoid many potential problems. As things proceed, I recommend they rely on this consulter (I don’t love the word consultant) to help design and arrange research into sellability.
Respect the Importance of Marketing
Many startup founders don’t have enough experience to respect marketing and the influence it needs to have within engineering, manufacturing, price evaluations, product content and design, etc… Marketing doesn’t run these shows and shouldn’t. But no product should move even to prototype phase without taking into account the advice of a seasoned marketing advisor.
Those startups which succeed best have imbue everything they do with marketing wisdom — they don’t just throw a finished product “over the wall” to the marketers.
So start looking around for a seasoned marketing advisor and, once you find a good fit, meet with them for at least 1 hour twice a month. Share progress, ideas, etc. And listen to their advice for learning about sellability and other critical planning issues.
By integrating their wisdom early, your product will become far more successful when it finally does hit the market.
©2019 Doug Garnett — All Rights Reserved
Through my company Protonik LLC based in Portland Oregon, I advise a select group of clients to drive success with better marketing of new and innovative products. I also work with clients attempting to bring new life to Shelf Potatoes or take their existing products to new markets. You can read more about these services and my unusual background (math, aerospace, supercomputers, consumer goods & national TV ads) at www.Protonik.net.