5 Tips To Help You Navigate The Procurement Process Like A Pro


As a founder and mentor, I begin each week with pipeline meetings and the question: “What are the barriers to close?” I teach this method to Alchemist startup founders to help them identify the barriers that can stall each deal. Too many first-time founders provide a forecast to potential investors without allowing for the possibility that procurement may stall or kill their deal. A deal is not done until it is signed. Here are 5 best practices that will help you navigate the procurement process like a pro.

You Need Paying Customers, Not Free POCs, to Survive Your Fundraise

First-time entrepreneurs that are building an enterprise SaaS company and trying to raise money without having paying customers will typically find it difficult to raise capital. As an Alchemist Accelerator CEO mentor, I help founders understand this point as early as possible. If you want to survive, meaning close your Angel or Series A round to live another day, you must prove that customers will pay for a solution to the problem you are solving. That is table stakes in Silicon Valley.

Early Stage, SaaS, Enterprise Sales is Really, Really Difficult.

You don’t have brand recognition, customer references, case studies, engaging slides, or a fully functional product. And most technical co-founders do not have sales experience and would prefer to spend their time coding versus updating salesforce or talking to people.

Capital comes in two primary forms: paying customers and venture term sheets. Non-paying “proofs of concept” (POCs) are not customers. The Valley VC deal flow is massive so POCs with no path to revenue from small logos (companies with under 400 employees) will get a response that sounds like “come back in six months.” That is a major problem when you have only 90 days of cash and no salespeople.

Founders need to clearly understand their prospects’ buying and decision-making processes. Everyone knows your product is in beta, but you shouldn’t be giving it away for free. Founders need to know their worth and show the value of their products. It’s important to explain to early prospects that free trials equate to no funding to hire engineers to scale the product. Even worse, they lead away from a path to raise money.

Be honest with your first 10 potential customers. Let them know that you need a financial commitment from them and that they need to be a reference for potential investors. Listen carefully to their feedback when you make that ask. Do they have a budget to pilot new technologies? What are the barriers to your deal getting signed in the current quarter? Are they in the midst of a reorganization? Did a new boss just arrive? The signal will be high on your first call as to whether or not this lead has real potential. If a prospect tells you his or her company’s security assessment will take six months and the purchasing process another three months, believe that person and say thank you, don’t forecast them and then move to the next deal.

Your First 10 Logos Matter

Many founders sell into small businesses (20 – 400 employees) because they think the process will be easier. Logos matter and the first customers you attract are important. VCs call these lighthouse customers. They represent early market validation and big budgets. If investors have never heard of the logos on your traction slide, there’s little excitement to listen to your pitch. Similarly, if your first four customers are due to your friends or family network, investors will be

skeptical of your ability to cold call and introduce your new product/service in a compelling way outside of your immediate contacts. Remember VCs backchannel before they cut checks. They call their networks of lighthouse executives to get a sense of market needs.

Have A Path to Scale Early Customers

Investors will be interested in your traction. They know that your first few deals will be priced below market to get the relationship started. But you need to show them a path—how you are going to grow early customers from five-figure deals to six-figure deals. (In effect, showing now that you won your first deal to prove your value with one business line, how you will get the rest of the business.) Great founders set this path to scale at the earliest stage of deal. They do this by value setting at the beginning of the relationship.

So take the time to build a solid pipeline of customers not POCs. It’s easier to raise money when you have paying customers. Founders selling early-stage enterprise SaaS solutions should think in these terms: every $50K SaaS sales order should equal $300K in funding. If what you are selling has value, people will pay for it.

About Darren Kaplan

Darren Kaplan is the co-founder and founding CEO of hiQ Labs (www.hiqlabs.com), a data science company, informed by public data sources, applied to human capital to make work better. Mr. Kaplan is an Alchemist Accelerator mentor, working with Augmented Reality, Cyber Security, and HR enterprise SaaS startups.

About the Alchemist Accelerator

Alchemist is a venture-backed initiative focused on accelerating the development of seed-stage ventures that monetize from enterprises (not consumers). The accelerator’s primary screening criteria is on teams, with primacy placed on having distinctive technical co-founders. We give companies around $36K, and run them through a structured 6-month program heavily focused on sales, customer development, and fundraising. Our backers include many of the top corporate and VC funds in the Valley—including Khosla Ventures, DFJ, Cisco, and Salesforce, among others. CB Insights has rated Alchemist the top program based on median funding rates of its grads (YC was #2), and Alchemist is perennially in the top of various Accelerator rankings. The accelerator seeds around 75 enterprise-monetizing ventures / year. Learn more about applying today.

Lighthouse Customers: Four Best Practices


A lighthouse is a great metaphor, symbolizing safe passage ahead. Throughout my career, I've associated it with really important customers because they're the ones that help safely navigate small startups into burgeoning businesses.

Lighthouse customers are similar to anchor tenants in a shopping center. Others follow their lead. Lighthouse customers are your company’s champions (and hopefully become members of your Advisory Council). Lighthouse customers support your vision and have tremendous influence on your product or service roadmap because they've committed to you and you've committed to them. You’ll have other customers, for sure, but these lighthouse accounts are the shining examples of your software and service in action. They’ll be your references to investors. They’ll speak to analysts and press. They are your showcases.

That said, they don’t all have to be from the same industry. However, they do have to share the pain points your business is solving.

When it comes to lighthouse accounts, here are four things I tell the Alchemist Accelerator startups that I mentor to keep in mind:

1.     You're forming a partnership that requires commitment on both sides.

2.     Find big names that can be “company makers.”

3.     A solid ‘how many’ rule of thumb is 1:1.

4.     Companies do change.

Both Sides Commit to the Partnership

In the era of subscription selling, it's more important than ever for you to have happy and satisfied customers. Lighthouse accounts provide an inside view into what prospects and customers really need and what your organization is doing (and can do better) to deliver.

For your part, your company will need to provide direct access to your CEO as well as establish a dedicated support team. Best practices with lighthouse customers include

·      Monthly check-ins between executives

·      Quarterly in-person, on-site meetings at either the customer or company location

·      Bi-monthly meetings with clearly defined action items by team

·      Weekly internal email updates about lighthouse customer progress

Recognizing the importance of these key accounts, some startups showcase lighthouse customer logos on their walls. Others host lunch & learns about the customers' businesses, hearing from champions, investors, influencers, and even media presenters.

But the relationship can’t be one-sided.

Lighthouses have to commit, too, meaning they should allocate executive access and provide significant input to your roadmap, but without too many absolute demands. There’s also financial equitability. Lighthouse accounts should pay for what they use, with the exception of possible discounting in exchange for specific marketing activities, such as quotes in press releases or speaking engagements at industry events. Remember, our companies charge customers for our software and services because nothing should be free when you’re providing a valuable service or product.

Find Big Names that Can Be “Company Makers”

Lighthouse customers should be well-recognized brands. It may not be widely known, but forward-looking companies across industries -- think Starbucks and Target, VISA and Mastercard, JPMorgan Chase and PNC, for example -- want to work with you as much as you want to work with them. Global giants stay ahead of competitors by finding ways and new technologies that improve processes, increase customer engagement, drive revenue, and reduce costs. If you have something that can give them an edge, they’re interested.

Association with a few big brands puts a company on the map. Lighthouse accounts not only open doors, they offer tremendous opportunities for the kind of high-scale growth that can make a company wildly successful. Teaming with the right internal champion can turn an initial 50-seat sale into an enterprise-wide deal.

1:1 is the Ideal Executive Ratio

Too many and there's no way to support them. Too few and you don't have enough feedback to improve your product/service nor investor references to continue building. Lighthouse accounts should be the best example use cases of your software or service, making them the most strategic to your company. That’s why each lighthouse account must have a company executive sponsor, leading the relationship to greater success. The ideal ratio for lighthouse accounts is one executive from your company to each lighthouse customer organization. That basically means if you have five execs in your company including the CEO, you can handle five total lighthouse accounts.

Embrace Change

It doesn't have to be the end of either business if a lighthouse customer relationship dwindles. Change is constant. Some companies advance faster than others and timing is everything. Should the bright light of one customer begin to fade, be sure to replace it with another. This goes for both startups and global Fortune 100 companies. There should never be a time when employees don't know the name of your company's lighthouse customers.

Lighthouse accounts help companies of all sizes, across industries, safely navigate forward. They keep teams innovative and competitive. Who are your company's lighthouse customers? It's important for you and everyone else in your business to know.

About Kris Duggan

Kris Duggan is an entrepreneur, advisor, investor, and educator. He's advised and invested in a variety of Silicon Valley-based companies, including Palantir Technologies, RelateIQ (acquired by Salesforce.com), Addepar, Blend Labs, Turo, and Gusto. He co-founded and was the founding CEO of Badgeville and BetterWorks before co-founding a new technology company, based in Palo Alto, CA, this year. Kris is the Chief Sales Mentor at the Alchemist Accelerator. He previously served as an Adjunct Faculty for Singularity University, and is a frequent speaker on the topics of scaling startups, customer loyalty, gamification, employee engagement, and performance management.

About the Alchemist Accelerator

Alchemist is a venture-backed initiative focused on accelerating the development of seed-stage ventures that monetize from enterprises (not consumers). The accelerator’s primary screening criteria is on teams, with primacy placed on having distinctive technical co-founders. We give companies around $36K, and run them through a structured 6-month program heavily focused on sales, customer development, and fundraising. Our backers include many of the top corporate and VC funds in the Valley—including Khosla Ventures, DFJ, Cisco, and Salesforce, among others. CB Insights has rated Alchemist the top program based on median funding rates of its grads (YC was #2), and Alchemist is perennially in the top of various Accelerator rankings. The accelerator seeds around 75 enterprise-monetizing ventures / year. Learn more about applying today.

Customer Advisor Board: Early-Stage Hack to Getting Your First Customers

As a founder and former CEO, I'm delighted to see so many Alchemist Accelerator portfolio startups executing highly engaged Advisor Councils (AdCos) when acquiring their first 10 paying customers. Yet most startups fall short of scaling their AdCos beyond a few influencers and MVPs. This is a critical mistake.  

Active AdCos drive you to deliver more customer-focused products while creating momentum in the form of champions, stakeholders, thought leaders, communities, and loyal customers. Think of your AdCo as part of your startup's secret sauce, helping you scale quickly from Council (10-50 people) to Community (50-100 people) to User Conference (100+ people).

As you embark on your customer development journey, an AdCo can serve as an enticing carrot to attract smart and talented individuals with the pain points you've outlined. Joining an AdCo comes with personal and professional perks—from new skills development to high-quality peer networking. Those joining AdCos recognize these benefits, but they'll become your first customers for two additional reasons: first, they really want the product you're working hard to deliver, and second, they want to help you succeed (and have funding to budget to do it).

Qualifying early AdCo members is important. You want individuals that are

  • Thought leaders with deep experience and knowledge about the problem you are working to solve

  • Open and willing to co-build a solution with you

  • Able to access budget and have decision-making authority to buy

Prioritize Your AdCo

There are benefits across the business to establishing and scaling your AdCo:

  1. Product: Ongoing customer-focused product feedback

  2. Sales: Demand Gen (SQLs) of qualified leads and referrals

  3. Fundraising: Venture capital (VC) due diligence during your current or next round

Product: Build WITH Customers Not FOR Customers

AdCos instill a customer-first mindset while providing a critical product feedback loop. Product decisions and team scrum/sprints shift from sharing “I think” to “they said, they want, and they need” inputs.

Data and insights from your AdCo need to be meticulously recorded and then shared “in their words.” At hiQ, we always found the devil was in the details. You should plan for your AdCo members to spend a full day alongside your engineers, data scientists, and product team members in structured round tables, breakout sessions, and panels.  

Power tip: Host your AdCo meeting at a Council member’s location. Enterprise companies have conference rooms that can seat more than 20 people, and often, the organization will provide the drinks and snacks.

Sales: Advisors Become Champions, Then Customers

Your AdCo is one of the tools in your demand-gen and pre-product sales arsenals, and a measurable outcome of establishing one. AdCo members need to be in your sales pipeline as they move from Advisor to Champion to Customer to Reference and Referral. You'll be able to quickly qualify which Advisors will become champions and customers. They're the ones that will write the internal business use case for budget approval because they can’t live without the product(s) you are building. They'll be the ones standing on stage next to you when you officially launch.

Power tip: Use a pending AdCo meeting to close a late-stage deal. Prospects enjoy talking with customers before they sign, so have them sit next to each other.

Fundraising: The Best 2 Hours VCs Spend on Due Diligence

AdCos will scale with your customer growth, and VCs will notice. VCs think in terms of product market fit. This is validated when they walk into a packed ballroom full of clients, prospects, analysts, and job applicants—all wanting to be part of what you're building. There's no better and bigger moment for you and your employees then having customers on a main-stage talking about your product and how it saves them millions of dollars.

Power tip: Invite VCs to Council meetings as soon as possible. Their calendars book up a few weeks out.   

About Darren Grant Kaplan

Darren Kaplan is the co-founder and founding CEO of hiQ Labs (www.hiqlabs.com), a data science company, informed by public data sources, applied to human capital to make work better. Mr. Kaplan is an Alchemist Accelerator mentor, working with Augmented Reality, Cyber Security, and HR enterprise SaaS startups.

About the Alchemist Accelerator

Alchemist is a venture-backed initiative focused on accelerating the development of seed-stage ventures that monetize from enterprises (not consumers). The accelerator’s primary screening criteria is on teams, with primacy placed on having distinctive technical co-founders. We give companies around $36K, and run them through a structured 6-month program heavily focused on sales, customer development, and fundraising. Our backers include many of the top corporate and VC funds in the Valley—including Khosla Ventures, DFJ, Cisco, and Salesforce, among others. CB Insights has rated Alchemist the top program based on median funding rates of its grads (YC was #2), and Alchemist is perennially in the top of various Accelerator rankings. The accelerator seeds around 75 enterprise-monetizing ventures / year. Learn more about applying today.

How One Hour of Customer Development Saves Five Hours of Coding

The greatest expert on your customer is: your customer.  I consider that rule number one on any customer development journey.

Over the years, I’ve discovered one of the biggest mistakes tech entrepreneurs make is overbuilding. Teams get so excited about an idea that they create feature after feature, hoping one of them will help someone, somewhere, soon save time, spend less, or be entertained.  

 

Getting to Data-Driven

The reason I wrote Lean Customer Development to stop teams from building things that people don’t want. That’s what successful customer development does for you - allows you to avoid (some) mistakes and focus on building what your customers will use, love, and buy.  You see, no matter how smart people are, no matter how well they know their industry, they’re wrong at least half of the time. That means about 50 percent of what is built is wasted effort!

In my experience, every hour spent on customer development saves an organization five hours of design and coding time. That’s my conservative estimate. It’s probably closer to 20 hours.

One of the reasons teams overbuild is because humans like to do what comes naturally. We like to build! We love coming up with solutions (that’s why we join product teams and start companies). But if you’re just starting out, you have to embrace what comes a little less naturally—and that’s listening.

Following a Proven Process

Start with a hypothesis. Ask the right questions. Make sense of the answers. Then figure out what to build based on the input. Those are steps to successful customer development, yet not everyone follows them.

Teams often lead with their own product - a solution created based on assumptions of who’ll need it and why. We don’t create a narrow, unbiased hypothesis that focuses on the person, the problem, and how we can make their life better. This is ineffective for a couple of reasons.

First, it puts you in the role of the expert when you really need to be learning from your prospective customer. Second, once you show someone a solution, that’s what they’ll talk about. Rarely does the person you’re talking with stop and say, “wait, I don’t really have that problem” or “hold on, I’m not motivated to change my behavior over this”.  When you start with a solution, you risk hearing a lot of “polite maybes” instead of uncovering the “here’s what I really need” answers that lead you to a successful business.

Getting Input

As an Alchemist Mentor, I encourage founders to start with one testable hypothesis.  For example, “I believe [type of person] has [problem they need to solve] in order to [experience this benefit]”. There are three segments to that hypothesis, and each of them can be invalidated - you might be talking to the wrong type of person; they may not have the problem you expect; they may not see that a solution will make their life better.

There may be multiple stakeholders - for example, if you are trying to develop a solution to improve patient compliance in taking their medicine, you’ll likely need to talk to the doctors who prescribe medication as well as the people swallowing the pills. By understanding the behaviors, motivations, and constraints of all your stakeholders, you’ll be better able to design a solution that they’ll actually use and benefit from.

Abstract up a level: more general, “storytelling” questions about the ways people do their jobs, what they buy, and how they use products give you more informative answers than yes/no questions. For example: What frustrates you about your job? How is work done in your organization? How do you evaluate solutions? Open-ended questions like these give customers the power to talk about what matters most to them. At the end of the discussion, don’t forget to inquire about what else you should have asked.

I prefer one-on-one conversations: in-person is great, because you can see the customer’s environment - but phone conversations are often far easier to schedule and conduct. The best customer development method is the only you’ll actually do!

I’m not a fan of focus groups. It seems far more efficient to talk to multiple people at once, but participants may not openly share in a group for fear of sounding dumb or having an idea dismissed.

Depending on your hypothesis, you may easily find people in your extended network or a community online. (When people ask, ‘but how will I find people before I have a product to show them?’, I ask ‘but how were you planning on finding people after you have a product?’)  Sometimes you’ll need to pay for access to the right people through services such as LinkedIn InMail or user research firms, but generally you’re better off investing the time to figure out where your prospective customers ‘live’, online or offline, and making yourself part of those spaces.  You’ll need to build that trust eventually, so you may as well start in the early phases of your company!

Making Decisions

No matter how you discover customers, approach each conversation as a listener, not an expert.  I often recommend telling people explicitly, “I want to hear from you - I’m going to try and talk as little as possible.”  That’s the valuable data you need to inform your decisions. Whether you’re building your first product or rolling out a new feature, test everything. Customer discovery that’s about them, not you, is how to ensure your startup builds something people actually want to use and will pay money to buy.

About Cindy Alvarez

Cindy Alvarez is the author of Lean Customer Development: Building Products Your Customers Will Buy and Director of User Experience for Yammer (a Microsoft company). She has over a dozen years’ experience leading design, product management, user research, and customer development for startups, and is currently using that background to drive intrapreneurial change within Microsoft. She tweets as @cindyalvarez.

About the Alchemist Accelerator

Alchemist is a venture-backed initiative focused on accelerating the development of seed-stage ventures that monetize from enterprises (not consumers). The accelerator’s primary screening criteria is on teams, with primacy placed on having distinctive technical co-founders. We give companies around $36K, and run them through a structured 6-month program heavily focused on sales, customer development, and fundraising. Our backers include many of the top corporate and VC funds in the Valley -- including Khosla Ventures, DFJ, Cisco, and Salesforce, among others. CB Insights has rated Alchemist the top program based on median funding rates of its grads (YC was #2), and Alchemist is perennially in the top of various Accelerator rankings. The accelerator seeds around 75 enterprise-monetizing ventures / year. Learn more about applying today.

Funding Basics: Customer Development

Entrepreneurs take note. More startups fail from a lack of customers than from a failure of product development. That’s why I believe strongly that every new product company should have a methodology for developing customers.

I’m a proponent of Steve Blank’s startup stack methodology for customer development, which features the following steps:

  • Customer Discovery – Begin with a business model canvas, a summary of how you’re going to serve customers and earn money

  • Customer Validation – Make assumptions, then test them to develop a repeatable and scalable sales process

  • Execution –  Fine tune your model to get to a market fit that is tight and profitable; pivot, as needed

As an Alchemist Accelerator mentor, I recently had an opportunity to share some perspective about the customer development process and how to maximize success. The first thing I told the group in front of me—a large percentage of whom were engineers—was that they should focus everything on finding the right customer segment, rather than building or modifying a new product concept to fit initial discussions. I think I heard a collective sigh of relief before I began my presentation.

Completing Your Canvas

Research has proven effective customer discovery begins with a business model canvas, so the first part of our discussion, framed in that context was designed for them to hear one thing: You are making a best-guess at first. There will be plenty of time for refinement, when you know more.

A strategic management and lean startup template, your canvas should reflect initial assumptions. To begin, you must understand the market you’re targeting—total addressable, served available, and/or target market. You’ll also need to define the type of market you’re hoping to penetrate. Is it existing with incumbents, but a known problem; new with no competition, but steep education requirements; re-segmented where you’re offering a lower cost or niche alternative; or are you cloning a concept from somewhere else?

Your canvas should also identify key value propositions. What is the job your customers are hiring you to do? How will you do it, and most important, what one-to-three benefits will customers get from using your product or service?

In the customer relationships section of your canvas, you’ll need to outline how you plan to

  • Get customers

  • Keep customers

  • Grow customers

In addition, your canvas should highlight any other key activities, resources (e.g. required equipment), partners and costs (fixed and variable), as well as your anticipated revenue model (e.g., one-time scale, subscription, etc.).

Finding Your Fit

A completed business model canvas ensures your team has fully immersed itself in the customer problem. As such, it can serve as a foundation as you define tests for customer validation.

Testing can begin once you’ve identified subjects. Who are they—end users, influencers, recommenders, decision makers, or others? What do they do all day, and can you create an organizational or influencer map around them? Plus, don’t forget to acknowledge any saboteurs because they have no interest in your success.   

Next, only founders should conduct customer validation meetings, and they should be face-to-face for added visual cues. Don’t outsource the job. Ask open-ended questions and avoid trying to convince someone he or she needs your solution. Test your theories to determine if you’re on the right track. If you don’t get a good signal, reframe the problem. Test again.

In general, ask questions that help you learn more. Lead with

  • Tell me more about…

  • What do you mean by…

  • How so…

  • Why is that…

  • What are your thoughts on…

  • How would you quantify…

  • How did you measure…

  • How did you come up with that…

  • What was your thinking behind…

The goal of every customer validation meeting should be the same: To understand the problem space and the current solutions available.

Pivoting and Execution

During customer validation, your team may uncover some startling truths. Your product doesn’t fit the market it was intended to serve. Prospects already have a solution for x, but have you considered this other opportunity, y? Do not panic.

Instead, apply your development methodology to your customer discovery process. Be agile. Don’t build a new product. Find a new set of customers. Pivot into a new space and test again.

By following a customer development process, you have a tremendous opportunity to deliver what people will pay for, improving your product along the way. Moreover, you’ll have high-quality data to answer the question “who is your customer?” when potential investors ask.

About Alan Chiu

Alan Chiu is a Partner at XSeed Capital, with a strong background in enterprise software startups. His investment areas include mobile enterprise applications, data analytics platforms, enterprise infrastructure, and fintech startups. He serves on the Board of Directors of Breakaway and previously served on the board of StackStorm (acquired by Brocade – NASDAQ:BRCD). He has provided support to other portfolio companies including Lex Machina (acquired by LexisNexis of the RELX Group – NYSE:RELX), AtScale, Dispatcher, Teapot (acquired by Stripe), Pixlee, SIPX (acquired by ProQuest), Zooz, BrainofT, Mines.io, Inklo, and My90. Alan is currently Co-President for Stanford Angels & Entrepreneurs, an alumni association that seeks to strengthen Stanford’s startup community by fostering relationships among entrepreneurs and alumni investors.

About the Alchemist Accelerator

Alchemist is a venture-backed initiative focused on accelerating the development of seed-stage ventures that monetize from enterprises (not consumers). The accelerator’s primary screening criteria is on teams, with primacy placed on having distinctive technical co-founders. We give companies around $36K, and run them through a structured 6-month program heavily focused on sales, customer development, and fundraising. Our backers include many of the top corporate and VC funds in the Valley -- including Khosla Ventures, DFJ, Cisco, and Salesforce, among others. CB Insights has rated Alchemist the top program based on median funding rates of its grads (YC was #2), and Alchemist is perennially in the top of various Accelerator rankings. The accelerator seeds around 75 enterprise-monetizing ventures / year. Learn more about applying today.

This blog is the second in a financing series with topics designed to help entrepreneurs be better prepared for venture capital conversations.

3 Reasons to Scrap Your Startup

Contrary to common belief it’s not poor market timing, aggressive competition or a lack of ability to raise capital that kills the bulk of startups. Rather, according to CEOs of failed startups, it’s a lack of market for their products. That’s right—all too often startups burn through their funding, iterating on their big idea, without validating that it solves a problem at a price customers are willing to actually pay. In the enterprise, this is even more critical as early adoption needs to be closely matched with the proper pricing structures.

But even if you’ve hit on a true need in your market, there are still a number of other pitfalls that can be hard for first-time entrepreneurs to avoid. Three of the most common reasons I see enterprise products and start-ups fail include:

  1. Low customer adoption/use. If it takes too much time to onboard, doesn’t resonate with CIOs or your target buyer (which could be the head of marketing, sales, finance, HR) or is too cumbersome for employees to use, it won’t gain traction.
  2. Product is not working as intended. Customers may have initial patience for a few minor bugs, but ongoing problems requiring significant rework can sink your company. This is especially true in the enterprise market, as your product outage could cost your customers thousands or even millions of dollars.
  3. Doesn’t address a top problem of your target customer. No matter how amazing your product is or how well it solves your customers’ problems, most companies only have enough budget to address their top two or three pain points. Creating robust buyer customer personas ensures you’ve done more than just scratch the surface of their true organizational needs, allowing you to prioritize your product roadmap accordingly.

The Road Map for Ensuring Startup Success

Communication is key. At Norwest Venture Partners, we’ve found that it’s important for enterprise companies to start by creating a customer advisory board and involving them in the development of each new product or product iteration. Test and obtain feedback from them in real time, as they use the product and test out your demos, and do a weekly gut check to evaluate how sentiment is trending. Start small and work out the kinks before scaling up to your overall customer base.

By involving your customers in your product iteration, they become more invested in your success. In turn, that means they’re more likely to give you the level of rich feedback you need to take your product to its next level and win over your market.

Some founders worry that they can only keep their clients happy by delivering every product iteration they request, but that’s not the case. If you involve your customers in your product development process, they will see the issues you encounter along the way, and won’t be surprised if it doesn’t ultimately work out. Focus on how you can get them excited about helping to define the roadmap–which may include scrapping some products that won’t keep your product on the path to success and longevity. Your customers aren’t just buying that initial product you have on offer. They’re buying your long-term vision too.  

If you’re concerned that scrapping a feature too soon is going to sink your company, consider the alternative. What if you hold out hope for six, nine or even twelve months and the end result is still the same? By failing to take decisive action, you’ve now wasted resources, money and customer time on feedback for your doomed product. This misstep can put you at a disadvantage to your competitors and even cause you to lose some great people who wonder why you let them sink so much of their time and creative energy into a project that had little hope of seeing the light of day.  

Identifying the Right Market to Disrupt

To be successful, a startup must build products that solve real problems the right way.

“You have to look for new enabling technologies, or major trends, like fundamental trends, that create a wide gap between how things are done and how they can be done,” said Aaron Levie, CEO and co-founder of Box, in his Building for the Enterprise lecture. “Looking back in time to our business, the gap was basically storage was getting cheaper, internet was getting faster, browsers where getting better yet we are still sharing files with this very complicated, very cumbersome means. Anytime, between the delta of what is possible, and how things work today is at its widest. That is an opportunity to build new technology to go solve a problem.”

But even great ideas can fail. So how can you recognize when you’re actually on to a billion-dollar valuation-creating product? In my experience, immersing yourself in your customer’s world is the best way to gain the awareness to spot the real opportunities for market disruption.  For instance, it’s unlikely that Marc Benioff would have had the inspiration, confidence and vision to have moved CRMs into the cloud with the founding of Salesforce without his years of success at Oracle. As Benioff counsels in his book Behind the Cloud,  “Don’t be afraid to ignore rules of your industry that have become obsolete or that defy common sense.”

Although some outsiders have a knack for coming in without prior industry experience and hitting the ball out of the park, most successful startups are founded by someone who is obsessed with creating a better customer experience, who understands the industry’s pain points and daily challenges inside and out. If you can tap into the issues that are driving your customer crazy and causing them to lose sleep while efficiently solving them, the market is ripe for your taking.


- Written by Sean Jacobsohn, Cloud VC | Partner at Norwest Venture Partners