Last week I had lunch with a member of the leadership team of an e-commerce company I am advising. I love these lunches for I get to hear about the challenges, provide a point of view, suggest an action plan, but I’m not responsible to drive the implementation. Sigh, it’s a nice change for I’ve spent many years driving and it’s nice not to have to provide a well thought out plan and sell it to all the stakeholders.
The company is struggling with many of the problems common to an early stage start up. Nothing really all that unique. One challenge, however, points to how important it is to address early or it festers like Uncle Fester and can pave the way to a visit with Morticia Addams. The challenge focuses on building a product that customers want.
Back in the mid to late 1990s the concept of “build it and they will come” spread across product innovation. Speaking from the days of the early Internet, I remember talking with companies who received funding based on an online product with the PROMISE that millions of consumers were on their way within a few quarters. WRONG. During my time at eBay, the product team had to take a very pragmatic test and learn approach to innovation for fear of disrupting how consumers buy and sell on the e-commerce platform. New product features would be built and rolled out to a limited amount of select eBay buyers or sellers. The effect of the product rollout on category revenue, GMV, completed listings, etc. was closely measured. Only after the product innovation had proven to achieve a targeted measured increase would the feature be rolled out to the greater eBay community. This test first concept is almost “well, duh” to most of us veterans. However, not every product road map takes this test-and-learn approach.
Apparently the founder of the company I’m advising was insistent that scarce product development resources focus on building a specific feature that would be the key product differentiator. The founder was certain that this feature would meet the needs of the perceived target customer and steal customers from the industry leader. Customers were certain to come and revenue would spike after this feature was implemented. No discussion or testing plan was discussed to determine if the feature really met the needs of the customer, if the needs of the RIGHT customer were being met, or if the feature provided enough lift in revenue to warrant significant finite resources.
My contact shared that the feature was rolled out and had consistently abysmal (sub 1%) adoption from the target customer. The target customer did not find value in the feature and significant product adoption did not happen. There was no spike in revenue. Sigh. It became clear that the innovation efforts were focused on the wrong customer and needs. Opportunity was lost.
Meanwhile, the competitor focused on launching new features to help the RIGHT customers, small businesses, who brought supply to the e-commerce platform. These innovations brought more small businesses to the platform, which attracted more consumers, generating more revenue for the competitor. These innovations resulted in a significant A round of investment.
“Yikes, I feel like we missed the boat here,” my contact shared. Hopefully the team is able to quickly pivot and re-align resources before the competitor gets too far ahead. The lesson is very clear, however. Before young companies launch their product, it is important to identify the customer who has the potential to generate the most revenue. Focus on meeting the needs of this customer first through product innovation. As we all know, it’s sometimes not obvious who this customer is and what needs are to be met. However, that’s where product leadership is needed to hold back the “build it and they will come approach” and fan the flames of the “test and learn” approach. The life of the company is dependent on it. The floor of the Silicon Valley is littered with the bones of companies that did not get this right.
The Addams Family. Snap snap.
Leave a comment | tags: ebay, eric dunstan, innovation, markting, product, product development, product innovation, start ups | posted in Start-ups
An e-commerce start-up asked for my thoughts on how the company should be thinking about marketing and what could be done with almost no marketing budget to drive acquisition and purchasing activity. I had to chuckle when I was asked for this input for yet again it demonstrates where in the priority list most business people perceive marketing to be….at the bottom. Most start-ups build a product, get it up and running and have a rough idea of how it will generate money. Unfortunately, most business leaders look to marketing as the tool to help grow the business…after the product is launched.
I am using the term “marketing” very loosely here. Marketing is mostly understood as all the tangibles – online, website SEO, paid search, social media, etc. Little regard is given to the core marketing principals of the 4 Ps, for example. When most people hear the words “the 4Ps” they think about the OPP song from the mid 80s and NOT the critical marketing concepts of Product, Price, Place, Promotion. Clearly most people get stuck on the Promotion part….which is putting the cart before the horse.
I encourage all start-ups who approach me for marketing help to stop, take a deep breath and evaluate their business and product through the lens of the 4 Ps within the context of a few additional guiding principals; defining the target customer segment (s), understanding why the customer segment wants to buy the product and defining how the customer evaluates/buys the product. Now to the start up leadership who feels time pressed, this sounds like a lot of work to do for marketing.
Working through this process and understanding the customer is CRITICAL to the success of the business. Leaders may find their product does not meet the right customer need or that a different customer segment should be targeted. This can be a tough nut to swallow for it means reworking the product that was just launched. Start up leadership must get these marketing concepts right before any marketing plans or programs can be developed and launched with a successful outcome.
One of my mentors and managers at eBay developed a structured document called a Unified Marketing Brief that helps guide business units and companies through this form of critical thinking. The document requires debate and thinkin around target audience (segmentation), marketing objectives, key success metrics, competitive industry analysis and market research. Once these elements are addressed, discussion is encouraged around brand and how to position and message the product and key benefits. I’ve guided business units in the e-commerce, identity protection and financial technology verticals through this process with very successful outcomes. Yes, it’s a lot of work and it takes time. However, once completed, business leaders now have a road map to guide marketing planning and tactical program development.
I found another great example of a structured approach to startup marketing by April Dunford on Rocket Watcher . She provides a great approach to mapping marketing tactics to the buying process of each target segment.
April also takes the concept one step further by discussing the importance of testing, improving and understanding the root cause of the tactical failure. Too often companies don’t get the immediate tactical response rates desired and make the wrong assumptions as to why it happened. Unfortunately these wrong assumptions follow to the next tactical program…that has the same poor results. April makes a great point in encouraging marketers to understand the WHY to improve tactics. Check out April’s recent presentation to learn more at:
Now let’s assume that most of this strategic marketing work is in process and marketing tactics are launched. Is the marketer’s job done? Obviously no. The work has moved into a different phase of continuous improvement based on customer feedback. Start-ups must have a mechanism in place to capture and listen carefully to customer feedback. The mechanisms can be customer support teams accessible by email or online chat, twitter feeds or by call centers.
Listening to customer feedback is critical…but converting the feedback into actionable product improvements is another. This is a topic for another post! Does your start up have these mechanisms in place? I bet your competition does.
Leave a comment | tags: e-commerce, ebay, eric dunstan, marketing, Marketing 4Ps, money summit, Rocket Watcher, start ups | posted in E-commerce, Financial Technology, Marketing, Start-ups