Category Archives: Company Culture

Don’t Engineer Anything You Can’t Sell

In any startup resources are constrained. In a young product company and especially one that will be dependent on using others (the channel or distribution) to sell it’s product then these constraints are often most prominent in engineering and marketing.

If you have a great team working at the company then frequently team members will come up with new ideas about a feature to add or product to develop. Some of these ideas might be simple and others more complex but all even at a theoretical level will have an impact on the company. As time and attention is probably the most limited resource in any organization it’s good to make fast decisions on whether to implement or not to implement these ideas.

At Data Robotics we had a very simple filter to determine if it was worth considering moving an idea forward :

What would the marketing copy look like for the idea?

There are two pieces of marketing copy to consider. The first is one line feature statement which could resonate with time limited customers such as a channel sales person who might be representing your product. The second piece of copy (especially important if your business is not channel focused) is a brief paragraph on the feature. No need to write it down, just state it out loud. This copy doesn’t have to speak to the low level details of the feature. For example if it helps performance and being a high performer is something your customer cares about then that’s your copy. High level is fine. Without the ability to represent a new feature or product simply, clearly and concisely you wont be able to drive any interest in your offering and thus it’ll have little to no impact on company revenue.

In my experience it turns out to be surprisingly hard for the majority of proposed ideas to be represented this way and most get dropped early on. As a result at Data Robotics we saved a lot of time which otherwise would have been spent on discussions about what was feasible to engineer and what customers might like to have. It helped our focus and meant that the company spent it’s time working on what would most contribute to its growth. Give it a try and maybe you’ll also find it useful.

A Lesson in Sales Management From Frank Slootman

A common day for me at BlueArc would include at least two visits a day from members of our sales force. These visits would be accompanied by stories about how we could win the deals they were working on if only we had SnapMirror, or SNMP or support for some third party database. If only we had this one extra feature then sales would pour in and all would be well. From talking with many friends in the industry over the years this is a fairly common pattern. Honestly, it seemed reasonable and at the time I didn’t know there could be another mindset.

When I left BlueArc, I was fortunate enough to be recruited by Frank Slootman the new (and first time) CEO of Data Domain. When I arrived Data Domain was just starting out and had done less than $2M in sales revenue in its first year. The company only had a handful of sales people and the product was at a feature deficit to almost every competitor they had. At the time the product could only accept files via a NAS interface (no VTL) which was a big change for a backup system and didn’t even have a GUI but rather had to be configured via a command line interface (with only 12 hard to remember commands). A diffcult sale for sure.

Almost as soon as I arrived one of the sales guys (who I had actually worked with earlier at BlueArc) came by and told me that things would be a lot easier if only we had some feature or the other (I forget what it was exactly). Later in a meeting with Frank I mentioned this. Here’s my best recollection of what Frank did next which was a shock to me and became the pattern for how I’ve dealt with these kind of situations ever since. Here’s how it went….

FRANK (leaning out of his door) : Hey, sales guy I want to see you in my office right now…

SALES GUY : Erm, yes?

FRANK : Geoff tells me you can’t sell the product without new feature X. Is that true?

SALES GUY : Well things would be much easier if only we had feature X.

FRANK : That’s not what I asked you. Can you sell the product we have or not?

SALES GUY : Erm…

FRANK : Because if you can’t you’re no use to me whatsoever. I don’t have feature X, I only have feature Y so I only need to know if you can sell Y. If you can’t I’ll find somebody else.

SALES GUY : No, no I can sell Y.

FRANK : Thought so. Thanks you can go now.

Simple, brilliant and should be repeated more often than it is.

Here are some related thoughts –

  • Whilst it’s easy to have sympathy for a sale person selling at a disadvantage that’s exactly what the company needs them to do. Either they can do it or you need somebody else. A young company can’t engineer as fast as a larger competitor and even if it could it might be years before feature parity can be reached.
  • Startups are based on feature Y. If it’s not compelling enough to sell the product on it’s own the company is unlikely to survive long enough to be successful and ought to be shut down. Many of the “living dead” companies in Silicon Valley would be closed if more folks accepted this fact.
  • Engineering solutions are slow to create. Sales and Marketing solutions can be invented and rolled out much more quickly. Start there and see if there’s a solution and resort to engineering if there really is no other option.
  • If your engineers are working on “catch up” features they’re not working on your core differentiation. “Catch up” features are the opposite of differentiation and will hurt you efforts to segment to market for your customers.

How to Make a Disruptive Product In Four Easy Steps… (well factors really)

Over the last ten years I’ve been lucky enough to have been involved in the design and creation of many new and innovative products. Many of them have been really useful or novel technologies but in order to be a truly disruptive product offering more factors need to be considered.

For example, let’s take BlueArc. Growing BlueArc’s market was and continues to be hard graft despite the fantastic efforts by the team there and the surefooted leadership provided by Mike Gustafson. The company was founded on a great concept – moving the complete data path for file transactions into hardware and away from software. The company’s product, the Silicon Server, did this and had (and continues to have) a major performance advantage over all of it’s competitors. With such a great technology why then has it taken many $100M’s of dollars to build the company to it’s current level of success?

My current thought process started to dawn on me when I first took control of marketing at BlueArc. When you run product marketing you start to ask one simple question “Okay, now what messaging do I have to tempt folks to buy this product?”. At BlueArc, on day one, we obviously had and only had performance and we sold on that basis. Early on in the sales cycle if you could draw a direct correlation between storage performance and the customer’s bottom line (companies rendering CGI scenes for the movies for example) then you had a win. If you couldn’t then almost certainly you were beaten out by NetApp and EMC. This was hard and expensive work and the overall market was limited to a reduced customer set.

When founding Data Robotics I decided it’d be less expensive (in terms of expended capital) if we didn’t have to work so hard to sell the product. So almost immediately after founding the company I put a poster on the wall which read like this….

 

  • Best Technology
  • Lowest Cost
  • Simplest to Use (might be Best TCO for certain business types)
  • Highest Channel Margins (might be Best Partner Margins for certain business types)

 

Simple huh? I figured that if you had all of these factors you had the best chance to succeed. Making a fledgling technology startup gain traction is hard for all sorts of reasons you can’t control so you might as well give yourself as big a break as possible on the product front where your control is highest. 

At Data Robotics we always examined any new product feature for all four of these factors before starting development and many ideas from the engineering or product management teams were left on the side not because they weren’t great but because they would have been too expensive to sell as they didn’t contain all four factors. Surprisingly this simple model worked and Data Robotics sales growth was almost unprecedented for the time (the economy wasn’t helping anybody) hitting double digit millions of dollars in revenue in just a few quarters and doubling year on year since then.

I’m sure these four factors seem so self evident that the reader may feel that they go without saying. This of course often turns out to be literally correct as surprisingly few young companies consider more than one or two of them before starting product or feature development.

For a large organization, through brute force marketing, it is quite possible to win on one of the four factors. Some startups have managed to do very well on just a few but almost nobody I know of has built a sustainable business from scratch on just one. “The Best Technology Doesn’t Always Win” is a mantra now in Silicon Valley (even though that thought is more recent that folks would like to admit).

In summary here are the two things worth considering from this post –

  1. Simple filtering rules are extremely helpful when time and money are limited. Create rules like the four factors above and stick to them. Don’t make an exception except for very minor features or projects. You’ll loose a lot less time on debate and avoid development that isn’t directly linked to increased sales revenue.
  2. Growing a new product business is difficult. If you focus you’ll be able to come up with products and product features that meet not only one but all four factors listed above. Take the time to do that up front and you’ll be pleased that you did when it’s time to go to market.