A fatal flaw for startups

NOTE: To protect the innocent, we have changed the names, but the following experience is all too real.  We have experienced it countless times and similar versions play out every day in companies across the globe.

Chairman and Founder of Ed Tech Startup: Our app is going to revolutionize teaching and learning for generations to come.  We are going to put traditional publishers out of business and that Series A funding we just secured is going to look like peanuts in no time.

Marketing/Sales Director: It is remarkable how well we have been received by investors and foundations and at all of the conferences where we have presented.  I am just not sure that where the rubber meets the road with the decision maker and end-user, we are connecting the way we need to.

Founder: I don’t understand.  We are getting great press in all of the industry newsletters, foundations are lining up to establish pilots with us, and it looks like we are going to secure a government grant for that proof of concept application with State University.  We should not have to be selling to new clients; word of mouth is spreading and customers will be lining up to buy from us.

Marketing/Sales: But our customers need to be able to implement our app successfully on their own while still managing all of the other items on their agendas.  Our app is great in that it gives them such tremendous control and flexibility in terms of its use and implementation, but that is turning out to be a double-edged sword because our end user doesn’t know where to begin.  And if they don’t know where to begin, they won’t begin at all. 

Founder: But we spent SO much time and money on our user interface, and it is as intuitive as it can possibly be, plus we have those great in-app help videos, an extensive FAQs section, and live customer support.  What more could they possibly want?

Marketing/Sales: The problem is that the customer does not want to do everything in the app—they only want to do what they need to do.  They may love the idea of having complete control over the learning materials, but that is not how they work.  They would rather start with a template that is close to a final lesson and modify the material from there.

Founder: That’s crazy!  My whole vision for our product was to give complete control of the learning content to the instructor, but now it sounds like you are saying we need to be more like those publishers we are going to put out of business?  We are an app developer not a content provider.  We just have to educate the customer on why our way is better.

Good luck to that Founder and his company in their upcoming missionary efforts.  While there are certainly examples of revolutionary change in markets, the more common success story is an evolutionary one; where customer workflow dictates incremental changes that eventually lead to a tipping point in the way things are done.  Too often, the product developers are too close to their product to recognize their own stubbornness.  The same stubborn determination that led to the creation of a remarkable app can also lead to the quick downfall of even the highest profile new venture.  Only by truly and deeply understanding your customer’s needs, wants, and workflow—divorced from what you think she should desire—can you make the leap from a great idea to a great, sustainable product.