January 22, 2015

Sometimes, Startups Simply Need More Time

Earlier this year, I worked with a startup focused on a big corporate opportunity but struggling to establish a foothold.

The startup had created a mobile app that worked and worked well but it struggled to convince buyers its products could deliver enough benefits to adopt something new.


It was a classic story of a startup with a new and different way of doing things battling the status quo (aka entrenched technology).

But this story took an interested twist. One of its customers starting using the app an internal communications tool for all kinds of information. It has little to do with the problems tackled by startup

The startup’s platform, however, was ideal for internal communications – it was mobile, interactive and user-friendly for users and administrators.

All of a sudden the startup had product-market fit (aka selling products that buyers really want to use).

The startup’s sales, which has been like pushing a rock up a hill, started to rumble forward. The grind of trying to get corporate traction appears to have disappeared.

So what’s the lesson here? Well, there are two:

1. Sometimes, it simply takes time for startups to find their way. A startup with an interesting product may need time to drive brand awareness and a recognition among consumers about its value.

In some cases, it could be a matter of being too early. I worked with a natural language startup during the original dot-com that I’m pretty sure would have been successful if we had launched it in 2004 or 2005.

In other cases, a startup’s product gains traction because customers have a new problem to solve or, for whatever reason, they are unhappy about their existing tools. Suddenly, they want something new.

2. Customers may use your product in ways that were never envisioned. There are many examples of customers who didn’t use a product’s biggest features, but loved features seen as less important by a startup.

Instagram’s initial product, a location-based social network, was not a big success. But Instagram’s founders noticed that its users loved posting photos. Exit Burbn, enter Instagram.

As much as entrepreneurs focus on a problem to solve or a new way of doing things, customers ultimately decide if they are going to use it and how they are going to use it. This makes it critical for startups to carefully track what users and doing and saying to ensure there is product-user alignment.

In today’s fast-paced, multi-tasking world, there is an expectations for startups to quickly succeed. If a startup doesn’t click with users right away, it is a failure. There is little patience for startups, particularly the fascination in being lean, agile and iterative.

But startups sometimes need time to mature, evolve and establish connections with customers. It is often a waiting game, provided a startup has enough runway to continue long enough. For some startups, patience is a virtue.

For start-ups and fast-growing companies looking to jump-start their marketing, I offer strategic and tactical services. Everything from building marketing engines to telling better stories through messaging/brand positioning, and reaching audiences by developing engaging content.

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