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Seven lessons learnt on the journey to ‘cool vendor’ status

Sticking with your ideas – knowing when to hold and when to fold

Disruption can yield great rewards for those who can pull it off. But, by definition, disruption pushes back against the status quo. If your ideas are truly novel, what you should expect after giving your elevator pitch is blank stares, and that’s often exactly what you get. For instance, I remember running a workshop on the internet for the NZ Institute of Directors in the 90s. Few at that stage could grasp the tsunami that was about to hit us all in the form of the internet. 

Most people won’t understand truly disruptive ideas, particularly if they’re in technical areas such as my work in visualising strategic planning and business alignment. You often need to look for feedback from people who can see where things are going next, not where they have been up until now. Those people are hard to find.

As Johnny Cash puts it, you need to “know when to hold and when to fold.” On the one hand we’re told that behind every great company there’s a person who’s totally obsessed with an innovative idea that they won’t drop, but on the other hand there are a lot more people out there with innovative ideas which have gone absolutely nowhere.

The reality is that in the early days you just cannot be certain that you’re on to something. This is why you need to have a Plan B. You need an exit strategy, in the event that your ideas unfortunately do, as many do, turn out to be completely off the rails. 

Having a Plan B

Having a Plan B, and maybe even a Plan C and a Plan D is a good idea because you can continue pushing your idea without making yourself a hostage to fortune regarding whether it ever gets picked up. We all have the notion of people like Burt Munro pursuing his ideas about building the perfect motorbike in a garage somewhere and then going on to world domination in his area, but it’s a good idea to have a range of irons in the fire at any one time. And if you’re pursuing a particularly disruptive idea which is going to be edgy and hence, by definition, have a relatively low probability of success, it’s good if your Plan B is something which has a lot less risk associated with it.  

In this light, we developed DoView as a tool to use in our consulting business and only started selling it on the side of our main business. This enabled us to innovate with it while we were still getting income from our consulting. 

Identifying the exact problem you’re trying to solve

I don’t think there’s enough hard thinking by software entrepreneurs about the exact problem they’re trying to solve. We did a lot of thinking about this with DoView. We were in the business of visual strategic planning and business alignment, and could have just built a bells and whistles product for people to build visual strategic plans when sitting at their desks. But that would have risked building “bloatware,” and not giving people what they really need.

After a lot of thinking we took another path and adopted the product metaphor of building a “Swiss Army Knife” of a planning tool to help people visualise strategy in real-time in a board or planning meeting. Our main focus was on the psychology of creating a seamless experience for the people in the room as their mental strategy model is extracted from their heads and projected on the wall for them to discuss.

This leads to approaches, like optimising the colour of the boxes, in the model so that they can always be differentiated on a data show, valuing grunty functionality over blindly pursuing current cool aesthetics where there’s a conflict.

I think that the Gartner analysts picked up on our tight discipline in this area ,and that’s why they ended up talking about DoView in terms of: “sometimes, simplicity and availability define elegance.” 

Building really deep knowledge of your domain

There are two types of software entrepreneurs: subject area specialist entrepreneurs and more generic software entrepreneurs. Both types face different problems. The generic software entrepreneur has the problem of trying to make sure that their product actually speaks directly to the problem that domain-specific users are facing in the real world. Subject area specialists need to somehow acquire the software development and marketing skills that are essential for any software to succeed. 

Entrepreneurs wanting to maximise their advantage as subject area specialists need to fully immerse themselves in their domain. As we developed DoView, we were at the same time in the course of our consulting work literally building thousands of real world examples of the visual DoViews – the visual strategy models – that our tool is designed to build. This was invaluable for fine-tuning DoView to be a tool that can actually be used out in the field in the cut and thrust of a real-time board or planning meeting. At the same time it also made us as consultants world leaders in the art of building business strategy models.

Partnering early with people who have complementary skills

If you are a subject matter specialist and have that advantage, you really need to focus just as much on your point of vulnerability, which is developing the basic software disciplines. The problem is not just locating great people to work with on building the software or platform. You need to also attend to the essential areas such as marketing and the infrastructure you need to track sales and make sales conversions. This is a whole art in itself and you neglect it at your peril.

Earlier partnering with others who have these disciplines would have been a good idea in our case, but being a subject matter expert you get distracted and your focus and energy get caught up in the excitement of just developing the product itself. You need to watch this.

The key three: Governance, management, staff

Three key things that you need to get right in addition to solving the problem of having sufficient capital are: governance, management, and staffing. In the very early days, particularly if you are a subject matter specialist entrepreneur, the founder can end up getting involved to a greater or lesser extent in all three of these roles. While this is almost inevitable in a small startup, it can end up creating role confusion.

These three roles require different mindsets and different types of decision-making skills. The founder can end up having to do some weird psychological juggling as they slip between aspects of these roles as the product is progressively developed.

You can end up suffering from decision overload as there are decisions which need to be made at these three different levels which interact with each other. It’s paradoxical, but you can sometimes be just too close to the action to be able to make the objective strategic-level decisions that need to be made by those in the governance role.

And as the founder and provider of capital you can sort of be overly-powerful in influencing decisions that are being made. For instance, because you’re involved in the design and build you may be loath to let go of developing some of your pet features, which from a governance and management point of view are not the best use of current resources.

Product positioning

Lastly, product positioning is a really complex thing to think through as your product develops and you start getting users requesting extra features. You need to be clear about where you want to take your product next. Software and platforms exist within an ecosystem of related products. So for instance, DoView at its core is in the visual strategic planning, outcomes specification and business alignment space. This area interfaces with a number of other product spaces.

For instance, “below” DoView (because DoView is about selecting which projects you are wanting to do rather than detailed project planning) is project management. Out to one side is measurement and dashboarding, into which we could easily expand. On the other side is detailed causal modelling, again into which we could choose to expand.

Developing out into any of these areas wins new enthusiasts for your product, but on the other hand it loses others. And moving in any of these directions risks the danger that you bloatware your product. Having a strong product metaphor, in our case that we were trying to build the “Swiss Army Knife” of visual strategic planning and business alignment, helped us stay on track in these discussions and keep DoView simple – one of the things that users tell us they like so much about it.

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