Fred: “It’s going to get harder and harder to build value in core technologies that have broad horizontal markets. The value is going to get created in providing technology-enabled solutions for customers. And if its the customer that matters most, instead of the technology, then I want to invest in customer obsessed companies, not technology obsessed companies…I like to say the way you start a company is you build something for not a lot of money, sell it to a few brave customers who you then develop deep relationships with, listen to them very closely, follow their lead and improve your product and develop new products around your customers feedback, and soon enough you’ll have a good business that will be profitable and loved by its customers. It’s not easy to do but that’s the model I like best.”
Ed adds some great advice:
I was just at a board strategy session with one of our new investments where we are in the process of ramping up the business. As we reviewed the 2004 budget and dove into the technology department and product deliverables for the year, it was clear that the developers were getting pulled into many different directions. This is a common problem. Many companies that bootstrap their businesses tend to have developers acting as presales support, post sales support, and customer service. Every second a developer is out helping with a customer is a second not focused on advancing the product. Every second a developer is coding is time not spent answering customer support issues. As you ramp, this is not an ideal solution. So our recommendation was to make sure that the company created a separate presales group/sales engineering group to work with the sales team and to make the investment now to create a separate customer service organization to build for the future. As Fred mentions, too many companies overlook the customer support side of the business. Many times, putting the right customer support processes and organization in place early can mean the difference between success and failure.
And yes, product management is an incredibly important role to fill early on in a company’s life. This function should serve as the intermediary between market and customer requirements and engineering. If you have someone too close to sales performing this function, you may end up with a focus on short-term results where too many one-off requests are made to just close a deal. If your engineering handles this, you may end up with an over-engineered product that does not meet customer needs. Your product person should be in marketing with significant experience balancing the short-term and long-term needs of the various stakeholders. This includes gathering data from customers (direct meetings, customer support, sales team), prospects, analysts (yes it is a necessary evil), and your own team to prioritize the product “must-haves” for the next release.