Oftentimes, online sellers end up creating their own products to sell. You could call that self-sourcing.
We've spoken to sellers who have created lingerie, waterproof cigar cases, toys, tote bags, you name it. Sites like Alibaba.com have made the process of finding manufacturers and building a prototype easier than ever, though it still remains a challenging process.
You need to understand the minimum feature set that your prospects require to do business with you
To learn more about all this we spoke to an expert, Étienne Garbugli, who is a product design and marketing consultant as well as the author of Lean B2B: Build Products Businesses Want.
The challenges of B2B
Schepp: Why did you write this book?
Garbugli: To understand how to take a business-to-business (B2B) startup to what I call product-market fit. In today's world, lack of tools and knowledge should never be the cause of entrepreneurial failure. [That's why] I interviewed 35-plus B2B entrepreneurs, including the founders of Vontu, Optimizely, Taleo and WP Engine.
Schepp: What are the special challenges of entering the B2B market?
- Acquiring the industry context: Problems worth solving are typically invisible from the outside. It's very hard to get inside B2B companies, understand how businesses think and find the real problems.
- Building a relevant professional network: You need to understand what your target end user looks like. You might have a great network, but if it doesn't connect you to your target market, it won't help. Enterprises are really productive businesses. It's difficult to get people to take time to meet with you and take your startup seriously.
A compelling offer is an offer that potentially fits a prospect's expectations of value, payment plan, pricing, timeline, terms and return on investment
- Understanding the whole product: There are a lot of things that must be put in place just so you can be considered a valid vendor by your prospects. You need to understand the minimum feature set that your prospects require to do business with you.
- Estimating the return on investment (ROI): A B2B transaction is, by definition, an investment, an investment in future profitability, cost reduction, timesaving, productivity or customer satisfaction. When you're starting up and you're selling a vision, you're faced with a mind-boggling chicken and egg problem. You need an ROI to make a sale, but if you don't have clients you can't calculate an ROI. There's a fine line you need to walk to convince early adopters to make the jump and believe in your story.
- Reducing enterprise risk: Businesses are very risk-averse. The reason why sales cycles in B2B are often really long is because a lot of stakeholders need to assess risks. A big part of selling to businesses is being able to understand the perception of risk (migration, change, costs, etc.).
Get their attention
Schepp: How do I find out where the opportunities are?
Garbugli: In B2B, budgets are rarely created. To sell in B2B typically means getting companies to reassign existing budgets. You need to understand how money is currently being spent to understand your prospects' priorities.
If you understand what causes pain or can lead to a big gain for the company, you can build a compelling solution for an organization.
Schepp: Who do you mean by "business stakeholders," and why is it important for me to work with them?
Garbugli: The MIT Entrepreneurship Center uses the term "jury" to refer to the group of stakeholders that has influence over a purchase decision in a company. The jury includes the decision makers, the influencers, your early adopters and also the different buying influences (economic, technical and user).
If you don't understand who plays which part and who has influence over whom, chances are you'll never be able to get traction in companies. And you may never know why.
Schepp: How do I gain credibility with these stakeholders as well as early adopters?
Garbugli: Early on, there are five things that entrepreneurs need to demonstrate to be perceived as credible with stakeholders and early adopters:
Entrepreneurs try to be everything for everyone… Lack of focus kills startups
- Personal credibility: Do you know what you're talking about?
- Commitment: Are you in it for the long haul?
- Reliability: Are you doing what you say you're going to do?
- Passion: Do you really care about solving their problem?
- References: Who can vouch for you?
Getting up to speed with all the available research, assembling the right team, leveraging your connections and building on previous successes are all ways to gain credibility with stakeholders in a new market.
Create a viable product
Schepp: Can you give us an example or two of "ninja techniques" for speeding product market validation?
Garbugli: Find the watering hole. A watering hole is where your prospects gather for pleasure or for work. It can be a conference, trade show, seminar, restaurant, bar, hotel or professional association networking event. Finding the watering hole means having a direct channel to validate your solution with prospects. It can have a tremendous impact on your speed. (For more on watering holes, see Part 1 and Part 2 of our recent series.)
Set up a customer development panel. Recruit the five or six most passionate early adopters and create a customer development panel. Ask them to help guide product definition and help you solve their business problems. You can then reward your panelists with free or discounted products. The objective is to make them understand that if you win, they win.
Schepp: You've suggested creating a minimum viable product and a compelling offer. Please explain what you mean.
Garbugli: With the Lean B2B approach, we learn about a set of prospects' needs and problems, build a solution to their problems, and then try to validate that we have the right solution and that they're willing to pay for it.
The minimum viable product represents the least amount of work required to be able to close a prospect on a solution to their problems.
A compelling offer is an offer that potentially fits a prospect's expectations of value, payment plan, pricing, timeline, terms and return on investment.
The shortest path to becoming a successful entrepreneur is starting with what you already know
Avoid failure, find success
Schepp: What mistakes do other entrepreneurs make and how can I avoid them?
- Entrepreneurs try to be everything for everyone. Because a lot of the problems seem solvable, they try to fix two, three or more problems at a time. Lack of focus kills startups. You have to think small and choose one or two concrete problems to solve and then solve them brilliantly.
- Pet problems are, by definition, problems that only matter to one or a few stakeholders. Working on solutions to pet problems is a dead end. The problem owners will meet with you (often), but you will never be able to turn this into revenue. To validate that a prospect is not leading you on, you should ask questions about how they have solved the problem in the past, how they're managing the problem right now and what options they are considering to improve their situation.
- Entrepreneurs sell two, three, five or ten pilot projects, but after a few weeks, prospects hardly use the technology. If they call, they tell the entrepreneur that they're really busy, but that they'll start using the product really soon or that such and such features are missing for them to start using it. Those are all excuses. The solution to this problem is always to increase the value and to focus on the real pains of your prospects. If it's not painful enough, they'll postpone usage as long as they can.
Schepp: What have we missed that you think is important
Garbugli: The shortest path to becoming a successful entrepreneur is starting with what you already know. Ask yourself: What are the unique experiences and insights I've gathered over the years that I can use to create an advantage?
Schepp: Thank you, Étienne!