What is IP? And how to best leverage it?

We at Rapid Innovation Group are in the business of IP commercialisation. When we disaggregate that term, the most debate within the company, and a healthy debate it is I must add, is what does the term commercialisation mean. Is it sales and revenue generation at its most basic, or is it something far more fundamental than that? That’s a topic for another time and for someone with a little more nuance than me to tackle within our firm.

Instead I thought I’d write about what we mean when we talk about IP. Historically at Rapid Innovation, IP has been about the strength of the patent portfolio which we felt automatically granted a certain form of defensibility to our clients. However recently, I’ve been involved in a few engagements where what constitutes IP has had a rather more murky definition which has led to a more evolved position on IP in my thinking:

  1. One of our clients is doing a series A fundraise at the moment. They have a significant breakthrough in combustion technology and their business model is to develop and integrate it with large industrial collaborators, with the view to licensing to generate long-term revenue streams. One of the investors who is currently investigating them invests purely on the strength of the IP position. Our client has 7 patents across multiple patent families. Nevertheless, and despite NDAs, our client has not yet got to the stage of sharing their detailed designs because that is where their real technological differentiation lies. So where is their IP? In the patents, or in the design which is only briefly alluded to in the patents?
  2. Another client has licensed their IP to a company that has built large industrial plants using their technology. The core patent has expired but the license persists – both parties know, and will freely admit, that while much of the core technology is in the public domain, it is the secret knowhow and process knowledge that allows the licensee to profitably run the plant. How do you quantify that know-how? How do you protect it? How do you price it? Either way, their defensibility lies in that secret know-how. That plant cannot be run profitably without their process knowledge and know-how.
  3. A third client has a space heritage but like in the previous case, the core patent for their technology has expired. As such they have developed some process, and application patents. Fundamentally though, they do not have IP that protects the application, only their unique efficacy. What they do have is an emerging market with a clear need, a defined way that the market will adopt the technology, and a better product / design than their competitors. As such, their strategy is very much focused on selling this to as many customers as quickly as possible, and to find the right manufacturing model that will protect their design. Their defensibility lies in their commercialisation strategy, and their speed to market which is something that smaller, more agile companies are well suited to. They are very much a “deep-tech” company but are they an IP company – I don’t know and quite frankly don’t care as long as we have a product and a strategy that will fundamentally build market defensibility and long-term growth.

These are just a few examples of the extent of the diversity of challenges that have to be overcome “IP companies”, and while this is very generic, and fails to take into account several other hugely important contextual factors, it does provide a starter for six.

If you’ve got secret know-how and no one can reverse engineer your product / process when they get their hands on the product, then manufacture. This has two benefits as 1) it minimises IP leakage and 2) Allows you to price at the level you want as your customer has no way of knowing how it is you manufactured the technology and so is more willing to pay on the value of the problem being solved as opposed to imposing a cost plus model on you. Conversely, you shouldn’t dream of licensing in this scenario as you leave yourself open to your secret knowhow getting into the public domain and run the risk of your licence being compromised. Alternatively, if you’ve got a strong patent position, then license away as it’s pretty easy to see if someone is infringing on the patent.

Chester Karass said, in business as in life, you don’t get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate. The IP corollary is that your IP is only as strong as your wherewithal to protect it. Which for early stage companies with limited financial and even fewer legal resources is not very high. That’s why I’m a firm believer in the best piece of IP advice anyone ever gave me – keep secret what you can keep secret (and manufacture if no one can reverse engineer it) and patent what you can’t!

 

 

 

The allure of the ‘data is the new oil’ analogy

The commodities market is no stranger to data; a quick Google search will lead to streams of data showing price fluctuations and percentage deltas. Oil is back up to $70 a barrel and lithium is riding high on the projected growth of batteries and electric vehicles. One thing, however, that is not publicly traded on the commodities market, is data itself. A myriad of recent articles have hailed data as the new oil- the most valuable commodity over the last century. However, while the comparison of data and oil has some use, to label data as a commodity like oil is a misnomer.

The comparison is an attractive one. Data is seen as the fuel for our modern information economy. It is extracted in a raw and crude form and refined to produce something of real value. Yet, the analogy is overly simple and ignores some key differences. It is important that these distinctions are drawn to enable us to think about data and its value in the right way.

The data/oil/commodity analogy

For those of you who haven’t seen Billy Rey Valentine being condescendingly explained the commodities market in Trading Places, it’s probably good to start with a quick definition. Commodities are basic goods and raw materials that are extracted, exchanged and refined. They are agricultural products, coffee beans, gold, oil and of course frozen orange juice. As the alluring narrative goes, data too is mined and refined.

But, data lacks what economists call fungibility: the property of a good or a commodity whose individual units are essentially interchangeable. If I buy electricity from E.ON or EDF, I still expect both sets of kWhs to keep the lights on. In this case, crude oil is extracted, refined and barrelled for use in power generation and the value is the generation of power which is uniform in its output. That barrel of oil had the same teleological journey as the next one.

Data, on the other hand, is differentiated by type and quality. More importantly, the value of data comes from the insight and information one can extract from its raw form; these insights are highly subjective, largely influenced by methodology of analysis and therefore differ wildly through interpretation. Cambridge Analytica had access to a similar ‘barrel’ of data as everyone else. What they did with that barrel, the insights they drew, and their capitalisation of its value set it apart from others.

Another difference in the analogy is that once commodities are used, they often can’t be used again.  Data on the other hand is not a finite resource. It can be generated, used, reused and reinterpreted. Data can be stored and the accumulation of it is highly sought after in the modern information economy. Even when companies go bankrupt and assets get stripped, databases are often considered the most valuable assets. For example, when Caesar’s Entertainment- a gambling giant that pioneered its “Total Rewards” loyalty program- filed for bankruptcy, its most valuable asset was deemed to be this customer service database valued at $1 billion. No wonder companies are keen to get you to reply their GDPR consent emails!

So, as we have explored above, there are real limitations to the data/oil/commodity analogy. But why does it persevere to be alluring? The strength of the data/oil/commodity analogy lies in the fact that data is a valuable asset that is revolutionising business models and driving technological innovation. The ability to collect data and valorise its raw form into insight and information is the fuel of lucrative new businesses and innovative new models—much like oil was at the turn of the last century.

 

Data’s use

Of course, when people think about data it is the tech giants of the modern world such as Facebook, Google and Amazon that come up first. Although Facebook was slightly dented by recent events following the Cambridge Analytica revelations, data still reigns supreme. Google’s recent demonstration of their AI Assistant had people simultaneously in awe and shock at the pace of development of natural language processing and artificial intelligence.

It is not just in Silicon Valley and with internet companies where data is revered; industrial giants and deep-tech early stage companies alike are waking up to the strategic value of data and information. The two largest industrial giants, Siemens and GE are both preparing for the future of industry, where data and the services it can enable will form a key part of corporate strategy. Industrial behemoths like these are increasingly moving towards collecting data and utilising it to improve their ongoing customer relationships and open up new value-added services. This transition will lead to changing business models- a process already under way. Rather than industrial customers buying machinery (products) and maintenance contracts, the likes of Siemens and GE utilise data to provide a continued and long-term service to their customers. Contracts are no longer about just selling products, but delivering ongoing solutions that rely on data. It is an extension of Rolls Royce’s “Power by the Hour” concept developed- well, trademarked in fact- in the 1960s.

Data is spawning innovative technologies from the obvious smart algorithms to engineered hard technologies such as hydro-powered turbines to power smart water networks, novel approaches to asset monitoring and innovative ways to harvest energy to power the sensors that underpin these. Technologies span from smart approaches to data collection and methods to power sensors through to intelligent methods of analysis. The ability, appetite and vision to adopt these new technologies and develop models that the resultant data/information can enable, will lead to winners and losers across different industries. Data isn’t only the fuel of companies like Amazon and Google; it is a lucrative asset that will prove increasingly valuable industries such as energy, manufacturing and farming (to name just a few).

Conclusion

Data, then, can’t be called a commodity and it differs in comparison to sticky, black crude. It is an asset whereby its value stems from the interpretation and transformation of data into information. This information is an important component of our modern economy and will drive strategic diversification in some industries and kill of players who don’t move fast enough with it. Like oil was at the turn of the 20th century, data is a valuable asset that is changing the way our economy operates. It is no wonder that the reformist Saudi Prince, Muhammad bin Salman, pledged $45 billion to SoftBank’s Vision Fund whose focus is on the internet of things, robotics, AI and ride hailing.

Schrödinger’s Mongrel (and pricing equity in early-stage deep-tech)

I’m one of those annoying people that thinks Schrodinger’s Cat is an apt substrate for pretty much any old mixed metaphor that I can drag in. Apologies in advance.

It’s an age old question – how do you support valuation, at the point of seeking investment in a tech company that has zero, or very little, revenue, but shows exceptional promise. The reason it’s an old question is because it’s hard to answer, but here’s a clunky stab. The exceptional promise/ the pot of gold/ the cat is either alive or dead – which of these states it is in has simply yet to have been observed. It hasn’t been observed yet because we perceive time in a linear manner, but to a super-dimensional observer, the cat is, right here and now in spacetime – either alive or dead.

The mission for the entrepreneur looking for a strong valuation is to ensure that the likelihood is that it is alive. To put it another way, the business leader destined to chaperone the cat into the future, must be able to demonstrate to investors that the path through the fog-shrouded woods towards the goal, is well understood; that all the threats along the way have been considered, strategized and mitigated long before they jump out; and that the cat’s future wellbeing is a natural product of the work that has already been done to plan and manage risk. Risk in this context can be conceived of as existing on a series of spectrums such as technology, scaling, market, economic, investment, counterparty etc. An investor looking to push back on a valuation will generally be doing so by applying risk multipliers. Sound strategic commercialisation seeks to manage future risk through today’s action by pushing these spectrums ever closer to proven.

Good commercialisation therefore drives valuation, because it drives down risk. Bad or non-existent commercialisation is akin to leaving the future to chance. To put it another way, curiosity may actually save the cat…

Regardless of the state of the cat, I fully acknowledge that the metaphor is now as dead as a parrot.

Doing the right deal

Throughout the history of deal-making, folks have conceived of successful negotiations as being the ones where they “won.” Now, of course there is a place for adversarial negotiations, and of course there are times when it’s critical that you look out solely for your own company, but the types of deal that typically constitute the foundations for an early stage tech company, will usually function best when they function as a win-win long into the future.

 

For any early stage technology company, establishing the right structure and commercial basis for collaboration with key partners is critical. Attempting to use an imbalance of leverage, power, or information in closing a deal that favours you and cements a long-term partnership, is akin to building shaky foundations under a high-rise in the pacific ring of fire. It might look beautiful on the warm sunny day when it’s finished, but it’s unlikely to weather the storms. This is as true for a corporate as it is for a start-up, although both parties can be equally guilty of not always seeing this.

 

A long-term win-win is not always easy to structure, and there’s no simple solution for how to achieve it, but openness, honesty, and frank communication are a good place to start (I remember that from my wedding). If both parties genuinely understand the other’s hierarchy of intended outcomes, structuring is made considerably more simple, as is running a conceptual stress-test to see how it will handle any future tectonic shifts.

How early is too early: knowing when to engage your customer

“But we need to develop 3 phases of prototypes, go through accelerated life testing, and get 10 patents granted”. Or so go the usual protestations against early market engagement. The value of bringing partners and customers into the conversation at an early stage is often trumped by fear. “They’ll steal my technology”. “It isn’t advanced enough”. “They won’t understand it”.

There is only one thing that you need in order to commercially engage with companies; a proposition. Something to spark their interest. Let’s say you live in a very rainy country and I’ve invented the umbrella (which for some reason, no one else has figured out). If I approach you and tell you that I’ve got a solution to the downpours that blight your every day, do you think you’d be interested in talking to me? You bet you would.

What happens next? I find out what size umbrella you would like, what colour, and how much you are willing to pay. Because there’s no point in me spending 6 months and spending all my savings on an umbrella that is pink, made of wood, and costs £100 when what you wanted was red, plastic, and costs £50. No, the smartest thing I can do is make sure that I am developing the desired solution to a real problem, before I invest a significant amount of resource in doing so. Moreover, customers may be more open about the value of a solution when they’re encouraging you to create one (as opposed to negotiating over price).

Now, I don’t mean to downplay the importance of solid IP protection or reliable performance data. My point is that these are not prerequisites for starting a conversation with the company which will eventually use or distribute your technology.

These early conversations can significantly reduce market risk for emerging companies and their investors. They validate that a valuable problem is being solved. They help to shape the technology development path so that solutions are compatible with supply chains. They demonstrate demand for what you will ultimately be selling or licensing. All of this helps to avoid uncommercial development, something critical for young companies with short runways looking to maintain a competitive advantage.

Closing

Closing any deal is an event created by a process. The event itself involves getting the deal over the completion line. It is no more than the summation of a process that starts once a degree of mutual trust and interest have been established. Opening is a fluid mix of sparking interest (i.e. potential but still unsubstantiated fit and benefit) and relationship building. Relationships matter as they create access and provide the agency that gets things done and the medium through which information and insight is channelled and processed. Importantly, they also allow us to understand first hand what is important to an individual and an organisation. That is where empathy starts. In dealmaking, to deal is to empathise; to be able to imagine things from your counterpart’s point of view. Empathy is not simply a matter of adding another invaluable perspective, it is that soft intelligence that can lubricate the process, help smooth the bumps, and resolve the thorniest of issues. While creating ‘an opening’ is a prerequisite to selling, it is not in my book selling. It is a skill apart and a high value one at that when there is a significant degree of complexity and multiple players involved.

Determining the degree of fit, and the business case that may emanate from it, is a critical stage. The more thorough the work here the greater the probability that subsequent activities will progress smoothly. This is an evidence-based stage characterised by information sharing. The more structured this process, the better. Have a plan of what to share, with whom, and importantly, when to share. Building the business case – the ultimate measure of fit – in particular should never be presented as a fait accompli. Rather it is a very deliberate process. Agreeing a methodology (i.e. how value can be evaluated) is important because sellers are often guilty of presenting benefit cases that underestimate adoption costs while buyers may try and inflate them. The best form of persuasion (i.e. selling) are ‘facts’ messaged and presented in a manner that is compelling by virtue of being irrefutable. That is the subtle art of ascribing meaning to facts.

The basis of all sales is arbitrage: the buyer pays x for something potentially worth a multiple of x.  For the buyer that is the difference between cost and value.  This is where IP based propositions that are a multiple better than the incumbent technologies should be at a major advantage. The higher the multiple the greater and more transformative the potential value. Of course, the imperative here is transparency. Indeed ’radical transparency’, to borrow an acquired phrase, makes absolute sense. No bullshit required. Just detailed hard proof that for many of the companies RIG works with can only come through a period of collaboration. To fall short of ‘showing the value’ is to sell your technology short. Falling back on persuasion, however articulate and passionate the advocate, is a poor substitute for empirical, substantiated, indisputable, shared and accepted evidence of value. In this stage at least, the best way to sell is simply not to.

Beyond the core challenge of agreeing a methodology for establishing value, there is always an extensive list of associated ‘issues’ (not least those related to IP) that must be worked through before a closing event becomes a possibility. Failure to identify or anticipate an issue will delay ‘the close’ or lead to premature attempts to close a deal that is not yet closable. An apt metaphor might be borrowed from my boyhood:  compare this final stretch to building a model airplane of the type that predate the machines that you can order on Amazon and that are ready to fly straight out of the box. For the plane to fly the build had to be completed to spec and the little engine perfectly calibrated. Everything had to be just right, which took a fair amount of checking and tinkering, otherwise the plane failed to take off or crashed shortly after take-off. The most important tool was a comprehensive checklist.

The critical challenge of agreeing commercial terms is the penultimate activity before ‘the closing event’. This essentially involves trade-offs between cost and anticipated value. The buyside argues cost (and if procurement gets involved it will almost inevitably try to divorce cost from value as is their brief) while the sellside must stick to the language of value. To fall immediately into a pricing dialogue dominated by arguments around cost is to be seduced by the dark side. Instead frame your arguments using the language of value. How challenging this negotiation is primarily a function of how well you have executed the preceding stages. Though you will be frequently told otherwise, there is little in truth that cannot be anticipated or established before the negotiation to ratify final terms. An agreed methodology to evaluate value will at the very least enclose the discussion within parameters that make reaching agreement easier. The result we get may in part be down to our planning and negotiation skills but in much greater part it is down to leverage. Leverage is power and that power is found, created, built, adjusted, and understood as the process unfolds from first contact. In sum, the most skillful closers are those who know how to create leverage and use it to shape their counterpart’s decision-making, so that they seek in their own interest, terms that closely resemble the ones the closer set out to achieve in the first place.

 

Pick your champion

As an early stage technology company, the early deals done with big companies can set the course for the business for some time into the future. Getting them done is rarely simple, but the first step is to make sure you have the right champion.

It is a common misconception that because you are engaged in discussion with someone at a company, that you’re engaged with the company as a whole. It is rare that a large multinational invests all of its expertise, budgets and problems in a single individual or team, and frequently teams are empowered to solve their own problems in an economic way and encouraged to share their solutions with the group. This means that generally speaking there are multiple potential entry points into a company, and it’s wise to take advantage of this.

A second common misconception is that because an individual at a big company fully understands a specific problem or opportunity, that they truly care about solving it or grasping it. In actual fact, the vast majority of big companies have a real mix of cultures and sub-cultures meaning that even in the most board-mandated innovation-orientated environments, individuals can on occasion still get decapitated for taking undue risk or diverting themselves excessively from their day jobs to chase the prospect of a new technological Nirvana. Added to this, some people just don’t care as much as they ought to.

Large multinationals are generally constituted of complex and flowing networks of interests, perceptions and political capital. A good champion will help you to understand and navigate these very human elements, as well as support forward mapping the process to close. If they’re serious about wanting to get the deal done, then it’s in their interests to be open.

And so, at the risk of sounding like a Sunday supplement, a quick round-number checklist to help you to spot whether you have a good one. They:

 

  1. Understand what it does
  2. Understand the value of what it does
  3. Know to whom internally it has value and the nature of the problem it solves
  4. Can explain it to others
  5. Have real personal credibility
  6. Have a track record of on-boarding external technology
  7. Want to get a deal done
  8. Will empathise with your needs and work with you towards a shared goal
  9. Are frank about timing and will support sticking to an agreed timeframe
  10. Will help you to understand the process to getting a deal done, and all of the gates you need to pass through and the boxes to tick

If your primary engagement is with an individual with all of the above characteristics, great – you stand a chance of getting it done. If not, that doesn’t necessarily mean you want to jump off that horse, but it’s well worth considering getting new blood into the stable. Early technology deals should be done as much as possible from the same side of the table, focussed on benefits and structures for win-wins. A good champion works with you towards common objectives.

Getting the right champion is just the beginning, and from there on out its essential to be building your own political capital, and understanding first-hand the inner machinations of the business, but you’ll never understand it nearly as well as when you have a talented insider with aligned interests.

Negotiation Tools

Successful commercialisation requires a great technology with differentiated IP, a sound strategy with clear execution, and a little bit of unexpected foresight.

Case in point, a RIG client had a market-leading technology, a clear but simple strategy that resonated with its customers, partners and employees, and a strong execution-focused team that collaborated closely across the different functions of R&D, production, marketing, sales and support. This put the company in a winning position. However, an unexpectedly genius bit of negotiation led to the first few years of growth and sales being far smoother than previously imagined.

The technology had been incubated in university and was godfathered by one of the world’s largest energy companies who had provided clear technical specs, some development funding, and some of their business units to act as field trial partners until a commercial version of the technology was available. The quid pro quo from our client was that the energy company had exclusive access to the technology for a period of time. In order for the technology and the company to be viable and valuable, it had to unshackle itself from its customer and prove that it had worldwide application within its target market.

We had prepped and planned the negotiation for weeks on ends mapping out the various stakeholders and persons of interest within the energy company. Over a several month negotiating cycle we managed to secure a removal of their exclusivity on the technology without any change in shareholding. The key concessions were royalties over time and a Most Favoured Nation (MFN) pricing structure for the energy company. Little did we know the second thing, which we saw as a necessary evil, became one of our client’s most powerful negotiation tools.

As we started commercialising the technology out in the global energy market we discovered that there was real interest in the problem our client was solving, and a real differentiation in how they solved it. The market was keen to adopt the technology and we were able to get through the technical qualification process and identify significant problems that we could solve so that budget could be secured for initial uses of the technology. While this process wasn’t rapid, reflecting the sales cycles in the energy industry, it was smooth progress. We believed that we’d hit rough waters when it came to procurement especially as we were selling this across the world and we believed that different geographies would have different spending thresholds. Sure enough, during negotiations, having agreed all the terms and conditions, and just before producing an order, procurement teams would invariably ask for discounts saying that the budget secured was only for a certain round figure. However we knew that the problem was significant, and that our client’s technology could solve the problem best, so we stuck to our guns. However the argument we used every time, and with significant credibility, was the MFN pricing. The conversation normally lasted as long as this:

Potential customer: We’d like a 20-30% discount on the unit price of your technology. Our budget is only x. Our internal customers (the operational and technology team) want to use your technology but you have to work with us to fit the budget.

Us: I’m sorry we can’t do that. Energy Company Y has a MFN pricing agreement with us where they get 5% less than the lowest price in the market. So if we discount you by 20-25% we’d have to do the same for them and given that their volumes are an order of magnitude higher than yours, we can’t afford to do that.

Potential customer: Ok understood. We’ll prepare the order in the next day.

As you’ll note, the conversation was never about your price versus your competitors because our sales process ensured that we had identified that the problem we were solving was significant and had established in the users’ minds that our technology was best equipped to solve it. As a result, it was never a competitive scenario so the lever the customer had was at best made of rubber while ours was made of steel. It was never a lever that we had ever remotely imagined we’d have to use.

We probably trotted that line out to 30 different customers in 15 different geographies during the first couple of years of commercialisation. It worked with everyone but one: a family-owned energy company in India from who we decided to walk away from after two years of discussions and negotiations. Speaking for my countrymen, despite us seeing the value and understanding the logic, we just can’t live without a discount!

Fifteen Thousand Pounds – The Cost to Dig Your Own Hole

“Fifteen thousand pounds”

 

That’s the point I knew the client had lost the deal.  And with the deal, the long term viability of the company.

 

One of the most fundamental tenets of a successful growth company is ‘making yourself easy to do business with’.  I think sheer greed got in the way here, or perhaps a total misreading of the strategic situation.  It was explained to me post-meeting: that development work would be costly, so something would need to be charged to the client.

 

Rewind.

 

I’d started working with the client two or three years earlier.  They were selling services, charging an annual subscription fee on a headcount basis, into the people management space.  Human resources has plenty of critics (/administrators), so I will not repeat them here – but to make matters worse, the client was disorganised and emotional, but worst of all it learned slowly and was subscale.

 

I cannot even remember quite how they got into the situation, but one of the major UK water companies was brought round to the idea of doing a pilot of the service.    They certainly needed it – the management systems ‘human resources’ had in place were poorly implemented, and the Head of People knew it.  The client’s service offered the opportunity to solve the problem, and in order to get well embedded (knowing such a service would always go to public tender), it was manoeuvred into a three month limited-headcount pilot.
Remember I said the client was slow learning?  It must have been obvious to the water company throughout the pilot that the client was learning on the job.  This is not necessarily a bad thing – learning together, which certainly needed to happen, can build bonds between a company and its customers.  Quite why I was directing the learning was never clear – but I knew someone had to grip the situation, because the opportunity was too important.

 

Remember I said the client was subscale?  Getting the water company on-board probably would have trebled the ‘people under management’, which was the key metric for this particular client.  The investment in the technology and outsourced relationships needed to deliver the service was a leveraged investment – and they were short of break even.  Trebling the numbers, almost at any price point, would have been enough to put the company into that happy space where bills were covered, cash was being generated, and everyone would be able to sit down and think about what to do long-term now the company was ‘washing its face’.

 

Pilot was completed, a big thumbs up for the concept from the water company, and then to public tender.  Everyone knew three people would be pitching at the final round, and despite the obvious learning going on during the pilot, as an ‘incumbent’ (in the loosest possible use of the term), one would expect to be at that pitch.  And the client was.

 

Now as I said before, it didn’t matter what the price point was (within reason) – all that mattered was trebling the number of people under management.  So basically, unless the water company decided to totally reframe the tender at the last month, all the client needed to do was ease into pole position (with a three month head start) and they were good to go on a three year contract.  On to thinking about the business and how to develop it now faces were being washed…..

 

Water company: “So one of your competitors, being open with you, is offering us a set of metrics over and above those which you are currently providing.  Can you produce the same set of metrics?”

 

The data set was identical – same information going into the database, so:

 

Client: “Of course, not a problem …. But, er…… there will be a cost – that’s out of scope.”

 

(hold on, we prepared for this meeting – I don’t remember any additional costs being discussed)

 

Water company: “Oh …. right …. Er, how much?”

 

Client: “Er …… er ….. fifteen thousand pounds”

 

Talk about dropping the ball.  This was a knock on by the wing, once it had run round the opposition’s tardy back line, and was clear through for a try.

 

I was asked to speak to the water company’s procurement people to get feedback, once the client had received notification that the pilot was over and the tender was lost.  Apparently, and of course unsurprisingly, the water company hadn’t wanted to switch the client out – too much effort – but fifteen thousand pounds was not in the budget, and the other company was levying no extra charge.

 

I was on the team that put that company into administration a couple of years later.

 

The fifteen thousand?  That would have been made in margin in year two; the client CEO, for whatever reason, justified the unilateral action to themselves at the time and came out with it.  The company never ceased to be subscale.

 

The moral of this story?  Focus on what’s important (your company’s key metric); don’t get greedy; be easy to do business with.

When should I start commercialisation?

The lean approach to software creation has brought market testing much earlier in the life cycle of a product.  Its aim is to try to find market acceptance as soon as possible so that companies minimise the risk of building products that turn out to be not sufficiently compelling.

How does this translate for non-software technology products?

If a product is based on new IP, it’s likely to have quite a long period before a first trial version is market ready. So how early should you start your commercialisation?

There is a concern that ramping up commercialisation efforts too far in advance of production readiness could lead to a loss of any momentum that has been built with potential customers and go-to-market partners. There is a temptation to think that it is better to put your head down and focus on getting to a production-ready model.

However, it’s important to remember that engaging the market serves a number of purposes:

  • There are often multiple parties that will be involved in the sales, implementation, operation and maintenance of a technology. Engaging with them is essential to understand what is required for each of them to adopt the technology. This will be central to the go-to-market strategy

 

  • Working with these parties will give a clearer sense of where the orders for the product will come from in the first 12 to 24 months post-launch. This is a period where sales velocity must be built. Only when they are prepared to shape up distribution or sales deals will it become clear that there is product-market fit. Confirming in advance where the actual orders are likely to come from will help mitigate commercial risk for investors and support valuation

 

  • Understanding why and how these parties will engage and buy is key to structuring a go-to-market strategy and sales process

 

  • In the process of verifying the needs of the market, it is quite possible that information will emerge that will result in changes to the product development path.

 

If market engagement is left too late, this information may not be uncovered. The cost of this in terms of lost time and missing targets will be considerable.