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.