Startups are an Experiment

The most interesting technology startups, in my experience, are those who are trying to do something new.

In Europe, prior to the Enlightenment, one group of people who tried to do something new were the alchemists. Classically stereotyped as people who sought to create gold from base metal, they were lampooned by Tim McInnerny as Lord Percy Percy with his nugget of purest Green. His depiction was of a group of people who attempted, seemingly at random, to apply treatments and actions in order to create change.

Picture of an alchemist

The alchemists were swept away, in part, by the propagation of the scientific method throughout Europe. The scientific methods remains with us today, informing the approaches we take to discovery – and arguably creating innovation cycles that are faster than any could have imagined a thousand years ago.

Do you want to be an alchemist or a scientist? I subscribe to the latter approach over the former – and I believe that those establishing startups should view them through the lens of a scientist, treating them as an experiment

What does this mean? To me it means following an ordered process in order to best understand what you observe and maximise your chances of proving your hypothesis.

Think back to school – hypothesis, methodology, results, conclusion (no, I cannot forget!) – and take the same approach. With reference to startups, I would summarise the scientific method as follows:

  • Question – how can consumers and/or businesses most effectively complete an activity?
  • Observe – what do they currently do, what are the deficiencies to the approach?  Coupons in magazines in 2008 – why?
  • Hypothesise – we believe that businesses / consumers would use coupons more if they were online, promoted on single days
  • Create a methodology – build a site, and promote it for those interested in saving money via coupons; get businesses to provide aggressively priced coupon deals on a daily basis
  • Analyse the results – are people using my coupon site?  Is the promotion right, are the coupons offering deals in the right industries?
  • Interpret – yes, people really like daily coupon sites
  • Create a new hypothesis – people are willing to pay a monthly subscription of £15 to access my daily coupon site

New businesses are created by inquisitive minds who ask questions and observe deficiencies. However, just having a great idea (or a hypothesis) does not mean automatic success.

Consider your business – are you sitting in a candle lit room in a pointy hat, creating nuggets of purest green? Or are you a scientist in a laboratory conducting a series of experiments to prove or disprove hypotheses about businesses and consumers? I know which I’d rather be.

Insights from a complex negotiation

Most readers of this blog will be interested in getting to the point that a current client finds themselves in, so I thought I’d record the process we are working through to resolve it.

Picture this: you’ve found an enthusiastic sponsor, got them to buy into your proposition ….. you then find they have opened an opportunity bigger than you could have dreamed of (or given them credit for!).  The opportunity is business changing …. it smashes that sales target ….. the world is about to take a serious change for the better!

You’ve dealt with the sponsor and business user all the way through the sales process, everything makes sense …. then you hit (corporate) reality – an unhappy procurement function.  Why are they unhappy?  Your sponsor decided (almost certainly correctly) that if they were involved early on they’d kill the whole thing stone dead – and the business needs your software so they didn’t want it killed off early.

The call is set up, the agenda point is ominous – “commercial discussion”.  That’s where we find ourselves today.  Time for some scenario planning.

Position-based negotiation – a brief segue 

Just like in position-based warfare, you either win or die in your trench.   Positioned-based negotiation is the same – and thus to be avoided unless you have nowhere to run!

Back to the point

What will come up?  In reality there are actually very few things that procurement can say / do.  They either need to tick a due diligence box to say they checked it all out and understand it – or they are going to try and beat you down on price.

As I see it, there are only really three start points you should prepare for:

  1. The price is too much
  2. They don’t like the pricing structure
  3. Justify the whole piece

The price is too much

So let’s start with the first point – the price is too much.  The price is too much?  How is that possible, we spent all that time with the business users who hold the budget working through it and making it the right fit.  How can it suddenly be too much?

In my experience it can be too much because: a) procurement has a corporate target for reducing initially quoted prices e.g. everything down by 10%; b) the budget that the sponsor and business users identified got spent and they weren’t aware of it; or c) procurement isn’t particularly evolved in this corporate and is spectacularly unimaginative when it comes to negotiation!

So how to respond?  Remembering to avoid a position based approach (“it’s the best we can do”), ask a question: “why is it too much?  We have spent time with X and Y, who confirmed the budget was available, so you need to explain this to us”.  It’s a killer – now the procurement person has to explain their rationale for their statement – if they aren’t coming clean, try a couple of other questions: “do you have a corporate target? Has the budget been spent elsewhere?”  This puts you in the driving seat as you are now asking the questions.

We don’t like the pricing structure

This for me is a classic.  I have a tendency to specialise in subscription-based businesses – I like the model, as it lowers the cost for users to adopt and provides the business with on-going revenue to pay its employees and further develop the software.

However, subscription-based software isn’t old hat to everyone – in fact, some people still think that all software is sold on a license / maintenance basis.  This is not good, because you might have to explain the whole rationale of subscription based software to them, and then break the news that they won’t even own it – and some procurement departments hate not having something they can take away (even though in the long term they are totally powerless to develop it in house!)

There are several ways to address this:

  1. That’s our business model – take it or leave it (bad position-based start!)
  2. The pricing structure is like this because it reflects how we deliver the software – a lot of our costs are in on-going development for your benefit, as well as server space to deliver it across all those different geographies
  3. Give them a quick calculation of the license / maintenance cost – hey, if they want to buy it like that then why not!  So your £50k per annum software is now £127k (£115k+£12k) year one and then £12k for the following two years.  Obviously that’s good for my cash flow and bad for yours, Mr Procurement, plus we won’t be able to deliver you with any of the development benefits over the three years because we are going to have to create a separate instance of the software for you on another service, and once that’s in place we won’t be able to tinker with it in case something goes wrong and affects your business
  4. Ask them why they don’t like it – then knock off all the responses with the standard SaaS arguments – it won’t make them look good, so hopefully they will stop making stupid points fairly quickly!

Justify it…..all of it

This has to be the worst one …. not because you can’t do it, but because it takes so long to do.  You have confidence in your pricing, otherwise you would not have put it in front of them, and you’ve probably already been through this with the sponsors and business users – so it’s just tedious.

Do get some practice in beforehand though – time spent in preparation is time well spent.  In all likelihood the question that keeps coming up as you go through will be “why is that like that?  And why is that like that?”   As I said before, you have confidence in your pricing …… you are just going to have to spend a long time explaining it.  And there’s always the risk that either “that’s too much” or “I don’t like that” is going to come up – if so, I reference you back up to the previous two sections.

Final Thought

Generally you don’t get to a negotiation unless the customer wants to work with you.  Keep that in mind….and you’ll have a successful outcome – and lastly, the only business worth winning is profitable business!