One of the most common mistakes high tech entrepreneurs make is not being prepared in advance for going to market. Often company founders and innovators are engineers or technical persons with perhaps little or no business experience. They're excited about the potential of their innovation and have focused all their energy on developing, testing, and fine-tuning their product. Sometimes, even with due diligence performed for funding, little or no thought has gone into the strategy and process of actually marketing it to potential customers. Suddenly, it's time to show the world what they have to offer.
The first, and most obvious, answer is that you're going to need an experienced sales and marketing person as a key component of your management team. Someone with drive, ambition, and the same vision as you regarding the potential of your innovation and how to best exploit it. Once this person is on staff, however, the situation can start to get a little fuzzy. Let's assume, for sake of argument, you've already conducted some preliminary market studies in the seed stage that established a basic need and market for your new product or service. Do you now attempt to handle all marketing activities in-house, or do you sub-contract with outside firms for your needs? Or a combination of both?
First, assess your needs. Does your innovation require a lot of support material, such as manuals, legal or technical documentation, sell sheets, and demonstration or set-up materials? Once your needs are established, you can determine how best to execute them. Are your needs basic and able to be handled efficiently in-house by your sales and marketing person or an assistant? Does the competition or the specifics of your innovation require something more sophisticated, better handled by an outside designer or firm?
Don't make the mistake of leaping to the conclusion that an in-house person will always save you money. Don't forget to factor in payroll taxes, health insurance and other benefits, office space, and equipment. Outside firms charging you on a project basis can provide much-needed flexibility and cost-efficiency if your needs are sporadic.
Outside help can also provide something usually in short supply within a company - third party objectivity. In honing your marketing communications, that can mean developing a strategic positioning statement that clearly and accurately reflects the true value and benefit of the product to the market. A positioning strategy that addresses the actual "pain" of the potential customer, not the perceptions of management. Bringing a fresh perspective to the picture, an outside firm can ask unbiased questions that might seem to have obvious answers to someone close to the product. For example, management might think "speed" is the sexy attribute while an outsider with an untainted outlook might say "Everything we see indicates potential customers are more concerned with bandwidth…we know you've been working hard on getting the speed up, but you should really consider focusing on bandwidth."
Ready! Fire! Aim!
You've now got your marketing team and strategy in place, the product is ramping up to volume production, and you're ready to pull the trigger, right? Wrong. An often-overlooked but critical component of your product introduction is your customer relationship management (CRM). In fact, according to CRM consultant Bill Morris, it's vital for start-ups to develop effective service and support strategies prior to a product beta so that you can also test your support strategies, documentation, training, and supportability. This brings to mind the horror stories I've heard from several clients in which management made the seemingly-logical, but actually ill-conceived decision to have product engineers also handle customer relations because, after all, who knows the product better? Unfortunately, the untrained engineers often answered customers' complaints or queries with refreshing candor, offering up such honest replies as (heavy sigh) "yeah, we knew that would be a problem…..you're not the only person complaining about it…we should have it licked in another month or so….".
Think now, save aggravation later. When production is humming and shipments are going out the door is not the time to be tinkering with CRM.
Instead, Morris suggests focusing early on your support philosophy, training, and logistics. Are you going to be supplying customer service on-site, remotely, or both? How are calls going to be handled? Queries received, tracked, and resolved? Customer feedback captured and analyzed? All these questions and more need to be addressed before you get into volume production - ideally when you are beginning beta testing or earlier.
The bottom line is that success in product development is just the beginning. At the same time, you should be refining your marketing and communications strategies and CRM program. In this way, all three avenues intersect smoothly to provide you with a smooth road to success.