So often when I meet with founders they start with the here and now. Which is fine, because usually that’s where they are: looking for feedback on their pitch deck, help with founder issues, or advice on how much, if anything to give to prospective customers for free.
What can often get lost if mentors jump right into these issues is the most important question a founder needs to answer: “What is their big vision?” In other words what is their view of the future and their role in it that drives the company? At Course Technology our driving vision was that Technology would change the way students learn and teachers teach. That might sound mundane in 2017, but in 1989 it was not. I believe it was that vision that attracted not only blue chip venture investors like Greylock and Highland Capital, but also employees, partners, and advisors. Bill Gates and Paul Allen’s big vision when they founded Microsoft in the 1970’s was Personal computers would be in every home and on every desk. And that vision successfully drove the company for decades until the rise of smart phones, otherwise known as portable personal computers.
As was said by a very experienced mentor in a recent session, “Be sure to paint your big vision when you are in a customer meeting.” Customers, like entrepreneurs, live in the here and now, struggling with problems like too much scrap/waste in the manufacturing process or very low efficiency and frequent errors in their warehouse and distribution functions. But solving their here and now problems is necessary, but not sufficient. Why? Well there are four possible ways to sell a product:
- New products to new customers
- New products to old customers
- Old products to new customer
- Old products to old customers
Clearly the most expensive, the most time consuming, of the four is to sell new products to new customers – there’s so much risk, so much uncertainty. This is where every startup usually starts unless they are a spin-out of an existing company that can take some customers with them. This is not unusual with lawyers and other professional service firms, but highly unusual with tech companies. But once you have a handful of customers you need to think beyond the here and now of solving today’s problem for them, you need to think about two very important issues: retaining those customers and selling them new products. Because selling new products to existing customers is both far easier and more profitable than the other three options. This is why telecom companies for example, focus on ARPU – Average Revenue Per User – and work hard to increase that metric by providing new services (and often increasing the price of old services.)
So in a recent mentoring session we encouraged the founders who hand a handful of customers and great prospects to shift gears from their intensive customer acquisition efforts to learning more about their customers and meeting more influencers in the customers’ organizations – building their customer relationships. The reason for this is simple: to find other problems to solve and to enlist the customer’s help in both finding those problems and prioritizing them. Not every problem in a company needs an immediate solution.
By presenting your big vision in your customer calls or meetings you accomplish two things, one, you can get their feedback and hopefully their buy-in, and two, you can let them know that while you may just be a tiny startup of three people you have a much bigger vision – a vision of the future, and it will be to the customer’s benefit to take that journey to the future with you. As I’ve written elsewhere, founders need to capture their audience’s imaginations. And that’s what your vision has to do, as well as being the lodestar of the company, it’s guiding light. Your vision is NOT to be the biggest seller electric hairbrushes, or whatever your product is. Don’t confuse goals with visions. A vision is a picture, a picture of the future you paint for yourselves and all your stakeholders. By definition you will never achieve that vision or mission, but you will try to get asymptotically closer to it over time.
So while founders do need to focus on the here and now, you need to keep your eye on the future, much like a quarterback, who while evading rushers also has to keep his eyes downfield for an open receiver at the same time.
On occasion founders may find that their big vision just didn’t work. This was true for a host of companies in artificial intelligence until the past few years. Those companies were just too early, one could even say too prescient, but finally AI is now one of the hottest tech areas, if not the hottest.
There’s no shame in realizing that after spinning up your business and solving a bunch of customer here and now problems that your vision of the future and your role in it may be off. Then it’s time not for a pivot, which is just another approach to achieving your vision, but for a total reset, and rethink.
Focusing on the here and now while keeping the big vision in sight may feel very awkward or even impossible at first, like learning to play the piano which entails paying one part with your left hand and another with your right. But like learning a musical instrument it takes practice and hard work. But without a that big vision that drives you and your company you may find your business stalls out as you’ve failed not only to continue to both sell new products to old customers but even to attract new customers, as the world has changed but you haven’t changed with it.