Ready, Fire, Aim?

Build it and they will come? If that were true, Marketers would be out of a job, wouldn’t they?
Rob Adams, senior lecturer at the business school at The University of Texas at Austin, and director of Texas Venture Labs, agrees. He should know. He is a leading voice on market validation who authored a book titled If You Build It, Will They Come? Three Steps to Test and Validate Any Market Opportunity.  A former software executive, entrepreneur and fund manager, he has founded or financed more than 40 companies that have launched more than 100 products with transactions exceeding one billion dollars of capital. The book is a quick read with insights and best practices gleaned from his own experiences. His core proposition:
Companies can improve their performance by moving from the common Ready, Fire Aim approach to a Ready, Aim, Fire approach.

Ready, Aim, Fire

To give yourself a better chance of avoiding the 90 percent failure rate of most new product startups, move “aim” – market validation, that is, – up to the front. Rob’s recommendation?
Invest 10% of your product development budget up front to make sure the remaining money is spent right.

Case Study: Using a formula given in the book, Rob Adams provides an example that he has implemented to launch a startup marketing campaign. For the sake of simplification, the figures have been rounded.

  • $1 million: Initial budget.
  • $500,000: Allocated to product development.
  • $500,000: Allocated to launch, sales and marketing.
  • $50,000: (10% percent of $500K) Spent over an intense 60 days of market validation before product design even begins.

Why: The Case for Investing in Up Front Validation

What is the rationale for such a large expenditure on validation?

I would rather have my name on a $25,000 hole in the ground than a $1 million hole in the ground.

1. Wasted Resources: In an article in Inc., Rob points out that more than 65% of new products fail, for a total loss of $260 billion a year in the U.S. alone. With start-ups, the failure rate jumps to 90% – numbers that have been constant over thirty years.

2. The Customer is the Key to Your Success: Products usually fail to generate enough revenue because they don’t sell well enough, and can’t generate enough revenue to cover their expenses. That means that customers either feel they’re not compelling enough, or not worth the value for the price. Startups typically can’t survive the failure of a company’s first product.  The failure of a new product in an established business can risk the company’s stability, depending on:

  • the strength of other revenue streams.
  • How many resources were lost on the failed product.

And Rob is quick to point out that, while investors or a parent company might cover shortfalls for a while, the offering must eventually generate returns that justify the capital and the risk that went into creating, marketing, and selling it, or the company will tend to fail.

3. Leapfrogging the Competition Puts You At the Leading Edge: Another important reason for Market Validation is to leapfrog the competition. Innovation tends to follow a fixed path, with one big idea begetting another, and so on. That linear approach to innovation doesn’t always get companies ahead of competitors, especially in the digital age. Consumers often learn that as soon as they buy the latest technology, the next big thing quickly emerges, making their purchase obsolete. Businesses often learn the same difficult lesson as they bring products and services to market, only to be trumped by companies with more sophisticated offers and deeper pockets. Companies have to continually innovate in an unending, linear cycle just to keep up. Companies that leapfrog the competition have an opportunity to change the game.

Case Study – Apple: Apple’s reinvention of the computer from a business to personal asset created a game-changing new industry, as did their reinvention of the mobile phone from a telephonic device to a mobile computing platform. More recently, while traditional laptop vendors focused on the technology- adding more speed, more memory, bigger screen size- Apple focused on how people use the technology, and made innovations on adding battery life, ease of use, and quick Web connectivity, and making their machines virtually bullet proof against virus. The result: unless Apple severely stumbles, their customers are committed and wouldn’t consider another vendor. Until other laptop manufacturers can make a compelling case, Apple has the corner on this market. Rather than trying to compete on price or technology, Apple discovered a way to leapfrog competitors on customer focus. The compelling case for Apple isn’t based on either technology or  price – Apple is the most expensive in the market for comparable performance. For Apple’s market, price isn’t the deciding factor. Yet, without Market Validation, opportunities like these may not be recognized.

What: Market Validation: Real-Win-Worth Analysis

Market Validation is performed to probe, test, and validate a market opportunity before you invest  large sums of money into product development. Whether you are designing, building, or selling products, whether you’re in a large corporation or a tiny start-up, whether your business is service- or product-based, Market Validation will significantly increase the likelihood your product will succeed in the market.

Developing a Real-Win-Worth Methodology: Using a Real-Win-Worth strategy of market validation (Is It Real? Can We Win? Is It Worth Doing?) has helped me to launch products to bypass the market share of major competitors. Real-Win-Worth was developed by by George S. Day, a Geoffrey T. Boisi Professor of Marketing and a codirector of the Mack Center for Technological Innovation at Wharton as a strategy tool  for “undertaking a systematic, disciplined review of your innovation portfolios and increasing the number of major innovations at an acceptable level of risk.”

To do this, Day recommends two tools that can increase the proportion of major innovations in your portfolio while carefully managing their risks:

  • risk matrix enables you to estimate each project’s probability of success or failure based on how big a stretch it is for your firm. The less familiar the intended market and the product or technology, the higher the risk.The R-W-W (“real,” “win,” “worth it”) screen helps you evaluate projects’ feasibility. The first step in using this tool–asking “Is it real” questions–helps you determine whether customers want your innovation and, if so, whether you can build it.

6 Questions to Ask Yourself

To evaluate the risks and potential of an individual project, you should be able to answer and score these three fundamental questions about the market opportunity: Is It Real? Can We Win? Is It Worth Doing?  To do so, ask these six fundamental questions:

  1. Is the market real? Explore customers’ needs, their willingness to buy, and the size of the potential market.
  2. Is the product real? Evaluate the feasibility of producing the innovation.
  3. Can the product be competitive? Determine whether the product can compete in the marketplace.
  4. Can our company be competitive? Investigate how well suited the company’s resources and management are to compete in the marketplace with the product.
  5. Will the product be profitable at an acceptable risk? Explore the financial analysis needed to assess an innovation’s commercial viability.
  6. Does launching the product make strategic sense? Determine whether the project fits with company strategy and whether management can support it.

How: Using the Risk Matrix

Assemble a team to assess each innovation project’s potential risk using these criteria:

  • How closely target customers’ behavior will match current customers’
  • How relevant the company’s brand is to the intended market
  • How applicable your capabilities are to the new product

Worst Practice Study: McDonald’s once started offering pizza, assuming that the new product was closely adjacent to existing ones, and targeting its usual customers. The problem is that it violated McDonald’s service-delivery model: employees couldn’t make and serve a pizza within 30 seconds, and the project failed.

How: Using the R-W-W Screen

This tool is used to repeatedly test each project’s viability throughout a product’s development. The R-W-W screen exposes faulty assumptions, knowledge gaps, sources of risk, and problems suggesting termination.  To use it, you need to develop a set of criteria such as the following:

Best Practices Study:
The Background: I served as Director of Marketing for a financial services company that was a major competitor in the Variable Annuity marketplace, which is one marked by keen competition and slim margins. This company was typically a late follower rather than an early entrant, and often found itself in the defensive position of competing on product features and cost, which placed great pressures on product profit margins.
The Opportunity: I identified an unserved niche market – people on the cusp of retirement. The problem is that annuitants who wanted to tap the cash in their contracts were subject to surrender charges (CDSC – Contingent Deferred Sales Charge) for the first 7 contract years or more. While this type of annuity was an excellent tax-deferred savings and accumulation vehicle for those saving for future retirement, there was no product appropriate for consumers in their 60s who were either just about to retire or recently retired and might need more immediate access to their contract funds.
The Organizational Challenge: The challenge was to move the organization from the late follower mentality to first-to-market to develop a new product solution that would place the company in a position of leadership and surpass the competitor’s market share.
The Process:  I needed to change the mindset of the organization through a process people could buy into. To do this, I needed to get buy-in across disciplines by identifying easy wins that would have impacts early on. Using a R-W-W template, I looked at behaviors and needs in the marketplace, and verified the need – a segment that was unserved.
  • Real? I performed product concept testing among mid size financial planners and confirmed that it was a viable concept up front – before asking the company to put resources into development.   I developed a recommendation for a 3-year  contingent deferred sales charge product that would serve people on the cusp of retirement who had until then no product for their needs.
  • Win? Rather than develop individual products to serve segments where Manulife had no channel presence, we confirmed that there was a viable market and perceived need among mid size financial planners for this product.
  • Worth? We determined internally that such a product was actuarially feasible and would be a good fit for the company’s sales model. It would not cannibalize existing products, for example.

Result:  The company, which had not typically been a first-to-market company, was first to market with this product. Sales goals were exceeded profitably, and we usurped the leading competitor’s market share.

The R-W-W methodology enabled us to leapfrog the competition. In this age, companies have to continually innovate in an unending, linear cycle just to keep up. Market Validation can help you  uncover new opportunities to leapfrog the competition into positions of market dominance.
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