I'm starting a new business called Kynetx. As I go through some of the things I do, I'm planning to blog them. The whole series will be here. This is the fifteenth installment. You may find my efforts instructive. Or you may know a better way---if so, please let me know!
One of the things that ought to strike fear into any technologist's heart is getting your first customer. You've spent months building a product you hope people will buy and find useful and suddenly someone actually is putting their faith in you and your baby.
You're happy, of course. But most of all, you're scared. What if something doesn't work? What if it doesn't scale? What about feature A, B, and Z that we haven't built yet? What about the shortcuts you took here and there to get it done? What about...
I've done this a couple of times now and I'm convinced of two things: (1) you're going to sell your service before you're ready and (2) you should have sold it even earlier.
We're at that stage with Kynetx. We've signed up several good pilot customers and we're actively courting the indirect sales channel. These are sharp, demanding folk with good ideas and little time to waste. That scares me.
Don't get me wrong. I've never built a product or service that has been more ready to scale and that I'm as confident works as promised. We've spent months automating infrastructure. I've written thousands of tests. Still, it's scary. If you asked me, I'd take another couple of months. Of course, at that point, I'd still take another couple of months. You're never ready.
That leads nicely to my second point. Since you're never ready, you might as well start selling even earlier. There are big advantages to having real people kick the tires and give you feedback. The product becomes better faster through that process than anything else you can do. And you invariably plug some of the holes that have crept into things.
But wait. There's more. The best part of selling your product early is that it helps you understand what you do and how you're different from your competitors. These are two key pieces of information when you're going out to raise money.
You may think that it's weird that you could start a company and not know what you do, but in fact it's quite common. Oh, you know what you do on many levels, but telling other people about it can present some challenges. In an earlier post in this series I wrote about finding your story. Same idea.
When you start to tell others about your product or service, they invariably try to understand you by comparison. "Oh, so you're just like [insert company name here]" or "Oh, so you're a [insert product category here]." Often these are the very companies or categories you're trying to distinguish yourself from. You need to understand how your different in ways that you can easily explain.
Going through some VC meetings and pitching events helped us refine our story, but we're reached a whole different level talking about what we do with clients. They're usually more willing share, explore, and engage in a dialogue than VCs who typically hold their cards very close to their vest.
Clients aren't as interested in comparing as VCs because they don't care as much who you're like. They're not trying to find the next category killer. They just want to solve a problem and if your nail will secure their board, then they're game.
Besides, I don't know about you, but in client meetings I'm a whole lot more relaxed than I am in a VC pitch. I'm in my element--showing off the things I'm most passionate about right now. Clients usually want to see what you have and our demo usually wows people. VCs never want to see a demo.
As a consequence of all this, I wish we'd been positioned to start selling well before we started raising money. Unfortunately, because of various timing issues and our own understanding, things didn't work out that way. If I do this again, I'll start selling much earlier.