November 7, 2019

There is nothing better than having your business strategy validated by Steve Blank, the godfather of Silicon Valley.

Steve agreed to meet me for coffee recently to discuss how my company, BMNT, one of America’s fastest growing private companies, is navigating a new phase of growth and the transition to a hybrid model of consulting and software product development.

As a serial entrepreneur, creator of the Lean Startup movement, and investor, Steve has seen many companies grow rapidly. I knew he’d have great insights and guidance, and could steer me away from the common mistakes people tend to make.

Together we talked about what BMNT is doing to make our team can evolve fast enough to keep pace with new customer demands, and how we’re working to attract the world-class talent required to keep growing.

I explained that in my new role as Senior Vice President of Product, I want to build a company, not just a bunch of products. We agreed that these five heuristics should guide the process. Each of these could be its own blog post, but I’ll summarize them here:

  1. Build companies, not products
  2. Sell your vision
  3. Build a richer network of champions
  4. Don’t panic over positioning
  5. Create a process for managing how products are tweaked

Here are some takeaways from our chat:

1. Build Companies, Not Products

Because the word “Product” is in my job title and constantly on my mind, it would be easy to be overly focused on BMNT’s products and services, something Steve said he’d seen happen to other heads of products all too often in other companies.

The key to avoiding that pitfall is to be able to focus not just on the product, but on the bigger picture.

Our offerings are important, of course, since they are the mechanisms for creating customer value. But the company is what truly matters. BMNT can’t be a confusing mess of (admittedly awesome) people, processes, and technologies. Everything needs to be guided by an overarching mission.

One way I’m reinforcing that big picture for the BMNT team is to use my weekly company updates to focus on higher-level themes such as creating “instant magic” for our customers. This is way more helpful than a laundry list of tasks and minor milestones. Doing this helps the team make sense of our current work; see how it fits within our mission; understand how upcoming work is a natural evolution of a bigger trajectory; and recognize how BMNT, as a company, is changing to better support our customers.

2. Early Customers Buy Vision

This big-picture approach works well with customers, too. A common mistake consultants make when working with customers is getting distracted explaining the details of the current thing they’re building and shipping. This effort almost always backfires. Minutiae can be boring.

Instead of over-explaining our current product, we focus on the compelling vision that is 12-18 months away. That means we describe our work in terms of where it falls along the Innovation Pipeline, from instant market research to building functional prototypes in weeks, even days!  

The insight is that customers will stomach risk if it means the potential for a lot more impact. For example, I can describe our newly launched incubator, H4X Labs, in terms of its curriculum and mentor network - details - or I can focus on how it is the only source of investable dual-use companies in the world.

3. Build a Richer Network of Champions

With every new customer, you have a champion. However, no matter how great an impact we’re having with an organization, everything can quickly fall apart if one crucial champion leaves the company. Steve said he sees this happen regularly at startups that don’t go far enough to deepen their network of evangelists.

Because of that, we make it a priority to ensure we have at least two champions in each organization -- not one -- then work to develop an even richer network within these customers by attracting one or two additional senior leaders who support our work. This protects our early-stage efforts while they are still fragile.

4. Don’t Panic Over Positioning

A common mistake technical and product people in a startup make is when they hear how business development people talk about their product and confuse that with the product’s spec sheet. Most of our customers simply want to understand enough about what a product does so they can fit it into their world. They don’t need all the details (see #2). Instead, our sales and product teams need to discuss how to position the product as a solution to a specific customer problem.  

Steve and I discussed the way this issue tends to pop up. We both knew that I would hear other BMNTers talking about our products in ways that might make me anxious. They would be positioning the product in the minds of their customers, whereas I would be hearing them describe potential changes to its fundamental architecture.

Steve reinforced my intuition: don’t freak out. Someone tweaking a customer pitch doesn’t (always) mean he or she is proposing expensive, time-consuming changes to the product itself.

5. Third Time’s A Charm

That said, there are times when the product may change. Founders need to create a process for how to manage customer requests for product changes or new features. Founders who don’t have a plan in place might find themselves constantly responding to individual requests instead.

Steve’s fix for that when he was building startups was to strike a deal with his three-time head of engineering Ben Wegbreit. If Steve heard one prospective customer ask for something, he noted it. If he heard it from another prospect, he paid attention. But if he heard the same request from a third person, then he immediately scheduled a follow-up meeting and brought along Ben. Then the two of them could dig into the request to better understand if they wanted to make changes to their product roadmap.

I use the same tack with our business development folks so they didn’t feel compelled to come to me with every request that a prospective customer casually threw out.

Following coffee with Steve I now had a set of heuristics to level up my work and put BMNT on the right path to scale.