Where’s The Mango Market?

Run through this thought experiment with me.

  • How many mangos are sold in your city? It doesn’t matter how wrong your answer is – a guess will do.
  • How much does a mango sell for?
  • So what the mango market worth? This isn’t a trick question, just multiply the previous two answer together
  • Where is the mango market?

Ok, the last one is a trick question. This is because there is no mango market. There is a fruit and vegetable market.

Mangos sales aren’t significant enough and compete so directly with alternatives that they don’t have their own market. The price and availability of alternative fruit is almost as significant to the volume of mangos sold as the price of the mangos themselves.

Who cares whether there’s a mango market or not? Well, no one reading this. However every entrepreneur should care whether their product or service has its own market or if it is just one small part of a much larger market.  It is a common mistake to assume that just because there is a demand or need for a product that the product automatically creates its own market.

This is important because it is not possible to have a go-to-market strategy without recognising the market that you are in. The market dictates where your customers gather, what websites they visit, what conferences they go to, who they buy from, how they buy, the terminology they use, etc..

As a general rule if your ‘market’ doesn’t have an industry conference or any independent trade publication you should be asking if it exists in its own right or is just a part of another market.

Example: There is no flavoured water market – there is a soft drinks market. If you want to buy a bottle of flavoured water you go to the chiller cabinet in your convenience store. The flavoured water competes with all soft drinks for shelf space. If the flavoured water you want is out of stock or too expensive you will buy some other soft drink.

While there may be a demand for flavoured water there is no market independent of soft drinks. If you were the CEO of a flavoured water brand, realizing that you compete directly against bottled water, juice and sugary drinks in their market faces up to reality and allows you to create a credible go-to-market strategy. Thinking that you’ve got your own market is self-delusional.

If there are lots of alternatives that you haven’t included in your market then the chances are you are fooling yourself. There is no point trying to sell to this market because there are no customers there – they are all at the soft drinks cabinet.

  • There is no firewall market – there’s a digital corporate security market.
  • There is no invoice reconciliation software market – but there is a financial software market.
  • There is no wooden puzzle market – however there is a games and puzzles market.
  • There is no SMS market – there is a messaging market.


Stop looking at your analytics all the time

Whatever gives you that dopamine hit first thing in the morning: Google Analytics, Adwords, Mixpanel, bank balance, overnight orders, Stripe, stock price, Salesforce ….  it’s time to stop. You know you’re exhibiting compulsive behaviour, you know there’s no business reason you need to check your key metrics 20 times a day and certainly you don’t need to hit refresh to see if things changed in the last 30 seconds.

All you are doing is searching for that next high. Like a self-destructive addict, if the first metric is good you go onto the next, knowing if you keep going you will eventually find the inevitable – a metric that’s going the wrong way. If you are tracking 15 metrics it is statistically improbable that they can all be positive.

Once the negative metric has been spotted, it’s impossible not to keep looking. Logically you know that it’s not statistically significant and you can’t judge your site or product’s performance hour to hour, but you do it anyway, living the emotional rollercoaster of highs and lows dictated by the shape of the graph.

I was this soldier. I’d check 20-30 metrics across 5 different systems within 60 seconds of my eyes opening in the morning, 7 days a week. Occasionally I’d wake in the middle of the night to get my fix. Some days I’d check hundreds of times.

It wasn’t like it was even my job to stay on top of them. I had good people looking after all aspects of the business. But I felt like it was my job. I felt like I had to be on top of every aspect of the business and I boneheadedly took pride in being more up to date than anyone.

Self-realization dawned early on a Tuesday morning. I’d woken at about 5am and, as was my habit, checked revenue, site availability & traffic. Something was very clearly wrong. Even though the site was normally quiet at this time of the day, revenue was way out of line. I got out of bed. I was worried and stressed and I picked up my phone to call my CTO. It was then I realized that the best course of action was to do nothing and wait till the office opened and fresh, well rested engineers looked into the problem. My revelation was that information is valueless unless you are prepared to act on it.

I created a new rule for myself – only look at metrics when I was prepared to act on them. For example unless looking at the bank transfers that had arrived overnight would lead me to make a different decision then I wouldn’t look.

So I created a schedule for myself. Firstly, no looking at analytics in the AM unless they were needed for a specific purpose such as a meeting.  This allowed me to me to be proactive in the morning without having the day blown off course.

Schedule

  • Everyday 1.30pm: Bank Balance
  • Every Friday: 1.30pm Analytics, Revenue and Sales Pipeline  (Alright I’ll admit it became daily on the last week of the month. I didn’t say I was totally cured).
  • First day of the month. Adwords, Engineering tickets, site performance and everything else

Did I stick to it? Mostly. Every now and then I’d still crack but I easily cut out 95% of my habit.  I was happier and able to focus on the longer term and didn’t waste time stressing over irrelevant data.  This resulted in more thoughtful business decisions, better time with my family, and better time with me.

Next time you reach for your crutch of choice, ask yourself what decision you are going to make differently. If you are not sure and the answer is that you ‘just need to know’ then stop. You are not making anything better by looking and you are making life a lot worse for you and everyone around you.


Sales – it’s about Getting to No

Trying to sell something?

Well the answer’s no. Get used to it.

Stop looking for ‘yes’. It’s never yes. It’s always no.  If it  was yes then they’d already be your customer.

Your goal should be discover why it is no. Once you know why, you can work to overcome the objection. Maybe it’s price (it’s never price), credibility, risk, timing, authority, budget. You are dead in the water if you don’t know why.

If you go in looking for yes, then the best case is you find out that it’s not a ‘yes’. The worst case is you don’t even get that and the prospect stays in your pipeline like a ship becalmed. Your job is to force the issue, to question, to probe and to discover why they won’t do business with you NOW

Why I Hate A/B Tests

I hate A/B tests that are recommended to startups when they don’t have the volume to run them. I hate when they are used to avoid being courageous. I hate the false lessons they teach. I hate the illusion of certainty they give. In short I hate nearly everything anyone says about them and nearly every application of them.  So yes, I hate A/B tests.

They Provide No Insights and Generate False Narratives

A well executed A/B test will tell you which side performed better but it won’t tell you why. At the end of the day you may know that “Sign Up” works better than “Create Account”. Is it because the word “Account” has a very specific meaning for your target audience? Did “Sign Up” simply fit the button better? There are any number of possible explanations and you have no idea what the real answer is.  

The worst thing is that humans need narratives and when presented with a fact that is unsupported by a narrative we invent one. That invented narrative will spread further and be remembered longer than the original ‘fact’. But you have no idea if that narrative is actually true – someone just made it up. Try it yourself, go along to Optimizely and try not to create a narrative in your own mind.

They require a LOT of traffic

Split tests require a lot more traffic than most people who are running them have. If you have a page converting at 5% then on average you need about 30,000 visitors to that page to run an A/B test with 95% confidence. With the random walk inherent in your results you might sometimes need triple that. How long is that test going to take to run?  Are you happy standing still during that time?

Even then, the test is going to be wrong 5% of the time – statistically significant does not equal true.

The moment anything changes it invalidates your result

An A/B test requires both sides of the test to be identical except for the item being tested.  So what happens when something changes after the test? A soon as anything changes then the test needs to be rerun because the change invalidates the test. NO-ONE does this.

  • If you change a word on the page, a colour, a button, then the test is invalid
  • If your audience changes then your test is invalid
  • If the damn time of the year changes then your test is invalid
  • Even if significant time passes, your test is invalid as consumers tastes and views evolve over time

Most things aren’t worth split testing

Most of the time the cost of testing is going to far outweigh the potential benefit of the change. Your page probably has thousands of variables. The vast majority aren’t going to be worth the cost of testing.  Don’t expect minor changes to have major results.

On what basis are you choosing your test and what is your rationale?  Fear of being wrong, fear of being caught out, fear of being seen as rash or just because you think you should? Stop covering your ass and have the courage to plough forward and trust your own judgement.

P.S. A/B tests have their place and that place is where you are making fundamental changes that could radically impact performance and where you have large scale.

Adwords is like poker: If you can’t see the sucker, you’re it

When it comes to effective advertising methods Google Adwords rules the roost. You get to display your advert at exactly the right time to exactly the right prospect – the moment your potential customer is looking for it. This is astonishingly powerful and will generate over $100 billion in revenue for Google in 2018. However, all that revenue comes at the expense of the advertiser.  Most categories are now so competitive, making the cost of advertising very high, and when the costs are so high, advertisers need to live and breathe the figures in order to turn a profit.

In a competitive space Google will eventually take all the profit. Imagine:

  • There are four identical competitors
  • Each sell a digital book for $10 which they have written with no associated cost of sales
  • 10 clicks from Google Adwords are required to generate a sale
  • There are only 3 advertising slots available from Google.

How much will each advertiser bid per click?

Game theory tells us they will bid up to $0.99 cents. Any further and they won’t turn a profit. Any less and the other three competitors will out compete for the three slots and revenue goes to zero. So in for $10 sales, Google will take $9.96 – all but $0.04. In effect, Google takes all the money!

But it’s much worse than that. In the above example we limited the number of competitors to 4 and assumed they were all logical actors with complete knowledge and skills. Unfortunately this is rarely the case.

Most competitive markets have a few ill-informed actors. These actors will frequently outbid all the competition in order to maximise their traffic and resulting revenue. Imagine the above scenario with a couple of these ill-informed actors. Each bid $1.05 a click, resulting in Google taking $10.50 for each $10 sale. Google takes more than all the money!

But won’t the ill-informed actor eventually exhaust their budget, realise the error of their ways and either amend their bidding strategy or exit the market? Well yes, but there is an ample supply of ill-information actors ready to take their place.

So if you’re newish to advertising on Google, take a good look around at what your competitors are doing and if you can’t spot the one who is over bidding then chances are it’s you.   

Feedback Easily Given is Nearly Worthless

Ever received a cold call? Ever said the first thing that came into your mind to get rid of the person? Now imagine that salesperson meticulously compiling that feedback into a report. 42% of people are too busy, 30% already have a solution, 15% are driving and about to go into a tunnel and 13% of people are rude. Further imagine a company actually making business decisions on this data, confident in the knowledge that they are doing so on the basis of real market knowledge.

Ridiculous isn’t it? Yet we all do this.

No one likes to give difficult feedback. That’s why employee reviews are hard. It’s the same for customers. They don’t want to tell you that your baby is ugly – so they make something up – just so you go away.

You should always view feedback through the lens of how difficult it was to give.  If the feedback was easy to give you should regard it warily and probe for more. Conversely if the feedback was difficult you should really value it. Someone just went through an emotionally difficult time to give it to you. It has real value – do something with it.

When a prospect decides not to proceed with you, they will typically respond to your request for feedback. However, for the most part they just want to get rid of you and will tell you whatever is easy and end the conversation, not the real reason.

Be suspicious of:

  • You were too expensive
  • We decided not proceed with any vendor
  • Our budget got pulled
  • Corporate rules only allow us to do business with companies in business for over 5 years

Your job is to delve deeper and force feedback that’s difficult to give – that’s where the value is.  

Feedback Gold

  • We don’t think you can do the job
  • Your product sucks
  • Your lack of sales process worried us
  • We think you are going to go bust
  • Our engineering team hates your engineering team

Increase your Pricing to Increase Your Sales Volume

Spoiler: Because you can spend dramatically more on Sales and Marketing

As I explored in the previous post – very frequently your price is only a very small aspect of the total cost to your customer. For many IT solution is can be as little as 10%. Therefore a increase in your price may not make a noticeable effect on your customer’s cost and therefore the Law of Demand may have a negligible effect in reducing demand for your product, however it can have a dramatic positive impact on your business.

Worked Example

Startup AAA is selling a product for €10,000 and makes 5 sales a month. Startup AAA has a sales and marketing budget of €3,000 for each sale – so they can spend €15,000 a month on acquiring new customers. Startup AAA’s price is 20% of the total cost of ownership for the customer.

If Startup AAA increase their price by a modest 20% to €12,000. This only increases the total cost to the customer by 4% (since price is only 20% of the cost). While unlikely, this small increase in cost may impact on minorly on demand, however the impact of this extra funds has on sales and marketing can be dramatic. In this example the amount spent on sales and marketing can be as much doubled to €6,000 per sale. With the additional resources that this spend allows, sales and marketing should easily be able to increase the total volume of sales.

So price increases disproportionately positively affect your sales and marketing budget (or alternatively profit) while disproportionately minimally impacts on the total cost for your customer.

It should go without saying that price increases like this only apply if your competitive advantage is not price, but then again if you are a startup competing on price then you’ve got bigger problems.

Your Price Does not Equal Your Cost

Its economics 101 that when you increase the price of something the demand goes down (The Law of Demand). Unfortunately, like most 101 courses, this is a partial truth that needs either further study or practical experience to be useful and as the old adage goes – ‘a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing’.

No doubt you’ve all seen the law of demand used to justify low prices. It is particularly dangerous to a startup as it can be used as logical proof to an emotional decision to have rock bottom prices. We all fear rejection and we emotionally want to do everything we can to minimise our chances of it. So we tend to lower our price to a level where it can no longer be an issue.  

However for startups your price, no matter what you set it at, is almost never the issue. The problem is your total cost to the customer and price is just one small element of this.  Your total cost is a long list but for most startups the largest cost to the customer is the personal risk to their career of doing business with an startup as opposed a known quantity.

“Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM’. While obnoxious, this 1980’s slogan this hit upon a core business truth – not only are we, as sellers, ruled by emotion (fear of rejection) so is the buyer (fear that their purchasing decision will be perceived as a failure). If the project fails because they chose a startup rather than an established player, even if vastly more expensive, their choice will look unjustified and unnecessarily risky to their boss (and everyone has a boss).

There are many other costs that go into the total cost born by the customer and I won’t go into them at length, but they include evaluation, training, support, change control, hardware etc.. For IT solutions these costs can frequently outweigh the actual price 10 to 1.  A 50% reduction in your price may only represent a 5% reduction in the total cost of ownership. Similarly a 50% increase in your price may only represent a 5% increase in the customer’s total cost.

Remember, as a startup, if you are going to be rejected, it is almost a certainty that it’s not your price that’s the problem – it’s your cost. Even if you are told by the lost customer that its your price, it still probably isn’t. Most people shy away from hard conversations and a potential customer telling you that you are rejected is a hard conversation. In these circumstances people tend to use the easiest way to end the conversation quickly – saying your price is too high is nearly always the easiest.

A final thought: unless you are a commodity, you either have a lot of value or no value. Unless you have a lot of value, your solution will never overcome the other costs that have to be borne by the customer, and you effectively have no value. It’s not a linear scale, its binary.

Next Blog Post I’ll explore how high pricing can increase demand rather than reducing it.

Don’t Pre-Solve Secondary Problems

We all do this, its human instinct. Novice engineers build scalability into Alpha versions of product where the primary problem is getting user number one. Office managers research and buy new equipment when there is little downside to letting the old equipment finally break and then buying a new. Sales Managers agonize over commission plans for pricing plans that have never sold (and may never sell) when the primary problem is hiring a team.

The amount of effort and opportunity cost wasted in solving problems that will never occur or will occur much later than people think is immense. This is most evident in company that are scaling as all processes are being pushed to their limit. This problem is difficult to spot and rectify as the people involved in wastefully pre-solving problems think and can justify that they are being productive … but they are not.

Why

  • People’s ability to predict the next most important problem is poor. Typically it’s an entirely unpredictable unkown unkown opportunity or problems that reveals itself.
  • The longer you leave a secondary problem the more information you gather allowing you to create a better solution for when you have to solve it.
  • The context of the problem and the solution frequently change making the original solution defunct.
  • The longer you leave a problem the more likely you will be able to leapfrog solutions

Your job, as CEO, is to resist pre-solving secondary problem. Now don’t take this too far, there are lots of secondary problems that have to be pre-solved. For example don’t wait until you run out of office space before you start looking for a new premises. In general, let secondary problems break before you fix them.

Primary and Secondary Problem

This only applies to secondary problems. For example a Sales Manager’s primary problem might be getting new business sales in, a secondary problem might be the CRM.  Delivering value to customers is always a primary problem but your telephony system that creaking but not broken is a secondary problems.

Rule of Thumb for the Direct Sales Channels that are Viable for Different Revenue Levels

So these are very general rules of thumb: there are loads of exceptions and as always context is king. That said, I find these rules a useful shortcut when analysing possible direct sales models for companies. The rules are based on the annual average net revenue that your typical customer is responsible for:

  • Below €500 annually you can’t afford to call a customer and you must have a 100% automated sales channel
  • Below €5,000 annually you can’t physically meet a customer and you must either have an automated or inside sales channel
  • Below €50,000 you can’t get on a short haul flight to meet a customer
  • Below €500,000 and you can’t get on a long haul flight to meet a customer

Each of the different direct sales channels has radically different costs, and companies need to structure their sales operation so that they can expect to recover the cost of making a sale in well under a year.  

A typical inside sales rep will have an OTE between €40K and €70K and a fully loaded cost of roughly 150% of that. If they close 10 deals a month then the cost of making the sale is going to be somewhere between €550 and €950. Clearly if the resulting customers are only going to bring in €500 in net revenue it’s going to take a long time to cover the cost of making the sale.

A typical field sales rep will have an OTE of €60K to €100K with a fully loaded cost of double that due to the cost of travel. They should be closing about 7 deals a month, but they typically require a full time inside sales rep to source the leads and set up the appointments, taking the total cost of making the sale to somewhere between €2,300 and €3,500. So while it’s possible to run a field sales channel at under €5k net revenue, it’s difficult.

Once you have to get on a plane the whole dynamic and cost base changes dramatically. Now we are realistically starting to look at enterprise based selling. OTEs range from €70K to €150K (and up) with a fully loaded cost of about 250%. You can expect a maximum of a deal a month. Typically one meeting a week is reasonable – more can be done if you have particularly high customer density, but in that case you should probably be considering a local field sales force. So your total cost of making a sales ranges between €15K and €34K although it likely to be higher as a deal a month is on the high estimate.

Inter-continental travel makes everything even slower and even though OTEs aren’t much different, the number of meetings possible in a month shrinks to about 1 a month and resulting sales to maybe three a year. This results in an cost of sale ranging between €60K and €130K.

I find this a useful ready reckoner to quickly evaluate the available direct sales channels when analysing a company. It’s a shortcut, and I know that if something is anywhere close to the boundary it merits further in depth analysis as the peculiarities of a particular business or context may make a sales channel that initially seems implausible possible.