Saturday, March 22, 2008

If You Build It, Will They Come?

No. I'm sorry to shatter the dream, but just building it is not even close to enough. Not here in the Field of Reality anyway.

And building it well is not enough either. You can be a damn good builder and produce some great creations, but that just doesn't matter. If you want the crowd to come and buy your wares, you need to create something that is interesting and solves a problem, and then you need to make sure everyone knows about it.

It's really quite simple. If nobody needs what you've built, they are not going to care about it. But wait, what if they really do need it but they just don't realize it? It's still a no. Most people aren't going to wait around while you try to educate them about something they already have decided is a waste because they don't think they need it.

OK, so you've built something that people need, and they even know they need it. Now will they give you all of their money for it? That's a fat chance if they don't even know it exists. Let's say I've had my head in the sand for the past few years and I've decided I really need a portable music player. I'm probably not going to go look for an iPod if I've never heard of it.

I do kinda miss my clunky old Sony Sports Walkman in bright yellow though so maybe I can find one of those. I don't think I would have made it through junior high without that thing.

Now raise your hand if you think all of this is common sense and you're wondering why I've bothered to write about it.

Yep, just as I thought, I haven't revealed any deep dark secrets to very many of you yet. That's OK, I have more for you. Here's where it gets interesting.

I'll bet most everyone with a hand in the air has a widget that passes the two tests above, right? Of course! Your idea is different, better, cooler than the rest. The world is begging for your widget, aren't they? Even if they don't know it (OK, so you only passed 1 1/2 tests, no biggie), they really really need it.

Listen up sonny, take off those rose colored glasses and put down the Kool-Aid. Trust me, I know what I'm talking about here, I drank the Kool-Aid too and I liked it just as much as you do. That sugar might put a smile on your face, but it isn't going to pay the bills.

You see, back around 1999 or so, Greg Donarum, a good friend and really smart guy that I went to college with, and I started building an online catalog system. We weren't sure exactly what we were going to do with it, but it was a good way to leverage the experience we already had and learn some new technologies. What we ended up with was a complete system with full e-commerce, CRM and BI functionality built as an ASP, or as a SAAS in todays revised jargon.

North of Zero was great, if I do say so myself. Greg architected an incredible data model, I built a fault-tolerant hosting infrastructure and together we coded fast and robust web interfaces for all of it. Our third business partner, Ralph Lucier, is a very talented graphic designer and all-around professional business person so our application screens, marketing collateral, etc. were all impeccable.

What we built essentially enabled SMBs to have their very own Amazon-quality online store with features like upselling, cross promotions, affiliate programs and so on. On the back-end, we built full business intelligence and customer relationship management. The hosting infrastructure provided 100% uptime for over 3 years straight and the monthly fee was very reasonable. And our customers loved it!

So why haven't I retired yet and why haven't you ever heard of North of Zero? We didn't know it at the time because of those darned glasses, but we failed both of the tests.

First up is the requirement that people need what you have and they know it. Well, we actually only half-failed this one - I still think the world needed our solution. Back when we were trying to sell our application, many business owners that we spoke to had no idea what CRM and BI were and only had an inkling about why they may want to get into e-commerce. Few of them had actually shopped online and they were still doing business using telephones, faxes and snail mail. Trying to educate them on what the technology could do for them was usually an insurmountable feat and made the sales team spin their wheels far too much.

Second is making potential customers aware of what you've built. We were self-funded, which was good in that we didn't explode when the dot-com bubble burst, but it also meant we had a pretty small marketing budget. We did get some great PR, but it wasn't enough for the companies that were looking for our kind of solution to find us, and cold-calling just isn't effective. So those companies found some other offering (most of which did less and cost more) and never even considered North of Zero.

So would I do it all again? You bet. And would I do things differently? Absolutely!

I could go on and on about lessons learned, things I'd change here and there, if I had only known then what I know now, yada, yada. But I can really sum it all up quite simply - take a step back and look at what you are doing more objectively. You might think you already are, but I can almost guarantee that you aren't.

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