Selling New Products to New Customers in New Markets

yellow telephoneThere’s a special type of confusion that has blocked many good ideas from seeing the light of day.  The confusion happens early in the life of a new technology when it is up and running in the lab but not yet incorporated in a product.  Since the new technology provides a new flavor of customer goodness, it has the chance to create incremental sales for the company.  But, since there are no products in the market that provide the novel goodness, by definition there can be no sales from these products because they don’t yet exist.  And here’s the confusion.  Organizations equate “no sales” with “no market”.

There’s a lot of risk with launching new products with new value propositions to new customers.  You invest resources to create the new technologies and products, create the sales tools, train the sales teams, and roll it out well. And with all this hard work and investment, there’s a chance no one will buy it.  Launching a product that improves on an existing product with an existing market is far less risky – customers know what to expect and the company knows they’ll buy it.  The status quo when stable if all the players launch similar products, right up until it isn’t.  When an upstart enters the market with a product that offers new customer goodness (value proposition) the same-old-same-old market-customer dynamic is changed forever.

A market-busting product is usually launched by an outsider – either a big player moves into a new space or a startup launches its first product.  Both the new-to-market big boy and the startup have a far different risk profile than the market leader, not because their costs to develop and launch a new product are different, but because they have not market share.  For them, they have no market share to protect any new sales are incremental.  But for the established players, most of their resources are allocated to protecting their existing business and any resources diverted toward a new-to-market product is viewed as a loss of protective power and a risk to their market share and profitability.   And on top of that, the incumbent sees sales of the new product as a threat to sales of the existing products.  There’s a good chance that their some of their existing customers will prefer the new goodness and buy the new-to-market product instead of the tried-and-true product.  In that way, sales growth of their own new product is seen as an attack no their own market share.

Business leaders are smart.  Theoretically, they know when a new product is proposed, because it hasn’t launched yet, there can be no sales.  Yet, practically, because their prime directive to protect market share is so all-encompassing and important, their vision is colored by it and they confound “no sales” with “no market”.  To move forward, it’s helpful to talk about their growth objectives and time horizon.

With a short time horizon, the best use of resources is to build on what works – to launch a product that builds on the last one.  But when the discussion is moved further out in time, with a longer time horizon it’s a high risk decision to hold on tightly to what you have as the market changes around you.  Eventually, all recipes run out of gas like Henry Ford’s Model T.  And the best leading indicator of running low on fuel is when the same old recipe cannot deliver on medium-term growth objectives.  Short term growth is still there, but further out they are not.  Market forces are squeezing the juice out of your past success.

Ultimately, out of desperation, the used-to-be market leader will launch a new-to-market product.  But it’s not a good idea to do this work only when it’s the only option left.  Before they’re launched, new products that offer new value to customers will, by definition, have no sales.  Try to hold back the fear-based declaration that there is no market.  Instead, do the forward-looking marketing work to see if there is a market.  Assume there is a market and build some low cost learning prototypes and put them in front of customers.  These prototypes don’t yet have to be functional; they just have to communicate the idea behind the new value proposition.

Before there is a market, there is an idea that a market could exist.  And before that could-be market is served, there must be prototype-based verification that the market does in fact exist.  Define the new value proposition, build inexpensive prototypes and put them in front of customers.  Listen to their feedback, modify the prototypes and repeat.

Instead of arguing whether the market exists, spend all your energy proving that it does.

Image credit — lensletter

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Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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