Entrepreneurs’ dreams often beggar belief. Nothing necessary wrong with that… Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert suggests that dreams of dazzling business success need to take a back seat while the company concentrates on delivering meaningful customer service.
It’s accepted as a common aphorism that great thinkers will always produce great companies. The IT press loves to tell compelling origin stories about Apple and Hewlett-Packard – stories of brilliant inventors who created wonderful new products in their garages as exercises of faith. Business school students the world over get inspired by these rags-to-riches-to-undisputed-ruler tales and decide to try their hand at building new tech companies. Since the rise of the Dot Com Bubble, hundreds of thousands of budding entrepreneurs have launched ventures with dreams as their only collateral, each one hoping to join the Iconic Saints of the Information Age. Some days, it seems like every 20-something in the San Francisco area is mystically destined to ascend to the top of the Fortune 500 solely on the strength of a revolutionary new paradigm.
I’ve consulted to a dozen small start-ups since the Bubble, and I’ve noticed one common blind spot that doomed almost all of them: the ‘great new idea’ that the founders were going to dominate the world with worked amazingly… in their vision. Not so much in the lab, and not at all in the field, where the intended customers live. I had seven different would-be-Wozniaks tell me that the world simply ‘wasn’t ready’ for the distilled output of their genius; that didn’t matter (they said) because once customers saw their Great New Thing™ they’d all beat a path to the start-up’s door.
I tried to empathize with these folks. I wanted them to succeed. I wanted to see them claw their way into global stardom. I wanted to be invited onto their post-IPO trophy yachts. I wanted to see all of their dreams manifest successfully. Unfortunately, I’m a naturally cynical person, and I couldn’t help but notice a few glaring flaws that each founder in turn seemed to be blind to. So, being the token curmudgeon in each discussion, I politely pointed out the potential problems that I’d perceived… and thereby managed to get myself uninvited from every one of the start-ups’ manifest destinies. I took my consultation fees and wished my clients good fortune. After my third experience with the phenomena, I nicknamed it ‘Ozymandias Syndrome’ as homage to Shelley’s sonnet – and as an indictment of the misguided egomania I kept encountering in my fellow entrepreneurs.
One brilliant example of this came from my old friend and business partner James back during the post-9/11 malaise period. I’d helped him stand up his private consultancy the year before: a one-man advisory and systems integration provider called Kingdom Consulting LLC of Allen, Texas. James decided that he wanted to join two of his three strongest passions: technology and clerical service.  He spent six months researching the niche, then decided that around 500 small- and medium-sized churches in our metro area  had a compelling need to contract out IT services to someone like him. He’d have a significant advantage, he told me, because clergymen wanted to hire people who understood their unique needs – IT people who had also worked in ministry. I reviewed James’s research and agreed that he likely only needed to convert one per cent of his potential customer base into paying clients in order for his company to be financially viable.
For context’s sake, it helps to understand that the Dallas/Fort Worth area has a lot of churches; our largest ones are called ‘mega churches’, and they stagger the imagination. Fellowship Church – down the road from me in Grapevine – boasts nearly twenty thousand members. The Potter’s House in Dallas – home to worldwide celebrity preacher T.D. Jakes – has around 17,000 members. Gateway Church in Southlake has 17,000 members.  There are dozens of these organizations in the area, each serving thousands of parishioners apiece. These mega-churches are big enough to feature fully-staffed, in-house, corporate-grade IT departments. I know first-hand because I’ve consulted to several of them. Many of these gigantic churches are (for all practical purposes) textbook models of highly-successful online businesses… that just so happen to also do some ministry on the side.
James knew that he had a lot to offer the local mega-church community, since he knew both church administration and IT support. He’d just built Broadcast.com’s internal consulting practice, and had run a highly-successful network infrastructure business through the nineties. His passion, though, was ministry, and he had a soft spot for poor, struggling churches. He could have made a very comfortable living running a mega-church’s IT division. Instead, he wanted to bring IT help to small, community churches that couldn’t possibly afford a single dedicated IT worker. Fair enough.
Six months after I helped James get his company established, I checked back with him to see how he was progressing. He told me that he was a bit frustrated, because he’d spent months crafting what he thought was an unbeatable marketing campaign. He’d put together a list of five compelling arguments, translated them into personal letters, and had mailed them to over 500 clergymen in the Dallas area. He hadn’t gotten a single paid job out of it, and he was flummoxed as to why that was. Obviously these people needed his help. He’d made himself available. Why weren’t the desperate priests and pastors all beating a path to his door?
I chided James as gently as I could, and told him that (in my opinion) his approach was missing the mark on three critical points: first, he was a complete unknown in a city full of for-hire tech support. Second, just telling a customer that he or she needs to buy what you’re selling isn’t exactly an enticing pitch; any first-year marketing student knows that you have to engage your audience with a compelling story that strikes a chord with the decision-maker(s). Lastly, he wasn’t addressing the problems that his target demo was actually experiencing; he was assuming that he knew their needs better than they themselves did, and was offering to solve those issues… before the cusotmers accepted that they had them. It was a bit arrogant on his part. Perhaps, I suggested, it’d be a better use of his time to get out in the field and talk with his potential clients about what they thought their problems were. Then, after establishing a rapport, he could introduce his other ideas to see if they resonated.
To help prove my point, I built him a prototype Trojan horse  as a way to initiate a meaningful conversation with his customers. I called it the ‘Clerical Field Support System’. It consisted of a white Apple iBook laptop that was optimized to make a parish priest’s life easier when taking ministry to his congregation outside of the church. It featured multiple user accounts, each of which served a different functional requirement: one for the priest to present religious literature, one for small kids to watch movies and play educational games, one for older kids to do schoolwork while stuck in a hospital or funeral home, one for adults to fill out forms, and so on. The computer was pre-loaded with movies, games, reference documents, street maps , recorded sermons, music for ceremonies, and digitized forms. The design was what I figured a tech-savvy preacher would build if he or she needed to carry the church’s core services along while working in the field.
As I explained it to James, this product wasn’t really intended to be a real product; that is, the CFSS was a proof of concept and he should use it as such. Make an appointment with an intended customer and take the prototype system with him. Explain that this was a work-in-progress for a future design, and that he needed the customer’s expert opinion on where it fell short. Did it solve the problems that the customer was actually experiencing? What didn’t it do? Where was he falling short of the mark with his design?
I told him that the conversation itself was the goal – not the sale of a PC. Approaching the potential customer with no sales agenda at all would ensure that the tone of the discussion stayed positive. The laptop was just a McGuffin – something to talk about in order to get to the real objective, which was the establishment of a respectful relationship. By listening to the customer’s advice and drawing out their concerns, James could better position himself as a helpful, trustworthy, and reliable friend to the customer and to the customer’s organisation. As he learned about opportunities to ply his trade, he could capture them, and then come back when the customer was in a receptive mood to consider paying James for his services. If the customer didn’t need any IT help at the moment, that was fine – the relationship was the most important strategic gain from the encounter. Eventually, I told him, they’ll need you for something or other. If they know you, and know that they can trust you, then they’ll call on you.
In the meantime, he could futz about with his CFSS laptop taking the customers’ recommendations into account, and bring it back for future hands-on evaluations. He could loan it out for free, in exchange for useful feedback. His primary objective needed to be to stay in touch with his potential customers; his secondary objective was to get introduced to other potential clients. If he learned about a new, un-met need, he could try building a prototype for that, too. He could also use his new solution prototype to keep the conversation going. Work would come.
There’s nothing revolutionary about my little laptop trick. It’s very basic salesperson tactics. I’ve had lots of sales folks use the same approach with me to ensure that I eventually brought my business their way. I’ve been given opportunities to evaluate new products, invitations to attend new technology lectures, working lunches and dinners with Subject Matter Experts, and all manner of chats over coffee to keep working relationships fresh and vibrant. I knew what the salesperson wanted, and I made sure that they knew that I knew. The good ones always kept things ethically above-board and professional; in turn, we both benefitted from the investment.
The element that made my McGuffin tactic work (for James) was that it changed his perception of his function vis-à-vis his customers. Instead of thinking of himself as a sort of vending machine that exchanged goods and services for cash on-demand, he started to think of himself as a shepherd tending his own flock. In order for him to be effective helping the people that he wanted to help, he needed to get out among them so that he could see and hear their problems up close and personal. He needed to be a regular part of the community, so that he’d be recognized as someone that his customers would turn to when they needed support. He needed his finger on the pulse of the community, so that he could develop the right products and services to tend to ‘his’ people’s needs.
Again, this isn’t anything ground-breaking. There’s no jaw-dropping ‘paradigm shift’ in this advice. It’s just re-contextualizing the relationship between the service provider and the service consumer. The effect of it, though, it what made all the difference: it taught James that his brilliant ideas weren’t worth much to his customers if they didn’t share his vision. In order to be effective as a businessman, he needed to adequately serve his customers’ understood needs first, and only then try to address the needs that they didn’t yet appreciate or recognize.
I’ve shared this story with 90 per cent of the entrepreneurs that I’ve consulted to about the launch of their respective endeavours. I’ve tried to make it clear that I’m not opposed to their grand ideas for new products; only cautioning them that it was unwise to gamble their companies’ success solely on the awesomeness of their ‘world changing’ thing. Be valuable first, I advised, and then offer revolution. People are much more likely to follow you into the unknown after they come to believe in you.
World-changing success will come – or it won’t – largely on factors far beyond an entrepreneur’s control. The market has to be just right for a thing to both tap the zeitgeist and be the most desirable of many identical things. All of the supporting elements need to align just so for the company to deliver on its promises. Most new ventures flame out and die not because they’re unworthy, but because of sheer dumb luck. Similarly, some perfectly awful companies can become wildly successful because of that same dumb luck. It isn’t fair. That’s to be expected.
I tell starry-eyed entrepreneurs the same thing I told James when he had trouble launching Kingdom Consulting: if your customers know you, respect you, and value your help, then they’ll keep you viable. As you help them to succeed, they’ll help you grow in turn. Focus on doing good works, with a sense of grounded humility. Don’t waste time choosing a name for your yacht until after you’ve bought one. There’ll be plenty of time to enjoy outrageous success later, assuming you take darned good care of your flock right now.
 Sadly, he never managed to find a way to incorporate his love of Star Trek into his business model.
 By way of comparison, there are only 43,880 personnel in the entirety of the Royal Navy (regular and reserve). Imagine every British sailor turning up for services.
 A metaphorical one, not a piece of malware.
 Remember: Google Maps didn’t launch until 2005.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.