Over the past few weeks, I’ve spent a good deal of time with two different kinds of geeks: geeks in suits and geeks in black. The suited geeks were IT gurus from large Wall Street firms and other Fortune 1000 enterprises. The geeks in black — their counterparts in web operations for some very large webs sites — were usually outfitted in black T-shirts (one emblazoned with the proclamation “DNS is Sexy” is a favorite), toting Macs covered in stickers from various open-source projects, and displaying unique facial hair.
Aside from these somewhat stereotypical aesthetic differences, there are both meaningful differences and similarities between these populations to explore, and understanding those differences can lead to the success or failure of an infrastructure startup’s business. I wrote about this divide a few months ago and how it can be difficult for a startup to target both of these markets successfully, but that’s why it’s imperative for a startup have someone who can speak the language of both sides in defining the product and that a startup understand exactly what both audience want.
Both groups matter greatly to you if you are building an infrastructure technology startup, because these are your customers and they have different needs. However, depending on what you’re building, you may not be able to — or want to — span web/corporate IT divide in version 1.0, so choose your audience, then engage in a rigorous product definition process, documenting the market and product requirements. Give your chosen market a product that works.
Getting the first version of your product sufficiently right, so you can build momentum with customers and iterate, is job one. This will involve ruthless prioritization. Frankly, you’re more likely to get a second chance from your investors than you are from customers/prospects that had bad experiences with Alpha/Beta products. At Battery, after analyzing 25 years of our winners and losers, the biggest reason startups fail is because they built what they said they would; it worked; but not enough people cared. This is a failure in understanding the customer/market requirements.
How/why does this happen? This is where someone who can speak to both audiences comes into play. Most often, we’ve found that the technical visionary defines the product without enough customer input or in a vacuum. Given that individual is likely extremely bright, he or she gets a lot of things right, but not everything. Further, by not having enough customer dialogue, they may have 100 percent solved a problem that’s number 10 on the customer’s priority/pain list. Situations like this are enough to get positive-sounding meetings but not make sales. Or the solution solves a problem that only a handful of customers have, i.e. market is too small or didn’t grow as rapidly as initially thought. Often, this is sufficient to generate small amounts of revenue but never to reach escape velocity.
This isn’t to say that a startup should — or needs to have — a bloated product management organization found in big companies. In fact, this is one of the key advantages startups have: the tight feedback loop between the folks talking to the customer and building the product. However, it’s very hard to find someone who can present the voice of the customer and be the technical visionary in a single human. There are exceptions, but they’re rare. The increasingly fractured nature of the IT landscape only makes this role simultaneously important and more challenging. The person on your team doing the product definition now must also be a translator, a native speaker of both WebOps and corporate IT. In other words, comfortable in both suits and in black.
Alex Benik is a principal at Battery Ventures.