How to Follow Up, Get The Meeting And Validate Your B2B Product Fast


The Follow Up Formula Cover

Meeting with early adopters to validate any kind of product is intrinsically linked with sales and following up. If you can’t get a meeting, you can’t validate your product let alone understand what problem you should be solving.

But, what if early adopters don’t respond when you reach out? Do you follow up? What do you tell them? How long do you keep going?

If you can’t get in touch with early adopters, you can’t validate your business. Landing the meeting is a critical skill for entrepreneurs. It’s something I always try to get better at.

A few months back, I stumbled on The Follow-Up Formula by Steli Efti.

I got a lot from the book. Here are a few highlights:

  • It’s when everyone else stops running, and you’re the only person still in the race. It doesn’t matter how slow you run—you are going to win because everybody else stopped running. -> The #1 skill for entrepreneurs is perseverance. Slow and steady wins the race.
  • If you already had some kind of interaction and that interaction was not a clear, definite NO, then follow up as long as it takes to get a response. Never stop till you get a response. -> “Maybes” kill startups. You have limited runway, you need to operate with a sense of urgency and get to Yes (or No).
  • Silence is not rejection. If someone doesn’t respond to my calls or emails, I simply assume that they are busy and that I need to follow up until they have a moment to respond. -> You need the right mindset to make follow-ups work for you.
  • Don’t guilt the other person, even if they don’t immediately respond. -> Don’t let your emotions get in the way of creating successful customer relationships.
  • Eliminate their guilt by making it clear to them that you don’t harbor any bad will towards them for not replying to your previous emails. Your #1 job is to make people feel comfortable responding. -> You’re building a relationship. It cant start with guilt.
  • If you’ve never met the other person before, don’t follow up more than six times. -> Sales rarely close on first interaction. It’s the same for any kind of reachout.
  • Followups: For a positive outcome: Email, For a quick response: Phone, For the quickest response: In person. -> Set aggressive deadlines. Switch communication method if you have to.
  • Your current results in life are an indicator of your past hustle. Everything that’s going on right now in our business is the result of the work we did months or even years ago. -> Business is a cumulative process. You need to put in the work and hustle.

I’m not generally a fan of ebooks, but The Follow-Up Formula is worth reading.

It’s free, and you can get it here.

Happy Follow-Ups!

Innovation Consultant Joyce Oomen on The Right Time to Think About Innovation

Innovation Consultant Joyce Oomen on Innovation Management for Lean B2B Startups

Joyce Oomen is the founder of product and innovation management consultancy Pimcy. Her company helps businesses structure their innovation product development by combining innovation management with innovation portfolio management.

Joyce worked her whole career in product development, spending 10 years as a Senior Product Manager for a large bank. Her experiences in a corporate environment help fuel her strategic innovation work. She is part of accelerator DOON in the Netherlands and organizes A Day of Life in Startup workshops to help companies familiarize themselves with the principles of The Lean Startup.

I really enjoyed our discussion. In it, you’ll learn:

  • The right time to start thinking about innovation and why it’s sooner than you think.
  • How to build the preconditions to allow your company to innovate.
  • The dangers of projecting the ROI of innovation projects and how innovation portfolio management can help reduce that risk.
  • The importance of building credibility in B2B.
  • How to use proof of concepts to get inside large organizations.

In this exclusive interview, Joyce will also talk about her new venture to help organizations manage their Innovation Portfolios.

You can listen to the full interview below:

Etienne Garbugli (EG): What are some of the methodologies you use in your work?

Joyce Oomen (JO): Our basic approach is Lean Innovation and the Lean Startup but tailored in a way where it’s more the key principles that we use because The Lean Startup is very software-based and startup-based. We work for more established companies where we have to adjust to a different context. I really like from the portfolio management suite the Three Horizons framework. That’s really a guiding framework that I use. Your Lean B2B framework is also a nice framework if you’re in B2B.

What we try to do is combine a lot of practices and see what fits. We have to have some common-sense approach and see what works. It really takes small steps. We don’t believe in big bangs.

EG: What are some of your best practices when it comes to innovation?

JO: In terms of best practices as an innovator, you have to eat your own dog food. I’m applying the principles myself for a new venture I’m starting up. I’m doing solution interviews and we’ve been doing Lean Canvas(es) and drawing out experiment boards. So, not only coaching people using it but also doing it yourself and you say oh well it’s quite complicated sometimes.

EG: You mentioned you were starting a new venture around portfolio management, maybe you could go a bit into details of what you’re putting together?

JO: We’re working with a partner who has developed a new innovation portfolio management software. I’ve already been working with him for 2 years on a different MVP but we learned that, it (his solution) was more tailored to SME companies and it was not doing the trick for the larger corporate enterprises. There were a lot of things that were lacking so, he decided to start from square one to make it perfect. I’ve been feeding a lot of product development ideas into it and I’ve been involved from the start with setting up that new product.

We’re now 80% there. It’s not perfect but we’ve already gone into market and we already have a proof of concept with one of the major banks in the Netherlands. We’re learning a lot from that.

We have a four-month proof of concept and it looks good. Hopefully, it will be a longer-term contract. In our solution interviews, if we mentioned the proof of concept with one of the major banks, it opened doors because our target audience is in the larger corporate and/or very large SMEs where it’s difficult to get the right entry point and you need good references. That proof of concept is really important. We do everything we can to satisfy them. They get the concierge treatment.

EG: How important is innovation and innovation management to organizations today?

JO: It’s vital for organizations. If you see the rate at which technology is evolving (and it’s accelerating), there’s a major impact on a lot of companies and sometimes they don’t realize that it has an impact. I believe if you don’t think about what the impact might be and how it might affect you then at some stage you will be too late. There’s a lot of startups. It’s easier than ever to start up, and because technology is also decreasing, the barriers to entry are lower. If established companies are not investing in innovation right now then they’re really not doing it right.

The difficulty for us as innovation consultants is that our point of entry should be when everything is going well and there’s sufficient money to innovate. But companies typically say well, everything is going well, I don’t need you. That’s quite a challenge because what you want to do is to ensure that you can extend the lifecycle and have the next generation (of products) ready, but sometimes it’s more the short-term focus that companies have. When the shit hits the fan, then yes, we can do some innovation but they want to have quick wins. We need innovation and we need a return on investment but it’s better to be involved earlier in the cycle.

EG: How do you see the innovation space evolving over the next 5, 10, 15 years maybe?

JO: First of all, there will be more open innovations. The boundaries of the company will become less and companies will open up more to the world and to outside startups.

Which means they will be working more in cross-functional teams that probably get more autonomy themselves and their own budget. I think that the functional structures that we now have and the hierarchy, if you want to innovate it doesn’t work.

EG: What do you feel are the challenges of innovators working in a B2B environment?

JO: Lean Startup is really new for B2B markets. You always hear that it’s not possible in B2B; you can’t have a MVP because we’re in a very capital-intense market. I think a lot of things are possible by thinking more about your real customer and end user. You can test with mockups. It’s a totally different way of thinking and working and B2Bs are sometimes more technically-focused and not really consumer-focused or market-focused so that’s really a new sound. You need to convince a lot of people and that takes a lot of time. You also can’t prove (innovation) because you can’t say okay, if you do this with me then I promise that you will have this yield. It’s impossible as a consultant.

EG: So, it becomes dangerous to be projecting the results for things that are difficult to foresee in a lot of ways?

JO: There’s so many dependencies. What you do with innovation is you’re changing the culture, the process, you need management buy-in you and have all these stakeholders. So, how can you promise that we will have a 20% cost reduction or a 20% increase in revenue? I can’t. It all depends on how engaged people are and what change really comes across, and you can’t do that by yourself, you do this together.

EG: It feels like there’s a big change management piece especially in the innovation space interacting with these organizations so making sure that they understand the benefits at all these critical points and are able to implement the right approach to be able to get the results they seek.

JO: Yes, but that’s why I think our approach is different. We start from the angle of portfolio management. What you actually do is that you build a structure that allows innovation, that gives space for innovation. You’re building the preconditions so that the company can innovate. Often, it’s also easier to show where the results will be because the company will be killing more projects earlier, their New Product Development success rate will go up. There will be more ideas and so on but it’s difficult to put that into real dollars. I don’t have enough data yet to make those kinds of promises.

EG: What value did you get from reading Lean B2B?

JO: A lot of things are common sense, but there were a couple of models that really helped me and I’ve been using. I used the buyer persona canvas and also how you can position your message based on the various stakeholders within the decision unit (DMU). Crossing the Chasm, I bought that book again and oh yeah, that you always have to charge.

And also, that you have to build your credibility. I think that’s what I got from your book.

I really had to start working on that because I have experience but most of it was with one single employer. I have been starting to write blog posts and, now since last year almost exclusively about portfolio management and the Three Horizons. I keep writing about the topic and it helps because I now get in touch with people through LinkedIn and they find me via these posts.

EG: What innovation advice would you give to organizations operating in competitive industries today?

JO: To look at your existing innovation alternatives and start mapping them across the Three Horizons and see how much you’re doing in incremental innovation, in new technology or new products and what you’re doing in transformational innovations. If companies map it out, they’ll probably see okay there are mismatches.

If I can give a second one, what I’ve noticed is that a lot of companies don’t have a specific innovation strategy. You need to define an innovation strategy: where do you want to be? where do you want to go within the coming years? what sandbox will you be playing in?

EG: How early do you feel that that needs to come in a company’s existence? Should it be within the first few years or should it be when the company has reached a certain level of stability?

JO: If you’re a startup, you probably have other challenges and already a longer-term vision in your head. As you start to become established and have a lot of people working for you, it’s the business as usual feeling and that’s when the danger comes. What’s the next step? How long will this business model remain valid? What you see is that established companies focus on business as usual and start improving their operational excellence. When they run into difficult situations, they’re cutting costs when you’d rather invest in innovation and make sure that it grows.

EG: Thank you for your time.

JO: Thank you.

Innovation Expert Daniel Almodovar on Why Companies Can’t Just “Wait and Buy” Startups

Innovation Expert Daniel Almodovar on Why Companies Can't Just Wait and Buy B2B Startups

Daniel Almodovar leads the business validation practice at World Class Center Innovation and Design. There, his process includes documenting the initial business idea, extracting and prioritizing hypotheses, validating problem, solution, market demand, profitability, measuring, learning and adjusting the solution. Depending on the client’s interest, they can provide training, mentorship or externalization of the validation.

In this exclusive interview, we talk about why companies need to innovate (and can’t just buy startups):

Etienne Garbugli (EG): Could you tell us about your work at World Class Center Innovation and Design?

Daniel Almodovar (DA): We are part of Altran, a leading firm in engineering and R&D. Within the company, we represent the global team for innovation and design, addressing projects that cover the whole lifecycle of innovation: trends & technology radar, customer insights, creative problem-solving, invention, prototyping, business validation, UX/UI design, and product realization up to manufacturing of small series. We also have transformation programs for organizations to boost their innovation potential. Our clients are medium and large corporates from all industries, with national and multinational footprints.

I participate in projects of nearly all the practices. I particularly enjoy cases in which we run an invention project that generates new promising concepts and then we continue working in their business validation, moving them towards reality.

Altran - World Class Center Innovation and DesignAltran’s World Class Center Innovation and Design in Madrid

EG: How did you get into the innovation space initially?

DA: I had been part of the Vodafone Group R&D team for many years and, there I had not only executed many innovation projects but also tried different innovation methodologies, to the extent that I became an internal consultant. It was a natural transition for me to move to Altran’s innovation team.

What I like the most in this career change is the opportunity to live innovation in so many different sectors: finance, insurance, chemical, industrial, energy, automotive, aerospace, urban services, consumer goods… This helps you realize that innovation shares common issues everywhere.

EG: What are some of the methodologies you use in your work?

DA: I mainly use the Lean Startup framework, Business Model Canvas, some Design Thinking tools, and a methodology called Synectics, which provides a strong basis for successful human interaction in creativity and problem-solving.

Rather than being tied to a single methodology, I believe that what works is to have a varied toolkit from which you select the right tools for every project and client need. For instance, sometimes I have also used the Jobs-to-be-Done framework, Google Design Sprint, or the Innovation Games set.

EG: What are some of your best practices when it comes to innovation?

DA: Innovation is carried out by people. For me, the ideal innovation project is when the people that participate in the project live a personal transformation and acquire a new mindset that can apply from that moment on in their future projects – and even in their lives. This happens, for example, when they get to experience the benefits of understanding their customers, releasing their creative thinking or validating the critical assumptions behind what they want to build.

In the same way, it’s essential for people to understand purpose. Why are we doing this innovation project? Why are we using this tool or doing this activity? How will all this contribute to a goal? The innovation facilitator must always make sure it is clear for all participants.

The facilitator also has to explain the differences, in terms of mindsets and rules, between the operational world and the innovation world. This prevents the premature killing of promising concepts because they’re applying the operational mindset. The key is to manage the transfer from the innovation space to the operational space.

EG: How important is innovation and innovation management to organizations today?

DA: What comes to mind may sound very cliché: the “VUCA” environment, the increased frequency of disruption in every sector, the decrease in companies’ lifespans… You simply cannot afford to ignore innovation. And at the same time, you must operate your core business, what currently brings in the money. I agree with most innovation thinkers that carrying out innovation and operation in parallel is the biggest challenge that companies have to overcome nowadays.

EG: How do you see it evolve over the next 5, 10 or 15 years?

DA: I think that, during the next years, we will see a gradual process in which organizations will learn from success cases and will get better in being “ambidextrous”, executing their core business and exploring new businesses at the same time – with effective transfer from the second activity to the first.

In addition, I’m also very curious about the evolution of internal vs. external innovation, i.e. on the one hand, internal innovation projects or intrapreneurship; on the other hand, open innovation challenges or engagements with startups (which is so popular today and for some companies seem to replace internal innovation). I think that both have pros and cons and that the right approach is a mix. Actually, the binary division internal vs. external is quite simplistic, and changes when you start including other dimensions such as ideation and implementation (see model below).

In-Out Innovation Approaches for when to Build vs Buy Startups
In-Out Innovation Approaches

EG: What are the main challenges faced by innovation experts in the industry today?

DA: If I wanted to make a joke based on what I have experimented frequently, I would say that the fact that nearly every company applies a reorg every 6-9 months! This changes the points of contact for innovation and/or freezes innovation projects due to re-prioritization of activities.

More seriously, the answer would be related to the previous questions, i.e. companies applying only the operational mindset or taking care exclusively of short-term results and fast return on investment – indeed, the most common complaints I hear from participants in innovation projects are “I don’t have time for this as I’m very busy with the daily operations” or “This activity is not in my objectives”.

Another challenge would be companies thinking that they don’t need any innovation system or process and that they just have to “wait and buy” the innovation that happens externally.

EG: What do you feel are the challenges of innovators operating in a B2B environment?

DA: Many challenges are common to the overall innovation space. However, you must be very aware of the specifics of B2B, such as the fact that you have “fewer shots”, or that you have different client-people within the same client-company requiring different value propositions or that experimentation must coexist and not disturb the ongoing business. All this is very well explained in the Lean B2B book. :-)

EG: What value did you get from reading Lean B2B?

DA: It was really helpful for me. I had read most of the Lean Startup literature (Eric Ries, Steve Blank, Ash Maurya, Cindy Alvarez, etc.), but I was missing a comprehensive explanation of the specifics for the B2B space. In Lean B2B, I found confirmation of many of my previous thoughts or intuitions about applying Lean Startup in B2B, as well as many new clarifying and useful ideas. It is really well structured both in the overall chapter distribution/narrative and in the checklists, tables, sidebars, tips that every chapter includes. I bought the paperback edition and it is now full of pencil marks and underlines, pointing to pieces of knowledge that I have used in my projects.

If I had to choose one powerful idea I extracted from the book and soon internalized, it would be the fact that Lean Startup in B2B is strongly linked to strategic selling and must consist of building a trust relationship. Many other concepts or pieces of material in the book have become part of my personal toolkit, such as the “jury”, the “money map”, “Value = Benefits-Costs”, the interview templates, or the tips for first pilots, case studies and discounts.

EG: How have you been using the ideas from the book?

DA: When I got the book I was actually running a project consisting in mentoring a client’s team through a Lean Startup process in the B2B space, so it was a great help to reinforce the B2B specifics beyond the general Lean Startup framework. Afterwards, I have used the toolkit I obtained from the book when running any project or initiative that involves B2B. This refers not only to projects with external clients but also with internal clients (e.g. to help Altran R&D projects go to market) or within our own innovation team (e.g. to expose our new innovative offerings to our customers).

EG: What innovation advice would you give to organizations operating in competitive industries today?

DA: I would advise not to let innovation happen just as a spontaneous activity that depends on the personal initiative of a few employees; instead, start creating and nurturing an “innovation system” like the Innovation Model Canvas, something that continuously fuels the company with ideas for new businesses and validates them so that they can become a reality.

EG: Thank you for your time.

DA: Thank you.

Innovation Consultant Rene Bastijans on Uncovering Your Product’s True Competition

Innovation Consultant Rene Bastijans on Unlocking Growth for Lean B2B Startups

Innovation consultant Rene Bastijans had his dream job. In 2011, he was working in the small corporate R&D team of the largest education company in the world researching emerging technologies, developing prototypes for next-generation learning products and running workshops with intrapreneurs.

The company, Pearson, had been hit hard by the arrival of the iPad and other e-readers. They wanted to figure out what to do with new technologies.

Fast forward to 2015, Rene had moved from London to sunny Portugal to join Beta-i, the number one entrepreneurship and innovation organization in Lisbon, where he led their corporate startup accelerator Protechting. Out of a passion for The Lean Startup, he started teaching early-stage startups how to apply Lean Startup principles to validate their business models.

Rene now helps Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) companies understand how to build and sell products customers will buy through Jobs to be Done research. The insights gained from the research allow his clients to uncover revenue potential, create effective marketing messaging to make their products stand out and generate demand for their products in sales conversations that will win them new business.

I really enjoyed our discussion. In it, you’ll learn:

  • Why businesses often fail to implement an evidence-based innovation process.
  • Why companies are – more than ever – feeling the pressure to innovate.
  • Why Rene focuses on two frameworks: The Lean Startup and Jobs to be Done, and how both frameworks can work together.
  • How to use Jobs to be Done to uncover the wants and struggles of your target customers.
  • Who truly determines the value of your software.
  • How to rethink your product’s competition.

You can listen to the full interview below:

Etienne Garbugli (EG): What are some of the methodologies you use in your work?

Rene Bastijans (RB): I am pretty much focused on two. What I use from The Lean Startup is the fast experimentation, helping people create experiments that are lean to replace guesses about the business model or the product. From Jobs to be Done, I like the customer interviews. It’s recreating the customer purchase timeline from what prompted them to start looking for a solution working towards the purchase. I like experimentation on the one end and customer interviews talking about the events that led up to a particular product purchase.

EG: Does the Job to be Done framework help feed the experimentation or is it more the reverse?

RB: I would say the the outcomes from Jobs to be Done research fit in very nicely in The Lean Startup. That’s why I like these two a lot. Also, Design Thinking addresses the question what jobs could our products help the customers get done. With Lean Startup, it’s more about should we build the product in the first place? The outcomes or outputs of Jobs to be Done research fit in nicely into experimentation. Are we addressing the right job here, the right thing? People tend to be solution-driven. They start off with a solution and then try to mend it to a customer segment instead of thinking are we addressing the right struggle in the first place?

EG: That’s a great way to sum it up: Lean Startup is should you build it, design thinking is what should you be building and Jobs to be Done is why would you build it.

RB: It will help you understand the issues we want to address as opposed to assuming somebody has a problem and therefore we have a solution. It’s really understanding that, first of all, we can go and experiment and find out whether what we believe is true is actually true.

EG: How important is innovation and innovation management to organizations today?

RB: If you ask anyone, whether it’s a CEO of a startup or the leadership team in a big organization, everyone will say that innovation is important, of course. We need to be innovative, we need to do innovation because startups pop up in our industry and eat our lunch. We want to defend ourselves against those. But, when it comes to giving people the time and space to implement an evidence-based innovation process you can see it all falls down. They actually don’t believe in it. They don’t give it the attention it deserves.

If it’s a public company, they have to think about their shareholders and make sure they hit their targets for the next quarter. People think very short term and, of course, innovation takes a long time. It’s not very predictable. The biggest struggle that these companies have is that they are very good at executing on the current business model, but they are not that good at thinking ahead and giving innovative ideas the space to maybe become the next product or service.

EG: In a way, investing in other lines of business that may not be showing returns already?

RB: That’s right. Innovation is not treated differently than the current business. They don’t have the people in place. They don’t have the patience. They don’t have the metrics to measure something more innovative. They’re using the current metrics that they have for the cash cow – the main line of business – and try to apply those to innovation projects. That’s when they fail and they say, look we had this lapse for two years and nothing has come from it. What have you guys been doing? We have just been wasting money. People get disappointed very quickly because they really don’t understand it.

EG: What do you feel are the challenges of innovators working in a B2B environment?

RB: From my perspective, it’s a different setup and it’s very complex in terms of decision-making. It’s not as easy as going to a consumer who has just bought an app. You must find out who can make the decision to buy. Who has the authority to actually get a project going? There’s buyers and there’s users and people need to have a way of reaching the right people and getting that started. That’s probably the biggest challenge. They might not actually understand the process in those companies because they have never spoken to anyone in those companies. They don’t know how those purchase decisions are being made. The last time the business bought a piece of software, how many people were involved, how many layers of management had to actually sign off? What’s the budget? All this intel they can get by speaking to people within these businesses.

EG: In other words, figure out what people’s wins are with your software and what value it brings to the company? I always find interesting how different those wins can be for different stakeholders or for the employee themselves. It tends to not even always be the software itself but what is around the software that they value.

RB: Yes, and the value of your software to the buyer or to the end user is actually determined by them. Can they make progress? Can they overcome their struggles? Can they get to where they want to be with that software?

Let me give you an example. I work with a company in the eLearning space. The CEO believes that this software that they are building and selling is about sharing with your team. What turned out is that the buyers were struggling so much with having time to do their work that they were “hiring” this online learning software to be able to push people to learn by themselves so that they could actually have time to do stuff that really matters to them.

They want to get work done. There are a lot of employees leaving all the time and it takes a lot of time away from the decision-makers. An online platform that can onboard a new employee or a new sales rep is really attractive to these people; it actually buys them time. It is not about knowledge-sharing or features, it’s about getting time back so I can do the things that matter to me.

EG: How have you been using the ideas from Lean B2B?

RB: I’ve been using the customer interviews and the advice on finding early adopters from the book. I have got this idea of who my customers might be, whom might have a budget or whom might be trying some solutions already, but they’re not really getting me anywhere. How do I find these people? Something that’s actionable and practical is really helpful. I am still sharing to this date. I have got other resources now but, you were one of the contributors to give people real hands-on practical advice on how to get started looking for people I want to be helping.

EG: Do you find that problem interviews and Jobs to be Done work together hand in hand or are they for different purposes?

RB: They are very complimentary. Jobs fit in very well in the beginning when nobody is sure what kind of struggles they want to help solve. It also helps to have some questions similar to yours that you can ask in conversations with your prospects and early adopters. I pick and I let my customers also pick the questions that they think would help in getting the most out of these interviews.

EG: What innovation advice would you give to organizations operating in competitive industries today?

RB: The key for me is in the word competitive. I would like people to rethink competition and markets fundamentally. Because competition is not only restricted to the products that look similar to yours; it is defined by customers using it. Whatever they are using today that helps them with the struggles they have to make progress is your competition. It doesn’t have to be the product that’s in the same category. It can be calling my friend or pen and paper.

Understand what your customers use today, that’s your real competition. Unless you can help them make progress, they will not give up what they’re currently using. Secondly, I would say to become a bit more customer-centric by really spending time studying the customer’s lifecycle and how they experience their jobs and work. As opposed to saying: we have been in business for 20 years… we know what they want, we will build this thing and they will buy it.

EG: Thank you for your time.

RB: Thank you.

How Cobrainer Used Consulting to Bootstrap and Validate an Enterprise Product

Amelie Spath on scaling Cobrainer as a Lean B2B startup

Cobrainer is a machine-learning data analytics company focused on the analysis and visualization of expertises in organizations.

What started out as a project for academia in Munich, Germany soon found traction in project management, product collaboration and innovation management.

Now, their clients range from Deutsche Bank to Boehringer Ingelheim. Although Cobrainer co-founder Amelie Spath had worked for large enterprises before, she had to learn how to target enterprises from the outside to push the company forward.

I caught up with Amelie as her team is re-focusing the product and preparing for scale.

I got a lot out of our discussion. In it, you’ll learn:

  • How Cobrainer transitioned from being an academic project to targeting large enterprises
  • How they got their first customers and how they motivated early adopters to work with them
  • How the business got its start bootstrapping and the challenges they faced
  • How they conducted problem interviews to identify the best customer segments
  • How they raised funding and pivoted the product to be able to build a scalable business
  • How they focused on understanding the enterprise reality and the impact it had on their growth

You can listen to the full interview below:

Etienne Garbugli (EG): How did your team go about selecting a product/market opportunity initially?

Amelie Spath (AS): Three of my co-founders are researchers. We always found that for any research project at Universities you need an interdisciplinary team. How do I find the expertises I need to make my project a success? There was really no mechanism to learn from past projects, which expertises they combined to make it work and which people have those expertises.

My co-founder, Martin, who is a machine-learning scientist said, well that’s a problem we could actually analyze with technology. And this is how we started out analyzing all the research projects at our University here in Munich and creating an expertise map. And then we pitched the whole thing at a conference where there were a lot of enterprise managers from large companies in the audience. And one of them told us: “Hey, what you’re doing for academia is actually really interesting for the enterprise… but they’d pay you money. So, why don’t you pivot and go in that direction?”. That was pretty much the start of the company.

EG: How did you go about validating the opportunity?

Amelie Spath (AS): This manager became our first customer and then we found a second customer, and with these two, we started developing the product. There was a lot of collecting requirements, understanding the enterprise context, getting feedback, iterating with the users and this is how we got started. We built the first version of the product with paying customers from the start. They took a big leap of faith.

EG: How did you motivate early adopters to work with Cobrainer initially?

Amelie Spath (AS): So, they really had this problem of not knowing which expertises were in the organization, how to best leverage all of this implicit tacit knowledge that is there. But employees cannot access this (data) and there’s no real strategic way or no direct way to collaborate with people you don’t know in your organization. They realized that with digitization, new business models and shifting dynamics in the industry, they really had to do something. They could also position themselves as thought-leaders trying new technologies like machine-learning. So, they really felt like okay, we take a leap of faith here but it’s extremely relevant for us.

EG: What were the core challenges faced by Cobrainer in the early days of the business?

Amelie Spath (AS): We started out bootstrapping and basically being revenue-financed from the start. On the one hand, that was great for us because it forced us to deliver a product that is useful to our customers. But on the other hand, we were really prone to accepting customization requests. It destroyed our focus because, when you have to make revenue, you have to make revenue. And if you have to stretch or go a bit outside of what you actually want to do to make those revenue, you do it. The real challenge was feature creep. Machine learning and AI, it’s a powerful technology. Almost everyone we talked to had new ideas of where to apply it or new use cases that we could do with expertise analytics.

Initially, we were thinking: “Hey, this is awesome. There’s so much opportunity, so much potential”. And then at some point we were like, “No. Hey stop! This is not going to work.”. And then our mantra became okay, what is the smallest product we can build.

EG: How did you know that Cobrainer had found product-market fit?

Amelie Spath (AS): We realized that the very core thing that we do is the data analysis and the expertise intelligence. We understood that this should be the core product. But then there came all of this enterprise customization on top. It was a full-stack product and then we decided to modularize it, build an API only for the core analytics engine and everything else was now coming from third parties. And now we’re considering that we have product-market fit. Before that, there was too much customization to really say this.

EG: What value did you get from reading Lean B2B?

Amelie Spath (AS): I think one of the key things is really how to properly do user testing in B2B. How to avoid lying to yourself when people say “interesting” and really drilling down on understanding the processes of the organization. The buying mechanisms, the buying centers, all of these things in the enterprise and how to engage customers even when you don’t have a product.

EG: How have you been using what you’ve learned from the book?

Amelie Spath (AS): I think one of the things we used the most extensively is the user journey. We conducted around 50 problem interviews. We had ideation sessions and design thinking workshops with the team to map out user flows, processes and come up with solution ideas around our technology. We went back to these 50 people to collect their feedback. It was now a solution to address their problems. And so we really full-on went through this process from the book.

EG: After having been through it yourself, what validation process would you recommend to entrepreneurs starting in B2B?

Amelie Spath (AS): I recommend for other machine-learning / AI companies wanting to go in B2B to really invest time and brains in understanding the enterprise processes and legacy systems used by your target users because that’s the reality your users have to work with. And even though companies are fed up with it and want to change, they cannot change it overnight. It takes probably two years to replace a legacy system. So, in the meantime, you either don’t work with that company or you accept that reality and make the product work in their context.

EG: What advice would you give to new entrepreneurs starting in B2B today?

Amelie Spath (AS): I definitely encourage new entrepreneurs to go talk to people in the enterprise. Even if you don’t know them, go to conferences, talk to relevant people, cold call if that’s the only way. Don’t be afraid to show a product even if it embarrasses you. Don’t make too many assumptions about how the people in the enterprise are, what they want or how their day is. Really understand the reality of enterprises; what’s a matter of life or a matter of fact in the enterprise.

EG: Thank you for your time.

AS: Thank you.