Ten Ways to Get the Most out of Conferences

I can’t tell you the number of times, as we were tearing down our booth after having had an epic show, that we overheard the guy next door calling back to corporate saying that the show was a “total waste of time” and that the company shouldn’t do it again next year.  Of course, he didn’t say that he:

  • Staffed the booth only during scheduled breaks and went into the hallway to take calls at other times.
  • Sat inside the booth, safely protected from conference attendees by a desk.
  • Spent most of his time looking down at his phone, even during the breaks when attendees were out and about.
  • Didn’t use his pass to attend a single session.
  • Measured the show solely by qualified leads for his territory, discounting company visibility and leads for other territories to zero.

slack boothDoes this actually happen, you think?  Absolutely

All the time.  (And it makes you think twice when you’re on the other end of that phone call – was the show bad or did we execute it poorly?) 

I’m a huge believer in live events and an even bigger believer that you get back what you put into them.  The difference between a great show and a bad show is often, in a word, execution.  In this post, I’ll offer up 10 tips to ensure you get the best out of the conferences you attend.

Ten Ways to Get the Most out of Conferences and Tradeshows

1. Send the right people.  Send folks who can answer questions at the audience’s level or one level above.  Send folks who are impressive.  Send folks who are either naturally extroverts or who can “game face” it for the duration of the show.  Send folks who want to be there either because they’re true believers who want to evangelize the product or because they believe in karma [1].  Send senior people (e.g., founders, C-level) [2] so they can both continue to refine the message and interact with potential customers discussing it.

2. Speak.  Build your baseline credibility in the space by blogging and speaking at lesser conferences.  Then, do your homework on the target event and what the organizers are looking for, and submit a great speaking proposal.  Then push for it to be accepted.  Once it’s accepted, study the audience hard and then give the speech of your life to ensure you get invited back next year.  There’s nothing like being on the program (or possibly even a keynote) to build credibility for you and your company.  And the best part is that speaking a conference is, unlike most everything else, free.

3. If you can afford a booth/stand, get one.  Don’t get fancy here.  Get the cheapest one and then push hard for good placement [3].  While I included a picture of Slack’s Dreamforce booth, which is very fancy for most early-stage startup situations, imagine what Slack could have spent if they wanted to.  For Slack, at Dreamforce, that’s a pretty barebones booth.  (And that’s good — you’re going to get leads and engage with people in your market, not win a design competition.)

4. Stand in front of your booth, not in it.  Expand like an alfresco restaurant onto the sidewalk in spring.  This effectively doubles your booth space.

5. Think guerilla marketing.  What can make the biggest impact at the lowest cost?  I love stickers for this because a clever sticker can get attention and end up on the outside of someone’s laptop generating ongoing visibility.  At Host Analytics, we had great success with many stickers, including this one, which finance people (our audience) simply loved [4].

I LOVE EBITDA

While I love guerilla marketing, remember my definition:  things that get maximum impact at minimum cost.  Staging fake protests or flying airplanes with banners over the show may impress others in the industry, but they’re both expensive and I don’t think they impress customers who are primarily interested not in vendor politics, but in solving business problems.

6. Work the speakers.  Don’t just work the booth (during and outside of scheduled breaks), go to sessions.  Ask questions that highlight your issues (but not specifically your company).  Talk to speakers after their sessions to tee-up a subsequent follow-up call.  Talk to consultant speakers to try and build partnerships and/or fish to referrals.  Perhaps try to convince the speakers to include parts of your message into their speech [5].

7. Avoid “Free Beer Here” Stunts.  If you give away free beer in your booth you’ll get a huge list of leads from the show.  However, this is dumb marketing because you not only buy free beer for lots of unqualified people but worse yet generate a giant haystack of leads that you need to dig through to find the qualified ones — so you end up paying twice for your mistake.  While it’s tempting to want to leave the show with the most card swipes, always remember you’re there to generate visibility, have great conversations, and leave with the most qualified leads — not, not, not the longest list of names.

8. Host a Birds of a Feather (BoF).  Many conferences use BoFs (or equivalents) as a way for people with common interests to meet informally.  Set up via either an online or old-fashioned cork message board, anyone can organize a BoF by posting a note that says “Attention:  All People Interested in Deploying Kubernetes at Large Scale — Let’s Meet in Room 27 at 3PM.”  If your conference doesn’t have BoFs either ask the organizers to start them, or call a BoF anyway if they have any general messaging facility.

9. Everybody works. If you’re big enough to have an events person or contractor, make sure you define their role properly.  They don’t just set up the booth and go back to their room all day.  Everybody works.  If your events person self-limits him/herself by saying “I don’t do content,” then I’d suggest finding another events person.

10.  No whining.  Whenever two anglers pass along a river and one says “how’s the fishing?” the universal response is “good.”  Not so good that they’re going to ask where you’ve been fishing, and not so bad that they’re going to ask what you’ve been using.  Just good.  Be the same way with conferences.  If asked, how it’s going, say “good.”  Ban all discussion and/or whining about the conference until after the conference.  If it’s not going well, whining about isn’t going to help.  If it is going well, you should be out executing, not talking about how great the conference is.  From curtain-up until curtain-down all you should care about is execution.  Once the curtain’s down, then you can debrief — and do so more intelligently having complete information.

Notes

[1] In the sense that, “if I spend time developing leads that might land in other reps’ territories today, that what goes around comes around tomorrow.”

[2] In order to avoid title intimidation or questions about “why is your CEO working the booth” you can have a technical cofounder say “I’m one of the architects of the system” or your CEO say “I’m on the leadership team.”

[3] Build a relationship with the organizers.  Do favors for them and help them if they need you.  Politely ask if anyone has moved, upgraded, or canceled their space.

[4] Again note where execution matters — if the Host Analytics logo were much larger on the sticker, I doubt it would have been so successful.  It’s the sticker’s payload, so the logo has to be there.  Too small and it’s illegible, but too big and no one puts the sticker on their laptop because it feels like a vendor ad and not a clever sticker.

[5] Not in the sense of a free ad, but as genuine content.  Imagine you work at Splunk back in the day and a speaker just gave a talk on using log files for debugging.  Wouldn’t it be great if you could convince her next time to say, “and while there is clearly a lot of value in using log files for debugging, I should mention there is also a potential goldmine of information in log files for general analytics that basically no one is exploiting, and that certain startups, like Splunk, are starting to explore that new and exciting use case.”

Career Decisions: What To Look For In a Software Startup

So, you’re thinking of taking a job at a startup, but are nervous about the risk, perhaps having trouble telling one from another, and unsure about knowing what’s really important in startup success.  In this post, I’ll share what I consider to be a great checklist for CXO and VP-level positions, which we’ll try to adapt a bit to be useful for all positions.

1. Great core/founding team.  Startups are about people.  We live in a founder-friendly VC era.  Thus, there is a good chance one or all of the founding team will be around, and in influential positions, for a long time.  If you’re CXO/VP-level, make sure you spend time with this team during your interviews [1] and make sure you think they are “good people” who you trust and who you’d want to work with for a long time [2].  You might well be doing so.

2. Strong investors.  In venture capital (VC) land, you should view investors as long-term partners in value creation.  Their investments give them contractual rights (e.g., board seats) and you can assume they will be around for a long time [3].  Companies need two things from their investors:  advice (e.g., the wisdom acquired from having built a dozen companies before) and money.  While good advice is always important, money is absolutely critical in today’s startup environment where a hot category can quickly evolve into a financial arms race to see which company can “buy” the most customers the fastest [4].

While I won’t do a tiering of Silicon Valley VCs here, you want to see investors with both deep pockets who can fund the company through thick (e.g., an arms race) and thin (e.g., inside rounds) and strong reputations such that other VCs are willing and eager to invest behind them in future rounds [5].

3. Newer company/technology.  I’ll give you the hint now that this is basically a list of key factors ranked by difficulty-to-change in decreasing order.  So the third hardest-to-change key factor is technology.  If you’re considering going to work at a twelve-year-old startup [6], understand that it’s very likely built on twelve-year-old technology premised on a twelve-plus-year-old architecture.  While the sales-and-marketing types will emphasize “its proven-ness” you will want to know how much technical debt there is associated with this old architecture.

Great startups are lead by strong technologists who ensure that technical debt is continuously addressed and retired via, e.g., trust releases.  Bad startups are feature addicts who pile feature upon feature atop a deteriorating architecture, creating an Augean Stables of technical debt. But even in good startups, routine debt-retirement doesn’t prevent the need for periodic re-architecture.  The best way to avoid an architectural mess of either type is to go to a newer startup, led by strong technologists, where the product is most probably built atop a modern architecture and where they definitionally cannot have accumulated a mass of technical debt [7].  

4. Clean cap table.  I once took a job at a company where a VC friend of mine said, “they have a good business, but a bad cap table.”  Since I didn’t entirely understand what he meant at the time, I took the job anyway — but, wow, do I wish I’d spent more time trying to understand the phrase “bad cap table.”

A capitalization table (aka “cap table”) is simply a list of investors, the type and amount of shares they hold, shares held by founders, shares allocated to the stock option pool, warrants held by suppliers and/or debtholders, and along with information about any debt the company has acquired.  So, strictly speaking, how could this table be inherently good or bad?   It just “is.”  Nope.  There are good cap tables and bad cap tables and here’s a partial list of things that can make a cap table bad in the eyes of a future investor.

  • Upstream investors who they don’t know and/or don’t want to work with.  That is, who holds the shares matters.
  • Ownership division that gives either the founders or employees too few shares.  Most VCs have the right to retain their percentage ownership going forward so if the company is already 60% owned by VC1 after the Series A and 20% owned by VC2 after the Series B, the new investor may believe that there simply isn’t enough to go around.  Strong VCs truly believe in founder and employee ownership and if there isn’t enough of it, they may walk from a deal.
  • ARR not commensurate with total funding.  Say a company has consumed $50M in capital but has only $5M in ARR to show for it.  Barring cases with exceptional product development entry barriers, that’s not a great ratio and most likely the result of a pivot, where the company started out on hypothesis A and then moved to hypothesis B.  From the new investor’s perspective, the company spent (and wasted) $30M on hypothesis A before switching to hypothesis B and thus has invested only $20M in its current business.  While some new investors might invest anyway, others would want some sort of recapitalization to reflect the business reality before investing.
  • Parasites, such as departed founders or incubators.  Founders A and B, aren’t going to be that excited over the long term for making money for founder C while she is off doing a new startup.  And why would a future VC want to make money for founder C, when she has already left the company [8]?  These are problems that need to be addressed from the viewpoint of a new investor.
  • Network effects among investors.  If VC1 owns 40% and VC2 owns 20% and VC2 works almost exclusively with VC1, then you can assume VC1 has control of the company.   This may not be a deal killer, but it may make a new investor wary.
  • Undesirable structure.  While VCs almost always buy preferred shares (as opposed to the common shares typically held by founders and employees), the specific preferences can vary.  New VC investors typically don’t like structure that gives preferred shares unusual preferences over the common because they worry it can demotivate employees and founders.  Such structure includes participating preferencesmultiple liquidation preferences, and redemption rights.

And that’s only a partial list.  At the CXO level, I think you have the right to ask about the cap table, but it’s much harder for job titles below that.  So I understand that you won’t always be able to access this information, but here’s what you can do:  (1) look at Crunchbase for financial history to try and identify some of these problems yourself, and (2) try to find a VC friend and get his/her opinion on the company.  VCs, particularly those at the bigger firms, are remarkably well informed and look at lots of deals, so they can usually give you an inkling about potential problems.

5. Strong market opportunity.  I’ve always done best when the need for the product was obvious.  Best example:  Business Objects in the 1990s — data warehouses were being built and it was obvious that there were no good tools to access them.  Business Objects eventually sold for nearly $7B.  Best counter-example:  MarkLogic in the 2000s — several years after Gartner wrote a note called XML DBMS:  The Market That Never Was.  That nearly twenty-year-old company is still not liquid, though through exceptional execution it has built a nice business despite strong headwinds; but there was nothing either obvious or easy about it.  In my other direct experience, the markets for Ingres (RDBMS), Salesforce.com, and Host Analytics (cloud EPM) were obvious.  The market for Versant (ODBMS) was not.

Another test you can apply to the market is the Market Attractiveness Matrix, which positions the type of buyer vs. the need for the product.  Selling SFA to sales, e.g., would be in the most attractive category while selling soft productivity improvement tools to HR would be in the least.

mam

Finally, I also like markets where the pricing is tied to something that inherently goes up each year (e.g., number of salespeople, size of stored documents, potentially usage) as opposed to things that don’t (e.g., number of HR or FP&A people, which increases — but in a more logarithmic fashion).

6. Strongest competitor in the market.  The problem with obvious market opportunities, of course, is that they attract multiple competitors.  Thus, if you are going to enter a competitive market you want to ensure the company you’re joining is the leader in either the overall market or a specific segment of it.  Given the increasing returns of market leadership, it is quite difficult to take away first place from a leader without they themselves faltering.  Given that hope is not a strategy [9], unless a runner-up has a credible and clear plan to be first in something [10], you should avoid working at runner-up vendors.  See the note below for thoughts on how this relates to Blue Ocean Strategy [11].

7.  Known problems that you know how to fix.  I’ve worked at epic companies (e.g., Business Objects, Salesforce) and I’ve worked at strugglers that nearly clipped the tree-tops on cash (e.g., Versant) and I can assure you that all companies have problems.  That’s not the question.  The questions are (1) do they get what really matters right (see previous criteria) and (2) are the things that they get wrong both relatively easy to fix and do you know how to fix them?

Any CXO- or VP-level executive has a set of strengths that they bring to their domain and the question is less “how good are you” than “does the company need what you bring?”  For example, you wouldn’t want a sales-and-marketing CEO — no matter how good — running a company that needs a product turnaround.  The key here is to realistically match what the company (or functional department) needs relative to what you can bring.  If you’re not a CXO- or VP-level executive, you can still apply the same test — does the company’s overall and functional leadership bring what the company needs for its next level of evolution?

8. Cultural compatibility.  Sometimes you will find a great organization that meets all these criteria but, for some reason, you feel that you don’t fit in.  If that happens, I’d not pursue the opportunity because you are likely to both be miserable on a daily basis and not succeed.  Culture runs deep in both people and in companies and when it’s a not a fit, it’s very hard to fake it.  My favorite, well-documented example of this was Dan Lyons at HubSpot, detailed in his book Disrupted.  HubSpot is a great company and I’m pretty sure Dan is a great guy, but wow there was a poor fit [12].  My advice here is to go with your gut and if something feels off even when everything else is on, you should listen to it.

I know it’s very hard to find companies that meet all of these criteria, but if and when you find one, I’d jump in with both feet.  In other cases, you may need to make trade-offs, but make sure you understand them so you can go in eyes wide open.

# # #

Notes

[1] A lack of desire to spend time with you during the recruiting process should be seen as a yellow/red flag — either about you as a candidate or their perceived importance of the position.

[2] In this context, “a long time” means 5-10 years.  The mean age of high-growth SaaS IPO companies in last year’s IPO class was 14 years.

[3] While “shareholder rotations” are possible (e.g., where firm B buys out firms A’s position) they are pretty rare and typically only happen in older companies (e.g., 10 years+).

[4] In my opinion, VC a few decades back looked more like, “let’s each back 5 companies with $20M and let the best operators win” whereas today it looks more like, “let’s capitalize early and heavily on the increasing-returns effects of market leadership and stuff (i.e., foie-gras) our startups with money, knowing that the market winners will likely be those who have raised the most cash.”  Note that while there is debate about whether this strategy yields the best returns (see foie gras link), there is less debate about whether this generates large companies in the market-leader pack.

[5] As one later stage investor told me:  “we prefer to work with syndicates with whom we’ve worked before” suggesting larger firms with more deals are preferable upstream and “if it ends up not working out, we’d much rather be in the deal with a highly respected firm like Sequoia, Accel, Lightspeed, or A16Z than a firm no one has ever heard of.”  Your upstream investors have a big impact on who is willing to invest downstream.

[6] Quip:  what do you call a twelve-year-old startup?  Answer:  a small business.  (Unless, of course, it’s high-growth and within striking distance of an IPO.)

[7] I would argue, generally, that newer startups tend to be built with newer business model assumptions as well.  So picking a newer company tends to ensure both modern architecture and contemporary thought on the business model.  For example, it’s hard to find a five-year-old enterprise software company built on an on-premises, perpetual license business model.

[8] Or, if an incubator makes itself a virtual cofounder in terms of common stock holdings in return for its incubation services.

[9] i.e., hoping the other company screws up.

[10] Either a segment or a segment that they believe will grow larger than today’s overall market.

[11] I feel obliged to mention that not all non-obvious market opportunities are bad.  As a big fan of Blue Ocean Strategy, I’d argue that the best market opportunities are semi-obvious — i.e., obvious enough that once you dig deeper and understand the story that they are attractive, but not so obvious that they attract a dozen ocean-reddening competitors.  Of recent enterprise software companies, I’d say Anaplan is the best example of Blue Ocean Strategy via its (emergent) strategy to take classic financial planning technology (hypercubes) and focus on sales planning in its early years.

[12] Note that I am not saying HubSpot is a perfect company and we can argue at great length (or more likely, quite briefly) about the strengths and weaknesses in typical Silicon Valley cultures.  And that’s all interesting academic debate about how things should be.  What I am saying is that when it comes to you, personally, for a job, why make yourself miserable by joining an organization where you know up-front that you don’t fit in?

Slides From My Presentation at a Private Equity S&M Summit

Just a quick post to share a slide deck I created for a session I did with the top S&M executives at a private equity group’s sales and marketing summit.  We discussed some of my favorite topics, including:

Here are the slides.  Enjoy.

Appearance on the Twenty Minute VC: Financing Thoughts, The Private Equity Sales Process, and More

Today famed venture capital podcaster and now venture capitalist at StrideVC, Harry Stebbings, released a new episode of the Twenty Minute VC podcast with me as his guest.  (iTunes version here.)

dk harry 500

Harry’s interview was broad-ranging, covering a number of topics including:

  • Financing lessons I’ve learned during prior bubble periods and, perhaps more importantly, bubble bursts.
  • The three basic types of exits available today:  strategic acquirer, old-school private equity (PE) squeeze play, and new-school PE growth and/or platform play.
  • A process view of exiting a company via a PE-led sales process, including discussion of the confidential information memorandum (CIM), indications of interest (IOIs), management meetings, overlaying strategic acquirers into the process, and the somewhat non-obvious final selection criteria.

The Soundcloud version, available via any browser is here.  The iTunes version is here.  Regardless of whether you are interested in the topics featured in this episode, I highly recommend Harry’s podcast and listen to it myself during my walking and/or driving time.

Oh, and if you like the content in this episode, don’t miss my first appearance on the show.

 

Communications Lessons from Mayor Pete

Whenever I have the chance to watch a big league politician at work, I always try to study their communications skills in an effort to learn from the best.  In a previous post, I presented what I learned watching Congresswoman Jackie Speier work a room, a pretty amazing sight, in The Introvert’s Guide to Glad-Handing.

Yesterday, I had the chance to watch Mayor Pete in action at a gathering in Palo Alto.  Political views aside [1], the man is a simply outstanding public speaker.  In this post, I’ll share what I learned from watching him work.

  • Don’t be afraid of Q&A.  I’d say Pete spent 1/3rd of his time on his stump speech, and left 2/3rds to “make it a conversation.”  It works.  It engages the crowd.  In tech, I feel like many companies — after one too many embarrassing episodes — now avoid Town Hall formats at employee All Hands meetings, Kickoffs, or User Conferences.  Yes, I’ve heard of [2] and seen [3] a few disasters in my day, but we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Town Hall format is simply more engaging than a speech.  Moreover, I’d guess that when employees observe leaders who habitually avoid Q&A, they perceive them as afraid to do so.
  • Engage the person who asked the question.  I’ve gotten this one wrong my whole career and it took a politician to teach me.  I’ve always said “answer the question to the audience” (not the person who asked) as a way to avoid getting caught in a bad dialog [4], but I now realize I was wrong.  If you’re a politician you want everyone’s vote, so let’s not dismiss that person/voter too quickly.  Pete inserts a step — engage the person.  Student:  “What are you planning to do if you get bullied by another candidate?”  Pete:  “Well, what do you do at school when someone tries to bully you?”  Student:  “Well, I try to walk away, but sometimes I want to yell back.”  Pete:  “And you seem pretty level-headed to me.”
  • Answer the question for the audience, ideally building off the engagement.  Pete:  “That’s it, isn’t it?  You know you should walk away but you want to yell back.  That’s why it’s so hard.  That’s why it takes discipline.  That’s why I’m thankful that during my service in the Armed Forces that I learned the difference between a real emergency and a political emergency.  Instead of yelling back at the bully you need to …”  Note that when he finishes, he does not look back at the questioner but instead says “next question” and looks to the audience [5].
  • Squat down when addressing children [6].  There were a lot of kids at the event and Pete, somewhat surprisingly, took numerous questions from them.  There were two benefits of this:  (a) the kids tended to ask simple clear questions (e.g., “why are you going to beat rival X”) and (b) the kids introduced a good bit of humor both in their questions and delivery (e.g., “what are the names and the sizes of your dogs?”or “when will there be a ‘girl’ president?”).  I always considered the squat-to-address-children as Princess Diana’s signature move, but this article now credits it to her son, Prince William.  Either way, it’s an empathetic move and helps level the playing field between adult and child.

img_0234.jpg

  • Embrace humor.  Pete seems to be a naturally funny guy, so perhaps it’s not difficult for him, but adding some humor — and flowing with funny situations when they happen — makes the event more engaging and fun.  Child:  “Can I have an even bigger bunny?”  Pete:  “Well how big is your bunny now? [7]  Child:  [sticks arms over head].  Pete:  “That big.  Well.  Uh.  [Pauses.]  Sure.  [Applause and laughter.]  You know there’s always at least one question that you didn’t see coming.” [More laughter.]
  • Use normal diction (i.e., words) [8].  Public speaking, especially in politics, is not the time to show off your vocabulary.  Pete went to Harvard and was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford.  I’m sure he has a banging vocabulary.  But you’re not trying to prove you’re the smartest person in the room at a Town Hall meeting; you’re trying to get people to like you.  That means no talking down to people and not using fancy words when simple ones will do.  On a few occasions, I heard Pete auto-correcting to a simpler word, after starting a more complex one.
  • No free air-time.  He generally didn’t say the words Trump or Biden.  But he did say things like “we don’t want to go back to the Democratic era of the 1990s just like we don’t want to go back to the current administration’s era of the 1950s.  We want to go forward, …”  He used words like “White House,” “current administration,” or even “current President.”  But he didn’t say Trump.
  • Make it real.  A key part of Pete’s message is that we shouldn’t look at political decisions as some distant, academic, theoretical policy discussion.  We should stay focused on how they affect peoples’ lives.  Pete:  “When we think of climate change, we see imagery of a polar bear or a glacier melting.  I want to change the dialog so we think about floods that are only supposed to happen every 100 years happening only 2 years apart.”  Ditto for a conversation about healthcare where he talked about its impact on his family.  Ditto for a conversion about his marriage that wouldn’t have been possible but for a single supreme court justice’s vote.
  • Tell stories.  Given all the attention story-telling has gotten of late, this one probably goes without saying, but always remember that human beings love stories and that information communicated within the context of a story is much more likely to heard, understood, and remembered than information simply communicated as a set of facts.  Great speakers always communicate and/or reinforce their key messages via a series of stories.  Pete is a highly effectively story-teller and communicated many of his key messages through personal stories.

# # #

Notes

[1]  See my FAQ for my social media policy.  In short, because my Twitter feed is a curated version of everything I read, I tweet on a broad array of subjects which, in the current era, includes politics.  However, I try to keep my blog free from any political content — with one exception:  since politicians are generally highly skilled in marketing communications, I try to learn from them and apply what they can teach us in high-tech. Towards that end, by the way, I always recommend following two people:  Alan Kelly, a high-tech PR maven (the PR guy who put Oracle on the map) who decided to take his game to the big leagues by taking his system to DC and opening a communications firm there and Frank Luntz, a market researcher, pollster, and author of Words that Work.

[2] On “there’s always some engineer not afraid to ask anything” theory, I have heard the story of an All Hands where an engineer asked the CEO what he thought about the VP of Sales having an affair with the VP of Marketing.  OK, that’s awkward for the person who suggested the Town Hall format.

[3] Where at a User Conference when asked why so few women were in Engineering leadership, the VP responded that the company had many women on the team but they tended to work in the “more arts and crafts positions,” which made everyone in the crowd wonder if they were cutting paper flowers with scissors or building software.

[4] “So did that answer your question?”  Response:  “No.  Not at all.  And I have three more.”

[5] If you do, you are silently seeking confirmation (“did that answer your question?”) and potentially inviting the questioner to ask a follow-up question.  If you’re trying to work a room, you want to engage as many different people as possible.

[6] Or those, as you can see in the Princess Diana link, otherwise unable to get up.

[7] Applying the “engage the person” rule.

[8] Yes, that was a touch of deliberate snark.  :-)

The Market Leader Play: How to Run It, How to Respond

Business-to-business (B2B) high technology markets are all about the market and only less so about the technology.  This is primarily driven by corporate buyer conservatism — corporate buyers hate to make mistakes in purchasing technology and, if you’re going to make one, it’s far better to be in the herd with everyone else, collectively fooled, than to be out on your own having picked a runner-up or obscure vendor because you thought they were “better.”  Hence, high-technology markets have strong increasing returns on market leadership.  I learned this live, in the trenches, way back in the day at Ingres.

Uh, Dave, please stop for a second.  Thank you.  Thanks so much for coming out to visit us here at BigCo today.  Before you begin your presentation, we wanted you to know that if you simply convince us that Ingres is as good as Oracle that we’re going to chose Oracle.  In fact, I think you’re going to need to convince us that Ingres is 30% to 40% better than Oracle before we’d realistically consider buying from your company.  You may now go ahead with your presentation.

Much as I hated it on that day, what a great position for Oracle to be in!  Somehow, before the product evaluation cage-fight had even begun, Oracle walked into the cage with a 40% advantage — brought to them by their corporate marketing department, and which was all about market leadership.

Why do corporate buyers care so much about buying from market leaders?

  • Less project risk.  If everyone else is buying X, it must be good enough, certainly, to get the job done.
  • Less embarrassment risk.  If the project does fail and you’re using the leading vendor, it’s much less embarrassing than if you’re on an obscure runner-up.  (“Well, I guess they fooled us all.”) [1]
  • Bigger technology ecosystem.  In theory, market leaders have the most connectors to other systems and the most pre-integrated complementary technologies.
  • Bigger skillset ecosystem.  Trying to find someone with 2+ years of experience with, e.g., Host Analytics or Adaptive Insights is way easier than trying to find someone with 2+ years of experience with Budgeta or Jedox.  More market share means more users means you can find more skilled employees and more skilled partners.
  • Potential to go faster.  Particularly for systems with low purchase and low switching costs, there’s a temptation to bypass an evaluation altogether and just get going.  Think:  “it’s the leader, it’s $35K/year, and it’s not that hard to change — heck, let’s just try it.”

Thus, relatively small differences in perceived or actual market leadership early on can generate a series of increasing returns through which the leading vendor wins more deals because it’s the leader, becomes relatively larger and thus an even more clear leader, then wins yet a higher percentage of deals, and so on.  Life for the leader is good, as the rich get richer.  For the others, life is a series of deals fighting from behind and, as they said in Glenngarry Glenn Ross, second prize really is a set of steak knives.

This is why smart vendors in greenfield markets fight for the market leadership position as if their corporate lives depended on it.  Sometimes, in this game of high-stakes, winner-takes-all poker companies cross boundaries to create a perception of success and leadership that isn’t there. [2]

When run correctly — and legally — the goal of the market leader play (MLP) is to create a halo effect around the company.  So how do you run the market leader play?  It comes down to four areas:

  • Fundraising.  Get the biggest name investors [3], raise the most capital, make the most noise about the capital you’ve raised, and use the money to make a few big-name hires, all in an effort to make it clear that Sand Hill Road has thoroughly evaluated the company and its technology and chosen you to be the leader.
  • Public relations and corporate awareness. Spend a nice chunk of that capital on public relations [4].  Have the CEO speak at the conferences and be quoted or by-line articles in the right tech blogs.  Better yet, hire a ghost-writer to author a book for the CEO as part of positioning him/her as a thought leader in the space.  If applicable, market your company’s culture (which is hopefully already documented in a one-hundred slide deck).  Spend big bucks to hold the biggest user conference in the space (which of course cannot be labeled as a user conferenced but instead an industry event with its own branding).  Use billboards to make sure the Digerati and other, lesser denizens of Silicon Valley know your company’s name.  Think:  shock and awe for any lesser competitor.
  • Growth.  Spend a ton of that capital to hire the biggest sales force, wisely first building out a world-class onboarding and enablement program, and then scaling as aggressively as you can.  In enterprise software new sales = number of reps * some-constant, so let’s make sure the number of reps is growing as fast, and perhaps a little faster, than it wisely should be.  Build out channels to increase the reach of your fast-growing sales force and don’t be cheap, during a market-share grab, about how you pay them.  In the end, Rule of 40 aside, hotness in Silicon Valley is really about one thing:  growth.  So get hot by buying the most customers most quickly. [5]
  • Strategic relationships.  Develop strategic relationships with other leading and/or cool companies on the theory that leaders work with leaders.  These relationships can vary from a simple co-marketing arrangement (e.g., Host Analytics and Floqast) to strategic investments (e.g., Salesforce Ventures invests in Alation) to white label re-sale deals (e.g., NetSuite’s resales of Adaptive Insights as NetSuite Planning), and many others.  But the key is to have the most and best strategic relationships in the category.
  • Denial of differentiation.  While you should always look forward [6] when it comes to external communications, when it comes to competitive analysis keep a keen eye looking backward at your smaller competitors.  When they see you running the market leader play, they will try various moves to differentiate themselves and you must immediately deny all such attempts at differentiation by immediately blocking them.  Back in the day, Oracle did this spectacularly well — Ingres would exhaust itself pumping out new/differentiated product (e.g., Ingres/Star) only to have Oracle immediately announce a blocking product either as a pure futures announcement (e.g., Oracle 8 object handling) or a current product launch with only the thinnest technical support (e.g., Oracle/Star).  Either way, the goal is for the mind of the buyer to think “well the leading vendor now does that (or shortly will), too.”  Denying differentiation gives the customer no compelling reason to buy from a non-leader and exhausts the runners-up in increasing futile and esoteric attempts at differentiation.

So that, in a nutshell, is how creating a leader is done.  But what if, in a five-vendor race, you’re not teed up to be the leader.  You haven’t raised the most capital.  You’re not the biggest or growing the fastest.  Then what are you supposed to do to combat this seemingly air-tight play?

Responding to the Market Leadership Play
I think there are three primary strategic responses to the market leadership play.

  • Out-do.  If you are in the position to simply out-do the flashy competitor, then do it.  Enter the VC arms raise — but like any arms race you must play to win. [7]  Raise more capital than they do, build your sales force faster, get even better strategic relationships and simply out-do them.  Think:  “yes, they were on a roll for a while but we are clearly the leader now.”  Cloudera did this to Hortonworks.
  • Two-horse race.  If you can’t win via out-do, but have a strong ability to keep up [8], then reframe the situation into a two-horse race.  Think:  “no, vendor X is not the leader, this market is clearly a two-horse race.”  While most B2B technology markets converge to one leader, sometimes they converge to two (e.g., Business Objects and Cognos).  Much as in a two-rider breakaway from the peloton, number 1 and 2 can actually work together to distance themselves from the rest.  It requires a certain cooperation (or acceptance) from both vendors to do this strategy, but if you’re chasing someone playing the leadership play you can exhaust their attempts to exhaust you by keeping up at every breakaway attempt.
  • Segment leadership.  If you can’t out-do and you can’t keep up (making the market a two-horse race) then have two options:  be a runner-up in the mainstream market or a be a leader in a segment of it.  If you stay a runner-up in the mainstream market you have the chance of being acquired if the leader rebuffs acquisition attempts.  However, more often than not, when it comes to strategic M&A leaders like to acquire leaders — so a runner-up-but-get-acquired strategy is likely to backfire as you watch the leader, after rebuffing a few takeover attempts, get acquired at a 10x+ multiple.  You might argue that the acquisition of the leader creates a hole in the market which you can then fill (as acquired companies certainly do often disappear within larger acquirers), but (unless you get lucky) that process is likely to take years to unfold.  The other choice is to do an audit of your customers, your product usage, and your skills and focus back on a product or vertical segment to build sustainable leadership there.  While this doesn’t preserve horizontal M&A optionality as well as being a runner-up, it does allow you to build sustained differentiation against the leader in your wheelhouse.

# # #

Notes

[1] Or, more tritely, “no one ever got fired for buying IBM” back in the day (communicated indirectly via ads like this), which might easily translate to “no one ever got fired for buying Oracle” today.

[2] Personally, I feel that companies that I’ve competed against such as MicroStrategy, FAST Search & Transfer, and Autonomy at various points in their history all pushed too hard in order to create an aura of success and leadership.  In all three cases, litigation followed and, in a few cases, C-level executives even went to jail.

[3] Who sometimes have in-house marketing departments to help you run the play.

[4] In accordance with my rule that behind every “marketing genius” is a big marketing budget.  You might argue, in fact, that allocating such a budget the first step of the genius.

[5] And build a strong customer success and professional services team to get those customers happy so they renew.  Ending ARR growth is not just about adding new sales to the bucket, it’s about keeping what’s in the bucket renewing.

[6] That is, never “look back” by mentioning the name of a smaller competitor — as with Lot’s Wife, you might well end up a pillar of salt.

[7] If you’re not committed to raising a $100M round after they raise a $75M round in response to your $50M round, then you shouldn’t be in an arms race.  Quoting The Verdict, “we’re not paid to do our best, we’re paid to win.”  So don’t a pick fight where you can’t.

[8] This could be signalled by responding to the archrival’s $50M round with a $50M round, as opposed to a $75M.

The Board View: Slides From My Presentation at Host Perform 2019

The folks at Host Analytics kindly asked me to speak at their annual conference, Host Perform 2019, today in Las Vegas and I had a wonderful time speaking about one of my favorite topics:  the board view of enterprise performance management (EPM) and, to some extent, companies and management teams in general.

Embedded below are the slides from the presentation.