The Business to Business of Customer Development

Selling your work in progress product or service as a startup to an incumbent company is very hard. You can find yourself offering a value proposition that competes head-on with existing products, for instance on price or efficiency benefits. In that position you have to elbow your way into an existing value network that is already servicing your designated customer at a satisfactory level. In contrast, you can also find yourself in a position that you actually have no competition, because there is no reference to the solution you have developed. That is equally difficult as muscling your way into an existing market, but a different challenge: how are you going to convince your customer to change their existing value network relations based on a solution for which they have no clear conception of a problem? In this post I’ll share some of my first-hand experiences on this issue.

Creating a new value proposition
My experience in business to business work stems from the cotton processing and marketing company I co-founded in early 2006 in India, Zameen Organic. Our idea was to set up a farmer-owned company that could supply top branding customers with a sustainability ambition like Marks & Spencer’s and H&M.

We saw that these customers were interested in Fair-Trade and Organic certified produce. At that time the market for Fair-Trade and organic was growing explosively. Cotton production was nowhere near the growth rate of demand. Our proposition in this market was thus to provide a professionally run company of farmers that would be able to grow at the rate of the market, and supply the demanded quality. This was in a time when organizing trade relations between big brands and small producers was mostly the domain of NGO’s.

In developing our proposition we also saw that enabling our customers to put a label like Fair-Trade and Organic on their products was not a unique enough proposition to capture the value we intended to create. Lots of suppliers were doing that. That wouldn’t make us unique. We thus set the bar for our marketing ambitions a bit higher than just creating access to brands. We wanted to also develop systems of co-branding, where brands could affiliate themselves with social and environmental progress of their supplying smallholder producers. In return for supplying quality produce and growing supply, we wanted to let our company and our farmers in on the value that was captured downstream in the consumer market.

Selling ‘new’ in an existing market
Filled with ambition, I set up several meetings with potential big brand customers to discuss our idea. I started off with just the guy from procurement at the table. Unfortunately he didn’t want to take the discussion further than product price, quality, and quantity specs. My conclusion was that this guy apparently was not authorized to set any kind of innovation into motion. So I conjured my way into follow-up meetings with procurement, CSR, and marketing around the table, hoping to make each part of our proposition understandable to each relevant silo within the company. Hopefully they would come to an ‘aha!’ moment together, and that would get the ball rolling…

…But no such luck! There was no emotive response from any of the parties at the table. No recognition that our story could latch on to the problem they were facing. Why? Well, purchasing was only told to procure certified produce at the lowest possible price and secure the supply that the company required, regardless of working against odds of tight supply in the market. CSR’s job was focussed on making up the reports that showed the company was seriously picking up its responsibility. This department wasn’t involved in actual company decision making. And marketing, well marketing was not much into the business of understanding how the supply chain operated. Rather they preferred to put creative thinking into how to put the brand into a positive limelight with the end consumer. So, none of the people at the table could properly assess the value of the proposition we were trying to sell.

Selling ‘new’ in a new market
Our proposition didn’t connect with our larger customers. But on the other hand, we also serviced a segment of smaller apparel branding companies who were dedicated solely to ethically produced garments. One of our more successful branding customers was Pants to Poverty, a non-profit awareness raising company on equitable trade, under leadership of Ben Ramsden. Pants to Poverty had released a line of undergarments, conveniently lifting on Nelson Mandela’s campaigning to Make Poverty History which made the Pants brand go viral.

Ben understood the proposition of co-branding, and securing the supply for their operations. With him, we were able to set up a branding initiative advertising the link between Zameen farmers, and the underwear made from their fibers. Pants’ website till date still uses images of the Zameen Organic farmers holding up their product, demanding riddance of poverty.

Zameen farmer Pants to Poverty

Zameen Farmer Pants to Poverty Man

Zameen farmer showing ‘their’ pants

Pants to Poverty was able to create a unique value proposition to the consumer market by showing their direct contact and collaboration with farmers. Our collaboration gave PtP a more secure position in the supplying market, amidst bigger competing buyers. Farmers in return were able to negotiate better terms of trade, also including farmer training on cultivation practices in pricing, as well pre payments, on top of the regular investment of the Fair-Trade premium in meaningful projects for community development.

Existing vs. New
So what made the difference? For one it’s the fact that PtP was looking for our proposition. There was no other supplier out there that could provide the same kind of consumer marketing opportunity. Zameen enabled them to do it. But the more interesting distinction is that we succeeded to form the collaboration because Ben embodied the function of purchasing, CSR, and marketing all in one. Ben was a fully integrated customer, better able to critically assess the performance contribution that our proposition might bring. This made life much easier in pitching the idea for making Zameen part of the PtP value network.

What we saw in our other discussion with the larger companies was the symptom of dealing with a new proposition and a dispersed customer. Even though the reality of the market of short supply begged for a change in assessment of relations in their supply chain, there was no way that our large customers could recognize the value we intended to provide. They did not have the joint understanding and feedback mechanisms in their own internal cooperation that would allow them to properly assess the proposition. Nor did they feel in any way inclined to discuss the opportunity with their superiors. The proposition was too new. Hence they preferred the possibility of leaving value lying on the table and sending us home over taking a chance with us and assessing the actual potential of Zameen as a supplier on its merit.

Conclusion
The story above describes a challenge that entrepreneurs often face (social entrepreneurs almost by definition). It happens when you’re so very early to market with a solution, that people generally would dismiss it as a market opportunity. This is what Bright B Simons refers to as the struggle of creating “a new value class”.

In our Zameen case, things got rolling when we shifted focus to working with smaller companies. With these companies it was easier to come to an integrated assessment of our proposition with the people who fulfill the critical roles of user, purchaser, and beneficiary. They were organized informally enough to have a validly critical discussion about our proposition in relation to their performance priorities. At the least it ensured us that our product wouldn’t be dismissed based on false-negative arguments.

My key learning from this experience is that the more a product or service relates to the norms within an existing value network, the better you can deal with the dispersed customer. The further a product or service is removed from that network, the more you’ll need to look for your integrated customer to get a substantial discussion going. As a rule of thumb, I would say that your chances of finding integrated customers is highest with companies with up to a billion euro in revenue. Over a billion in revenue, things get layered and segmented, and you’re likely not to get a proper early assessment of your product’s market potential. Start your proof of principle with smaller companies. They might provide you with the insights and reputation that allow you to enter the big league after.

The minimum viable product for physical products; what we can learn from the makers.

Imagine you live in rural India and you own a motorbike. Every once in a week or so, you are approached by a passer-by or a neighbor to help out because his bike has run out of gas and the nearest station is 16 kilometers away. Sometimes they’re lucky. You have enough gas to share and you’re able to perform the icky job of siphoning off your gas with mouth and hose. People even pay you extra for your discomfort, enabling you to buy a pack of gum to clear away the taste from your mouth.

So, after a couple of times of doing this, and the unintended near swallowing of petrol, it hits you! Could there by a market for this? Could I build a filling station with the purpose of helping people reaching the next village? A solid discovery of a customer problem, and a potential solution to tackle that problem.

Now the question is what a physical prototype of your business model would look like. Fortunately you’re strapped for cash at your 2 dollar a day income, imperative for lean decision making. It prevents you form asking the wrong type of questions for your prototype like:

  • What colors should my uniform be to look credible enough for my customers to buy from me?
  • Do I serve Coke or Pepsi at my station?
  • How about a drive-through bike wash?

In this case you need to earn before you spend. So no, it won’t be a lavish, fully furbished, high-tech unmanned petrol station. It might look more like something below:

 ….the Minimum Viable Gas Station (photo credit to Niti Bhan).

This prototype would be the most reduced concept (generally referred to as the Minimum Viable Product (MVP)). The MVP enables you to test the most essential parts of your business model: How do customers interact with and value my product? The downside is that it looks scrappy, but the dominant positive side is that you will naturally test better questions about your business model:

  • Would customers pay extra for this type of filling service? And, how much?
  • What volumes will they need, and how much stock do I need to keep?
  • Is there a pattern in demand which is prevalent throughout rural areas?

Through such essential questions you are also more inclined to focus on gathering essential data for testing your idea. So it’s not so much the total number of motor bikes that zip by your station that count as an indicator for the potential of your idea. Depending on that in your case will make your family go hungry. Naturally, it’s the number of people that actually make a stop for a fill that does.

What’s more is that through playing with pricing, you might discover that customers are willing to pay 4-5 times the market rate for petrol, because your service saves so much effort (so radical affordability as the main constraint in servicing the BoP appears to be an assumption). Now you have found the essentials for scaling a profitable business: franchise anyone?

What we can learn from the makers
In short the MVP emphasizes what matters, and prevents you from wasting resources on testing the non essentials and using non-essential data. But conceiving your MVP is hard. How do you define your product in the most undressed way possible to test your product and its features? It is even more difficult to build an MVP for physical products like a gas station than for a web application (where the MVP concept naturally originated from), as you often incur more costs in time and materials to test them.

But, as the example in rural India shows, constraints like money and time spark creativity and can invoke “the maker” in all of us. Play around with representation: there is always a prototype! In our case we redefine the gas station to a jerry can and a funnel: the smallest representation with which all essential features of a gas station can be tested. People like Steve and Woz of Apple started out with just a motherboard.

Invest in defining, and cutting & pasting your MVP. It keeps you from carrying around stupidity for too long; it prevents you from filling the bucket with so much water that it starts spilling over the rim once you start walking. Build with less.