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Crossing The Chasm through the Bowling Alley to: rapidly entering niche markets. October 15, 2013

Posted by Bernard Lunn in Deal-making, Enterprise Sales, start-ups.
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For years Crossing the Chasm was the closest that Silicon Valley startups had to an operating manual. It fell out of favor when the focus was on digital consumer ventures, but people are dusting off their copies as we are now in an enterprise software renaissance.

The way to Cross the Chasm to the mainstream is through the Bowling Alley:

“Market momentum picks back up in the Bowling Alley phase, as early pragmatists in certain
customer segments overcome their reluctance toward discontinuity and adopt the new
technology to solve niche-specific problems. By their nature, pragmatists are reluctant to
adopt new technology and prefer to follow the herd. Early pragmatists are forced out of
their comfort zone to find solutions for broken, mission-critical business processes.

The Bowling Alley phase takes its name from the market strategy that is appropriate. The
key to success is to provide a complete solution for one segment while identifying closely
aligned segments that could benefit from a similar solution. When the momentum from
successfully capturing market share in the first segment (the lead bowling pin) is felt,
this momentum is leveraged into adjacent segments. By dominating several segments, your
company may start to emerge as a sector leader.”

That describes the strategic mission – that is the easy bit. Actually winning those deals and delivering those move-the-needle projects is a lot tougher, particularly today after “enterprise software’s decade in a coma” has left many of those skills rather rusty from lack of use.

Each niche is like a foreign market. Literally, niches like this have their own lingo, the jargon that feels like listening to a foreign language. You can translate the jargon, study the subject, but you will still feel like a foreigner mangling French in a Parisian cafe getting supercilious stares from the waiter. The people in these niches all know each other
well, these are dense networks which spit out antibodies to reject outsiders.

You can break through into these niches but it requires creative selling techniques that have been forgotten in the last decade. Consumer start-ups don’t need to sell, they market online using their product. Consumerized SaaS startups believe that this is also the way to win the enterprise. It may be the way to get your foot in the door of the enterprise, but to really win the big tickets you have to solve really big pain points.

These creative selling techniques usually start with some variant of asking “what keeps you up at night?” You are looking for the kind of pain that is so acute that the customer will overlook the fact that you are a startup with radically new technology.

It is good to first read the guide books to this foreign land and talk to people who have lived there. You need some familiarity with the lingo of this niche market, understand “what makes it tick” and some theory of where the pain might lie that you can fix. Even open ended questions need a focus. But remember, “no theory survives first contact with a customer”, keep an open mind and stay light on your skis. Opportunity often lurks in the parentheses, the seemingly unimportant throwaway comment that shows you the real hot buttons.

You need more than a 10x proposition based on a technological breakthrough. You need that to be able to deliver the solution, but that alone only works if your 10x proposition is purely a cost-cutting proposition. That tends to be a tough sell in most enterprises because it involves rip and replace and that is too big a risk to take on a start-up. You can sell a 10x rip and replace cost-cutting proposition if your technology is down the bottom layers of the tech stack and you sell to data centers. For example if you have a way to 10x cut the electricity consumption by servers, Amazon, Google and Facebook will all listen intently even if you are a bunch of techies in a garage and sell one of them and you are off to the races….

However if your proposition is further up the stack, for example at the middleware layer or the application layer, well as they say in Brooklyn….fuggedaboutit. That’s when you have to find a business problem to solve that fits these three criteria:

1. A “big, bad problem” something that really, really matters, that gets the attention of the CXO level guys, that keeps them awake at night. Don’t worry, the Global 200 are going through wrenching changes thanks to the triple tsunami of globalization, digitization and the debt crisis, so there is no shortage of big, bad problems.

2. A problem that is ideally suited to your unique technology, that none of the incumbents can easily solve. There is no point in discovering a big, bad problem that can be easily solved by Oracle, IBM, SAP, etc. All that will happen is you spend a lot of time getting the proposal up the chain of command until a salesman from an incumbent spots it and closes the deal.

3. An internal “sponsor”. We used to call them angels, but has a different meaning now. This is your inside person, who keeps the message going after you have left the room. I think of him/her as an innovator with clout. They have to be innovators because you are an upstart with new technology, so they have to think outside the box and be ready to challenge orthodoxy and incumbency. You will easily find many like this and have lots of conversations where they bemoan how stupid their company is, how politics gets in the way of innovation, blah, blah. These conversations go nowhere. You need an innovator with clout, somebody who is trusted and respected by those with the power to close a deal.

So you have to cast your net really wide to find the few that sit at the intersection of this three-way venn diagram. Cast a wide net and then qualify like hell. Lots and lots of conversations, lots of active listening, lots of “see ya later” when you don’t hear the screams of pain that indicate these guys really, really need you. This has to be more like a guy who has had a
heart attack needing a surgeon than somebody with a headache needing an aspirin.

Once you have found the problem, the hard work starts. This is what I think of as the middle of the chess game. You have opened well, now it gets complex with lots of options and moving parts. Now you have to assemble a solution. It is an assembly job, great for Lego fans. You need these pieces:

1. Your technology at the heart. You will need easy interfaces to all the other bits as you are the newcomer and therefore the one who is most motivated.

2. The other components that deliver a total solution. This could be as simple as the hardware and networking if you are running behind the firewall (yes, that is technically simple but the incumbency innovation antibodies lurk here) or include software components up and down the stack. Remember, you are solving a problem, not selling technology. If you don’t do this hard work, the incumbency innovation antibodies will attack you; an existing vendor will show a “just good enough alternative”.

3. A team that can pull it all together, the system integrator. Your view has to be pragmatic; use your own people, or one of their approved integration vendors or an internal team. This is a key area where your Sponsor needs to guide you.

If you get through this part you are positioned for the end game, you are in the closing zone. That is the subject for other posts.

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