Author Archives: Andrew Johnson

About Andrew Johnson

Andy Johnson has nearly twenty years’ experience launching instruments, reagent kits, and software products into genomics, proteomics, and cell biology markets. Applying his business leadership and cell and molecular biology expertise, he has a unique perspective on how to bridge the gap between scientifically interesting technology and compelling commercial products.

Get the Biggest Bang for Your Tradeshow Buck with These Tips

Tradeshow packing case

Make sure you are coming home with more than just free T-shirts and pens. The best souvenirs are a big list of hot customer leads and referrals!

By:  Andrew Johnson, Ph.D.

Tradeshows can be a great place to get the word out about your product and also to keep abreast of late breaking news, trends and opportunities.  However, they can also be very expensive.  Registration fees, travel costs, shipping and other logistical costs, not to mention opportunity costs by having your sales team out of the field for a few days, add up fast.

Don’t just attend, participate!
It is important to identify all of the tradeshows and conferences that will be good sources for customer leads.  Note that I said ‘good sources for customer leads’ not just which events you think your customers will attend.  Some tradeshows and conferences, although excellent events for scientific exchange, are less than great places to make meaningful contacts with potential customers.  Determine which events will have the most value for you by attending as many tradeshows and conferences (as an individual not as a vendor in the beginning) as your budget and time will allow.  Make sure to plan time towards the end of the event to speak with some of the people manning the vendor booths.  Be sure to speak with a representative sample of vendors to get an overall but relevant sense of how valuable this event has been for them in terms of identifying good sales leads (both quality and number).   Be sure to attend some of the scientific sessions and especially the poster presentations of those researchers that could become some of your first customers when you launch.

When Attending Prior to Your Product Launch

  • Talk with vendors about how valuable they think the show is.  (Do this towards the end of the show but not at the very end)
  • Visit the posters of researchers that you think could be customers for you and find out if the problem you plan to solve with your great product is appealing to them or not and why.  (Don’t propose your solution yet)  This can be a great way to start narrowing down what the minimal performance characteristics and features are that your product must have when you launch.  You will also get a sense of how well your offering will be received if and when you host a vendor booth here in the future
  • Take advantage of the fact that this can be a great place to set up meetings with key people that will be important for your business since they might also be attending the meeting.
  • Post Show – Get all of the contacts that you made into a database and follow up with a brief thank you.   (MS Excel spreadsheet is more than enough for this at this point)
  • Post Show – Use your meeting value assessment (see above) to rank all of the shows you attended based on how valuable they would be for getting customer leads (The conference at the top of your list will be the one that you should plan to use as part of your launch strategy)

When Attending After Your Product Launch

  • Before the Show – Be sure to have a customer lead follow up plan for how all leads will be handled after the show and by whom
  • Have sales team and/or product management manage the booth
  • Have your booth staff rate the value of each contact they make immediately after meeting them.  For example: add an A, B or C next to each new contact using your lead capture system to aid in your post-event follow up.   Put an A next to those that could be customers in the next 30 days (First follow up group), B next to those that would be customers in 60 days (Second follow up group) and a C next to everyone else
  • Continue to visit posters and get feedback on the problem your product is solving.  This way you will be on top of important trends that will guide the next iteration of your product, modifications to your sales value proposition and other positioning materials based on what you learn
  • Measure your brand strength.  When meeting with people at the booth or at the scientific sessions, ask ‘Have you heard of ‘your company name here’ before?’.  If they have, ask what they think about it.  Don’t correct them if they get it wrong.  Just collect this information for now (The first time you do this can be a bit discouraging but you will be setting a baseline, If you are doing things right, you will notice a real improvement at next year’s tradeshow.)

Stay vigilant
Some conferences and tradeshows that were initially valuable may not be worth the expense in later years.  Meeting agendas change as do the attractiveness they have for your customers.  Getting in the early habit of doing a post-event value evaluation after every tradeshow or conference will insure that your time and money for this are maximally rewarded.  As your budget for meeting attendance grows, consider reserving some of this to attend new events that could have a better return on your investment.

Picture Credit:  © Budda | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos

Are we there yet? The Secret to Keeping your Company on Track

Road in the rural woods

It’s not how far you have gone, it’s how much further you need to go to get there.

By: Andrew Johnson, Ph.D.

Every summer as a kid, my family would pile in the car and drive to beautiful Lake Champlain, Vermont for a week of fun and relaxation.  The car ride itself felt like a quick detour to the 9th circle of a place a little less nice than Lake Champlain.  This was due to my brother and I repeatedly asking my Dad, “Are we there yet?” (Ten minutes into a 6 hour drive).  Sound familiar?  This scenario plays itself out every week at companies all over the world at the dreaded update meeting.

The Problem
You and the team went through the effort to prepare a good plan for charting how you will get to your next milestone.  One day after publishing the plan, it is out of date.  The key here is then updating your plan with new information and then moving on.  When a lot of effort is spent fiddling with the plan and keeping it updated, a lot of time is wasted on  ‘managing the plan’ rather than focusing on getting the things done that are going to move you closer to reaching your goal.  At the end of the day, you really need to know what is left to do more than what you have already done (eg you really want to know how many more miles left to go before getting to the lake than how many you have already travelled).

The Secret
It’s how you ask for progress updates.  The use of Gantt charts, lists and other planning and project management tools can make this seem like an exact science.  You plug in a number and out comes the new finish date.  The problem is that most of us are terrible estimators of how close we are to finishing unless there is a hard metric to provide guidance.  So here is how you ask for feedback that will be the most accurate and will require the least amount of time and effort on everyone including yourself.

Cut and paste these lines into the Request for Updates e-mail that you are sending your team.

  1. What tasks on the list assigned to you are now completed (100% done)?
  2. Which tasks have you started?
  3. Of those tasks that you have started, how many days will you need before it is done?

Sounds simple and it is.  The key here is in the last question.  When asked in this way, a person will have a much better idea of how much time they need rather than the percent complete of the task.  (Professional project management tools will automatically calculate the percent complete when you enter this information – you will find that the percent complete will go up and down over time until this is finished) Each person will automatically factor anything else that they are working on or delays or problems that would affect getting the task completed.  This whole process should take no longer than five to ten minutes of effort from the team including yours to update and send out the updated plan.

Quick Tips:

  1. Cancel all update meetings.
  2. Send out requests for progress updates via e-mail using the 3 lines I suggested above. (Once every 2 weeks or more often as you approach a critical milestone)
  3. Update the plan with progress and send out to the team.

Picture Credit:  © Hamiltongraphics | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos

The Company You Keep: Three Steps to Finding the Breakthrough Team

By:  Andrew Johnson, Ph.D. and Sarah Cardozo Duncan

Path through trees

Finding that next great team and company could be right around the corner. With a little preparation, this journey will be much easier and much more rewarding.

You can find new articles for entrepreneurs almost every day advising how to best make a success out of their brilliant ideas.  One of the key pieces of advice is to make sure that you hire the very best team you can to make this all work.  In a previous post, The ABC’s of Building a Startup A-Team, we provided guidance for startups to help them identify the new team members that will best help them achieve success.  One of the best indicators that a given candidate will make an ideal team member has to do with how well the culture of both the candidate and the company fit.

Assessing the fit:  A candidate’s perspective
Joining a new team is a big commitment of time and future career progression as success at your next post will influence your path further on.  Make the right decision here and you will have given your own career a boost.  The proper fit of culture and expectations is just as crucial for any individual team member as it is for the company doing the hiring.  The following guidance is intended to help generate the kind of understanding between candidate and company that leads to terrific outcomes for both.

Step 1:  Clarify your own expectations
It is easy to miss opportunities to learn more about the company you are evaluating during the heat of the interviewing process.  Preparation beforehand will help you to maximize your knowledge of what it might be like to work on this new team.  This first step will not only simplify this process during your interview but afterwards as well when you are assessing which company to select.

Create a prioritized list of the top 6 -10 requirements that you have for your next role.    For example:

  1. Opportunity for growth by learning new things?  (What skills or expertise will you gain?)
  2. Is the culture of the company a good fit for me (How are decisions made?  How much autonomy is there? How are conflicts resolved? Etc.)
  3. Compensation package (How does this compare with industry norms?)
  4. Title (Will this help, hurt or be neutral when viewed by your colleagues in the industry)
  5. Distance from home (What about the ability to work from home?)
  6. Travel (How much? International or Domestic only?)
  7. Opportunities to continue to publish (Will you be able to maintain or build your reputation in the academic community?)
  8. Work with cross-functional teams (Will you be a contributor, team leader or both?)
  9. Opportunity to contribute to the company’s growth strategy (Will you have a ‘seat at the table’ to shape how the company grows?)
  10. Opportunity to drive and mentor a team (Will you have direct reports?)
  11. Does the company participate in Social Responsibility initiatives? (How does the company give back to the community?)

Step 2: Assess the fit with your list
You likely will not have the opportunity to formally ask about everything on your list during your interview.  Obviously you can mix and match what questions you ask each of the people that you meet, but be sure that you cover at least the top 4 or 5 items during your interview.

You can get a pretty good idea of what type of culture there is at the company by observing the actions of the people you meet both during and after the interview.  Taking note of your surroundings can tell you a lot about how employees are valued.  (Are there big offices for the senior leadership while everyone else is crammed into a cube farm?  Do they have free coffee or other amenities?)  It is also important to take note of post-interview behavior.  If they said that they would be in touch, did they in fact follow through with that in a reasonable time or with the time that they indicated? How do they respond to further communication with them?

Together with your assessment during your interview, your appraisal of both the environment and behavior of those you met, you should have a pretty good idea of what it will be like to join this team.

Step 3:  Close the deal
Once you receive a formal written offer from the company, you will likely have gotten good answers to the most important items on your list.  If there is 100% agreement here, the next step is easy.  Accept the offer!  However, such clarity and total alignment is rare.  Furthermore, this can be more confusing when you are considering multiple offers.  The way in which you negotiate with them and they with you should provide the final insight you need to make the best decision.  Remember that this is about seeing if you can get your expectations and those of the company closer together.  This is a place for conversation not ultimatums.  How things go at this stage in the relationship can be one of the most influential in your decision.

Finding the right team to join can be one of the best decisions you make for both your own career and your happiness for the upcoming years.  With a little preparation, and persistence, this sometimes daunting task can become quite manageable and ultimately leads to the building of strong companies and careers.

Additional Resources:

Picture Credit:  James Wheeler via photopin cc

Publishing Clinical Trial Data: The Who, What, Where, When, And Why

Gold Pill Capsules

Proposals for the full disclosure of all clinical trial data, both positive and negative, could have important impacts on the safety of new therapeutics.

By:   Joan Rachlin, JD, MPH, Executive Director of Public Responsibility in Medicine and Research

Some of the most hotly debated questions making the rounds these days include who should interpret, distribute, review, and receive data, and with good reason. From WikiLeaks to National Security Agency whistleblowers, the problems of data privacy, data security, data accuracy, and data availability are making headlines.

Over the summer I read a piece in The New York Times about Peter Doshi, PhD, a 32-year-old post-doctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University, who has been pressing pharmaceutical companies to make their clinical trial data public. Dr. Doshi contends that financial conflicts of interest and publication bias in journals necessitate public disclosure so that consumers and patients can make fully informed decisions regarding their own care. It is well-documented, for instance, that only half of all clinical trials are published, and that negative results, which are at least as instructive as positive ones, rarely see the light of day.

Although one can hardly imagine a more David-and-Goliath-like match, Dr. Doshi and his allies have made some inroads, most notably in helping to persuade GlaxoSmithKline to commit to sharing detailed data from all global clinical trials conducted by the company over the course of the past 13 years, although nothing has yet been released.

Dr. Doshi and his colleagues’ quest for clinical trial transparency began during their work to determine whether or not Tamiflu, manufactured by Roche, was an effective treatment for flu. Their pursuit proved difficult because the bulk of the data on which claims about Tamiflu’s efficacy were based was unavailable. Only two out of ten key Tamiflu trials used to demonstrate the drug’s efficacy had been fully published, and when scientists at the Cochrane Collaboration, a well-respected network of independent researchers working with Dr. Doshi, tried to track down the other eight, they hit repeated road blocks. As a result of the missing data, the Cochrane Collaboration determined that they could not endorse Tamiful’s effectiveness, a move which prompted Roche to open its file cabinets and join GlaxoSmithKline in its commitment to share detailed data with outside researchers.

There are other cases fueling the call to require data publication as well. In June, for example, two independent reports indicated that Medtronic’s spinal surgery product, Infuse, carried with it serious risks, including cancer and male infertility, and that there was no demonstrated improvement over already-existing products for the same purpose. The reports, prepared under the auspices of Yale University with funding from Medtronic, examined 17 studies. The news reports surrounding these revelations are rife with allegations that negative data was suppressed, that conflicts of interest abounded, and that Medtronics promoted off-label use.

The efforts of Dr. Doshi and the Medtronic example, especially when combined with the recent European Medicines Agency’s proposal requiring wider access to patient-level trial data, have contributed to growing public demand for information that was formerly within the sole province of researchers, clinicians, and journal editors. The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), as well as most drug companies—excluding GlaxoSmithKline and Roche—have opposed this push. Some argue that American consumers already have access to raw data via the federal clearinghouse ClinicalTrials.gov, but others contend that this is inadequate as there are extensive limitations placed on what kinds of information can be released through that medium.

These issues around data transparency and review, among so many others that are rapidly changing the research landscape, could have long-term implications for research and development. One of the concerns being voiced by members of the pharmaceutical industry is how such policy shifts might hamper innovation. John J. Castellani, president and CEO of PhRMA, has been a vocal opponent of the proposed regulatory changes from the EMA and other reforms that he claims are too broad in scope. “Public policies that value intellectual property, a strong regulatory system, and free market access for patients are critical to a robust innovation ecosystem and new progress in the fight against disease,” he argues. The threat at the heart of Castellani’s comment, of course, is that as clinical trial data becomes widely available, so do information that has long been commercially protected.

The development of new drugs is a costly and lengthy endeavor. The high costs associated with developing and bringing new drugs to market have long been tempered by the potential profits that can be achieved when drugs find mass success. In their opposition to the data transparency movement PhRMA raises the question, if data from the drug development process becomes publicly accessible will the incentive structure that has helped fuel the development of new drugs be undermined?

On the other hand, perhaps the ethical imperative of data transparency demands a paradigm shift. Ben Goldacre a noted proponent of clinical data transparency asserts “that the problem of missing trials is one of the greatest ethical and practical problems facing medicine today.” Sharing of clinical trial data allows for results to be double checked and critically appraised, and means less duplication of effort, greater collaboration, reductions in drug development times, greater public trust in the pharmaceutical industry, and ultimately better protections for healthcare consumers.

From the EMA’s proposal to the moves being made by companies such as GlaxoSmithKline and Roche, the tide has shifted toward data transparency. The question that faces research professionals now is exactly what should the sharing of clinical trial data look like. Proposals have emerged on both side of the debate—from PhRMA to the AllTrials campaign led by Ben Goldacre— which could shape the future of the clinical research enterprise. For those invested in the conduct of clinical trials, now is a pivotal time to engage in the conversation surrounding data transparency. Do you think public access to clinical trial data should be provided? And if so, how?

Picture Credit:  Bill David Brooks via photopin cc

The Successful Startup: Transforming Your Vision into Reality

Night sky with dish

The successful launch and growth of your startup depends on the skillful integration of great vision and ideas with execution and commercial know-how. Finding your business or technical complement on day one will help to insure that this becomes reality.

By:  Andrew Johnson, Ph.D.

Gazing at the night sky can be an inspirational experience.  For some, there is more to this than just naming and tracking the celestial objects in the sky.  Some of the most interesting and bizarre objects in space are invisible to the naked eye (even to the naked eye aided with the most powerful telescope).  The discovery in the 1960’s of the existence of Neutron stars and Black Holes (not visible to the eye) were not only important discoveries in and of themselves but they allowed for some of the most powerful confirmation of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity by allowing the actual measurement of things like the bending of light by gravity among other bizarre predictions from the theory.

What has this got to do with my startup?
The stories that are told about these discoveries take on an almost mythical narrative.  Think Einstein in his patent office in Berne, independently and brilliantly coming up with his radical new ideas about physics by himself in a sudden flash of insight (not entirely true).  The key here is that these ideas would remain obscure theoretical conjectures without the hard work and ingenuity of the experimental scientists that built the instruments and conducted the experiments that not only confirmed the validity of Einstein’s work but have even allowed them to be applied in ways that make our modern technologies work (GPS would not function properly without accounting for the dilation of time due to the stronger gravitational field at the earth’s surface relative to the global positioning satellites, as predicted by the General Theory of Relativity.  If this was not compensated for in your GPS, you would be off course by 10 meters in 1 minute).

Why the ‘Odd Couple’ has a better chance of launching your next product
So as we can see from this example, the successful transformation of a great idea into a practical and valuable product (your GPS) requires the expertise of complimentary but different professionals.  Theorists and Experimentalists are as different from one another as scientific founders are from their business counterparts.  However, it takes the ingenuity, passion and drive of each to make the alchemy work of transmuting a great discovery and idea from the lab bench into a successful product on store shelves (or e-commerce sites).

Getting theory and practice together
It is the rare individual that has all of the qualities that are essential to making a technology based startup a success by themselves (I would posit that this person really does not exist).  It may seem very early to think about the commercial side of your business when you are still working on its technical feasibility.  However, if your vision and dream is to someday create a company to commercialize your discovery, you need to find your business or technical counterpart as soon as possible.

Most Life Science companies are founded by scientists with exciting discoveries from their lab.  These companies often languish for lack of adequate capital to take them to the next step.   A quick look at the companies that are successful in getting the money they need to make this work reveals that, more often than not, they have a strong ‘Odd Couple’ founding team.  Speak with any investor and they will tell you up front that they would much rather invest in an ‘A-Team’ with a ‘B-idea’ than the other way around.  What is an A-Team?  This is a powerful team composed of both technical and business excellence.  This type of founding team insures that the science is backed by a compelling business model (and plan).   Potential investors find these companies especially attractive since the science and business hypothesis are equally strong.  This also insures that the requisite expertise is in place to actually achieve the milestones that have been presented (thereby de-risking the investment some).

Take Home Points:

  • Look for your counterpart on Day 1:  The day you decide that you would like to start a company to commercialize some great new technology, start looking for your business or technical counterpart.  They should share your passion, be innovative and also compliment your own talents.  For example, if you are an introvert, consider finding an extrovert.  If you are a visionary thinker, team up with a detail oriented achiever.
  • Remember it’s the A-Team that gets the cash:  A well balanced technical and business team with great connections has the best chance of beating the odds in the rat-race to win the funding you need to get things off the ground.
  • Keep your eye on the prize:  The many challenges that startups face along with the issues that can arise when working with team members that differ from you can seem overwhelming.  Remembering that everyone on the team (make sure that they do) wants this to be a huge success can help you make the compromises, delegate authority and responsibility and cultivate the flexibility that are essential elements of a powerful A-Team member.

Further Reading:

Picture Credit:  “Satellite Dish Under Starry Night” by twobee, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Six Steps to the Epiphany: Get This Right and Go Big

By:  Steve Haralampu, Sc.D. & Bill Skea, Ph.D.

Toaster

Every technology company strives to offer the best thing since sliced bread. Achieve commercial excellence with these key insights.

Successful commercialization of a new technology has more to do with marketplace needs and product execution than with the technology itself.  The main factor driving success is the customers’ perception of value:  “What does it do for me?” and “Is it better, faster, or cheaper?”  Technology rarely sells for technology’s sake.  We will discuss some factors to consider during the commercialization process.  Although the concepts are generally applicable to all product development efforts, we concentrate on how these relate to the introduction of new tools for life science R&D and diagnostics laboratories, especially within startup companies or other small organizations.

Changing Priorities: Transitioning from Bench to Product Development
Product development and commercialization is a truly multidisciplinary activity, especially at the beginning of the process:  the product specification.  The focus should be on filling customer needs.  Traditionally, sales and marketing is the conduit to the marketplace, and they should be involved in defining what the customer wants, but too frequently they are the sole drivers. Scientists that develop novel technologies have unique insights into their potential for being revolutionary, and to see outside of the conventional box.  How a product is specified and developed also depends upon design and manufacturing constraints.  The main design constraints are product complexity, such as automation, which drives product cost and time to market; and design for manufacture and assembly (DFM/DFA), which also drives cost, and whether a product can be made or repaired.  Finally, the whole process is driven with money.  Finance must be at the table to assure that the product development and commercialization effort is affordable.  A product funded for 95% of its commercialization is still not a product.  Resources must be available to cross the finish line.  Therefore, an agile team of scientists, engineers, marketers and financers, each with the ability to wear many hats, and each with roughly equal input, drives a successful product commercialization effort, since each has a stake in the outcome.  Since the product development effort is usually a period of intense activity, and is an activity with which a small organization is not constantly involved, it makes sense to share some of the workload with external resources. Otherwise, at the end of the process, an organization can be stuck with excess headcount.

A major consideration in the specification and design of a product is developing a strategy for how it will be manufactured and distributed.  Manufacturing entails investment in manufacturing space, equipment, and personnel.  This investment can be significant, and can be the burden that breaks an organization if product rollout is late, or sales do not meet projections.  There are many vendors that provide contract-manufacturing services.  Whether it is the whole product, product subsystems, or final assembly and packaging, the use of contract-manufacturers can significantly reduce financial risk in the early stages of a product’s life cycle.  Determining how vendors play into the overall manufacturing scheme can impact product design.  It can be extremely valuable to give your contract-manufacturing vendor a seat at the table during product development, to assure a design for manufacture, and to avoid surprises late in the game.

Associated with early-stage manufacture is a realistic sales projection, or a willingness to manufacture to orders.  Excess inventory of an expensive laboratory instrument ties up huge amounts of capital needed for an organization’s growth.  Maintaining financial flexibility during product rollout is important should it be necessary to redirect efforts into sales or applications development.

Six insights to keep you on the path to success
All of this is common sense, and most managers feel like they would never fall into any traps posed by the product development and commercialization process.  This does not seem to be the case, however, since there are so many examples of organizations that stumble, sometimes fatally.  Heeding the admonition, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” we give some real examples from which we can learn.

  • Technology Evaluation/Due Diligence Alone Is Not Enough

Even before a technology is approved for product development, before a startup is approved for funding, or during due diligence of an acquisition target, the projected product development process needs to be evaluated.  Sometimes inventors are so close to the technology that they do not recognize the marketplace landscape they are trying to enter.   This can be particularly true, for example, when a technology is developed by physicists and/or engineers and is to be applied to diagnostics.  It is typically not within their realm of experience to understand the technology alternatives or regulatory landscape.

      A clear sign of being too focused on the core technology is making the statement, “We have no competition.”  A core technology may be so revolutionary that there is indeed no competition that performs its specific task.  What can be unrecognized is that there are perfectly adequate alternative technologies for performing the task.  One team of inventors developed a methodology for detecting metabolic stresses within living cells.  Another established company had a similar physical product already on the market.  When the team was asked how they were better than this competition, their response was, “They’re not competition because they measure amplitude modulation, our invention measures frequency modulation.”  One needs to have very solid intellectual property protection if one plans to enter a marketplace and not expect competition when the method of data analysis is the only point of differentiation.  The technology is good, but the inventors did not adequately evaluate its potential versus competitive stresses.

 

  • Listen to the Customer (sometimes)

It is important for a product to be successful that it fulfills some unmet need of the customer.  Although this is true, end users do not always recognize their unmet needs, especially with regard to technologies that require a paradigm shift.  Therefore, asking sales and marketing to poll customers for their needs, tends to generate feedback that is incremental improvement of known product forms.  Apple, Inc. has been a leader in creating marketplace needs for its new products.

With respect to laboratory products, it is important to understand the customers’ workflow.  A product might do amazing things, but if it does it in a way that is not helpful, it will not be a success.  One company had an interesting platform for growing cells.  Their development team designed a product that compared a control to a test under a wide variety of environmental conditions.  This seemed logical to the design team.  However, research is normally done using plates with 24 or 96 wells, not just 2.  The company had a good idea, but its execution did not meet the most common workflow.

Small organizations tend to focus on the new technology.  A lot of this is driven by the fact that completion of the technology development is going on concurrently with the early stages of product development, and, after all, new technology perfection is what the small organization is all about.  One company developed a technology to separate proteins in a way that enhanced the research information obtainable once the proteins were further analyzed.  Unfortunately, that company did not provide the customer with an adequate way to retrieve the separated proteins from its product and into the downstream analyses.  Although the technology met customer needs, the overall product system execution was not useful in the laboratory workflow.

  • Customers Don’t Like to Read Instructions

Once a technology is demonstrated and shown to be useful, the technology development must focus on making that technology execution robust.  An inadequate technology execution is when:  failure rates are high, and it takes a skilled practitioner in the technology to recognize the failures, but when it works, it’s great!  Technology developers need to realize that they probably have an extraordinary skill at getting things to work, while the customer may not be willing to invest this kind of time to come up on the learning curve.  Technology developers deal with the technology 100% of the time, customers deal with most technologies only a fraction of the time as part of a larger workflow.  Therefore, they cannot focus on the nuances of running a finicky product.  A technology needs to be simple (sometimes requiring significant automation to conduct the difficult tasks) and needs to work reproducibly and flawlessly.  One company’s product was based on an array of test sites.  Each test site had >99% reliability, but since there were 41 test sites on the product, and each needed to work for the product to have worked, there was only a 65-70% chance that the product worked.  This was unacceptable in most laboratory situations.

  • Beware: The Misguided Cost Estimate

Especially with regard to the micro- and nanotechnologies being developed today, product cost estimates that drive the business plan can be based on faulty/excessively optimistic assumptions.  One company developed a rather extraordinary biochemical sensor that was based on a silicon chip only 0.2 x 0.2 mm.  The materials cost for the sensor was only cents.  Micro- and nano-scale products use very little material because of their size. The fault in the analysis was that the nanosensor still needed to interface with a macro world.  The product cannot be a box of grain-of-sand-sized sensors.  A housing to allow a customer to handle the sensor, along with the appropriate plumbing to get the sample prepared and to the sensor cost as much as an alternative sensor technology for the base application they chose.  The core technology probably still has great potential, but an application needs to be found where its small size is the advantage, and enables sensing in places unattainable by the alternative technology.

  • Product Design is a Predictable Task, or is it?

Many aspects of product design are predictable.  It is merely the engineering task of finding OEM components or designing custom parts and fitting these together in an operable system.  What could go wrong?  Missing cost targets, inappropriately setting priorities, or inadequately integrating systems are frequent issues.

Engineering design is fun for those involved, but sometimes it is hard to know when to stop. Over design with too many features can make a product too expensive, and/or unreliable.  Some features are just annoying.  One company decided to have its product send a stream of text messages to the operator’s cell phone updating the instrument’s status.  This sounded novel and useful, but in practice was just annoying.  That same company decided to custom design most of its mechanical components.  This approach was in some cases expensive, but more importantly did not leverage the knowledge base of OEM suppliers.  Consequently, some components did not perform as expected, which ate up valuable development resources to debug components that could have been purchased with proven performance.  Too much time was spent resolving issues that could have been purchased, and defocused the team from its core technology and applications development.  This company failed.

We are accustomed to seeing sculpted cases used in consumer products around us.  It is an attractive concept to create products with an eye-popping “look”.  This is possible for products manufactured by the thousands, but sculpted skins for products manufactured by the hundreds can be surprisingly expensive.  This is an example of an inappropriate priority in a resource-limited environment, and where paint might be a better alternative.

The product design effort is not complete with a final set of product blueprints.  There is still substantial work to be done producing support materials.  The user manual is not just a set of step-by-step instructions for the customer, but is also a legal document that is used to support safety testing and certification.  It has a particular format and set of regulatory requirements.  Another neglected aspect of product design completion is product packaging.  One company had great success beta testing its product at the university located across the street from their headquarters.  The same could not be said for beta tests at major research centers halfway across the country.  Placing the instrument in a shipping crate was not sufficient protection.  Beta testers received product, with screws missing (loose in the shipping container) and critical components out of alignment.  Needless to say, these beta testers were never converted to customers.

  • Transitioning from Prototype to Manufactured Product

The main pressure of an organization is to get income as early as possible, and to manage cash flow.  This drives some compressed schedules, and encourages cutting some corners.  Sending a product design to manufacturing too early can have profound consequences.  When a design flaw is detected in the design phase, it may be expensive to fix, but it is preferable to fix it before the flaw is replicated by the manufacturing process.  Just think about the costs associated with retrofitting multiple products in inventory, or in the field in comparison with taking the time to assure the design to manufacturing is correct.

Inevitably, some flaws in product design go undetected until the product is stressed in the marketplace.  One company did not make it that far.  They experienced too many bumps in the road during product development, so they were running out of money.  The product still had severe flaws.  They decided to launch the flawed product because investors promised that they would provide more capital if the company demonstrated they could sell product by the end of the quarter.  The company’s management thought that selling flawed products would buy them enough time to fix the product later. Unfortunately, customers were not willing to pay full price for a product that virtually did not work.  No products were ever sold.

Two clichés come to mind:

  • You only have one chance to make a first impression. 
  • If we don’t have enough time to do it right, why do we have enough time to do it twice.

 

In Conclusion
Nearly every function within a company has a vested interest in the success of product commercialization.  The commercial product is the physical manifestation of years of work, and is what will bring reward to the development team.  The product development task requires teamwork between corporate functions that typically do not have much interaction.  Lack of appreciation of the constraints of a given function by team members leads to disaster, e.g., specifications/expectations that cannot be met by the technology or by the design team; specifications that cannot be supported by finance; designs that are difficult to manufacture; executions customers do not want; etc.  The commercialization process is capital intensive, and has very little leeway for errors.  Product commercialization uses unique skills and experience not needed 100% of the time within an organization.  Outsourcing is a great option to minimize risks during this critical growth function.

Picture Credit:  fensterbme via photopin cc

A Great Brand Experience Starts With a Dream

By:  David W. Bertoni

Talking Man

Make your brand more than a name!

Every entrepreneur or inventor dreams big dreams.  That is what keeps entrepreneurs going, an idea that won’t let them stop no matter how many obstacles are in the way.  There are those that struggle along and those whose success was so large that their dream has transformed the business or lives of millions around the globe, and are often rewarded with fantastic wealth.  Each of these success stories ends in the creation of a great brand.  So, my hypothesis is this:  folks that dream in brands take a more direct route to success.

What’s in a Name?  Nothing and Everything
Here are two definitions of the word brand as it pertains to business:

A brand is a name used to identify and distinguish a specific product, service, or business.  A legally protected brand name is called a proprietary name.”

and,

“A brand is the essence or promise of what will be delivered or experienced.”

Many people think of brands in the first and more limited sense, and conger up names like Coca-Cola, GE, Johnson & Johnson, Disney, Mercedes-Benz, Apple, IKEA, Nokia, McDonalds, Google, MTV, Visa, etc.  Business Week and Interbrand annually publish a list of the year’s 100 top global brands. Brands that have global name recognition seem to fall into three categories: industrial and large commercial companies, ultra-exclusive luxury brands and consumer product makers.  The Industrial leaders are brands like Siemens, JP Morgan, Oracle and the like that have gobbled up hundreds of up-and-comers to become the global behemoths they now are.  The ultra-sheik Louis Vitton, Gucci, Rolex brands occupy positions in the stratosphere due to exclusive distribution in a very high-priced luxury market. Consumer mega brands such as Coca-Cola, Marlboro, Budweiser and Gillette typically crush the up-and-comers with the weight of their advertising budgets.

Products have their own brand recognition that can be quite impactful, sometimes having as much impact as the company name: Procter & Gamble’s Colgate, Apple’s iPod, Microsoft’s Windows, J&J’s Band-Aid, etc.  In most cases, buyers are not interested in the company’s stock or committing to all its products, but only buying a product with a trusted name.

Dream Name Today – Gone tomorrow!
Global brands pay a king’s ransom to the most influential advertising agencies and public relations firms to create and manage a brand image. Then they have to spend the queen’s ransom to the media outlets that shoehorn the message into the minds of potential buyers. All that, to encourage someone to end his or her affair with a competing product and try theirs. After a purchase, products will get a test result from buyers on a scale that goes from WOW, through YAWN, and all the way to LET DOWN and OFFENDED.

Stories about bad brand experiences travel faster than positive ones and that the negative experience has the half-life of plutonium, and an effect that is just as toxic.  The long slog of creating a great brand from hard work on product quality and service can be undone incredibly quickly. How many friends did you tell about your latest good product experience, versus the latest product disaster, and after two years, which one is still the freshest in your mind?  The negative experience?  Yep, me too.  Recall the fall of one of the strongest global brands in sports – Tiger Woods.  The eventual resurrection of his image will be a case study in brand marketing, and you can bet he has the best and brightest on the case.

Brand Wars – Kick ‘em in the Experience!!
Most of us are competing against other company brand reputations and known product names, and let’s face it, if it were just a question of brand recognition, new products and companies would not stand a snowball’s chance in hell.  Pan Am would still be in business and Jet Blue would have been stillborn along with Southwest and Virgin.  There would not be a FedEx, Toyota, iPhone, Subway, or Dell.  The reason new products and companies emerge and overwhelm the market, driving their competitors to extinction, is due to the second and more important element of a brand – the essence or promise of what will be delivered or experienced – the brand experience!  The buyer’s true experience with a product is simply much more powerful than a company’s expensive and carefully crafted hologram of its brand. You can’t compete with the 100 top brands in the world or the top branded products on brand awareness, but your brand and product CAN compete effectively against their brand experience.

Senior management simply must focus its attention, and the attention of the entire organization, on the experience a buyer or user has with the brand.  The experience extends to all levels of interactions with the product and company: the feel of the controls, the quality of the finish, durability, its precision, perception of weight, the packaging, the user manual, customer service, billing, answering inquiries, the website, even the ambience in the office if there is ever a reason to visit.  Does that sound daunting, or does it sound like a competition that you are ready to take on?  I believe it is a winnable battle and one that I would rather fight than how much I can pay for PR and advertising, or having the cleverest arguments spoken by the most well known celebrities.

If your company’s attention is focused on your customer’s experience, you and your customer’s goals will be aligned, and that puts you on the surest path to business success.

 

When Management Killed the Dream – Bonuses All Around!
If it is that simple, why do big brands with the best talent and the best credentials fail?  In many cases, the company’s leaders have put the primary focus on the wrong goals.

Consider this scenario.  A few years back, engineering found a way to significantly reduce the cost of the product, operations cut logistical costs, there was a killer PR campaign and the rate of product returns showed a significant decline.  Great year!  The managers all took huge bonuses and the company was on the skids a few years later.  This scenario is remarkably common with companies churned by private equity firms.

When engineering is primarily focused on ways to reduce the cost of the product, rather than trying to solve new customer demands with creative (and, lower cost) solutions, the company’s most creative talent is no longer focused on the ultimate brand experience.  When logistics are optimized to minimize warehouse space but doesn’t get the goods where and when the market needs them, orders will flow to the competitors.  When marketing is spending more time with the PR firm than with customers, they may get out-flanked by a ground swell buzz in the streets about a new, agile competitor.  When customer service is judged on how well it decreased the company’s warranty replacement rate, rather than how well it found creative solutions to customer problems, your client’s next call may be to your competitor.  As management succeeds in getting all of the company’s functions to focus less on the customer’s experience, the cumulative effect leads to poor sales, which leads to more cost cutting,  and if the focus does not get back to the customer’s brand experience, such short-sighted focus can lead a company to the brink of extinction.

That is not to say that cutting costs and expanding the reach of the company through advertising and public relations to build sales is not important.  A financially healthy company with solid margins can focus more resources on developing new products, and afford top-notch employees to innovate.  Never forget that the customer’s buying power is selfishly concerned with satisfaction with the product, service and experience.  The customer is ultimately quite fickle and brand loyalty has its limits.  It is often said that business would be so much easier if it weren’t for the customers.

Brand Dreaming is Like Going on a Blind Date
Brand dreaming is visioning ideal customer/brand experiences with your company and products, even if (and, maybe especially if) today’s reality is a lo-o-o-o-o-o-ng way from ideal.  Dreaming in brands is an exercise in perspective and awareness. The hardest change is the perspective shift – from seeing your product or service from your normal point of intimate understanding, which can cloud perception of the most obvious, to the point of view of a person seeing it for the first time.  The familiar becomes new.  Try to imagine that it is a blind date and you have just opened the front door.  Imagine the process of product discovery from the beginning, when the product is seen at a distance for the first time.  Does the first impression suggest that the product features and benefits meet the requirements of the purchaser, and does it look like it does what your sales material says it does?  Does it look functional and efficient?  As a buyer moves closer, he or she will begin to discover the details and form an opinion of the quality.  Now in hand, what is the first impression of weight, finish and feel?  That first, brief interaction is so important, because if the impression isn’t very good, it’s all you are going to get.  The potential buyer didn’t even make it to the point where he or she begins to learn about all of your product’s abilities, fine qualities and charms.

If you are lucky enough to make it past the speed-dating, beauty pageant of the first impression, the discovery begins in earnest.  If the product is technical and complex, there is so much to learn about all of the uses, features and capabilities (and so little time).  Does your product speak for itself or does it require a matchmaking sales aid?  Hopefully, your brand dream visualized the product so that it’s most important features stand out and lead naturally to the discovery of the next layer of features.   Often, the most relevant benefits to the buyer remain safely hidden away from all but the technical support staff and the most tenacious customer.  If a point-of-purchase aid, video or interactive demo tool is required, it is as important as the product itself – don’t skimp!

Getting the idea?  How was your imagined first date with your own product?  Take the point of view of the least informed and most attentive potential customer and you will discover much about your own products.  It doesn’t matter if it is a piece of hardware, software or a service.  Once the process of brand experience dreaming becomes more comfortable, imagine the same uninformed and attentive customer calling or visiting your place of business, from first greeting to follow-up.  Every touch point leaves an impression.  Why not make the impression a good one.

When Your Blind Date is in a Bad Mood – It’s Normal!
It is enough of a challenge to envision converting a neutral potential customer into an advocate of your brand.  Lucky you if you should ever encounter a neutral prospective customer.  If your PR, advertising, word-of-mouth and sales effort are hitting on all cylinders, the prospective customers might be neutral about your company at the first meeting.  However, that is not the normal state of affairs in today’s business environment.  More often, at first meeting the person is distrustful of another sales pitch, dismissive of some new gadget, or anticipating another broken promise from another flimflam sales person.  When you can dream with great clarity how to take the typically cantankerous American customer from combatant to advocate, you win your black-belt in the Jujitsu of brand dreaming.

Dreams Need Fuel – Fill ‘Er Up!
You need to feed the dream machine, and the fuel comes from customers.  You must spend time in the field with customers, potential customers and your competitors’ customers.  That is where you see people using products in ways that could never have been imagined in a design meeting.  Your product, which you crafted to be the pinnacle of efficiency, will be used up-side-down, inside-out, backwards, at half speed, double time and inverted, all to the horror of the designer, but maybe to the delight of the buyer.  Inventive misuse is often the inspiration for the next R&D meeting.

Hail to the Chief – The Chief Dreaming Officer
Brand dreaming is like a gym membership, the first few visits may be tough, but soon the results begin to show off that new and fabulous you.  The first brand advocate converts need to come from your own company before imagining that you are going to convert the masses.  Everybody’s trip will be much smoother if the company is on the same compass heading as the market.  Then as your improved brand experience first date leads to more lasting relationships, you may create some distance between you and the competition. When others in the company begin to see the competition in the rearview mirror, everyone becomes a brand advocate.  If engineering is going to find a way to reduce the cost of materials and production, that’s great, but don’t let them lose site of the objective – a win-win improvement – more WOW for the money.  Brands loyal to their customers create customers loyal to the brand.  Why would a customer whose buying power is selfishly concerned with satisfaction with the product, service and experience do anything else? 

And, when the competition has you backed into a corner – Kick ‘em in the Brand Experience!

Note:  This post was originally published in ‘The Marketer’s Almanac’