Note: Eric Winquist is CEO and co-founder of Jama Software. Eric will be speaking at Portland Startup Weekend on Friday, Nov. 22. In celebration of Startup Weekend, each day this week we will be sharing experiences from our own startup story on the blog.
I am frequently asked how I got our company Jama Software off the ground, landed our first customers and kept the wheels from falling off as we started to gain momentum in the market. Whether you are just getting your startup going, bringing on your first customers or growing your team, you will do well to pay attention—to your end users, to the decision-makers at your target companies and to your employees.
The first step for many on the startup journey is validating your business idea. The absolute best way to know if your concept has legs is to get a real customer to pay you real money. How do you do that? Pay attention to your customer.
When we started out with Jama, we were selling requirements management software to the business analyst. We paid attention to their needs and still do so. As we’ve expanded to serve more roles within the organization, we try to empathize with their frustrations and really understand what problems they are trying to solve.
And one by one, we started to win them over. We learned what we could about the individuals we wanted to reach and reached out to them in unique ways. For a prospect who loves Stumptown, we mailed a pound of it with two Jama mugs and a personal note. The personal touch won us that deal and many others.
My advice in the early days is to listen to what your prospects say. Pay attention to what your customers get worked up about – not what they say they need. You might have to sell something that no one is asking for; in fact, most of the time this is what you will be doing. Customers are going to request features. But if you’re an innovative startup, you are not competing against incumbents on features; you won’t win there. What gets you the wins is your understanding of the actual real-life pain points. Solve that pain first. People buy based on emotion – not just ROI.
As an entrepreneur, you also have to pay attention to your team. The people who want to work at startups are motivated to solve big problems; you’ll hire these brilliant people with unique genius to help you grow. You need to let them. One of the biggest roadblocks to their success is you not letting go.
As we transitioned into a growth-stage company, this was hard for me. Even though I had read the books and blog posts, I was becoming that founder that couldn’t let go. I said, “that’s a great idea; but we’ve tried it before and it didn’t work.” Or I would say, “just let me handle this one.”
I didn’t want to be like this. For me, it was about risk. As a bootstrapped company, we couldn’t make many mistakes. I needed to witness success before I could trust someone else to take over. Then I started paying attention. I realized that results are all that matter; people might approach a challenge differently than I would but I saw this working. In fact, they were doing it better than I was. So: pay attention to results, not the process.
As a leader, you’ll be setting the tone for the corporate culture. You have a megaphone. You can either ignore this, or use it. By paying close attention to your team, you’ll notice when someone lives a core value and when that happens, use your megaphone to draw attention to it. That is what solidifies core values and bakes them into the culture. And you need your values baked into the culture as you scale.
See a video of Eric’s talk from OEN Summit in June 2013 below: