Work backwards, not forward!

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As I have an equally strong background in marketing and engineering with 20 years of sales and business development experience, I often serve on advisory boards of small and early stage technology companies. Many times in these advisor meetings, I see a dysfunctional pattern: The leadership of these companies are seeking guidance on how to leverage or target their existing technology into new markets, so the leadership starts the meetings by soliciting ideas for uses of their technology or product.  Unfortunately for these companies, most of my fellow advisors are most eager to play this idea generation role. And why not? It’s easy, its creative and it is fun.

The problem with this approach is that the meetings quickly evolve into brainstorming sessions which generate a myriad of ideas: additional products to create, new uses for the technology and other markets to target. At the end, the company’s leadership is left with a large list of unproven, unqualified possibilities – ideas that may or may not be good market opportunities instead of a clear and purposeful understanding of what direction to take to realize the highest potential for return on investment of the company leadership’s time and resources.

The reason for this is that most of us find it too easy to work forward from what we know, rather than to work back from what we don’t know. Let me provide an example. Let’s say I know my technology or product can perform some function as I am currently marketing it. The path forward is to think of other similar functions it could do in other products or markets. However, whether or not it has any value in these contexts is irrelevant in my generation of this idea. So often, the value that might be captured in these contexts is marginal, perhaps providing an opportunity for linear revenue growth at best.

Now imagine starting from the other direction. Pick a market and look at the top of mind problems faced by the leaderships of companies in those markets. Do you think the senior management of these companies will spend a lot of time, resources and money to solve their most urgent problems? You bet they will! In fact, this is the easiest way to find a way to grow your revenue exponentially – tackle the big, top of mind problems. So start with these problems as your goal. Then work backwards to create a way in which you can adapt your product or technology as a solution to those problems.

And here is how you do it with your advisors. The time you hold your advisory board meeting, don’t start off asking if anyone has ideas for how to apply your technology to a new use case, turn around and go backwards! Ask what are the top of mind problems in all of the markets your advisors are familiar with, then steer the conversation to how you can apply your technology to provide some unique, compelling and sustainable competitive advantage to solve those problems.

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