Sharpen the Saw with a Market Assessment

Cutting edge

Once upon a time, a strong, hard-working, woodsman was trying to saw down a very large tree.  After several hours he had not gotten far when a wise farmer looking on made an observation. “You’re not getting anywhere, because the blade of your saw is pretty dull from all the sawing. Why don’t you stop for a few minutes and sharpen the saw?” The farmer angrily replied, ” I don’t have time to stop and sharpen the saw!!  I’m in a hurry to get this done!”

When it comes to launching a new business unit or product/service offering, most enterprise technology companies are like the woodsman in this story popularized by Steven Covey in the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. They don’t want to stop and do a market assessment. They just want to jump on in, put the business/go-to-market/product development plan together, and get going. What they don’t seem to realize is that the market assessment is the sharpener. Rather than slow the process down, it ultimately speeds it up. I’m dealing with a “woodsman” client as we speak.

I recently put together a market assessment project charter and work plan for a client that wants to create a SaaS version of its successful enterprise software product.  We haven’t had a chance to sit down and go through it together yet, but in looking at the anticipated work effort, I’m envisioning the conversation. I know what’s going to happen. I’ve been in his shoes as the client executive taking a big gulp at the projected timing and cost of market assessment/research work.  He’ll say what I’ve said:  “No way. We don’t have time. That’s a preposterous amount of money. We’re immersed in the market. We know enough. Let’s skip this and start executing. We’ll tweak as we go.”  So I’ve been trying to figure out how to convince him we need to do this.

Backing up a step, this is further complicated by the fact that a market assessment wasn’t even on his radar screen. He initially called me in to help him create a business and go-to-market plan and then eventually help launch this new offering.  It’s even further complicated by the fact that he is a fabulously let’s-get-it-done kind of guy. (I love people like that.) His ideal launch date is yesterday, and anything that extends the time line feels like an obstacle.

Beyond using the woodsman story, I had been stumped with how to get the importance of a market assessment across to him until recently when I read a wonderful profile in the San Francisco Chronicle on my dear friend and colleague, Stanford Professor Tina Seelig. In there, she mentions this quote attributed to Einstein: “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, and five minutes thinking about solutions.”

That captures the importance of market assessment work. When done thoroughly, the answers present themselves: which markets to pursue, how to position, what to offer, which functions and features are/aren’t necessary, how to differentiate, what the messaging should be, etc.  Always start by looking at the market, talking to customers and prospective customers, talking to people who study the trends and have a bird’s eye view, talking to people in the trenches, and talking to market influencers. Read secondary research, articles and blogs. Look for patterns and themes. You don’t need to spend years on this. It may take a few months, maybe weeks, perhaps even just days in some cases. My rule of thumb is to stop once I am no longer hearing new information. If I’m digging around among a bunch of different sources, and the same themes keep bubbling up, I know I’m set. In addition to capturing the findings, keep a list of the key influencers and powerbrokers you’ve run across who seem to call the shots in that market. You’ll need those when you’re ready to go to market.

The benefits of the market assessment work extend beyond giving you input for the product or business rollout. It’s the gift that keeps giving. Here are some examples:

  • The team that did all of the digging now possesses deep subject matter expertise that will come in handy during product/service offering development, selling activity, marketing content and other downstream activities.
  • You now know who the market influencers and powerbrokers are in your target market – who’s talking about it, who follows it, who is expert in it – these people, publications, companies, events, etc. may later become sales or marketing channels for you.
  • A lot of people in the market place now know you intend to play in that sandbox and are primed for when you come back with an update on what you have – these could become evangelists for you in the market.
  • You’ve gained a lot of pre-sales customer intelligence from these conversations – now you know who might be interested in the offering, profiles of companies that are ready, what their pain points are, etc.

In other words, you’ve just created accelerators for your product/service offering development, sales and marketing activity.

So before you even get started, sharpen that saw – go talk to the market.

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