How Educating a Market Can Grow Your Small Business

05/04/2015 01:06 pm ET | Updated May 04, 2016

I recently wrote about how switching gears could save your small business and realized something while writing -- sometimes entrepreneurs need to educate a market, and not change a product. This is particularly true when you're doing something completely new, or you're pitching a market segment that's not exactly cutting edge.

Entrepreneurs usually start by focusing on the product, and zealously believe that "if we build it, customers will come." And if these feelings aren't natural, then you probably shouldn't be an entrepreneur. But building the product can often be the "easy part" if you're trying to launch a totally new concept that no one has ever heard of. In this situation, you're not just a product maker, you're a category creator, and that's a much bigger responsibility and undertaking.

We've seen this recently with products like 3D printing, the Internet of Things, and wearables -- all great ideas that are on their way toward building huge markets, but still foreign to the majority of consumers.

For example, when we first launched our business, the term "cloud" wasn't even in use. Target customers found our business idea to be mysterious and scary. But we were convinced that a cloud-based physical security system was not only a proverbial "better mousetrap," but a solution to many of the expenses and problems plaguing pre-existing systems.

We realized quickly that we had to become evangelists for the cloud in general before we could explain the benefits of our products in particular. The physical security market we sell to is -- no surprise -- a very conservative lot, like much of the corporate world, and they have to be. Those in the industry get credit for reliability: day in, day out, 100 percent of the time. And if people don't understand the technology and business model, they're just not going to buy.

Here's a distilled version of three tips entrepreneurs can use to help educate a market on a new product or idea:

Keep It Simple

Start by recognizing that when people are facing the unknown or unfamiliar, you are dealing with their emotions, not their reason. Fear of the unknown is one of the strongest and most deeply embedded human emotions. That's why entrepreneurs need to create a sense of comfort and familiarity.

How do you do that? Keep it simple and reference examples your target market already knows and trusts. Demystify.

When we were getting started, many of our prospective customers were already using the cloud, but they didn't know it. Online banking and e-commerce were two cloud services that almost everyone used, so we compared our service to those models. The basic idea was, if you already trust all your money, credit cards and 401K plans to the cloud, doesn't it make sense that the same technology could also safely manage your security system? Boiling down your product to an easy to understand example is a skill that sets apart successful entrepreneurs from unsuccessful ones.

Implement the "Puppy-Dog Close"

Early in the life of our company, we offered online demos at a time when few products were sold that way. Screen sharing services were still new and fairly buggy, so we just gave customers a login to our site and talked them through the product on a conference call. They could click through the app on their end, and quickly gain a sense of mastery and ease they would never have achieved through a different presentation format. We had an incredibly high close rate with this interactive approach.

Years later, I described this technique to an experienced sales person and he said, "Oh, that's the puppy-dog close. That's when you're at the pet store, and your kid holds one of the puppies. There's no way you're going home without a dog."

We'd been doing the puppy-dog close without even realizing it. Today, it's much easier to let buyers test run your product before buying it, but for those that can't, it's worth creating a tool that gives them the same experience. Nothing is more powerful at erasing fears than letting your product do the talking.

Focus - You Can't Educate the Whole World

When launching a new product or company, it's best to initially focus your efforts on a small set of vertical industries. Not only will this force you to think about who needs your product the most, but you'll leverage the natural tendency of groups to trust references who are "just like me." Word-of-mouth is very powerful, but it doesn't mean as much across industries as it does within industries.

For example, say your idea could be implemented in hospitals, offices and stadiums -- three very different revenue opportunities. Pick one and get in front of that audience first, using their feedback to adapt your business plan in alternative industries.

The other dimension to focus on is timing. Some markets are more ready to be educated than others. Figure out which markets are slightly ahead of the curve, and start there. Getting into a market before it is ready means that you will spend a lot of time waiting for the mindset to change. Select the industries that are more forward-looking, and you'll find yourself doing less educating and more selling.

Have you been in this situation before? What have you done to help educate the market on your new idea or business plan?

Steve Van Till is the co-founder, President and CEO of Brivo Systems, a provider of cloud applications for security management located in Bethesda, Maryland. Brivo offers cloud-based physical access control and video surveillance systems, and the Company's Internet of Things business unit, Brivo Labs, uses social identities to develop applications that connect physical spaces with virtual communities. An avid athlete and photographer, Van Till has been recognized by Security Magazine as one of the "Top 25 Most Influential People in the Security Industry."