photo credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Given a brand new idea, entrepreneurs tend to wonder: how do I build this thing? What technology do I need?
So they dive in, work like crazy and finally end up with a solution...but only after much time and effort went up in smoke.
Bad move. As a smart entrepreneur, you want to avoid this approach like the plague. Because if you can't sell your solution, your technical work amounts to precisely nothing.
Space technology startups know this well. Working on ambitious ideas in an industry most people consider outlandish, you'd think they have their hands full with technology only.
But guess what? Successful space companies assign a special priority to sales. They know every dollar and minute spent on tech must ultimately justify itself.
To save you a mountain of time, you're about to learn some of their most powerful ways to get the information you need, without doubling down on product development.
First though, do me a favor. Next time you want to test an idea by building something, ask yourself: can you skip the building step and test it anyway?
Test for market need by pre-selling
Take Jane Poynter, founder and CEO of World View Enterprises -- a space company which aims to use special high-altitude balloons as both a new kind of satellite and as a vehicle to take passengers on a trip almost 20 miles up into the sky. In an interview, Poynter told me:
"The moment we started talking about World View and the kinds of things we were going to do, our phone rang off the hook."
Early on, Poynter experienced strong enthusiasm from her potential customers. People wanted to use their technology for all kinds of things. And hence, she saw a market need and redoubled her efforts to serve it. She sold the value proposition underneath the technology before developing it.
Okay -- but what if your vision is so ambitious that people just won't believe you can do it? Well, don't panic: you need to make your voice more authoritative, so the right people can't ignore you.
For instance, Astrobotic Technology -- a space logistics company aiming to deliver payloads to the Moon -- built significant authority over nine years by assembling a credible team of space scientists and engineers. And thus, it managed to pre-sell its logistics services to big clients. Suddenly, it no longer sounds crazy.
As Astrobotic CEO John Thornton told me:
"The ultimate way to test for market need is by selling and collecting checks."
True. And you need to do the same. Describe what value your product or service will deliver for your customers, and see if you can get them to buy it before it's built. Score even a few pre-sales and your voice will already weigh more -- and thus your vision will seem more attainable.
And once you start building, you're still not off the hook.
See if somebody already solved your technology problem
Even when you do have a genuine technology problem which will lead to actual sales, chances are somebody out there already had a crack at it.
Alistair Brett, a World Bank science commercialization expert and partner at innovation consultancy firm Rainforest Strategies, points out how science-based companies tend to reinvent the wheel. They face a specific technical problem, but can't find a solution outside the company, so they just roll their own.
Thing is, the solution often does exist out there, even if it takes a diligent search to find it. And sometimes, it exists in an outside industry.
"In a substantial number of cases, the problem has been solved by somebody who is not directly working in that field of research or development," Brett said in an interview.
He gives an example of a company that struggled to create a chemical adhesive. The solution was eventually found by an electrical engineer -- someone from an outside industry. An expert on a different kind of stickiness.
Bottom line? When you face a technical problem as an entrepreneur and go out to find an existing solution, a brief search won't do. Instead, make a special search effort, because the solution might lie hidden outside your industry. See if you can find an expert on a similar problem and learn how they solved it.
Outside experts can help you stumble upon innovations. But watch out: an innovation by itself isn't the point. You have to go sell it.
For instance, when I spoke with Chad Anderson, managing director of Space Angels Network, a large community of investors and entrepreneurs in the private space industry, he told me:
"Engineers and scientists often discount the difficulty of getting an innovation out into the market. For the innovations that stick, it all comes down to the CEO and the team. It's a sales job."
See the point? For an innovation to stick, you must be its salesperson. Successful space companies learned this lesson early on.
But look -- you don't need to have a space company to take value from their efforts.
Take a down-to-Earth example
Let's say you want to solve IT problems for small law firms.
First step? Consider talking to larger law firms. Because law firms with in-house IT departments have wisdom for you: what kind of problems lawyers have with IT, what technology they need to solve them, how much time this takes away from clients, and so on. Instead of starting the puzzle from scratch, you extract wisdom from those who've been there before. Simple.
And then, you go talk to smaller law firms and put your new insights to the test.
Do these same IT problems still run deep, and how do they differ? Plus, see if you can pre-sell your value proposition: would these law firms pay you right now, so you can deliver a killer solution to their problems once you have everything in place?
Start this way and you save yourself from grinding through much of the initial learning curve.
Your mission: get it into the hands of people who will benefit from it. It's a sales job, even if you aim for the sky.