Overcoming the Visionary-Founder Handicap

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BMW and Enzyte may have too much in common.

While reviewing course materials for the CEO Marketing Boot Camp, I got a case of giggles. In the class we mention how BMW does branding. BMW has a legendary brand that was anything but accidental. In fact most readers can recite the BMW slogan from memory and yet never question it. That is how good BMW is at defining and communicating their brand – they have us all educated and convinced.

The BMW slogan is interesting to marketing experts because it never mentions automobiles or technology (and BMWs are technology products). BMW claims to provide the “ultimate driving experience.” Ultimate means the best. Driving is a largely male oriented passion. Experiences are what we live for. So BMW offers a greatly enhanced male life, just like Enzyte claims.

I’m sure the people at BMW are not happy about this comparison because the rest of the jokes write themselves.

BMW’s branding is only part of their marketing success, which is matched by their automotive engineering success. BMW’s marketing and innovation are well paired. Peter Drucker, the father of modern management once said “Business has only two basic functions – marketing and innovation.” Everything else is administrative work. In Silicon Valley, we have more innovators per square inch than we have square inches to spare, and most innovators fail. They only have half of the success equation.

Having sat-in on too many funding pitches, the absence of marketing expertise among founders (the innovators) is often painfully obvious, and has been the reason for many funding rejections. This is an endemic aspect of start-ups – that visionaries lack go-to-market strategy skills. This is not in and of itself fatal if the founders can recruit good marketing people or otherwise find sage advice, and then follow it. However, visionaries are blinded by vision. Their initial observations about market opportunities keep them from examining the full scope of go-to-market issues or unpleasant market realities. Founders are often reluctant to release control over the marketing function yet do not possess enough marketing strategy savvy to guide their organization.

The end result is fairly predictable. These visionary-led start-ups find initial traction with early-adopters, who are also visionaries and risk takers. After that initial success, the start-up stalls. Revenues plateau or decline, the company burns through what little cash it has, and the visionary solution vanishes or is cloned by someone else. If the start-up is funded, investors will often insert members of their cabal into the organization and attempt to instill marketing strategy discipline from above. In desperate circumstances VC’s find ways to eject the founding visionary.

This “investor patch” is notoriously ineffective. Founders fail to follow advice or control because their vision is limited to the set of circumstances that lead them to invent. They cannot see the forest of marketing strategy because they are climbing the tree they originally discovered. It is a little like love. Try explaining to a child what being in love is like and you will create a bored or confused kid. But once they grow up and experience love, they understand the broader and more detailed aspects. Visionary founders are like these confused kids – they do not have enough perspective to comprehend what they need to do.

This is the visionary entrepreneur’s handicap. Successful founders either have significant (albeit high-level) grasp on the major functions of marketing strategy, or they have the guts to recruit and trust experts. Most founders don’t do either, and thus most start-ups fail. I find this state of Silicon Valley affairs to be perplexing. Technology innovators are not ignorant people. They have worked long and hard to achieve deep understanding of their technologies, yet rarely labor at understanding marketing strategy. They may read one of the Chasm books and proclaim themselves well prepared. This is akin to reading a book on the basic mechanics of a parachute and then lobbing yourself out of an airplane. The results are amazingly similar either way.

Peter Drucker was right – an organization must innovate and market. In a start-up, where early decisions define survivability, and where the money to hire full-time strategists simply does not exist, the marketing savvy of founders is critical. Venture capitalists know this, and VCs send portfolio CEOs to school to assure that daily marketing disciplines are being lead from the top. VC’s are happy when one-in-ten of their investments pays off – but they would be happier if ten-in-ten did. Hedging their bets by building better CEOs is the primary path to achieving better investment odds.

Guy Smith is the chief consultant for Silicon Strategies Marketing. Guy brings a combination of technical, managerial and marketing experience to Silicon Strategies projects. Directly and as a consultant, Guy has worked with a variety of technology-producing organizations. A partial list of these technology firms include ORBiT Group (high-availability backup software), Telamon (wireless middleware), Wink Communications (interactive television), LogMeIn (remote desktop), FundNET (SaaS), Open-Xchange (groupware), VA Software (enterprise software), Virtual Iron (server virtualization), SUSE (Linux distributions and applications), BrainWave (application prototyping) and Novell.

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