I was invited to be a guest lecturer last week at a course on entrepreneurship for graduate students in the School of Information at the University of Michigan. The topic I covered was federal funding for technology start-ups. One of the students contacted me after the class and asked if she could schedule a follow up meeting with me. She was very energetic and articulate at our meeting as she described her new business idea. She then admitted that I was only the second person she had told about it and said she had been afraid to talk about her idea until she attended my lecture.
The ultimate difficulty that my clients have as they try and secure the necessary resources to help build their new companies is in fact identical to what this student expressed – they are afraid to talk to strangers. They don’t always admit this as readily as she did. They might couch it in creative excuses for why they didn’t call the program director at the funding agency, or why they didn’t introduce themselves to key individuals at an event. But it ultimately comes down to a fear of approaching people we don’t know.
Why is this so critical? If you can’t talk to people, then you can’t find out what they need. If you can’t find out what they need, then you will never be sure if your “product” will be successful in the “market”.
For example: The National Science Foundation’s (NSF) SBIR solicitation provides a list of topic areas of interest. On page 2 NSF requests that potential applicants contact the program director to discuss their project prior to submitting a proposal. Most of my clients do not follow these instructions (see yesterday’s post) unless I prod them to do so. However, of the three most recent clients who contacted NSF, one was told that their project did not fall within the specified topic area and they were discouraged from submitting. By talking to the “customer” (in this case NSF) and clarifying exactly what they wanted my client saved months of work drafting a proposal that would not have met the customer’s needs.
Another example: A client developed a novel tool for use by surgeons. They did a thorough analysis of the market, and presented a convincing case for the number of these tools that they could sell based on the size of the market, analysis of competitive products, and other relevant data. What had they neglected to do? Talk to strangers. When the client actually went out and talked to surgeons they found that most would not actually buy the product.
I started out last Thursday talking about the issue of “build it and they will come” and how that notion can in fact impede the success of entrepreneurial ventures. By approaching all relationships from a sales perspective – that is trying to understand the needs of our “customer”– entrepreneurs can begin to actually secure the resources that they need to grow their businesses. But this requires reading instructions and talking to strangers!
Fortunately, in Michigan there is a wealth of places for entrepreneurs to go to begin to practice these skills.
At the end of our meeting, I provided the student entrepreneur with contact information for several people that might be interested in helping her with her new venture. Most importantly, she was over her fear of talking to strangers and on her way to starting her company in Michigan. I hope that all of you get out there and talk to strangers. Remember, after that first conversation they are no longer strangers. They might in fact turn out to be your best customers.