Q. What’s the primary difference between used car and computer salespeople?
A. A used car salesman KNOWS that he’s lying.
– A joke that was old in 1995
The technology business is difficult, so it’s natural for technology vendors to make mistakes. Many of these fall into two broad categories:
- Garbled or otherwise ineffective messaging. See, for example, this blog’s overlapping sections on marketing communications, technology marketing, and especially the layered messaging model.
- Over-optimism, in partnering, sales, marketing and development alike. That’s the subject of this post.
In particular, vendors commonly overestimate their (current and future) competitive positions. This isn’t just for public consumption; often, they fool themselves as well. Popular forms of overestimation include (and these overlap heavily):
- Overestimating the prevalence of specific use cases. In a classic example, Mike Stonebraker and others on the early Vertica team seemed convinced that — 20 years of contrary industry experience notwithstanding — most analytic RDBMS users would be content with star schemas. They were wrong.
- Underestimating the requirements for product completeness. This is the flip side of the same error. You know all those features that the other guys have and you haven’t gotten around to building yet? Those features were built because of (actual or anticipated) customer demand.
- Underrating the competition’s current and future product. Vendors frequently think that their features and performance characteristics are unique, and may long remain so. They’re usually wrong, except in the case of features that convey little market advantage.
- Underestimating the work in maturing a product. In 1993, Sybase held a press conference in New York to announce that Version 1.0 of a new C-oriented application development tool would surpass all competition in performance and reliability, after a 3-month beta cycle.* I scoffed; the company took umbrage; my relationship with them went from bad to worse. And the tool? That failed so completely I no longer remember its name.
The dictum Fake it ’til you make it bears a certain relevance here, all the way down to its Alcoholics Anonymous associations.
*You can’t fix all your bugs at once. You can’t fix all your performance bottlenecks at once either. And the idea that you could do so for all the different software developed in a single tool struck me as beyond ridiculous.
As you’ve probably noticed, I write about these errors frequently. Perhaps my most-tweeted post ever was the one in March, 2013 that said:
Rule 1: Developing a good DBMS requires 5-7 years and tens of millions of dollars.
That’s if things go extremely well.
Rule 2: You aren’t an exception to Rule 1.
In August of the same year I noted:
I’m not impressed that your future products will in some small ways be superior to what your competitors have had in production for over a year.
And I may, from time to time, show skepticism in vendor-specific posts as well.
How serious are these errors? Of course, everybody overrates their own products to some extent; it would be hard to maintain enthusiasm otherwise. Still, the more extreme forms of misjudgment are fraught with danger. Harms I’ve seen many times include but are not limited to:
- Investing in efforts that are never going to succeed.
- Failing to invest properly — in development, marketing or sales as the case may be — because you overrate your chances with the portfolio you have.
- Telling marketing stories that few people except your own employees believe.
Other forms of over-optimism can cause similar damage. For example, many marketing people are good at one of:
- Marketing programs, even beyond the cookie-cutter.
- Content creation, reflecting their own strategic understanding and technical depth.
- Strategy creation (but why is the CEO delegating that??) or strategy refinement (more reasonable).
But few are good in all the areas, and CEOs who overrate their marketing staffs may soon be digging themselves out of deepish doo-doo.*
*Bovine or otherwise as the case may be.
In a sometimes-related problem, some vendors have exaggerated expectations of lead generation. This can lead to the Red Hat fallacy, in which they think that story-telling is unnecessary, and only marketing-funnel mechanics add value. In other cases, it can cause the sales-process problems that naturally follow from a low-quality pipeline.
And finally, there’s partnering. Way too often I hear things like:
- “We don’t think there’s a profitable way to sell our stuff. So we’ll have somebody else sell it for us.” (And those other folks perhaps enjoy losing money?)
- “Our partner has many salespeople, each of whom has received 2 or more hours of training on our product. Of course they’ll sell lots of it.”
- “Our partner is a big force in Japan/China/the US Federal Government, and they’ve dedicated numerous personnel to being our representative. Soon the money will be rolling in.”
- “Look at all our partner logos. Our validation is tremendous!” (I love you. You love me. We’re best friends like friends should be.)
Less snarkily, I’d say that too many companies forget some basic facts of partnering, which in my opinion start:
- Nobody else cares about selling your stuff as much as you do. Indeed, they don’t even come close. However …
- … sometimes they can only sell their stuff if folks want to buy your stuff as well.
- Nobody else cares as much about accurately delivering your marketing messages as you do.
- Partnership announcements rarely provide much validation on their own. Validation is in the details of joint activity.
- It is rare for a partnership to be outright harmful in itself. However, it is common for a partnership to waste time, energy, money or audience attention.
And so, while partners can sometimes be great sources of leads, few software vendors ever made it big through a partners-first strategy.