Microwave Journal
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If I Had a Hammer

October 16, 2014

I frequently find myself in business relationships with technically innovative entrepreneurial movers and shakers who need a supportive hand to help bring their ideas to market.

While interacting with these highly credentialed individuals, many with post-doctorates from esteemed institutions such as Stanford University and MIT, I catch myself resisting the temptation to inform them that there was a time when I was able to recite Maxwell’s Equations (James Clerk Maxwell, 1861) without the aid of crib sheets. But, as soon as I reach into the recesses of my mind, searching for those fundamental equations describing electromagnetics, the lyrics of Maxwell’s Silver Hammer (the Beatles, 1969) pop up instead. Had Maxwell’s Equations been set to music, I am sure I would be able to recall them instantly.

Being successful as a business development consultant requires a certain finesse. The adage “the customer is always right” does not apply. But, if the customer/client is wrong, depending on the circumstances (e.g., over-sensitive egos), they will likely need to be nudged along, one step at a time, in order to reach the desired conclusion on their own.

The U.S. Government’s Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) program, which involves a major portion of my business relationships, has a contractual requirement for a documented and actionable commercialization implementation plan. This is because the Government wants to make sure there is a market for the novel technology being funded.

But my experience working with gifted technologists is they view the commercialization requirement as one of those annoying non-value-added activities. They believe the compelling nature of their innovation will cause the market to find them, no matter how much or little planning they undertake. In fact, customers will “beat a path to their door” when word of their accomplishment gets out.

There is no real magic in creating a business development strategy, however. All it takes is dedicated focus and time. At various points during our collective careers, it is likely we all have been involved with some portion of the process. That process involves matching the technology with the right position in the marketplace. Marketing 101 is a good term for this exercise.

First thing is to determine the market for the product. It is important, however, not to get a product type confused with a market. For example, GPS is not a market, it is a market enabler. Among the unique distinct markets for GPS functionality are aircraft navigation systems, cargo tracking, mobile concierge services, and, my favorite, golf course distance aids.

Next is to determine the characteristics of each market, including size in terms of dollars and units, segments (markets within markets), price points, and competitive landscape. At this point the process moves on to Marketing 102, or the action plan. This phase becomes difficult because the creative juices applied to creating the technology somehow become diluted when it is time to bring the innovation to market. It does not have to be this way.

A case in point: While conferencing with a client about their SBIR commercialization plan, the individual (who also was the founder, chief scientist, engineer, and test technician) continually returned the conversation back to the topic of performance characteristics of his SBIR funded product. Adhering to the policy of what goes on in conference calls stays in conference calls, I will identify the product under discussion only as the Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread Microwave Product (GTSSBMP). Attempting to keep the intent of the dialogue on track, while being politically correct, I asked him what his long-term expectations were for GTSSBMP. He explained, in dB, how they would drive the noise floor even lower than its current best-in-class position.

I coaxed him toward the Marketing 101 process described above and told him that such a process will provide a basis for a launch of an executable Go-To-Market action plan specific for his GTSSBMP. Finally, getting his attention, I walked him through the process of identifying the markets, segments, price points and competitors.

At the mention of the last item, a pause in the flow of the dialogue ensued. My client then very calmly, albeit with a professorial toned voice, said the words I am now accustomed to hearing from leading edge innovators: “You don’t understand; we have no competitors.”

It was now my turn to push the pause button. My inclination was to say if GTSSBMP was truly in a league of its own, then why were they not assigning priority numbers to those imagined accumulating lines of buyers? And to point out that by the time those who had made the trek up the proverbial path, Company C will have the new and improved alternative GTSSBMP.

But, while framing a softer, more supportive retort, all I heard — in the key of D — was: “Bang bang, Maxwell’s Silver Hammer came down upon” the GTSSBMP.

The nudging process is now in play, one step at a time.