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Summary: A look at the love, launch and lapse phenomenon encountered by many start-ups, what underlies the lapse, and how to mitigate it happening to your firm.

Over the past 20 years I’ve followed the successes and failures of firms in the data storage and data management arena. I’ve noticed a phenomenon that impacts those who sell enterprise software and systems based on new, or potentially disruptive, technology. In today’s market such technology would include systems based on solid state disks (SSD) as well as some cloud enablers, virtualization/VDI solutions and Big Data solutions

The phenomenon is the love, launch, and lapse phases many start-ups experience. In other words, most tech firms experience a honeymoon period that eventually ends. Here’s what happens:

Love at First Sight: The executives and board members are working their Rolodex to sign up beta customers and these initial customers love you. Additionally, analysts and journalists are calling you and you haven’t even come out of stealth mode. If you are out of stealth you may even have been recognized with a “most promising” or “company to watch” award.

Launch Like a Rocket: You hire a PR agency and announce your venture funding and your new product. You get lots of press coverage, especially in the storage media that you read every day. Additionally, your sales team has a bunch of prospective customers. You may even have some noteworthy customers.

Under these circumstances the typical CEO adds salespeople and minimizes the budget for paid promotions like advertising. After all, the prospects in the pipeline were relatively easy to get and PR is driving the funnel. Given everyone’s enthusiasm the plan presented to the board will likely be high on the revenue forecast and low on marketing expenses.

Lamentable Lapse: However, as the quarters pass the vast majority of “hot” prospects turn cold and the press coverage is no longer generating many leads. Other firms now dominate the editorials. The resellers are signed-up, but not selling. There’s little discretionary budget available for promotional campaigns and the few that are tried don’t produce enough results. The marketers are sent on the fruitless quest to find the “magic well” — a single source for high volume, low-cost, purchase-ready leads. The blame game is heating up so office politics between sales and marketing are becoming a drain on productivity. The PR agency is fired. The VP of sales is replaced. The VP of marketing is replaced. Eventually, the CEO is replaced.

What happened?

The analysts and press are always interested in new technology, new products, and new firms. It’s their job to know what is going on in the market. They trade in that knowledge as well as sell their own services to storage vendors. Almost every technology start-up can get their “15 minutes of fame.”

PR agencies know that, so a few storage specialist PR-only firms have built their entire business on the “launch and leverage” model. I prefer to call it the “launch and lapse” model. It’s a great model for PR agencies. News about new technology, products and VC funded companies is in demand so the agency can usually show great initial results to the client (and to the client’s competitors — the PR agency’s new prospects). However, when the launch is done the “heavy lifting” starts. At that point, the PR agency executive that sold the service turns the start-up over to a less influential account manager and moves on to new business (often the client’s competitors.)

Most new publicity (PR or advertising) will release a pent-up demand for information about what’s being promoted. It’s that pent-up demand for certain information that results in an initial surge of leads, followed by diminishing returns. These diminishing returns are easiest to see with some online adverts. The early placements generate more results than later placements (I know, it’s the opposite of print and what the advertising sales rep tells you.) The initial demand is satisfied so when the publication’s audience is not growing at a sufficient rate, the volume of sales leads falls for the same advert. It’s normal!

Of the leads that come in, it’s not uncommon for a technology firm to see a high number of “false positives.” These look like good leads, but don’t close quickly (or at all) so the close rate is very low. False positives result when the hype surrounding a new technology piques peoples’ curiosity. They want to learn about it so they end up downloading the white papers and otherwise flagging themselves as a lead. However, if the new technology has multiple applications (e.g. SSD in consumer and enterprise applications), is complex (e.g. integrates into larger systems and requires buy-in from many people) or is expensive (e.g. beyond the budget authority of the purchase champion) you should expect a long and difficult sales process that can take months, or even years, of nurturing and selling.

What about the happy customers? Beta customers are not the same as real customers, even if they are big names. Many large enterprises are willing to try new technology. The real test is whether they deploy it widely as a result. Additionally, the start-up probably sold the beta product at a big discount (or gave it away) and the tech support people are the best engineers who’ll drop everything to deal with an issue. Lastly, as good as the executives and board may be at at leveraging their executive-level contacts, that sales model is not scalable or repeatable by ordinary salespeople.

STEC stock value after announcing that OEM customers may choose other SSDsUnfortunately, big OEM deals can also result in an eventual lapse. The big OEMs – HP, Dell, IBM, etc. – have annual design cycles for their server and storage products so the components suppliers chosen this year may not be the same as those chosen next year. Big suppliers like Seagate and Western Digital can keep up with the design cycles, but a start-up is typically so overwhelmed with the initial design-in business that they fail to secure the second and subsequent supply contracts. An established vendor that loses a design-in contract will turn to other customers (often through an established distribution channel), but a start-up often goes out of business (or gets acquired at a low valuation). Others, like STEC, may just lose half their stock value.

In fact, it’s often the lucky start-ups that are overwhelmed with fulfilling the demand of a large customer. They are generating revenue and have proven the end-user demand for their innovation. Others sign promising deals with big OEMs (with all kinds of hooks and exclusivity requirements), but the OEM does not sell nearly as many as forecast.

All of these factors assume that a market exists and therefore the sales issues can be overcome. That’s not a given, but I can accept that it is for most data storage products. There is a growing need for capacity, speed, protection and management of data. However, a market is made up of different types of buyers who require different things.

Enterprise SSD is in the Early Adoper Phase

SSD Market 2011

A new market segment is made up of “Innovators.” These buyers are technology enthusiasts willing to try new ideas at some risk. They like to test new things and don’t need complete solutions. They just need access to new technology. These Innovators may buy the product based on its technological capabilities. However, the larger number of “Early Adopters” have different needs.

Early Adopters are looking for a breakthrough advantage in their business and require complete solutions. A solution is not a just box full of Flash or some other technology. Solutions include expertise in the customer’s environment. Therefore, successful firms sell an augmented product that includes more than their raw technology. For example, Texas Memory Systems, a 30+ year old solid state disk supplier, speaks fluent Oracle. They employ an “Oracle Guru” who works with the DBAs that initially identifies the performance problem that’s ultimately solved by the product being sold.

The challenge for the start-up in new market segments is to solve both a technical problem and a business problem. Solving the technical problem can generate a few sales to the Innovators. However, a business problem must be solved to sell to the Early Adopters and many technology start-ups don’t invest enough to market and sell in this environment.

What Really Happened?

The lapse is a result of the executives doing something reasonable. They believed their own eyes and planned accordingly. Unfortunately, they did not recognize that they could be in a honeymoon period so the number of prospects in the pipeline was significantly smaller than it needed to be and the infrastructure to generate leads was lagging.

The initial good news made everyone optimistic when they would have been better served by hoping for the best, but planning for the worst.

Hoping for the best, but planning for the worst

Technology start-ups often establish just one of the 4-Ps necessary for sales success. They establish the product, but do not establish a working promotion, pricing, or channel (place-of-sale) model. In a nutshell, they do not build a working sales and marketing system before the clock runs out. A working system allows you to execute a process and get reasonably predictable results.

Sales leads are at the core of the system. Since people can’t buy what they don’t know about, promotions are used to create market awareness, build brand recognition, and generate sales leads. These promotion-driven sales leads not only have the potential to drive revenue, they are also critical to optimizing your overall marketing. They are the equivalent of an early warning system.

For example, if you know what you are doing and what to expect (as my firm, Marketingsage, does) and it turns out to be difficult and excessively expensive to generate sales leads then you’ve learned something. Your message is not working for the audience you promote to. If the audience includes your customer prospects and your message talks about your product, you may have a positioning issue or need to rethink the offering.

On the other hand, if you are generating leads at a reasonable price it’s fair to conclude that your message is resonating. Therefore if there is a sales issue, you save time and considerable money by investigating product, pricing or channel expectations first. Without a reliable flow of leads, you have to ask if you’ve generated enough awareness for your offering. The only way to answer that question quickly is run many simultaneous promotions. That’s expensive and a big risk for resource- and time-constrained start-ups.

There’s another benefit to building a lead generation system. If you do enough lead generation you’ll end up with a fairly reliable cost-per-lead (CPL) number and a close rate percentage. Those numbers allow you to plan and budget effectively.

For example, if you pay the industry average of $60 CPL and close 0.5% of leads, you can calculate that you need 200 leads per sale and those leads will cost $12,000. If this year’s revenue target is $10-million and the average customer generates $100,000, you need 100 customers. The 20,000 leads you need for 100 customers will cost $1.2-million in promotions. If the sales lead time is 6 months you need all your leads by the end of June. That means the promotions had to ramp up last year. Of course, that’s a little simplistic, but hopefully you get the idea.

Your numbers may be different, but the scenario presented is typical enough. The good news is: When you have data, you can start to drive down the CPL and drive up the close rate to optimize your system. Additionally, happy customers can be expected to purchase more. Therefore, their 3- or 5-year value is often substantially higher than the value of the first year’s sales and the cost of incremental sales is far lower.

There are many ways to generate sales leads (see The Most Effective Sales Lead Generation Methods for Storage and Enterprise Software) – too many to discuss here. However, the difference between a mature lead generation system and ad hoc promotion is typically the inclusion of online advertising.

Done properly, online advertising is effective, cost-effective and relatively predictable. Unlike other promotional methods you can control the placement, timing, message and call-to-action. This control allows you to adjust and optimize in a relatively short period of time. Additionally, it’s scalable!

Bogging, tweeting, cold calling, trade shows, seminars, etc. all require human resources. Consequently, they can be considerably more expensive for the results achieved than just spending a few well placed dollars on advertising.

Bottom Line for CEO’s, VPs and VCs

Recognize that your firm is likely to experience a honeymoon period. Set realistic expectations so you have a chance of success and can justify the necessary up-front investment in lead generating promotions, not just product development.

Realize that the sales cycle for enterprise storage products can be very long. Think 6+ months for today’s enterprise SSD systems and other new technologies in emerging markets. Add months to get promotional campaigns producing. Add quarters if you need to staff-up, build infrastructure as well as get the campaigns producing.

From day-one, build a scalable lead generation and lead nurturing system so you know that you can generate more/less leads as required from various sources.

About the Author

David X. Lamont is an accomplished marketer of IT products and a partner at Marketingsage, a PR and lead generation firm that specializes in marketing data storage, data management, and enterprise software products. He can be reached by email at blog [at] marketingsage.net. Fellow marketers and IT professionals are invited to join his network on LinkedIn and to subscribe to this blog (see sidebar).

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As a marketer of data storage and data management products, including those for the emerging “Big Data” market, I was immediately attracted to a a new report called “Marketing ROI in the Era of Big Data.”

This 2012 report by David Rogers and Don Sexton of the Columbia Business School and New York American Marketing Association is not about how to market Big Data products (a topic my firm, Marketingsage, is happy to address). The report is about using Big Data analytics to drive marketing decisions. As the report notes, Big Data analytics is different from “the quarterly omnibus survey panels of traditional market research” that rely on periodically analyzing structured data such as a surveys, click data or sales.

Big Data analytics is “predicated on access to frequent and recent data” from many sources. For many this means analyzing data at near-real-time speeds. It also means the combining of data from various digital media — page views, time-on-site, revisits, clicks, opt-ins, opt-outs, purchases, shopping cart abandonment,  search engine page ranks, keyword usage, link-backs, demographics, perceptions, tweets, likes, shares, etc. It means combining data from traditional marketing tools such as event sponsorships, print advertising, direct mail, TV and radio adverts with digital tools such as email, social network accounts and mobile adverts/apps.

If you are a hands-on marketer, your brain may have just melted down when you thought about what it would actually take to make sense of all that diverse data…even if you had it available to you in real-time. If so, you won’t be surprised to learn that while 91% of senior corporate marketers (at large firms) believe that successful brands use customer data to drive marketing decisions, it’s not happening near as often as some might think. And, if it isn’t happening in the large B2C firms surveyed, it sure isn’t happening in smaller B2B firms with small marketing teams.

Here are some statistics form the report:

  • 65% of marketers said that comparing the effectiveness of marketing across different digital media is “a major challenge” for their business
  • 39% say their own company’s data is collected too infrequently or not real-time enough
  • Large firms are much less likely to collect new forms of digital data like mobile data (19%), than they are to collect traditional customer survey data such as on demographics (74%) and attitude (54%)
  • 22% are using brand awareness as their sole measure to evaluate their marketing spend
  • 42% of marketers report that they are not able to link data at the level of an individual customer
  • 45% of marketers are not using data to personalize their marketing communications
  • 57% are not basing their marketing budgets on any ROI analysis
  • 37% of respondents did not include any mention of financial outcomes when asked to define what “marketing ROI” meant for their own organization

Not surprisingly, the report notes that marketers who are satisfied with measuring marketing ROI tend to use more metrics than organizations that are less satisfied. Additionally, their leaders set measurable objectives for marketing actions.

Accordingly, the authors go on to recommend that marketers should get started with the basics of determining marketing ROI and then move on to ROI best practices.

A Personal View

Although it’s a long way in the future (maybe a decade), I’m looking forward to the day when a marketer can look at a dashboard that reveals what’s going on everywhere, in real-time, especially if coupled with artificial intelligence that  offers some insights into the data. However, lets not forget that such a dashboard is no different from the one in your car. You still have to do the driving. Even with a navigation system that gives you step-by-step instructions you still need to decide where you want to go and avoid all the obstacles along the way.

In reality, the data is only helpful if you define it appropriately, understand where it’s coming from, know what’s driving it and how to act upon it to meet your goals. That’s not a given. I’ve seen many instances where firms analyze marketing data only to draw poor and very costly conclusions because they lack perspective and experience.

For me, the “Marketing ROI in the Era of Big Data” conclusion rings true. It states: “Chief Marketing Officers face a dynamic and challenging environment for marketing today. They will find no simple answers to effectively measuring marketing ROI amidst the growth of big data and new digital marketing tools. Innovative marketing and effective measurement will both be works in progress that require leadership, agility, and constant learning.

About the Author

David X. Lamont is an accomplished marketer of IT products and a partner at Marketingsage, a PR and lead generation firm that specializes in marketing data storage, data management, and enterprise software products. He can be reached by email at blog [at] marketingsage.net. Fellow marketers and IT professionals are invited to join his network on LinkedIn and to subscribe to this blog (see sidebar).

IDC has just released its Worldwide Disk Storage Systems Quarterly Tracker for Q2 2011. The shipment of 5,353 petabytes in total disk storage systems capacity for the quarter represents a 10.2% increase in Q2 revenues compared to Q2 2010. Only Dell and the many hundreds of “Others” saw a decline in revenue.

It’s cheering to see some tangible evidence of prosperity and an uptick in IT spending. However, it behooves not only Dell and Oracle (Sun), but the smaller, emerging companies in the storage arena to pause and think strategically about how they can compete against EMC, IBM, NetApp, HP and Hitachi who jointly won 74% of the market in 2Q11.

Technical innovation is only a partial answer. When considering access to market, the conundrum is whether to try to beat them or join them.

Top 5 Vendors, Worldwide External Disk Storage Systems Factory Revenue, Second Quarter of 2011 (Revenues are in Millions)

Vendor

2Q11 Revenue

2Q11 Market Share

2Q10 Revenue

2Q10 Market Share

2Q11/2Q10 Revenue Growth

1. EMC

$1,621

28.7%

$1,287

25.6%

26.0%

T2. IBM

$771

13.7%

$680

13.5%

13.4%

T2. NetApp

$720

12.8%

$572

11.4%

25.7%

4. HP

$619

11.0%

$567

11.3%

9.1%

T5. Hitachi

$459

8.1%

$372

7.4%

23.3%

T5. Dell

$444

7.9%

$472

9.4%

-5.9%

Others

$1,009

17.9%

$1,080

21.5%

-6.6%

All Vendors

$5,643

100.0%

$5,031

100.0%

12.2%

Source: IDC Worldwide Disk Storage Systems Quarterly Tracker, September 2, 2011

Press release: http://www.idc.com/getdoc.jsp?containerId=prUS23012911

Report: http://www.idc.com/getdoc.jsp?containerId=IDC_P4435

About the Author

Agnes Lamont is an accomplished marketer of IT products and a partner at Marketingsage, a PR and lead generation firm that specializes in marketing data storage, data management and enterprise software products. She can be reached by email at blog [at] marketingsage.net. Fellow marketers and IT professionals are invited to join her network on LinkedIn and to subscribe to this blog (see sidebar).