On a muggy 100-degree day, dressed in his best suit, ChargeItSpot Founder and CEO Doug Baldasare visualized success as he pushed the dolly carrying his company’s product, the Chargeitspot portable charging station, past the life-size cartoon characters and photo-snapping tourists, and around the concrete security barriers channeling the crowds through New York City’s Times Square.
These few blocks were just the latest leg of the unit’s journey that had Doug and his tiny team sweating for the past few weeks. Having landed a 30-minute meeting with a key retail executive, Doug knew there would be little chance of winning even a pilot deal without showing that the product was real. He knew retailers were fussy to the point of obsession with their spaces and had no interest in being “guinea pigs” based upon the optimistic projections of an early-stage CEO.
There was just one problem. Up until days before the appointed time, the unit had been sitting in a factory deep inside China, awaiting multiple clearances to be packed, shipped and transported through the steps of its journey to New York City.
A functional prototype is no guarantee of business success.
Anyone who calls themselves an innovator – whether in title or mindset – knows they must clear the hurdle from having a working MVP to building a commercially viable business model. Achieving this milestone — from prototype to P&L — can be even tougher than the earlier steps getting from concept to functional prototype.
Just because your team, your friends and family seed investors, and you personally believe in your product and have absolute confidence in what you are doing does not mean you can motivate buyers to pull out their wallets and pay.
As I write this post, ChargeItSpot is succeeding. The company has built an impressive list of clients including top household-name retailers. Best of all, the team continues to demonstrate impact on critical client metrics: time spent in store is higher for shoppers, as are in-store sales, when the unit is installed. All is good, and not simply based on luck.
What does it take to clear the hurdle from idea to establishing a real business?
I hear dozens of founder stories, participate in the business development process for several truly outstanding early-stage company products, and have also lived the struggle as a corporate innovator to win over customers at scale. I am shining a light on Doug’s story because he has nailed what it takes: Quite frankly, there is no substitute for authenticity, people leadership and hard work.
Innovators seem to be looking for more complicated answers when reality is the tactics are hiding in plain sight. That doesn’t mean they are easy. So, whether or not this is news, here are four reminders about what drives innovation success.
- Big companies are slow and founders are fast, but the people in both environments are all humans. “If you show hard work and creativity, it’s hard for big company executives to not give you a chance,” says Doug.
- Best to keep lots of opportunities active in the sales pipeline so you can manage the tension between the pace of decision-making, and your cash flow. “Especially in the early days, think hard about your existing connections and constantly expand your network to get meetings with the right people. And, don’t be hesitant to share your network to get there,” says Doug. Not only will this help strengthen current relationships and demonstrate your value, but could present future, unexpected opportunities.
- Signing the distribution or implementation deal of your dreams with a big brand may happen more readily once you demonstrate that you can deliver, run your shop, and scale. Be creative about how you can make your own track record and avoid a chicken-and-egg dilemma. Doug says, “One of the best pieces of advice I got was to take my prototypes and populate a city. We decided to enter Philadelphia. Our goal was to install ChargeItSpot units wherever we could to support the claim that we ‘deployed 50 units in a major city’ – a real and verifiable accomplishment.”
- One-way emails or transactional text messages are poor communications modes to establish trust, build relationships, and show that you can solve a customer’s problem. These are the primary drivers of a sale, even more important to get into the consideration set than product features and functions. Can’t meet in person? Then pick up the phone. Or perhaps offer, as Doug did, to pick up the tab for a cab ride to the airport if both you and a prospect happen to be on the go. In Doug’s case, the prospect did not accept the offer, but it caught their attention sufficiently to open up meeting time on a packed calendar.
Remember, as taught by a Wharton professor to their MBA class:
“You don’t get milk from a cow by sending email.”