Good software takes patience to form into the right cultural fit; complete with the nuances that will ensure permanence.
Patience, hard thing! the hard thing but to pray,
But bid for, Patience is! Patience who asks
Wants war, wants wounds; weary his times, his tasks;
To do without, take tosses, and obey.
Rare patience roots in these, and, these away,
Nowhere. Natural heart’s ivy, Patience masks
Our ruins of wrecked past purpose. There she basks
Purple eye and seas of liquid leaves all day.
We hear our hearts grate on themselves: it kills
To bruise them dearer. Yet the rebellious wills
Of us we do bid God bend to him even so.
And where is he who more and more distils
Delicious kindness? – He is patient. Patience fills
His crisp combs, and that comes those ways we know.Gerard Manley Hopkins
Customer feedback, competitors announced, churn, pleadings by the team; these are just some of the petty urgencies that crowd a founder’s lungs in suffocating embrace. How should a founder respond? Growing a B2B SaaS product is about managing resources. One resource is the tolerance of the founder to withstand existential feedback. “To do without, take tosses, and obey.” – this is the role of the founder. Good software takes patience to form into the right cultural fit with the customers; complete with the nuanced niceties that ensure permanence.
Founder tolerance, the fickle resource
Founders vacillate eternally between the sundrenched hills of success and the dark valley of despair. The catalyst for the journey between these poles are: existentially threatening encounters for the downward journey and confirmatory evidence for the assent. We can only handle so much time in the valley of despair before giving up. So how should a founder manage her tolerance for existentially threatening encounters?
Balance is how. Balance is knowing that you exist outside and beyond your business. It means when you encounter a threat, it isn’t a threat to yourself, to your identity. Instead, it is a threat to your business. From this perspective, the founder is bolstered against the see-saw of angst and can handle the threat with the importance it deserves.
My past encounters on this journey were ugly and, I believe, endemic to our kind. When left to its natural cycle, even mentally strong founders with natural balance and safety nets aplenty will get lost in this angst machine. We seek confirmation as the only means to escape the valley of despair. And, when finding it, however small, we cling to it as our life jacket while ignoring the signs of impending doom. We ignore the threats, which, when they manifest, kill our business and our identity along with it.
Tolerance of the existential threat comes from psychological distance with the business. When the founder has this approach, they can deal with the threat. This means assessing it, contending with it, and putting it in its proper place. Most threats that send founders reeling are best ignored. They are inert utterances of jealous minds. However, the real ones are the small signals, usually delivered timidly, of a lack of customer connection or the emergence of a competitor who can crowd out a product’s ability to connect.
Founders must learn to contend with the threats and not ignore them. This also requires working on blocking confirmatory evidence. Founders don’t need more confirmation of their business. They need to know where the product is failing. Where it is missing the mark. This requires engaging with customers. Ironically, this can create more existentially threatening encounters; hence the need to learn to contend with it.
Experienced salespeople understand that they aren’t looking for a ‘yes’, instead they are looking for ‘no’. Assuming there is a product fit with a market, then a salesperson’s job is to disqualify non-buyers and focus all their energy on buyers. The fastest way to beat quota is to disqualify opportunities. Similarly, founders are looking for problems with their product. This requires engaging with frustrated customers and hearing the problems. Founders who can’t contend with the threats will ignore these opportunities and spend all their time with ‘happy’ customers.
Mapping a product onto a market is not an easy task. The product build process is dramatic and slow. There are two drivers to this. First is the communication problem along the specification discovery value chain. Second is the iterative nature of the build to feedback process. Both drivers are inescapable, and they are the cause for countless doomed mega startups. They are the reason most successful software stories start with several years of obscurity before hitting scale.
The specification discovery value chain is extremely long and complex. There is a product that exists in thought space that fits the defined customer culture perfectly; let’s call this the proper product. The collective of all customers in that culture know it, but no single person knows it. The more successful founders have lived the problem enough to know enough of it that they can get proper feedback.
Still though, even the most seasoned founder steeped in the problem will only build a shadow of the proper product. If this shadow is recognizable by the customers in the culture, then the feedback loop begins. However, the feedback loop requires communication.
It requires customers:
- Know what they want to say (not an easy task)
- Say it
Furthermore, it requires the founder:
- Knowing what customers to ask
- Hearing what they are saying.
This four-part challenge is impossible to execute perfectly and nearly all product problems come from a breakdown on one of these measures.
The feedback loop has one additional wrinkle: the technical development process. The founder must relay the proper product specifications to a group of engineers who will run the technical development process. These engineers rarely come from the industry and, therefore, have no context or knowledge of the nuances. Hence, another communication challenge emerges.
The founder must:
- Know the nuances and how they differ from other products.
- Explain them sufficiently to engineers.
The engineers must:
- Know to ask for clarity on the specifications.
- Build flexibility into the product for the inevitable recycle.
This iterative process is usually where products run by panels of customer experts fail.
The build process has an iterative nature. Specifications must be communicated, documented, planned, processed, scheduled, built, inspected, and then tested. These segmented functions take time and no amount of resources or hustle can overcome that. The startup graveyard is crowded with the corpses of mega-funded startups (usually funded by industry instead of institutional investors). These mega-funded startups (e.g., Quibi) ignore the amount of time required for this iterative process. Hence, the G&A burn against the dev output is unsustainable and the company burns through its cash while waiting for the product to complete.
Founders building a well-designed proper product must contend with existential problems. They must bolster themselves to look for the issues and ignore confirmation. Furthermore, they must get comfortable with slow results. If the processes are working and the founder is secure in their knowledge of the problem, then the task is to wait. This waiting isn’t easy, it is “where we hear our heart grate on itself.”
This article is an extract from a case study we published recently published titled “A Founder’s Journey Through Building a B2B SaaS Company“, written by Dougal Cameron that shares some of our experiences building startups and journeying towards meaningful exits.