It is no doubt that the African entrepreneurship space (tech and non-tech) is quite different in terms of problems-being-solved, ideologies and suitable business models from, say, its Silicon Valley counterpart. Many startups have been butted out of the game due to their lack of understanding on this most important issue. However, as different as these
It is no doubt that the African entrepreneurship space (tech and non-tech) is quite different in terms of problems-being-solved, ideologies and suitable business models from, say, its Silicon Valley counterpart. Many startups have been butted out of the game due to their lack of understanding on this most important issue.
However, as different as these two entrepreneurship spaces are, there are certain universal gridlock, entrepreneurs, irrespective of their valley (Silicon, Yabacon, Kenyacon or whatever.) tend to fall into while building their startups. One of such is the media-darling syndrome.
African startups have been known to be notorious for this. They amplify, throw big words and numbers around that mean nothing, except that it helps them generate media buzz. Media buzz that could well become counterproductive as in the case of this startup founder:
In 1997, my company debuted a product, the AUTO TASER — was designed to end car theft as we knew it. During the mid-1990s, car theft was an enormous public problem, and we thought we had built a brilliant solution.
We weren’t the only ones who thought so. Though we had only built a prototype, the AUTO TASER still thrilled the crowds. Reporters fought among themselves to write about the product. Conference-goers lined up see it. Sharper Image announced they wanted us for their catalog, and Pep Boys, the largest mass retailer in the market, wanted it for their stores. We were even recognized as one of the top innovations that year, which is saying something when you remember that a then little-known video technology called “DVD” debuted at the same event.
The DVD, though, had the last laugh. The AUTO TASER — the darling of the conference, the envy of the competition, the tool that would end car theft forever — was a cataclysmic flop. Less than a few thousand devices ever shipped. The boxes of unsold inventory stacked up in our warehouse — millions of dollars worth — physical testimony to our overconfidence. The company’s finances were in tatters. My team was exhausted, and I, the CEO, was crushed.
How could this have happened? Hadn’t we conquered and generated hype?
Yes, we had. And that’s precisely why we missed the product’s failures. Beware of hype. When you get media attention, you have answered a question: Am I interesting enough to be worthy of media coverage? That can be an important thing. But it doesn’t automatically follow that you have an answer to the more important question: Have I made a useful enough product that people will pay good money for it?
Most people chase hype and press because they’ve never had it, and because they’ve never had it, they assume it will be the silver bullet for their business. It’s not true. First-time entrepreneurs in particular can fall into the trap of chasing awards and headlines. They are the easiest way to put to bed the fear you have: that your company, your ideas, and your products may be worthless.
Real entrepreneurs know that fear well. It’s what keeps you up at night; it’s what causes your stomach to churn. And a good headline or a plum award can keep that feeling at bay for a little while. You have at least one voice saying, “This thing you made is great!”
But it’s more often an anesthetic feeling than an actual indication of product-market fit. (Ask yourself: What’s the last product you bought because it won an award at Techcrunch Disrupt?) The truth is, if we had spent more time focusing on the AUTO TASER as a product and less time focusing on it as media bait, we probably would have discovered its weaknesses. We should have gone through the grind: testing the product relentlessly, studying the market for it carefully, and deploying it to that market strategically. Instead, we chased recognition — and the product suffered for it.
Reporters aren’t the ones buying your product; and even if they’re read by lots of people, those people aren’t necessarily your customers. In fact, products that make for great news stories may gain their media appeal from weird oddities that make them newsworthy — but those same oddities may actually be off-putting to real customers. (Remember the Segway?)
This happened with the AUTO TASER. Pep Boys store managers told us excitedly, “This is the most exciting product we’ve ever had — people are bringing their friends into the stores just to see it!” Here’s what they weren’t saying: People were coming to see the product the same way they go to see a bearded lady at a circus — as an object of curious fascination.
There’s a certain amount of spectacle baked into any product, but the problem with chasing news stories and conference acclaim is that you tend to prioritize the spectacle over the substance. Especially in an era of flashy headlines and media companies eager to publish, it’s easier than ever to get a winning story about your product — and then watch the actual sales tank.
We learned our lessons. We quietly developed a much more boring product that actually worked as advertised. That product was the M26 TASER. It solved a key problem for police customers: incapacitating the most violent, dangerous subjects. And solving that one problem propelled us to profitability, an IPO, and to a billion dollar plus valuation.
Instead of pursuing a big launch or a splashy ad campaign, we hit the road and found actual customers. We did old fashioned demos in front of small groups, and we listened to them as they gave us feedback. We chased zero press — but when the product started succeeding, the press came to us. At this point, we were ready for it, and we were mentally ready to keep all the attention in perspective.
If you are an entrepreneur, that’s the best way to treat press and praise: keep it in perspective. Be careful of the laurels you are chasing only because they scratch your ego or validate your theories. The more important work — the grunt work — is when you get people to actually buy whatever it is you’re selling. Stay focused on that, and you’ll find the road to the headlines is easier than you think. Staying above the fray, somewhat counter-intuitively, could ensure that the story of your product ends up above the fold.
Rick Smith is the CEO and Founder of TASER International. He is a graduate of Harvard University and the University of Chicago and lives in Arizona. His post first appeared here