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I'd like a mulligan, please.

Updated: Apr 9

The Intelligent Tsunami (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0CXH5DDRP) is full of stories about great innovators who inspired their teams to create transformative innovations delivering enormous value. I know, though, that the stories many people like to read are about the train wrecks. We can't help but look. Here is one of my most painful entrepreneurial experiences.


Sometime after smoke signals went out of vogue, but before cell phones became ubiquitous, my angel group’s first investment was in Telemessaging Devices. They launched an innovative paging service called Quick Alert for monitoring alarm conditions, such as freezer temperature. When an alarm tripped, an eighty-character notification was sent to the user’s alphanumeric pager. 


Because these pagers were high-margin products for paging companies, our theory was that pager salespeople would be highly motivated to sell this new service to their customer base. In particular, we had our eye on DialPage, a large paging company where two members of Telemessaging Devices’ management team had previously worked and which had been a client of my accounting firm, Peat Marwick. 


Almost immediately upon launching Quick Alert, the company sold several large accounts. An automotive parts manufacturer used the device to monitor remote chillers critical to their manufacturing processes. This required new phone lines to be installed, which the customer was willing to do because of the critical importance of the equipment monitored. The customer was willing to pay upfront to provide Telemessaging Devices with the capital to acquire the needed parts. They even participated in producing the equipment operating manuals. 


A hospital customer used Quick Alert to monitor life-or-death code blue alarms. A water utility used it to monitor mission-critical pumps. In each case, the customer was willing to make an extra effort to be the first to use the service. That’s the definition of an Early Adopter customer. 


Telemessaging Devices hired a public relations firm to promote these initial successes. I was ecstatic that we got prominent front-page placements in several trade publications.


Unfortunately, all we heard were crickets. The Quick Alert service never gained momentum beyond a few isolated sales. Ecstasy turned to despair. Why couldn’t our company, with an initial base of highly credible customers, convert that momentum into large and growing revenue? 


Several months after the company ran out of cash and business ended, I read Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey Moore. It was as if he had been working in the office next to me. I made most of the mistakes he described. Each of the Quick Alert customers was an Early Adopter. Word-of-mouth never started among Mainstream Customers that the company had a complete solution for a job they needed to do. 


In retrospect, I let success slip through my fingers. This startup company did not have the resources to simultaneously complete the product for very different jobs. The company should have chosen the most compelling application from among its Early Adopter customers, simplifying a whole production solution to completely solve a problem that frustrated Mainstream Customers. We could have chosen, for example, the monitoring of critical, remote equipment like chillers in manufacturing plants. The other Early Adopter applications should have stayed on the shelf until after the first market beachhead was established.


Telemessaging Devices did not provide the capabilities necessary for the system to work. In picking the initial market beachhead, we should have ensured that Telemessaging Devices or a partner could provide 100% of everything required for the customer to use the product. Through partnerships with paging companies, an alarm message could be sent to a user’s pager. Early Adopters had been willing to go the extra mile to complete the solution, like installing a wired phone line. Mainstream Customers would not, which was Quick Alert’s Achilles heel.


We should have promoted the initial beachhead application hard to similar Mainstream Customers. Other potential customers who needed to do similar monitoring jobs would have found our early success compelling for them, too. They could have called our initial customer, who would have been a credible referral from a peer who had a similar problem. As our base of satisfied Mainstream Customers grew, word-of-mouth would have accelerated our sales. Then, we would have had the resources or would have been able to raise the capital to complete the solution for the next most compelling Mainstream application.


Instead, we promoted several disparate applications at once. Big, big mistake! Prospective customers may have found Quick Alert intriguing. They didn’t see how our diverse applications applied to them. So they turned the page of the magazines they were reading and never thought about Quick Alert again. 


Telemessaging Devices provided another important lesson. DialPage’s vice president of sales was enthusiastic about selling Quick Alert. He behaved like an Early Adopter because he was in line for a bonus or even a promotion if he took a risk on an innovative new product that succeeded. 


DialPage’s salesforce viewed the risk/reward trade-off much more like conservative, pragmatic, Mainstream Customers. Because early sales are hard to close, Telemessaging Devices should have been extremely cautious about launching a sales program for a new product if dinner for the salespeople's children was not dependent on successfully closing sales. The most rational salespeople we dealt with were soon off to easier sales that could more reliably provide for their families. At best, we should have used DialPage’s outside sales force to generate leads for our direct sales folks to do the heavy lifting to close.


Today, when I dine at many restaurants, they take my name and give me a pager to notify me when it is time to be seated. The companies that commercialized this application did what we didn’t but should have. They narrowed their focus to a Mainstream market beachhead and provided 100% of what it took to completely satisfy their customers. Receiving one of these pagers before dinner regularly humbles me. 


Telemessaging Devices had everything teed up to be successful. All I had to do was drive the ball into the center of the fairway. Unfortunately, I sliced my shot and lost the ball deep in the woods. Of all the crazy things I’ve been involved in, this is the one I’d most like a mulligan, please.


Read more stories in The Intelligent Tsunami

 

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John Warner

864-561-6609






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