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BEWARE OF THE WORD “INTERESTING”

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by Evan Shore

Towards the end of our conversation, Jeff Immelt patted me on the back and said, “Interesting.” After I probed further, he continued, “It’s a good idea, and I think I can see the benefit. I just need to think more about it.” I wondered, as I did during the past several conversations with potential customers, how I could advance from hearing “interesting” to “interested.”

CONTEXT: CUSTOMER DISCOVERY INTERVIEWS

Several months ago, I set out on a quest to understand the specific pain-points that corporations face when it comes to Innovation. I interviewed the CEOs and C-Suite executives of over 40 companies. Most executives identified the same problem: “The single greatest challenge for us is identifying and executing innovations outside the boundaries of our business models.”

I had a vision for a new type of open innovation intermediary that stemmed from my exposure to IDEO, Innocentive, Gen3 Partners, contests like GE’s Ecomagination Challenge, and other platforms that enable corporations to externally-source ideas and IP/technology. I hypothesized that implementation, not ideas, was the main hurdle that corporations faced. I envisioned an intermediary that would enable corporations to use open innovation techniques to effectively crowd-source the execution of new businesses (not just ideas) that fall outside the scope of their capabilities and focus. This is the idea that Jeff Immelt thought was so “interesting.”

WHAT DOES THE WORD “INTERESTING” MEAN?

Interesting means you have not yet found product-market fit. Someone on the GE team commented, “Interesting means it just passed the laugh test.” It means “intellectually stimulating, but I don’t feel in my gut exactly how this applies to me.” If you hear the word, your idea resonates logically with your audience and is likely a novel idea, but they are still processing the information in their heads. You are not speaking with a “mission-critical” customer desperate for your solution, and the value proposition of your offering is not yet specific, tangible, and easy to blend into the audience’s current way of doing things.

WHEN POTENTIAL CUSTOMERS SAY INTERESTING…

1) Check to see if you are speaking with the right person.

In some cases, I was not speaking with the people directly responsible for innovation or growth strategy. Therefore, they did not feel pain points directly, and our conversations occurred just on an intellectual level.

2) Pivot using the Innovator’s Cube.

Three things must be aligned to achieve product-market fit:

  1. A firm understanding of the problem-to-solve (pain points)
  2. Specific selection of customers (ranked on degree of problem severity)
  3. Products/services with a clear value proposition specifically addressing these problems

The word “interesting” indicates that you have not yet found the right box on the Innovator’s Cube:

3) Target different customers or segment your customers more specifically, looking for indications of “must-have” rather than “nice-to-have.”

At first, I did not know who my initial customers would be. I actually started to characterize firms based on whether the word “interesting” was said in the interview.

I discovered that the degree to which customers 1) have a problem, 2) realize they have the problem, 3) are actively looking for a solution, or 4) have access to a solution depends largely on both their size and stage in the lifecycle of their product(s). Fast-growing entrepreneurial firms were so focused on growing their core that they did not recognize any problems. Larger firms generally had the capabilities to manage multiple business units and therefore execute out-of-the-box businesses through Clayton Christensen’s “Innovator’s Solution” (create a separate business unit to explore new territories). The only potential customers who did not say “Interesting,” but rather “Got it. I need this” were those who managed mid-sized firms with declining growth. I hypothesized that because these firms did not have the experience or bandwidth to set up their own “separate group,” these firms would be the “earlyvangelists” for whom Crowd-Sourcing the Innovator’s Solution would be “mission critical.”

4) Probe deeper for customers’ pain points.

“Interesting” means the person does not see how your product fits with their needs. I found that asking CEOs to tell stories about their experiences with out-of-the-box innovation was a helpful way to initially define pain points, and later to qualify potential customers. I usually heard “interesting” when customer needs did not match up with my product vision. After hearing “interesting,” I knew I could gain valuable information that could be useful not only in selling to them later on, but also in determining if they had any “must have” pain points that I could address with a different product.

5) Ask for their concerns.

Even if the product does address their specific pain points, potential customers might say the word “interesting” if they perceive that the proposed solution may create secondary, undesirable consequences.

Some sources of resistance that I encountered involved: IP protection, cultural and organizational barriers to open innovation (e.g., not-invented-here syndrome), the potential to reveal strategically-sensitive information to competitors, an unwillingness to allocate time or resources on initiatives outside the core businesses, an insular sense that “we are already innovative,” a value-claiming mindset resistant to sharing some value with other players in order to grow the pie, and whether corporations have the vision to tightly define out-of-the-box problems for others to solve. All of these issues were usually resolved after additional discussion but may have accounted for the high frequency of the word “interesting.”

6) Refine your product vision, and build a prototype.

Eric Ries said, “You should sell your product before you build it.” However, simply describing my product verbally resulted in a number of “interesting” responses, as people had difficulty envisioning the product. I built prototypes to communicate the vision more tangibly. As I learned more about potential customers’ pain points and probed into their objections (i.e., why my product does not solve their problems), I pivoted around different product permutations.

Three of the four iterations of my product vision included:

  1. An incubator for corporate innovations,
  2. A website that aggregates corporate contests (such as GE’s Ecomagination Challenge and Avery Dennison’s website for idea submissions), and
  3. A consulting firm that facilitates Collaborative Innovation among corporate clients, entrepreneurs, and other institutions (discussed below).

Presenting these ideas using websites and PowerPoint decks provided valuable conversation pieces for my interviews.

Each product iteration had its own set of hypotheses about how to solve problems for particular customers. For example, the contest aggregator solves the problem that smaller corporations may face of not garnering enough participation/awareness for their innovation challenges (in addition to the overarching Innovator’s Dilemma problem). GE does not feel this pain point acutely because it has the prestige and size to garner enough submissions for its Ecomagination Challenge. Therefore, Jeff Immelt’s reaction to this particular idea was that it is “interesting.” By contrast, some of the smaller firms I spoke with said, “My firm is facing this exact issue. I like this a lot.”

WHEN POTENTIAL CORPORATE PARTNERS SAY INTERESTING…

The hurdle to overcome “interesting” when pursuing partnerships is much higher than attracting initial customers, because it is not their problem that you are trying to solve. Instead, potential partners view the partnership as a potential opportunity, rather than the resolution of a pain point.

1) The proposed business model must fit snugly into the operations of the potential partner.

I pitched one of the large consulting companies to start its Collaborative Innovation Practice based on this concept. The business model I had initially envisioned conflicted with its fee-for-service consulting model, and I heard the word “interesting” in my initial meeting. It was tempting to remain firm with my product vision, but I felt it was important to leverage the firm’s client base and saw alternative models for implementation. I pivoted the product concept to still deliver on the desired customer value proposition, but in line with the consulting firm’s business model. I did not hear the word “interesting” in my next meeting and the idea is now gaining internal momentum.

2) There is a higher hurdle for minimum viable product quality. The final presentation to senior management of the consulting firm included a fully-baked plan for implementation, including exact service offerings, points of accountability within the firm, and expected client pricing structures. This hurdle could potentially limit the ability to pivot once approved internally but was necessary in order to have a chance of implementation.

3) Involve a champion at the partner firm whose role and personal motivations are aligned with your business.

I involved someone very early on in the process who had credibility with senior management, knew how to navigate the politics of the firm, and whose interests were fully aligned.

 

I would appreciate your feedback on this blog post, as long as you do not tell me it is “interesting.”

 

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2 Responses

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  1. Loved this post!! Lots of people thought my idea was “interesting” but I realize in hindsight (as you state in your post) that that is NOT product-market fit!

    Sunil Nagaraj

    October 22, 2011 at 5:37 pm

    • Thanks Sunil! What are you up to these days? I remember when you visited my class at HBS 🙂

      evanshore

      April 21, 2012 at 3:23 pm


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