When I'm out talking to people about business, technology or their start-up ideas, I get asked often why I think their idea hasn't taken off or gotten traction. Although I'm not a leading expert in the field of traction, what I can observe is that there seems to be an epidemic in Britain today with start-ups in general and that is the question of marketing vs. product development.
btw, when I talk about product I mean any type of physical or virtual product, and any type of service. Your product is just what you produce, whether that is a legal service or a digital platform for some purpose.
Let's define traction. Personally I see traction as a general acceptance of the market place for your product. IE you've obtained some degree of product to market fit. I don't classify traction as rate of growth, I see that as scaling rather than traction, after all if you've missed the mark completely with your product, then you'll have zero traction.
A start-up might not get traction for any number of reasons, from bad design, to poor manufacturing, to incorrect market segmentation, there are just a hundred different reasons why traction is not obtained.
Failure isn't because of traction, it's because of over marketing a product that is inherently flawed from the beginning.
The biggest failure that most start-up entrepreneurs face isn't getting investment, or getting skilled up, or finding service partners, or manufacturing a product. NO. The biggest failure that I come across time and time again is that the entrepreneur is trying to solve a problem that doesn't exist, or the problem is only a surface symptom of something deeper.
The trouble is, the epidemic I'm talking about happens way, way down the line when the product is out on the market, a product that is trying to solve a problem that doesn't exist, and money has been spent on production, design, development and everything else, is that the entrepreneur then tries to market the product to death in order to make things succeed.
In fact the whole time this is happening, the product was all together wrong in the first place. Britain has become a nation of marketers and advertisers, but we've stopped making great quality products.
When you think about it, it's no surprise really.
Let's go back a few hundred years, to the golden age of the British Empire and you can see that the nation was proud of making and consuming the highest quality products from all over the world. The British Empire was the cream of the crop as they say. We were a nation that revelled in glorious opulence and with that demands for the highest level of goods and services a gentleman could buy.
This though, was merely enjoyed by the upper classes of society, the wealthy and the aristocrats. As time progressed, demands from the lower classes meant finding a way to provide the same sorts of products and services to them, at lower costs. You see, Britain is a very small country in the global scheme of things, and the size of the upper class market could in no way compete with the demands of the majority lower classes, so suppliers had to adapt and service this new and emerging market.
As time moved on further, and we enter into the 20th century, industrialisation happened and that only served to accelerate what is happening today. Manufacturing became cheaper, then it moved offshore. When you move something offshore, it becomes 100x more difficult to maintain standards of production, especially when dealing with other countries and their production guidelines and laws.
Instead of making things better, we are making things worse, but the result is cheaper products. In fact together with other nations in the world, there was a white paper once produced amongst the world's greatest manufacturers about how they would all build in naturally degrading products that had expiration dates so that the economics of this way of production could be sustained.
That meant that washing machines made in 1950 would certainly have a longer lifespan than one made today. Products are made to break eventually. You buy a new product, get sold a 3-5 year warranty, 10yr if you are adventurous, and theoretically it won't break in that time period because that's how the products are made, to be able to withstand that time period. However, right after your warranty expires, guess what happens almost always within 6 months, the product starts to develop problems!
Fast forward to now
So, capture that mindset, that thought process of making substandard products, and bottle it up over 70 years.
Now you get the picture of how people in Britain think specifically, but just making substandard products isn't enough, if they don't sell, this model breaks down, which is what has been witnessed in the USA.
The USA adapted, they changed their mindset and instead of making sub standard products, they focused on excellence, part of the messaging of the American Dream. So what happened in the UK that meant we lost focus on excellence and just continued to have this 70yr mindset of mediocrity?
During this 70yr period, there were some outstanding examples of flourishing industries, industries that exploded because their products weren't about quality, but more likely opinion. These industries were that of literature, fashion and music.
What I mean by opinion driven products is for example, it doesn't matter if a band is not the best musicians in the world, as long as the public like their music. Same with fashion, it doesn't matter if the products were made from sub standard materials farmed in some third world country, as long as the fashion designer was liked enough. Same for literature, it doesn't matter if the grammar or use of English wasn't perfect, as long as the story and author was loved enough.
These are industries where sub standard isn't an issue. In fact in some rare cases, sub standard is even praised.
The influence of these 3 industries was far and wide and affected the entire country leading to lots of jobs, and many interesting services which helped to facilitate the growth of them. Advertising and marketing was one of these. In opinion driven industries, marketing is extremely important because it is all about communication, and more importantly the communication of the core messaging.
As a result of these growing industries, the UK became one of the leading countries in marketing and advertising, and in fact today we have probably the most skilled force in advertising. Imagine a blender mixing and merging all those creative ideas and thoughts from literature, music and fashion, together with the need to service the growing global demand and you get marketing agencies which are just the best in the world.
You can just take a look and compare UK TV advertising with the rest of the world and you'll soon see how sophisticated the messaging really is in the UK.
BUT, this has left us complacent. In fact I believe that it's given rise to a new kind of laziness which is the epidemic I was talking about at the beginning.
Entrepreneurs (and this is a generalisation), are on the whole in a mindset where they think it's ok to make a product that is only 80% decent and then use marketing and advertising to push it out. We've lost the attitude of excellence like we had in the days of the British Empire, where we did not rely on marketing, just on high quality goods.
Because our marketing and advertising skills are so great in this country, we generally see a lot of mediocre success, but never the dizzying heights of mega success we hear about from companies in the USA, whether that is in technology or otherwise.
It's not that we are lacking the skills, far from it, we have some of the best educational establishments in the world.
What we are lacking is that will to excel to create something that is excellent. The USA are now very good at this. If you look at the way they make things, you'll see a trend where they will literally take the attitude of excellence to the extreme. When you think about it, if you have an extremely high quality product, that will inevitably market itself.
I'm not saying I'm immune to this too, I too will suffer time to time by thinking about marketing activities when I know full well I should be concentrating on developing a better product.
I'm fortunate to be part of a great tech mastermind group in Tech City in London. Together we chat about our tech start-up issues and what seems to come up time and time again is that our products/services need to be improved to either be a better solution, or get clearer on the problem so that we can make a better solution.
I'm writing this post because I guess I see a lot of articles and ideas out there from people sharing ideas on how to become more successful, and a lot of them are valid, but often not valid at the right time. Some activities can only be done effectively, like marketing for scale, once you have the right product.
My message is simple, to every single reader of this post, go back to your business and develop a better product.
In the end, there is always a market for the best product in any given industry/space, but the market for a mediocre (maybe even good) product is always diminishing.