Always Listen to Your Customer
Doug Kondor, founder of Cyanic Automation joined the Rainforest to share with us his entrepreneurial journey, and a couple of learning.
Doug is a U of A CompSci grad, who's first job was at Matrikon, which was later acquired by Honeywell. This gave Doug many interesting projects to work on, including British Petroleum where he helped automate their processes. At one point, the VP of BP took the whole team out for lunch and asked them: "do you know why we are automating our processes?". People suggested reasons like efficiency, environmental impact reduction, reduce staff. The VP said that they have a lot of senior engineers leaving the company and they are taking knowledge with them. By centralizing and automating processes, they had the ability to maintain a knowledge database, even after the experienced engineers retire. This was a key learning for Doug, not only the need to maintain knowledge, but also the value of listening to your customer.
After Matrikon/Honeywell, Doug worked for a company called OPCTI was the next company that Doug worked for where he flew around the world and trained engineers and teams of people. The key learning here was that many organizations have not only information silos but also cultural silos which can create friction within organizations. A great example is that an IT professional will first try to solve an issue by "turning it off, and back on again". This approach simply doesn't work for an engineer who cannot shut off a major process that generates millions of dollars in revenue every hour.
Before Founding Cyanic Automation in 2014, Doug's first entrepreneurial venture was a local sprinkler company. Doug and his Co-Founder Mike left their employer honestly, as Doug called it, not taking any IP, customers, or employees with them. Although honesty is great, it did not put them in a position to hit the ground running. They had a great ambition to be cash flow positive from day one, eating only what they kill and not borrowing money to seek growth.
Like any company, they had many growing pains finding a good customer fit. "You want to be selling pain killers, not vitamins". As a company, you need to find a pain that you can solve which your client will be willing to buy, not a product like a vitamin that doesn't solve a pain. The pain that Cyanic solves is invoicing for companies with a large field staff where a lot of work gets done on pieces of paper, specifically getting these companies paid by managing the paperwork and ensuring nothing gets lost, paperwork is filed quickly, and clients get paid more quickly.
Recently, Cyanic has pivoted to "scratch their own itch". After providing a quote to a customer, there is a lengthy change order process before the final scope of work gets approved and the project can get invoiced and money collected. This is due largely to the cultural silos between sales, technical, and accounts receivable. They are looking to build a basic system that can compete with the various million dollar solutions currently available, and be a realistic option for smaller enterprise companies.
Some lessons learned as a startup:
- Tech conferences are great, but you need to be where your customers are, not where your competitors are
- You can attempt to solve your own issues, certainly, others will have it also. As a programmer, you are very skilled in solving problems but you might not be aware of problems that people want to be solved
- Your customers might take you in a lot of wild directions when you are making a product you need to make sure you are in control of the process and product. Henry Ford, had he listened to his customers, would have built a faster horse.
- When you are running a business, you can get lost in the weeds down in the details. Doug has a group of mentors that he goes to in order to get some time/space to think about big picture things and long-term strategy (he uses Debra Greig from Transformana, one of the great Rainforest volunteers!)
- Sometimes customers do not recognize that they have a specific problem which you solve. SPIN Selling is a book that Doug recommends to help with this specific issue. since you can't tell people things, they must come to a realization on their own. You can ask good questions to help a client quantify a specific problem and possibly realize that there is a problem at all. Hard selling just doesn't work anymore, especially for software-based solutions.