I often coach organizations to beware of having a customer centric roadmap, and when I first bring that up I receive a good deal of pushback. Actually, I generally get looks of astonishment or looks of regret that they brought someone that will advise that into their company. The comments are generally in the lines of “aren’t we supposed to be listening to our customers?” or “how can we not focus on what our customers need, we will lose them otherwise”.

Here’s the deal, I never say don’t listen to your customers, that is absolutely critical. Your current customers have very valuable insight about what’s good about your product, what’s missing and what drives them crazy, and by all means that feedback is important for roadmap development.

What I mean by avoiding a customer centric roadmap is to make sure you aren’t ONLY listening to your current customers. That can actually be very dangerous for the longevity of a product/company, particularly startups that land a few big customers and become “captive” to their every need in order to keep them onboard. It’s great to have a marquee names, but the big guys feel they own your roadmap once they have given you the business and it is critical to manage their requirements vs broader market requirements.

In a time when competitive differentiation can be very short lived, it is extremely important to continuously analyze the trends in the broader market arena as well as competitive offerings, and it is absolutely critical to listen to targets that are not yet customers.

Does your company have a practice of going back and evaluating lost deals in order to determine why a seemingly perfect prospect didn’t purchase? Does your product marketing team interview those customers, or at the very least the sales team? There is a wealth of information to glean from a lost sale- whether you lost to a competitor, budget constraints or just pure lack of action, there is a lot of information about what is not compelling customers to buy in those lost or delayed deals.

Does your marketing group consistently attend industry events, monitor the media, talk to analysts and end users about what is happening in your arena? Does your company have a practice of evaluating all the info gathered to determine if a shift in the roadmap is required to meet new competitive threats? There are far too many examples of companies losing traction by not recognizing competition coming at them from a different direction because their current customers weren’t asking for specific features- probably because they just didn’t know they wanted them just yet (RIM not understanding the impact of the iPod introduction is the most obvious example).

Bottom line, in order to stay ahead your team needs to constantly be asking questions, analyzing trends and paying attention to the whole market arena, not just the customers that are already on board. It is a balancing act keeping existing customers happy with new feature functionality while ensuring the roadmap also anticipates market shifts and competitive threats- but it is critical for success.

Last week I talked about what strategic marketing was all about- this week I review my perspective on how to create a great strategic marketing plSo is Strategic Marketing just for start- ups? Absolutely not!  Every business should have a strategic marketing plan, for each product line, with a comprehensive go to market plan for each individual product in the portfolio. The strategic plan drives product marketing requirements, which in turn drive development implementation. The strategic plan also drives all company/product branding and positioning, product messaging, channel strategy and finally the tactical go to market plan (that Mar-com gets to deliver).

Developing the Strategic Marketing Plan is the responsibility of the CMO or VP of Marketing however it is by no means developed in a vacuum. There should always be multiple disciplines represented during the planning phase including the CEO, CFO, and the heads of marketing, business development, sales and product development. (In larger companies the CEO/CFO roles may be taken by other executive management such as business unit heads and the corresponding finance personnel, and plans may be done on a geographic basis with sales management).

Why have all these people involved in creating a marketing plan? Because the strategic marketing plan needs to support the financial goals of the business, and therefore those need to be understood and agreed upon. It has to take into account what the product team can and cannot deliver, and the timeframes for various product releases (and of course has to account for delays). The plan needs to be created with a realistic budget in mind.  The sales organization has to be capable of selling what is being delivered. Business Development must be able to engage the appropriate partners if needed.  And of course everyone needs to understand the true market and competitive landscape.

The best way to get to a great Strategic Marketing Plan is to start with a deep look at the business objectives. This is best accomplished in face to face meetings with the heads of each organizational discipline. Review the company/business unit revenue goals over the next 3 to 5 years. Determine the goals for revenue mix (product, maintenance, services etc) and channel contribution. Review market and competitive landscapes and determine core target markets.

Take a hard look at the strengths and weaknesses of the business in a holistic manner (product value, development capabilities, messaging, channel, sales execution) to determine if there are operational gaps preventing success (yes this is done for a strategic marketing plan, if a company does not have the development resources to compete against the 800 pound gorilla then rethink the target market and product requirements. Remember, the Strategic Business Plan and Strategic Marketing plan go hand in hand or are one in the same, there is no effective go to market plan without operational alignment).

Once the business “fundamentals” and goals are understood and agreed upon, a brainstorming session is a great way to get multiple people in the organization together to come up with the actions required to reach those goals. Bringing in a third party to moderate the session can make these meetings more successful, the team will be more open than if their manager is asking for suggestions as no one wants to imply the manager isn’t doing the right things already.

The end result of these two exercises is a clear set of organizational goals, a set of requirements from each operational organization (product marketing, development, Marketing, sales) and an outline of actions required to meet those goals. The core value propositions and general messaging also fall out of these meetings. The actual wording will be left to marketing, but the reason to have everyone in the room coming up with these ideas and messages is so everyone across the organization is aligned and working toward the same goals.

Once all this is done THEN a strategic marketing plan can be created. 

This was an opinion piece I wrote a few years ago that was published in Storage Newsletter, the original article talked about why start-ups fail and provided a long list of those no longer in business- this was my response.

This is interesting for me as I spent many years as an analyst, trying to help many of the companies on the list be successful and so I could comment away on what makes a company fail ... but we have to talk about what makes one succeed. So rather than just saying - don't do the typical start-up things (like build up your sales force too fast, make the mistake of thinking no one can catch your technology lead or be too arrogant that you annoy the big guys who then find it amusing to crush you)... I'll go with these tips:

Regardless of how much funding you have, run the business like it is your own - like it's your own personal checkbook that you are writing the checks out of. The CFO should have as much if not more say on what expenses get approved as anyone else on the executive team. Assume that money needs to last through multiple iterations of product and go-to-market strategy before you get it "right".
Managing marketing expenses is critical as this can be a huge drain on the budget - a great deal of funding can go out the door when a start-up tries to act as big as the big guys  with large trade show booths, advertising, give aways and costly marketing campaigns. While you need to reach a broad audience, there are many more cost effective ways to get customers attention than having a booth right next to EMC on the show floor or giving away cars. Many smaller, focused events/venues/web promotions can go a long way - especially if you truly do have a unique solution.

Be very careful of big name partnerships and bus dev opportunities. It is always great to say "we are partnered with the 800 pound gorilla", but realize those big companies know how to negotiate the hell out of a deal - many start-ups end up sinking tons of resources into making the product fit the partners needs only to end up making next to nothing for margin in the long run. Make sure the financials make sense in any kind of resale or OEM agreement before you go too far down the path of investment in the partnership.
Be willing to say no to the customer. A lot of small companies will land a big name customer, and then feel captive to that customer ... next thing you know the roadmap is not market driven but driven by a handful of installed base customers. This is a perfect way to let the competition sneak up and take over ... by taking your eye off the broader market.
The converse of this tip is never think you don't have to continue innovating. You may have a great idea, and yes yours is the only technology like it on the market- but not for long. VCs will fund competitors with slight better ideas or a more experienced management team, and the big guys can afford to throw resources at the technology. Always keep innovating.
Be flexible - you may need to change up everything almost on the fly. Realize your first attempt might not work, you might need to change the sales model, you might need to change the market message (think storage virtualization, at first no one understood what it was ... when they changed from "we virtualize storage" to "our technology lets you replicate from an expensive array to a cheaper one" the market changed completely). You have to be willing to innovate and change on every level to find what works in the market.

Nancy is a seasoned sales and marketing executive, with over 25 years' experience in the storage, communications, and networking industries. Prior to taking on the role of CEO, Nancy joined Bocada as VP of marketing and strategy. Previously she was Senior Director of Storage Software marketing for Sun Microsystems. Before Sun, she was a Senior Analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group where she provided consulting to vendors in the storage software and infrastructure markets. Prior to that, she served as the WW Strategic Planning Manager for Tektronix Communications Test Group and was with HP for ten years in various senior sales and marketing roles. Nancy holds a B.S.E.E. from Syracuse University.

I have been in sales and marketing my entire career, and while I was the CEO of a VC funded software company for the last 5 years I feel my primary expertise is in strategic marketing.

Having been in both sales and marketing, I can attest to the fact that marketing teams very often get dismissed by sales as not providing much value, particularly in larger organizations. The problem is, most sales people generally interact with the marketing communications (Mar-com) teams, who are really just the messengers. Mar-com teams rarely create the messages and collateral being delivered, and definitely do not contribute to the product requirements documents (PRDs) that determine what products come to market.  So it’s unfair to blame Mar-com if the message doesn’t connect with the customer or if the product doesn’t deliver what the data sheet promises.

Often the core problem lies way up the chain, with an executive management team that doesn’t take the time to create an effective Strategic Marketing Plan.

Well before trade shows are attended, or collateral is created, or the development team starts to code or design, there must be a Strategic Marketing Plan in place that all parties must execute against.  The plan has to align with the needs of the business while ensuring what is built and sold connects with customer needs. “If you build it they will come” is a nice theme for a baseball movie, but it generally does not work in business.

Think about a start-up company. Before an investor will fund the start-up they want to know the strategic business plan. Some key questions they ask:  What is the target market? What is the competitive landscape? How much revenue can the company generate in 1, 3, 5, 10 years?  How will the product be taken to market?  What is the channel (direct, VAR, OEM)? What are the risks?

But the most important question is: Why will customers want to buy your product over other solutions on the market- or asked in another way- What is the unique value proposition?

Rarely will a company get funded unless they know all of the answers to those questions and they can prove they have a unique value proposition. And the only way they can answer all those questions, is if they have done market research, competitive analysis, go to market analysis, SWOT (strength, weakness, opportunity and threat) analysis and most of all, message a compelling value proposition that connects to the audience.

This requires Strategic Marketing Analysis & Planning. One can also call it business planning, but there is so much “marketing” in the plan that it is impossible to separate a business analysis from a market analysis and that is the point. Strategic Marketing is absolutely critical to the success of the business.