How I Got Over My Fears About Starting My Company When the company I was selling for put itself up for sale, I had a choice to make.
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Fear traps many would-be entrepreneurs into a stalled world of what-ifs. For me, fear became a great motivator -- when your life depends upon it, the motivation just shows up.
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When I started Inbenta, there were no investors in Spain, and there was no system in place for raising money. Without working capital, I started my business the only way I could: selling and implementing someone else's technology. This option gave me the brand, the credibility and the capital that I lacked. But, I soon learned, not having your own technology brings limitations.
The first obstacle, I learned, is how little control you have over someone else's technology. The second came when the company I was selling for announced that it was selling the company. This announcement created a very big problem for me. I felt an emotional tie to my customers and felt committed to ensuring them success with this technology. I think a bond like this develops quite easily when you are implementing a technology for a customer -- you are sharing the same objectives with them, so solving their problems becomes your goal. Thus, it was excruciating for me when the company began telling these customers that the company was for sale.
I had also been steadily recruiting and coaching a core group of technologists who specialized in search and computational linguists. I had no idea if the new company would even have any need for us. At the same time, Spain was facing an extreme financial crisis, and business was very uncertain. So, it was unclear if I was even able to continue to be a reseller. Should I let this team of consultants go? Or did we have the talent and knowledge to create an entirely new technology?
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Solving your problem usually involves solving your customer's problem.
One of the challenges that comes with creating a new technology is that each customer is unique. They each have their own histories, markets and legacy systems -- each enterprise is a complex animal. Building a technology that solves one customer's specific problem may not be a solution that you can sell over and over again to other customers. We knew that to be successful, we had to focus on what the customers needed, and not something that would be the easiest for us to build. We had to fill a need. The key question for Inbenta was, could we build a technology that solves a problem that can be resold?
I felt a great deal of pressure on me to sell something to someone. I finally realized that the way to solve my problem was to solve my customers' problems. That was Inbenta's pivotal moment -- when I realized that the team I built could and should develop our own artificial intelligence solution. We pivoted from being a value-added reseller to a software-as-a-service company.
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When you're unknown, believe you're stronger than the big names.
But, the solution was not so simple, and combined with the financial crisis in Spain, this was a particularly scary time for me. I was legally bound by an 18-month non-compete clause with the other company. For the next 18 months, I was required to continue to provide implementation support to the customers I sold the previous technology to, but I was prohibited from selling our new technology to them. I spent this time building a new customer base from scratch for Inbenta while continuing to support the former customers.
I did have a pipeline of potential customers, who had not yet signed a contract with the previous company. These customers, of course, had doubts about a new company that had an unproven technology. Without proof, how did they know the technology was going to work?
Fear stalked me every step of the way. For any unknown company, you know that you are competing against the big players, and the customers know you're an unproven player. One way I overcame my own perception of feeling inferior was to continue to focus on the customer's problem. Customers will always want a technology that is known over yours, but if you can show them that you understand their business, and you know their problems, you can overcome "imposter syndrom." As an outsider, this perspective gave me the most critical perception of all. It's easy to develop an inferiority complex. But, you have to swallow your fear, go out there and believe that you are stronger than all of the other big corporations out there. Nobody else will believe you unless you believe it.
One of our first customers was a risk taker. He became our champion. In fact, he has moved to three other companies since we first started working with him, and he took us with him to each company. He was, and still is, one of our best customers.
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Having no safe option became our opportunity.
The exact day after the 18-month contract expired, I visited the customers I'd been working with at the previous company and said, "I have an alternative for you." Now those customers had to make a choice they really didn't want to make. They could stay with the existing technology, but they would have a new support team. The other option was to go with the new technology and use the support team they already knew and trusted. They didn't have a safe option.
In the end, all those companies eventually signed new contracts with Inbenta. It did not happen all at once, as some were bound by contracts they had signed with the previous company. But, ultimately, they all became our customers.
Thinking the way customers think was critical.
Looking back, I believe our clear advantage was our service. I was obsessed with trying to put myself in my customers' shoes. Their job is very hard because they are trying to please a boss who is demanding results, they need to support their customers and they're concerned about safety. All of these facets are a part of their technology problem, and selling to them is about thinking about their problems, and how you can help them.
If I could get into a time capsule, and give myself some advice, I would say, do this, but do it sooner. Don't wait. Trust yourself. The sooner, the better.
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