What are the most important advantages of a startup over more traditional big companies? Speed and agility. I know there are tons of books about how to create and grow a successful startup (some good and some very bad). As Mersive goes through the last frantic few days before launching a new product to our lineup – I feel like I am having a moment of clarity about the clear advantages of a startup that I thought I’d share, before the fog returns.
We will be bringing Solstice to market within a week. Solstice is based on ideas I had while I was a professor centered around the idea that displays should be a pervasive and shared infrastructure managed by software. In fact, the need for video cables would eventually disappear as network bandwidth and speeds increased, and prices for hardware-accelerated video encoding processors decreased. This observation was the basis for a project I directed with the National Science Foundation. For a part of that project, Mersive was able to lay the groundwork for a pixel streaming and shared media control architecture that is the core of Solstice. Of course, we were ahead of the market (the initial proposal to the NSF was written in 2006), but we kept the architecture updated as we grew our business around Mersive’s Sol product.
We waited until the market came to us (startups should never attempt to create a market – but I’ll save that for another post). As soon as it did, we began to transform concept and architecture into product in less than nine months. Over those nine months, we’ve been leveraging the top assets of a startup over competitors. You see, speed and agility are the two things large companies just can’t have. No matter how hard an established company tries to create a culture of speed and flexibility, other factors won’t let it happen, such as existing product lines, other sources of revenue, market reputation, current partnership agreements, and support models. Just determining how a new product will impact existing businesses may take a large company longer than it took us to build and deliver Solstice, so this is how we stay ahead.
Of course, if your startup has large company competitors, don’t write them off. You’re still the underdog. Their engineering resources, sales channels, marketing power and existing relationships vastly outweigh your own. That’s why, in the words of Sun Tsu, “It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles … if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.” It is important to sense when to move fast, change midstream, and pull-off the impossible.
In our case, the emergence of screen sharing applications, now backed by large companies like Apple (AirPlay) and NVIDIA (for putting the GPU in the cloud) sounded the start gun for our efforts to productize our Solstice technology. In May of 2012 we held a company meeting to go over what we had in mind and what had to be done to bring it to market. After a quick analysis, it was determined that it would take about 18 months to productize Solstice. I challenged our team to half that – to have Solstice ready for launch in nine months. I described the competitive products to the team and highlighted how our solution would be new, exciting and different. The one thing it couldn’t be was late to the party.
Hardware approximations similar to Solstice had already been announced by a few competitors. The products were incremental improvements to existing video switching hardware, and even though these systems had mixed reviews and limited functionality, they were selling. The market had arrived and it was time to use the main weapons in our arsenal – speed and agility.
In the next nine months, Mersive engineers slept near their desks. Marketing folks juggled 35 work programs at once. Business development efforts spun into high gear. All the while we continued to develop our Sol business. I have ate (airport food), slept (I have a Solstice product management notebook next to my bed for midnight thoughts), and lived Solstice nonstop for nine months straight. During that time I’ve met with a dozen Fortune 100 companies to capture their needs in the conference room, run pilot programs to get early feedback on the product, and iteratively re-designed the product at least three times from the ground up. We’ve lined up enterprise licensing and resellers. We’ve developed a launch program and built an amazing product. Of course, I am biased. I developed the concept, and I’d stack my employees up against the best companies in the world. Cage match anyone?
Did we develop a market requirements document first? No. Did we spend lots of time and money on market research? No. But we leveraged our existing customers, worked twice as hard, and flexibly changed the product to hit user needs on the fly. More importantly, we used our most valuable assets – speed and agility – to listen to the market and respond.
Of course, the proof is in the software. On February 28, the world will have access to a trial copy of Solstice for collaboration and sharing in the conference room. I guess we’ll know how well we’ve done based on the reaction of our customers. I know I’ll spend the evening of February 28 toasting our hard efforts, if not our success. Here’s to the underdog!