The Finding your fit in the cloud
By Anoj Willy, Trace3 Cloud Practice Director
Upon telling the crowd he was expecting a third child, a comic asked, “do you know what that feels like? Imagine you’re drowning, and then someone hands you a baby.” Starting a business presents a similar quandary. You’ve got tons of things that are critical to accomplish, completely unreasonable odds, a bunch of screaming mouths to feed, and just when you’re about to execute, somebody throws up on everything.
While starting a new business is a challenge, building it within the walls of a successful one adds another dimension to the situation. Within a successful business there is inevitably an entrenched way of doing things: existing customers, built-in channels to market, and corporate fiefdoms with their own laws. Make no mistake, these are all assets to leverage. But to thrive you must learn their language and court their interest while simultaneously breaking the mold and challenging the status-quo. You do so at tremendous risk, but the cost of not doing this is far worse; your entire unit will be left to wither under the shade of the existing business, unable to make it’s own way, and ultimately its own decisions.
I joined Trace3 in early 2013 to create their cloud and IT-service strategy. Anyone familiar with Trace3 might remember us as a value-added-reseller (VAR). And Trace3 has one special thing going for it – it knows it’s going to die. More specifically, it knows the entire industry of VARs will be disrupted soon – and we could go with it. When I joined, Trace3’s rallying cry was “to be relevant in the post-var era.” In many ways it exhibits the makings of a real start-up – brilliant people, an incredible reputation for execution, and a strong entrepreneurial spirit. But most importantly it’s willing to take audacious risks even if it means cannibalizing its existing business.
We started developing a product we believed people loved and wanted – an integrated cloud-in-a-box and a strategy to modernize IT-services within an enterprise. And, no we didn’t lock ourselves up in a lab for months. We were well versed in the lean-startup methodology. We did some quick marketing, built a minimum-viable-product, and even got out of the building to “smoke test” the first pass. This is the equivalent of testing a concept with a screenshot or prototype before developing a working beta. Sure, we got nibbles here and there, but there was a gut feeling of things not working.
Our foray into the field was garnering interest from enterprise architects, but VPs or C-levels weren’t convinced. The decision-makers weren’t buying the solution and previous unwieldy cloud initiatives that ended poorly left them weary. We had started a cloud practice during the time Gartner dubbed this entire industry to be in the “trough of disillusionment.” People had spent millions on all things cloud and hadn’t realized the promised benefits. Many in our industry were getting bought up, and some, like Nirvanix a cloud storage provider, were just imploding. And here we were, just venturing out.
Then I had the first devastating fail. I had a great meeting with a director who sponsored a meeting with his executives. Very important executives. The meeting went terribly. One senior vice-president essentially told me “that wasn’t horrible, but it was very close to it. Come back when you have your academy award winning speech.” I’m not sure what kind of speech I was giving, but it obviously wasn’t making any waves at any academy. I needed to get back to the drawing board. We were still looking for our product-market fit. In a product centric company this is not the worst thing. You have a few of these missteps before you pivot or the message becomes clearer. But In a sales-centric VAR, it could be your death-knell. A black-eye can cause a lack of trust with sales teams who hold vital relationships with their customers.
Time to dig in and pivot. We knew cloud transformation required more than just technology; it required a change in the way IT was being delivered. But that wasn’t enough. With such a massive proposition in front of them, most customers got stuck in unending analysis leading to indecision, or worse, a crisis that required a shoot-from-the-hip decision. A cloud initiative is a high-visibility project, and failure could cost an executive their position. We needed a way for customers to engage in a manner that dramatically lowered that risk while providing a path to becoming a modernized IT-service provider.
Then a second devastating blow. My chief technologist told me he was leaving for another start-up. One that was getting funding from KKR, a venture capital firm chaired by General Petreaus, former head of the CIA. Time to cry.
It took me a long time to realize this, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. We had a technology-driven strategy and our product-market fit was leaning toward more of a consultant-driven one. Trace3 was still a VAR. As a company, knowing we wanted to change was one thing, executing was entirely another. As a unit we had to create the opportunity to prove ourselves to both sales teams and customers before our runway was up. A traditional software product could not be developed or taken to market in that amount of time. At this point I sought out a star player I had worked with previously who epitomized the difference between a good vs. great team member. He was able to come in and instantly add to the momentum of the team from both the sales and delivery sides. He understood what it took to build a practice and, more importantly, within the context of the VAR.
With new blood we set out to develop and deliver a group of products more educational in nature. We launched a product that resonated with clients and with it, captured more than twenty clients in a short three-month period. Awesome. The first few were offered up for free to gain momentum and feedback. But by consistently delivering more than people expected, we gained more market share and eventually charged market value. Throughout, we added, pivoted, persevered, merged, and often abandoned ideas. Always with the goal of making a better product. With momentum gaining steadily the next challenge is scaling while continuing to evolve and add quality to our existing offerings. I’ll save that for my next post.
I spoke at Evolve 2014, our company’s main conference and unbeknownst to me, that SVP was in attendance. We met afterward, and while I don’t remember the exact words she said something like “now you have your academy award winning speech.” Or more likely “that wasn’t as horrible.” Nonetheless, it was vindication – our practice had come a long way.
Starting something from a blank piece of paper is incredibly challenging and exhausting – much like having three kids can be. But I can never complain about that. Mainly because the CEO of our company actually has four kids, and runs more than one business. But let’s not waste time trying to make sense of that one. The point is: if you can help your customer evolve their experience with your company, that’s a great start. But if you can turn that into something meaningful for their company, something transformative happens to all involved that endures beyond just an engagement.
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