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The customer is your friend

By Leo Valiquette

Despite common misperception, Ottawa is home to entrepreneurs seasoned in the school of hard knocks who understand that the road to success is more often paved with customer interaction than it is by venture capital dollars or a preoccupation with product development behind closed doors.

Jay Litkey is one such entrepreneur. He took centre stage last week (or at least, the centre of the boardroom floor) at the last Startup Drop-in of the season at the offices of Labarge Weinstein.

Jay is co-founder and CEO of Embotics, a company he and the management team built from the ashes of Symbium, which met its end after a venture capital deal went sour a few minutes past the 11th hour.

Embotics has a relatively simple value proposition. As virtualization becomes more and more popular in the server farms of large organizations, it can be a challenge to efficiently manage it. Embotics’ V-Commander product helps organizations manage and monitor their virtual machines (VMs).

As Jay summed it up in an interview with the OBJ last fall:

“With the products of companies like Microsoft and VMWare, all you have to do is click a button and create a new server, and that leads to what is called ‘virtual machine sprawl,’” he said. “There’s exponential growth in the number of servers since you no longer have to buy a physical computer (to deploy a new server), and that’s a bad thing for enterprises when they can’t know who did what and what’s happening.”

Clear market, clear value proposition. The trick for Embotics has been keeping its cards close to its chest while the market matured enough for there to be substantial demand for its product. Before v1.0 of V-Commander became commercially available last fall, it was in beta with large enterprises in key verticals such as pharmaceutical, telecommunications, internet hosting, financial services and manufacturing sectors. With v2.0, the company is again taking that beta approach.

And as Jay emphasized this week, that kind of customer engagement throughout the product-development cycle is key. There is no other way to get the pulse of your market and understand whether or not your product addresses the right pain points and offers the features most valued by potential customers.

From the perspective of what we do here at inmedia, at some point that would likely involve a calculated public relations campaign targeted at those key trade media that reach these potential customers. And nothing gives the story more punch than testimonials from existing customers, but I digress.

Coming back to what Jay had to say, to drive a product through from idea to market adoption, he offered the following points:

1. Your first great idea is always full of holes. The sooner you can accept that and the more willing you are to seek out and absorb candid feedback and criticism, the quicker you’ll move ahead. So be humble.

2. Customer feedback is the only sure way to find out where you’re wrong, which means that …

3. Your focus out of the gate should be on customer interaction, rather than chasing VC dollars. Nothing gets the attention of investors faster than early traction with potential customers. (Embotics, by the way, has no VC investment.)

4. Adopt a philosophy that’s been evangelized by the titans in the Valley—fast failure. Failure is the path to wisdom and insight. Countless corporate icons have an impressive list of failures to their credit.

Perhaps you agree with Jay, perhaps you don’t. Feel free to comment one way or the other. What’s important is that there is dialogue in the local community on how to grow successful companies in Ottawa. What works, what doesn’t and what can we try next.

But I wholeheartedly agree with Jay — the primary focus out of the gate must always be on the end user, the customer. Product development for its own sake has no place in private enterprise. Engineers in the Valley get that and appreciate the value of early customer engagement. It’s the difference between being product or service focused, between saying “I have a product you should buy,” or “I have this solution to your problem. “ As long as we remain product-focused, the outlook for this region’s tech economy will be uncertain at best.

Fighting the ground war

By Leo Valiquette

Nothing develops deeper familiarity with the lay of the land than on-the-ground reconnaissance, a truth that was impressed upon me over the weekend.

Last week I spent several days in Atlanta with one of our clients, Touch Bionics, maker of the world’s first fully articulating prosthetic hand, the i-LIMB. We were attending the annual conference of the Amputee Coalition of America.

Now, in the two months since I joined inmedia Public Relations, I’ve been familiarizing myself with, and working fairly extensively on, the Touch Bionics account. In fact, it’s the first client account with which I was involved. My second week with inmedia was spent on a road trip to the U.K. that included a stop at Touch Bionics’ corporate headquarters in Livingston, Scotland. I’ve worked on media lists for Touch Bionics, coordinated media opportunities, including a live segment taking place this morning on the CBS Early Show, interviewed i-LIMB users and written profiles from those interviews.

It’s been a hands-on learning experience, but hardly exhaustive. In fact, spending a few days at the conference in Atlanta, where I could speak with other prosthetic manufacturers, distributors, amputees and clinicians and see the i-LIMB in use, provided insight and context to match, even exceed, everything I had learned in the preceding two months. It’s an invaluable experience that has dramatically increased my understanding of the Touch Bionics story, the competitive market landscape and the amputee community.

Most importantly, and this was my primary reason for going down there, it’s allowed me to cultivate face-to-face connections with new media channels beyond the obvious ones. It’s intelligence that could only have been garnered on the ground.

There are a lot of PR shops out there that lure their prospective clients with lines like, “Well, we already have all these contacts,” or, “We have all these existing relationships” with the key trade or industry press in which the client’s story needs to be told.

Considering that in any given scenario the key media could number in the dozens and be scattered across a country or eight, it’s hard to see that as anything but a line of bull. What’s important in a PR agency is its ability to seek out and cultivate the media channels that best serve the client’s interests beyond the warm and fuzzy comfort of whatever relationships already exist. It’s our specialty at inmedia and it can only be accomplished through research and no small amount of cold calling. And as I learned last week in Atlanta, it can’t always be done from behind a phone and a desk.

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