If you’re used to designing and building consumer products then the prospect of switching to B2B probably doesn’t faze you. Most of what you’ve learnt will be transferable and the core principles from the lean startup movement and agile community are applicable to both.
There are however, some subtle differences. I moved from building consumer products at Sky TV and Skype to focusing on B2B a couple of years ago and I’d have done a better job if I was aware of the differences from the beginning. I’ve outlined the main differences that I experienced here, and I hope you find them useful.
Be prepared for lots of different types of user
Software that’s used internally by an organisation often has many, completely different types of user, who may have very different motivations. Generally, the larger the size of the company, the more types of user are going to be — this is because big companies with lots of employees tend to have people focused on very specific tasks, whereas smaller companies and startups have fewer people who often do several, overlapping roles.
As an example, a big organisation may use a corporate travel product. It’s main users will be people wanting to book hotels and flights for their business trip, but there are likely to be several other types of user. There may be project managers using it to see who has the right visa to work on their project, or HR managers trying to see if there are ways of reducing the travel budget. On the other hand, a smaller team or startup might use a collaboration tool such as Trello to help them build software. Their roles may be different, such as an admin, software engineer, tester etc. but their objectives for using it are more aligned.
It’s important to note that these different types of user may need to interact with the product in completely different ways, they may need different functionality and potentially a separate UI.
It’s normally pretty quick to figure out who your users are. It’s then vital to hone in on the ones that are your real end users, the people that will be getting direct value from what you’re building. Typically only one or two user types will be end users, others may be admins and buyers of the product. Your vision, strategy and metrics need to be sharply focused on fulfilling the needs of your most important users, as this is the key to providing lasting value in your product and long term success for your company.
Make sure you don’t let the additional complexities cloud your vision
Having several types of end user basically means that the situation is more complex. With this added complexity, it’s important to make sure your vision doesn’t get watered down. You can’t satisfy all your users equally. You need to focus on one of them, understand the value that you are giving to them and keep your team focused on that.
Set a small number of actionable metrics
Everybody’s read The Lean Startup. For me, one of the most valuable takeaways me was the concept of actionable metrics. Actionable metrics help you improve your product by allowing you to make changes and see if they worked or not. They help you learn from the product improvements (or failures) that you make. If you’re building a messaging application, like Facebook Messenger, an actionable metric would be the percentage of signed up users that send at least one message per month. The other type of metric is vanity metrics, for example the total number of users at a given point in time. It’s very difficult to make a product change and use a vanity metric to evaluate its effectiveness, which is why actionable metrics rule!
I like to create funnels of actionable metrics, ending at the point that the user gets some benefit from the product. When you have more users, you typically have more metrics. Here’s an example for a theoretical consumer messaging app:
Compare this with an imaginary B2B web app, where employees can book their own flight and hotel for a business trip. Firstly you have your main end user, the person actually going on the trip:
Then you might have another user type, your project manager. They want to find out who has the right visas and skills to work on their overseas project:
You may have several other types of users, such as an HR manager whose job it is to clamp down on travel costs, an auditor etc. Too many users means too many metrics and too much noise. Just focus on the main one, in this case the employee that wants to go on a work trip.
Before the product launches, I’d do some user testing to see which parts of the funnel need most attention. It’s really important to understand your users so that you can make the right changes that will improve your metrics, frameworks such as jobs to be done can really help here. When you go live with an alpha, or beta, you’ll be able to plug in real numbers and see the drop off points at each stage of the funnel, so you know where to make improvements.
As always, make sure your minimum viable product is super small
Depending on the level of access you have to real customers, it can be tricky to define what you are going to launch with. If you’re building a product for big organisations, then your sales team is likely to have a one to one relationship with each customer. You need to find your least demanding one. When you find them, they’ll typically try to get you to build lots of features you don’t need right away. Try to foster a good, collaborative relationship with your first customer early on, and persuade them to do a beta followed by a gradual rollout. This will make it easier to keep your MVP small.
Get the best people you can for user testing
The best products are user tested extensively and regularly, right from the start. You’ll want to get people who are the real end users of your product to do this. In my experience this is really, really hard because your potential customers won’t want to supply their employees as test subjects. To them this would be like paying for your development, then paying again when they buy your product. Generally, you have to hustle to find people who are as similar as possible to your target user.
Get close to the people that are selling your product
There’s a big difference in the way companies buy software. When the cost is relatively low, individuals within the company are likely to be able to buy licences or subscriptions. An example of this is Zeplin, a product for designers, who’s pricing is low enough to allow the people who want to use the product to buy it.
Alternatively when the cost is large, potentially in the millions for each customer you’re basically talking about old school enterprise sales. Customers will often demand bespoke features (which you should always build in a generic way, so that they can be used in the future and don’t introduce crazy complexity).
If you can, I’d try to steer your product away from an old-fashioned enterprise sales model. You can still charge a lot for your product if it warrants it, but you need to get your customers to buy in to your roadmap, and you really need to be careful not agree to lots of features that will only be useful for particular customers. You need to have a great relationship with your sales team, you don’t want them suggesting features that aren’t likely to be able to scale to other customers. Get feedback from your sales team. Go along with them to pitches. Make sure you record feature requests in a spreadsheet, so you can objectively assess how many customers are requesting the same thing.
Balance the short term need for cash with the long term
If you’re a startup you’re going to have to be opportunistic and try to get a sale wherever you can, so that you don’t run out of investment. This may mean that you end up changing your product drastically to sell to the first customer. If you’re a larger company, you may have the financial runway to take the longer term view from the start. In both situations, focus really hard on meeting the needs of your end users. This will sometimes conflict with getting short term sales, but if you don’t provide substantial value to your end users, no-one’s going to keep on paying for your product.
In my experience, by for the biggest issue to deal with will be the natural pressure as a business to focus on the extreme short term to make initial sales. Winning a big sale could be the difference between the company generating the revenue it needs and failing. If you can balance this pressure with building real value to your end users then your product should succeed.