by Kevin Kimle
I enjoyed a great conversation with Dane Kuper and Dustin Balsley of Performance Livestock Analytics, reflecting on their experiences building a business that was purchased by Zoetis in April. One part of the conversation struck a chord and is an important insight for entrepreneurs: If your product or service is highly usable, your business will gain many users. I asked Dane and Dustin about how the Performance Beef software had gained approaching one-fifth of all cattle on feed in the United States. Their answer was usability.
Dustin explained how Performance Beef was designed to create a new and unique user experience, not to incrementally improve existing software: We didn’t look at competitive software and think that we could succeed by adding 10 percent more functionality or 10 percent more usability. We started with a blank slate. We asked ‘what is the most usable, functional system that we can get out to the market and provide value to the producer from day one?’ That's what we set out to do and that's what we continue to do. Just after I had the conversation with Dane and Dustin, I read Ben Thompson’s Stratechery Newsletter that referred to the same issue, but with a connection to Steve Jobs of Apple. In May 1997, just months after Apple brought him back after a decade-plus away from the business he co-founded, Jobs held a question-and-answer session with developers at the company’s annual Worldwide Developers Conference. Jobs had begun the job of radically cutting out products at Apple, in order to focus the business in an attempt to bring it back from near-failure. In an interesting part of the discussion, Jobs takes a question from an upset and somewhat rude developer about why he had “put a bullet in the head of” a technology called OpenDoc. Jobs addressed the issue of usability that foreshadowed eventual development of a better Mac OS, the iPod, and the iPhone. One of the things I’ve always found is that you’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology and try to figure out where you’re going to try to sell it. I’ve made this mistake probably more than anybody else in this room and I’ve got the scar tissue to prove it and I know that it’s the case. As we have tried to come up with a strategy and vision for Apple, it started with what incredible benefits can we give to the customer? Where can we take the customer? Not starting with, “let’s sit down with the engineers and figure out what awesome technology we have and then how are we going to market that?”, and I think that’s the right path to take. I see the mistake Jobs refers from entrepreneurs with some frequency, especially those who are engineering or scientifically-oriented. They create a new technology, then spend all kinds of time and money trying to shove it into a market where customers don’t respond. It may be a solution in search of a problem, may be so complex that potential customers won’t bother even trying it, or the technology may simply not create enough value for anyone to care. It isn’t so much that entrepreneurs make mistakes in not ‘putting the customer first.’ Rather, it’s that entrepreneurs make mistakes in not solving a migraine problem for customers. In the entrepreneurship course I teach, we borrow the idea of a ‘migraine’ problem from all in startup to indicate a problem that is so acute that customers will gladly pay you solve it. Performance Livestock Analytics understood a migraine problem for feedlot owners and managers and designed a product to solve it. The rest, as they say, is history!