It’s been more than 2 years I embarked on an entrepreneurial path with Dialog Solutions, after meeting with my partner Patrick Willemarck, who founded Brandialog, our well-known portal & panel to help companies engage with their consumers through private communities. We jointly defined our vision as ‘End to end Consumer engagement’ (my white paper is summing it up). We believed then (and do still) that the consumer had evolved much faster than companies, seizing his/her decision journey, reviewing products online to help others make better buying decisions, becoming a most trusted publisher to its network, and leaving many traditional marketing & products in the dust. The only approach towards success, we stated, was a relentless focus on the consumer, by truly engaging with him throughout the value chain, from co-creation of products down to marketing & customer service. At its core, it’s about making sure that ‘Customer-centricity’ is more than a few words in a poster in the meeting rooms.
We set up a number of tools and approaches to do so, from permanent panels, private communities (Brandialog), to open forum solutions (DialogCube) & social media curation & republishing (DialogFeed). Our focus was and still is on generating new, fresh insights and true engagement. Fresh insights enable to considerably improve products & services, generating even more engagement from new clients & ambassadors, further accelerating the ‘virtuous circle’ of the company. On the other side, driving more engagement through social media & on-site conversations generates even more intimacy with your customers, leading to more insights, more brand equity, leads & sales, decreased customer service costs. “Fresh Insights. True Engagement” is now the official motto & mission of the company.
As we wanted to apply our own philosophy to ourselves, we decided to launch early rather than late, and quickly found our ‘early adopters’ clients like Deutsche Bank and Touring (among others), who joined us in the journey. We sought to quickly incorporate their feedback into our approach and move on faster.
Two years down the road, we have now about 20 clients, including top brand names & smaller clients who love the approach. I am writing this post from the Thalys, as we open our first international office in Paris. Our company is still small, we are not talking about skyrocketing start-ups of Silicon Valley. But we are proud of our accomplishments, and even prouder that companies large & small are following that approach, and have embarked into customer-driven programs including continuous private & open dialogue.
A few key learnings & tips I’d like to share – stuff I learned, sometimes the hard way:
- Focus. Launching multiple products is possible as a start up, but tough. The costs of developments have gone down over the last years, but the management time is still finite. And the key is not necessarily to develop many features, but the ones that matter. How do you decide ? By making “educated bets”, which requires a lot of attention & time.
- Take a ‘service’ mindset from the start. You’re not there to ship stuff, but to delight your clients. How can you help them perform better? If that means you have to move out of your ‘strategy’ for a while, that’s not an issue (unless you have millions on your bank account. The straight line is not always the best way to achieve a strategy, because your customers are not necessarily ready for it. While that applies strongly in B2B, I think it’s true in B2C: start up that have a great service end up performing better
- Be broad & serious on financing: financing is critical, and it took us A LOT of time. But it’s not only about funds or business angels. Subsidies are really important too and their costs can sometimes be: zero.
- It takes more time & frustrations, be ware. Customers will cancel projects before they start. People will not return your calls (never, or almost never). They will take months, even years to decide. Approach a broad set of prospects and focus on those for which you get traction, but never completely abandon the others (if they have potential). One day, they will come. People change jobs, your competitors will screw up or they will look for a change. You need to find the right balance between nurturing & strong follow up!
- Move fast. It’s critical to move with a sense of urgency on everything, because your time is counted. Speed should be at the heart of everything you do.
- Strike a balance between sheer optimism and wishful thinking. Entrepreneurs are optimist by nature, and they should be in order to convince prospects, employees, shareholders, and all other stakeholders about their vision & products. But sometimes that optimism becomes a biased view that, because you wish it, it’s going to happen… It may fool people for some time, but the biggest fool is the entrepreneur himself. The key is to regularly step back (every couple of months) and have a critical look at what you have done, how the market is reacting, and how you should change course. Of course, your board & outsiders are key to help you on that.
- Get organized. Entrepreneurship is about multi-tasking to the extreme. Managing a various of stakeholders, plus a product, pipeline & the rest is daunting, even with great partners & staff. For instance, we used a professional CRM tool (Salesforce) from the first month. If you wait, it means you’ll have to think how to ‘transition’ later, and will postpone the project. Get tools & habits quickly that will help you & help your Board, early on.
We look forward to 2012, be it evolutionary or revolutionary. In any case, change will be the norm, and we will be happy to work with our clients to embrace it!
Let me wish you the best for this year, for you, your career, and your family & friends…