The Forlorn Server; or, Don’t Mistake Unrequited Love for an Actual Deal

7/24/12Follow @sgblank

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the integrated system was awesome. No one had anything like this. We shipped a complete server up to Onyx (this is long before the cloud) and they assured us they would start evaluating it.

A week goes by and there’s radio silence—nothing is heard from them. Another week, still no news. In fact, no one is returning our calls at all. Finally I decide to get on a plane and see what has happened to our “deal.”

Instead of being welcomed by the whole Onyx exec staff, this time a clearly uncomfortable product manager met me. “Well how do like our integrated system?” I asked. “And by the way where is it? Do you have it your demo room showing it to potential customers?” I had a bad feeling when he wouldn’t make eye contact. Without saying a word he walked me over to a closet in the hallway. He opened the door and pointed to our server sitting forlornly in the corner, unplugged. I was speechless. “I’m really sorry” he barely whispered. “I tried to convince everyone.” Now a decade and a half later the sight of the server literally sitting next to the brooms, mops, and buckets is still seared into my brain.

I had poured everything into making this work and my dreams had been relegated to the janitor’s closet. My heart was broken. I managed to sputter out, “Why aren’t you working on integrating our systems?”

Just then their VP of sales came by and gently pulled me into a conference room letting a pretty stressed product manager exhale. “Steve, you did a great sales job on us. We really were true believers when you were in our conference room. But when you left we concluded over the last month that this is your business, not ours. We’re just running as hard and fast as we can to make ours succeed.”

Unrequited Love

I realized that the mistake wasn’t my vision. Nor was it my passion for the idea. Or convincing Onyx that it was a great idea. And besides not being able to tell me straight out, Onyx did nothing wrong. My mistake was pretty simple—when I left their board room a month earlier I was the only one who had an active commitment and obligation to make the deal successful. It may seem like a simple tactical mistake, but it in fact it was fatal. They put none of their resources in the project—no real engineering commitment, no dollars, no orders, no joint customer calls.

It had been a one-way relationship the day I had left their building.

It would be 15 years before I would make this mistake again.

Lessons Learned

  • When you don’t charge for something people don’t value it
  • When your “partners” aren’t putting up proportional value it’s not a relationship
  • Cheerleading earlyvangelists are critical but ultimately you need to be in constant communication with people with authority (to sign checks, to do a deal, to commit resources, etc.)
  • Your reality distortion field may hinder your ability to realize that you’re the only one marching in the parade
  • If there’s only one passionate party in a deal it’s unrequited love

Steve Blank is the co-author of The Startup Owner's Manual and author of the Four Steps to the Epiphany, which details his Customer Development process for minimizing risk and optimizing chances for startup success. A retired serial entrepreneur, Steve teaches at Stanford University Engineering School and at U.C. Berkeley's Haas Business School. He blogs at www.steveblank.com. Follow @sgblank

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