Things I Wish I’d Known Preparing for Ground Truth – Part 2

Ok, in Part 1 of this post, we covered a good chunk of the lessons my team learned during our trip to China with the Executive MBA program at the University at Buffalo.

But, there’s more to earning solid feedback on your product from prospective customers than just delivering a sound demo. If you think there’s a different culture on the west coast of the US relative to the east coast, try meeting your customers in China! Before we grew comfortable listening, watching, and adapting in our new environment, my team risked coming back with nothing or missing the point, several times.

Get local through your errors. Before we departed, every book and coach told us not to drink the tap water. There’s not enough time to adjust on a short trip. Yet, one morning I slurped some while brushing my teeth, and didn’t realize it for several hours. When you adjust, you’ll probably do it by letting go. Just embrace it.

The Bottled Water Acid Test. Yup, we drank a lot of bottled water, and everywhere we went our hosts offered it to us. They watched as we drank it. Over time I thought this must be a stereotype of westerners. Or did it reveal how much I trusted the host? We were sensitive too, after hearing about refilled and resealed bottles. Rituals come in all forms.

Start early and make it easy. We scored seven meetings for two days. To do this, we started reaching out two months earlier. We avoided loading our hosts with any onerous work, especially reading long text blocks or keeping track. We reminded them of our meetings before we left the US. A couple of days before each meeting, we confirmed. One firm still moved a meeting from 10:30am to 8:00am, giving us just enough time to drop breakfast and run.

Forge a connection. To get those meetings, we tried a few strategies. Personal connections worked best, where someone had a cousin in-country and made introductions for us. Shared history scored too: did one of us go to the same school as a prospect? We got a 15% response rate from a targeted email blast to association members. To increase that rate, we could have adapted the request to be more relevant to each recipient. After meeting, most hosts shared a list of people we should speak to next, both inside their firm and at others. How kind!

Who are you talking to? On some of our tours, our hosts clearly spoke to the perceived leader of our crew first, and then to everyone else. It was striking. We soon tried it, using the business cards we received as strong hints about seniority. Would we have given them a disrespectful impression otherwise?

Help me save face! Once, we met with an operator and a manager and asked them to fill out a five minute survey for us. The manager sighed, rubbed his eyes, and said that he couldn’t complete it because he’d forgotten his reading glasses. Being super helpful, we offered to walk him through it. Much later, we realized our big mistake: perhaps his English wasn’t as good as his protégé’s, and he’d offered us a card to help him save face? We’d taken the card and burned it. Ach!

How close is too close? In a giant unfamiliar city, how much time should you place between meetings? In Beijing and Shanghai, one hour worked just fine for taxi travel. They were clean and quick (and almost always Volkswagen Foxes), and we asked our hotel concierge to write out directions in Chinese and English to give to our taxi driver. We brought the hotel card to get home again. We tried hard to keep our meetings to one hour, too.

Localization Details Matter. Localization is more than just translation. Our prospects remarked that they would consider us if we certified compliance with China’s legal framework. English is acceptable, but adding an interface in the legal form of Chinese would be better since it’s more widely understood than a particular dialect. Showing culturally appropriate use cases in our demo would have helped too. For example, Chinese occupants keep their rooms in the mid 70’s F. Who knew that detail beforehand? Our hosts might have wondered, “Why do these people always want me to freeze?”

Challenge or Business Opportunity? The list goes on. For example, there is wide variation between coastal and inland China, and rural and urban China, even more than in the US. At the time, there were no carriers able to deliver packages everywhere in China, and few fulfillment houses distributing for US firms. Each carrier had regional or urban-only coverage. Experience with computers and English varied inland, too.

Needless to say, the next time we collect on-the-ground feedback in China, we’ll be much better prepared. If you’re planning a project like this, consider doing it in stages, with time re-factor your approach each round. Everyone we met with was so helpful that I’d expect improvement to come quickly for you.

Things I Wish I’d Known Preparing for Ground Truth – Part 1

Since our founding in 1998, Algonquin Studios has acted as a trusted ally for several startups and has even launched a few businesses ourselves. By March, 2010, several Algonquin Studios team members had built a robust hardware prototype: a mesh network of sensors, controllers, and management software. It personalized the environment and access within commercial buildings and hotels. But the team had limited sales and installation experience.

Coincidentally, I had a trip to Beijing and Shanghai forming, as my team needed a capstone project in the University at Buffalo’s Executive MBA program. What a lucky match! Beijing and Shanghai were saddled with surplus real estate following the Olympics and investment booms and firms were hungry for smart competitive advantages. Why wouldn’t this solution work in China? My team set up in-person demonstrations and feedback sessions with hotel and property managers while we were in China, and brought back a trove of on-the-ground observations.

We were surprised at what we learned and the ways that were identified for doing things better the next time around. I’m sure you would be too:

Is that a prototype or a bomb? We brought several black plastic boxes as functional prototypes. Each was the size of a juice box and had LED lights and wires hanging out the side to batteries. Frankly, they looked like bombs to our American eyes. How would we get them through customs in China? It turns out they didn’t care.

Demos will break. How many ways can you give your demo? It had better be a bunch. At our first meeting we fried the Radio Shack step-down transformer we brought with us. But we had rehearsed in the hotel – how unfair! So what? We couldn’t find another transformer in any store. We would have been stuck giving vaporware demos, and our surveys would have just measured the dream in someone’s head. But, we found a way out – powering up with batteries or laptop USB ports. In fact, laptop wall power supplies adjusted to every location with just a reliable plug adapter and laptops could be recharged, unlike plain batteries.

Tricky Demos = No Demos. The developers warned us that the devices would jump to a different port every time we started a demo. My background is development, so I could resolve the problem without anyone noticing. But the rest of my team struggled when we split the team up to do two meetings at the same time. Remember, your goal on the ground is to get feedback and the talent you’ll have won’t necessarily be technical.

What does ‘done’ mean? Following that thought, we realized our demos could have been more polished. We built our demo around what the developers showed us. Why not build it around what evokes meaningful feedback? For that matter, make it look good so you’re not distracting prospects with a bomb, highlighting how far you are from done, and maybe getting them to feel like they should work with a cool outfit like yours.

How will you pay for that? Business credit was new in China in 2010; most paid by bank transfer or online services like AliPay and TenPay. Not one of our prospects chose credit cards as a possible payment method. One kind soul wrote, “There are no credit cards in China.” We could have figured that out from a few web searches, but we didn’t do the due diligence. So, did we miss a chance to get better feedback?

Integration and Management Services. Don’t forget that a hardware solution lives in an existing context. Every one of our prospects asked how we would work with their existing systems and offer administrative tools. If you can’t do this yourself, it’s smart to partner with a firm such as Algonquin Studios.

Sales Channels. Who will your prospects buy from? Our prospects suggested that we partner with a US firm already established in China, increasing trust, avoiding intellectual property theft, and offering integration options. Even a two-person local sales team with an engineer would be better than selling from outside China. You might need local help to get products out of customs delays in port.

Each building is an island. Treat each prospect as a unique case. We met with hotels and property managers, very concrete examples. We were surprised to find that each hotel provided its own utilities and services, including massive electric, water purifying, and emergency outfits. Less literally, don’t make assumptions about the rules. Listen first.

Even if you’ll open your business in your home market, or your foreign market is in the west, there’s more to ground research than just product demos. In fact, we wouldn’t have gotten any feedback without adapting on the fly. How thrilling!

Stayed tuned for Part 2 of this post, which will cover our take-aways on the more “personal” aspects of cross-cultural market research.

Related links that rang true to me:

Tips for On-the-Ground Market Research
Global Health at MIT

Ground Truth and the Importance of Market Research
Karyn Greenstreet

Ground Truth