Beware the Chasm: A Hall of Mirrors Filled with the Disappointed Dead
It may sound too obvious to say, but I’m going to say it: To dominate a market, you must first enter that market. The cookbook for this process can be found in Geoffrey Moore’s classic book, Crossing the Chasm, and it is as valid today as it was when published 29 years ago in 1991. Moore taught us that psychology dominates the go-to-market process, as well as the prospects for success, for everything new in the world. The reason: Most people aren’t comfortable making scary bets (like putting their career on the line) on new stuff — especially on new technology.
Now, for the bad news: You actually need to enter each target market twice. The first time is the easiest, especially if you are taking new technology to market. Simply find a few companies that see obvious competitive advantage in your secret sauce and do the biggest deals you can with as few of them as you can.
Let your new best friends beat you up for a year or two concerning the fact that your new stuff is not really ready for prime time. You will thank them for making you make it work. Congratulations! You have successfully entered, and exploited, the “visionary” market for your offering. Because your visionary customers were seeking competitive advantage, they won’t serve as references, which is too bad. But at least you got cash and a working product for executing this step, and that beats the alternative.
Unfortunately, there is no way to make sustained revenue or profits in the visionary market. You need to get onto Main Street where “early adopter” means someone so desperate for what you provide that they will hold their nose and do business with someone new. They have a broken mission-critical business process. You have a way to fix it. And once they buy it, and apply it successfully, they will actually serve as references for other businesses that aren’t quite as broken as they are, but still need what you offer.
Entering The Chasm
The time between when you have a working product and when you start getting paid by an ever-growing set of mainstream customers is called “the Chasm.”
The name refers to the fact that, during this time, you aren’t making any money, but you are spending lots in go-to-market investments. In the Chasm, you are, to put it gently, starving. And, if the Chasm is too wide and your cash reserves too small, you are starving to death. And it’s disappointing, to put it gently.
After all, you have confidence in your product, and you, your team, and your investors all had high hopes that you would “kill it” in the market, rather than the other way around. I call the Chasm a “Hall of Mirrors,” because everywhere you look you are easily deceived by what appears to be an easy path to riches, and that deception is amplified by the fact that you love your new product, so instead of cold reality, you see your hot ego reflected back at you.
Fortunately, if it doesn’t kill you, this journey actually gets easier and easier as you sell and successfully deploy your product in a new market, because a market is defined by the fact that each participant looks to the others for validation and comfort when making buying decisions. It turns out the hard part is finding, and engaging with, that “sufficiently desperate” tiny fraction of the mainstream market.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could just come up with a list of target companies, use it to make a list of the right people at those companies, and shoot off a barrage of emails with clever subject lines — and our “desperate enough” perfect prospects would eagerly reply and engage in our sales process? The dreaded Chasm would be reduced to a speed bump by modern technology!
But that doesn’t work. Why not? The answer is, because you start with zero trust, and trust is the key to selling on Main Street. It turns out that email is a lousy medium for creating trust.
After all, the barrier to your first post-Chasm sale is that new things are fundamentally repulsive to mainstream customers. To overcome that emotional aversion to betting on the new and scary, you need to create trust. And it’s just not possible to create trust with a cold, untrusted medium that has truly earned the name “spam.” (Apologies to the canned meat product that was a source of comfort and inner warmth for me as a young mountaineer.)
There are other possibilities, but in today’s world they tend to get lost in the ubiquitous digital noise that dominates our personal and professional experience. For consumer products in an existing category, digital marketing makes a positive difference.
That’s because it’s easy and safe for an individual consumer to risk their money trying something new, and there are many reasons to do so. The solution in the consumer space is “buzz,” not “trust.” Influencers bring both, and big consumer brands are developing sophisticated AI-based technologies to identify the best potential influencers for a new product.
But buzz does exactly nothing in B2B, where buyers are risking their careers, their kids’ college educations, and their retirement on each significant purchasing decision. “Take my money — please! Just don’t trash my job!”
So, the Chasm looms, and you can’t spam or buzz or search or content market, or social sell your way across it. Conferences are good for finding visionary pre-Chasm buyers, and the ones that offer one-on-one meetings have potential for a lucky hit here and there.
Interestingly, sending physical objects (handwritten letters, brochures, books, and such) to hypothetical buyers can actually get you meaningful meetings, and you shouldn’t be shy about trying something so “old fashioned.”
Search The Market And Build Trust
But the most reliable way to both search the market and build trust is to cold call. Using the telephone. I was going to write “your old friend, the telephone,” but you probably don’t feel that way about that magical brick that lets us have real conversations instantaneously across the entire planet.
But in this case, it really is your friend, and for a simple reason: the human voice carries enough information per second to allow someone to begin to build trust with a stranger in about seven seconds. This information is not primarily embodied in the words spoken and heard — although those words are critically important: it’s the tone and cadence, the inflection and pace, and all the other nuances that humans are inherent geniuses at interpreting. And the first judgment, made unconsciously, in the first few seconds of a conversation is “Can I trust this person?”
So, there you have it. If you can arrange to have enough conversations with potential buyers of your product on the Main Street side of the fearsome Chasm, you might be able to overcome the two problems that otherwise will keep you wandering aimlessly until you run out of funds and join the disappointed dead.
Problem 1: It takes too long to find someone desperate enough to buy something new from a stranger with no references for either the product or the company.
Problem 2: It takes too long to build trust with that first Main Street post-Chasm customer.
Simply by having first, or ambush, conversations — otherwise known as “cold calls” — with enough candidate first buyers, you can solve both problems and, better yet, know that you are solving them. The cookbook recipe is:
- Step 1: Develop a short script that is likely to resonate with someone who really needs your offering.
- Step 2: Learn to deliver this script with great sincerity and proper intonation and pace.
- Step 3: Generate a list of a few hundred candidates of Main Street first-buyers.
- Step 4: Load this list into ConnectAndSell (or some other system that delivers 30+ targeted conversations per day to a rep — with zero effort).
- Step 5: Have those conversations for a week, setting as many meetings as you can.
- Step 6: Analyze the results to see if your list needs tuning. (Hint: It probably does.)
- Step 7: When the results say you have your targeting right, because you are setting meetings for 5% or more of first conversations, lock down on the list definition and message, teach the message and delivery to a right-sized group of reps, and go after it!
It may seem too simple, but it’s really just simple enough to work. Conversations that build trust and deliver market feedback, at sufficient pace and scale, are the key to surviving the Chasm. The alternative — death by business starvation — is neither pleasant nor inevitable. The prize is a shot at market dominance. It’s a simple shot.