Blockchains: Not Just a Technology Battle
Markets are Won and Lost with the People
Backed by a staggering amount of capital, brilliant minds are devoted to solving key technical challenges in the blockchain space. Without the work of pioneers like these, there is no true decentralized future.
But this will not be enough.
Obviously, if challenges of limited scalability, unproven consensus mechanisms, high transaction costs, and others aren’t solved, the space will not achieve broad adoption. But there is another looming battle just ahead, and it’s no longer enough to fight on just one front. This imminent battle is for the hearts and minds of the people.
Technology Doesn’t Make Markets. People Make Markets.
The long-term success of most projects will depend on thousands (if b2b) or millions (if b2c) of individual decisions. Each individual must make the decision to change the way they do something today — and also be inspired enough to invest their time, their focus, and sometimes their organization’s hard dollars into acting on that decision.
These people may be developers, partners, consumers, or the decision-makers working in businesses that are vital to a project’s future ecosystem. A particular project may even need all these different kinds of people to act in its favor. Regardless, every project will need many, many people to believe in — and to desire — whatever it is they are ultimately offering.
I’ve worked with scores of founders developing new market categories and introducing new technologies, and I have seen that it is frequently underestimated how hard this is to achieve. I’ll share why it is critical to think about this now, even as the space is in its early days, and three small (but important) steps you can take now to get started.
Why the Miscalculation?
A founder who has worked for many years to develop a technology understands viscerally why it’s better, or useful. People that are encountering it for the first time, however, rarely ever do. And even in the rare cases in which the connection is immediate, getting someone to make the investment to take action can be surprisingly difficult. In our world today, there is a lot competition for a person’s time and attention that will have nothing to do with your project. This is your competition, just as other projects in your space are.
This can be true even if your target audiences are technologists, fluent in blockchains. The time and energy required to make a truly thoughtful, educated decision from the kaleidoscope of ever-morphing options can be cost-prohibitive. And this is especially for those who also want to sleep, eat, and occasionally see friends and family. There aren’t any “no-brainers” in this space, and it is unlikely there will be any for a long time. Instead, there is so much noise, so many new developments every week, and so much uncertainty that an individual, even augmented by a capable team, must struggle just to keep up.
If a value proposition is hidden or hard to understand, people often stop trying. If there are too many options that sound similar in a space, people often delay making a decision or pick something they are familiar with — even if it’s inferior.
This can happen even if you are specifically targeting an audience that is already primed for what you offer. For example, take a DApp that is targeting crypto-evangelists as early adopters. This target market may be leading the call for decentralized everything. They should be able to “get” what this DApp does, and why it matters, without much mental lifting. But that doesn’t mean they will take the time to use it more than once, even if you can get their attention long enough to try it.
This is why, sadly, the best technology doesn’t always win.
You can have gobs of money. A kick ass team. Great technology. Yet still never gain traction.
Your target audiences need to choose you, decide to make a change, and to act. And the more uncertainty, confusion, and competing solutions in a space, the more profound this challenge. A confused mind will simply say no.
This is THE question: How will you win hearts and minds?
Yes, it’s hard to look beyond the technology challenge right now. But I fear that those who wait to dig critically into how they will answer this key question will find they are too late. Why?
First, It’s Getting Noisy Out There
In nearly every industry, every niche, projects are emerging that sound startlingly similar or have vastly different ways to solve a comparable problem. They’ll all be vying for mindshare, and this creates confusion.
As teams work to build ecosystems, it will be tough for these potential stakeholders to distinguish value propositions — or weigh their competing advantages — with any confidence. It will be harder to raise funds as increasingly discriminating investors become saturated with analogous messages. More difficult to recruit talent to your team. And projects that can’t be understood without deep knowledge may miss out on opportunities with influencers (e.g. the press), or potential partners (e.g. corporations) that don’t have the experience in the space. Those that depend on adoption at a consumer level have an even more formidable challenge.
Second, Failing Fast Can Feed Better Product
Just as the rapid iteration of agile development methodology delivers better product, rapid iteration of language and descriptive concepts delivers more resonant messaging. The earlier you test this with actual, unbiased representatives of your target audiences, the faster you will learn what works and what doesn’t.
This may impact how you talk to what you do — you’ll gain valuable feedback to help you iterate and hone your words, and how they are delivered. But sometimes, you will also gain insight that influences what you are building — and the earlier you know this, the easier it is to adjust a direction before it’s baked-in and difficult to modify.
So, How Do You Begin?
How do you connect so deeply to the needs and desires of your audience that you inspire action? Like product development, this takes a dedicated, long-term effort. However, there are three key fundamentals that you can start working on anytime, and tend to generate returns right away:
One: Know your Customer
This isn’t KYC. This is about really knowing the customer pain you are solving for, or the desire you are tapping into. A “customer” may be an end user, a developer, a partner, or some other member of your ecosystem. I’ve found that teams often believe that they know their customer, but yet have trouble simply and clearly articulating how what they are building connects to a unmet need or unrequited desire, using their customers’ own language. This needs to happen for every market you are targeting. If you are working on a two sided market, this needs to happen for the entire ecosystem on both sides.
Start here: Listen. Find representatives of your target market that are not yet familiar with your project, and ask questions that help you tap into how they think. Listen closely to the words they use when they talk about their world, and work to understand what’s behind those words. Find out where they encounter friction, and how much this friction actually bothers them. Listen for unanswered desire.
Only then, after you have listened, do you tell them what you offer. Ask more questions to assess, critically, if and how they really need you. Work to understand how they would perceive the true switching costs and benefits.
I’ve worked with teams that sat down and listened to nearly 100 potential customers before finalizing product design. That number may feel overwhelming, but even starting with a half dozen research interviews will start to yield insights. Some of the best teams incorporate this approach into their workflow on a continual basis, with the content of the discussions evolving as the vision and the product does.
Two: Be Understood
You may feel your offering is already understood. But is it really? If you haven’t tested this in the wild, you don’t know for sure — and it’s dangerous to presume.
Start here: find a dozen representatives of your target customer and test this. They should not be friends or family. Ideally, they have no prior knowledge of your project. They should be strangers in the wild that just happen to be a part of the market you are targeting.
Set the context to make sure they are comfortable giving you direct feedback. Give them a short pitch (no more than 60 seconds) and stop. See what they understand, and what they don’t. Have them do some freeform expansion on top of what you’ve already told them. How do they interpret what you offer? Assess its value? What do they compare you to? Ask questions that help you understand, critically, if they understand what you do and where you fit into their lives. How your product or technology is different, and how it is better. Clearly, with such a short introduction, they won’t get it all right. What you are looking for is whether they understood the direction you were going, how they relate what you offer to their life, and if you have earned their attention to hear more.
Do not be discouraged if your initial tests are disheartening. I’ve found that the more PhDs or years working in a technology, the more difficult it is for a founder to explain why their product matters to someone hearing about it for the first time.
There is a secret to this art: identify the one single thing that you do that matters most to your customer (and at which you are uniquely better), and start your pitch there. Continue to iterate and hone your 60 second pitch until you have crafted something that unfolds from this core so powerfully that your audience is chomping at the bit to learn more.
This can be a lot harder than it sounds, and it requires creative time and space, a lot testing in the wild, and iteration to get it perfect. Don’t let this stop you — spending even a little time working on it in this way will deliver returns.
Three: Pace Properly
When you really know your customer, you have a handle on what parts of your vision they are ready for, and when. In 1994, Jeff Bezos envisioned a river of goods flowing from and through Amazon to customers. But he carefully picked one single place to start where the desire (easy, fast access to more books than a brick and mortar store could conceivably carry) perfectly met what technology made newly possible. As the customer evolved, he layered on more in lockstep.
Your vision may be to topple centers of power, but the first move you make needs to have an immediate, instinctive impact on the life of your customer. The easier this first level is for your customer to act on, the better. Consider a “land and expand” strategy — land a small relationship, get them to take a small action, and deliver so well on it that you build trust for your project and your brand, and a chance to expand that relationship.
Start here: to zero in on a beginning point, map the gap between your customers’ needs and desires, and today’s solutions. Where is both this gap, and the ease of adoption the greatest? (something, obviously, for which you can provide a fix). Test telling your story from that point. Note that for some audiences, such as investors, it will serve you to first paint your greater vision and how what you provide will build, paced to customer readiness, over time.
Make It Part Of Your Mindset
By taking a hard, truly critical look at how you are doing in these three areas, you can set a path to start the work of winning hearts and minds. It can be very helpful to ask for feedback from outsiders as part of your evaluation. Ask investors or service providers who see a wide range of projects for direct feedback — because they distribute their time across a wider slice of the market, they bring a broader perspective.
The best part is that you’ll get feedback on the value of this work immediately. Spend some time on it, and you will get some returns. Make this work part of an ongoing practice, and real benefits will accrue. But to bring the decentralized future forward, this work must take place.
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Edited by: Steven McKie
Connect on Twitter @unblockedfuture or follow me on LinkedIn. A social scientist by training, I’ve devoted my career to driving behavior change in new technology markets. I have helped entrepreneurs and business leaders with adoption in dynamic environments for over two decades. I believe that blockchains and a decentralized future represent an opportunity to remake foundational systems — and with that opportunity comes great responsibility. I write to encourage thoughtful strategy and conscientious execution in these critical early days of crypto technology.
Check out my other recent articles:
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