Jamil Miles-Connell On Finding Your Market and Surviving There

Do you have to be first out the gate?

When the startups at Highway1 aren’t working on their prototypes, refining their pitch, attending a lecture, or touring a facility, they might be at a 1:1 office hour with a mentor digging into a problem or just getting some keen advice. We caught up with Highway1 mentor and marketing expert Jamil Miles-Connell after just such an office hour to learn more about the work she does with our startups.

Jamil Miles-Connell, Highway1 marketing mentor

HWY1: What kind of help do you typically find yourself giving?
JM: There are three (3) areas people tend to want guidance:

  1. Defining the Target Consumer
  2. How to Size the Market Opportunity
  3. Determining the Business Model

Most of the startups here usually have anywhere from 10–100 potential users, but often the focus with these early users is to simply gain feedback for refining product development. The teams are beginning to meet with investors who are asking questions that fall into one or more of the areas noted above. By the time teams meet with me, their product has had some amount of engagement, but the team isn’t really sure how to go about tackling one or more of these business foundation areas.

What are the questions you tend to ask most frequently?

  • What problem are you solving?
  • What does the competitive landscape look like?
  • What’s your point of difference?
  • Who do you think your customer is going to be?
  • Do you know your costs?

The above questions often aren’t new to the founders I speak with at Highway1. Typically, the question that tends to elicit longer discussion is how the company has defined the product point of difference, and why they think they’re going to be competitive. There’s a lot of energy around wanting to be first and having a new idea, and I’m someone who believes there’s not a lot of those. Thus, when speaking to founders, I push them to consider the notion that it’s actually fine to enter a competitive environment and duke it out! You just need to be relentless in your clarity on your point of difference and delivering on that at all times with consumers.

Is there a best way to differentiate yourself? Or does it depend on the market you’re trying to enter?
I think the best way to differentiate your product is to consistently deliver on your product promise to your customers. Certainly there are companies that have a technological point of difference or a patent, and those are barriers that can create differentiation that can be hard for another product to emulate. But given that we’ve seen a lot of barriers to entry come down across various categories like consumer goods, retail, and transportation, I don’t think it behooves you to stake your product differentiator primarily on barriers to entry. Rather, I’d say to focus on creating a product that truly solves a problem for many people and develop a brand that’s committed to earning customer loyalty 365 days a year.

Do startups here try to crack into established markets a lot, or are they trying to create their markets?
I think they’re going into existing markets, but sometimes it’s a matter of defining the existing one differently. I’ve seen teams that think they’re starting something completely new, but when I talk to them, I say “Here’s what people are doing today; you’re kind of in that business whether you want to be or not. That’s the frame of reference for the consumer you’re talking to.”

What’s the most common mistake you’ve seen?

  • What I’ve seen with some of the startups going into the B2B space is they don’t have enough runway for that sales cycle. It’s a long one, especially compared to something more B2C where you just hang a sign and someone might walk through your door.
  • Another thing I’ve seen in B2B is that there’s just not an awareness of the entrenched industry barriers that make it very hard to break in — which isn’t impossible, but again, you don’t have a lot of runway. I don’t know that this is a mistake per se, because you won’t really know that until you start to go down the path to solve whatever problem you’re going after. But it is a tough one.
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