Screw Easy, the Learning is in the Hard Stuff

With the possible exception of lawyers and sales people, no one is fuller of shit than CEOs.

Apologies to Stewart Butterfield, but some people (guilty as charged) revel in creating “reality distortion fields” and delight in getting people to “imagine a world where blah blah blah…” This becomes a problem when you find your business advocating a new solution — no matter how innovative and enlightened you know it to be — and you find yourself working very hard to get people living in the real world to envision and appreciate your new world.

When we created Inflect, we did so saying — and believing — that our decade-plus history working with datacenter and network service providers on behalf of our high-profile clients like Facebook, Twitter and Twilio was the magic bullet for transforming our industry. We thought that our partners would see the light and follow right along, eagerly joining us in this brave new world we’d created. The truth is self evident, right?

The key to our new reality centered on getting service providers — big companies that provide colocation, network connectivity, and other core infrastructure services — to (1) see the value of our marketplace platform and (2) share their data with us about what they own, where they’re located and the services they offer at those locations. Based on the relationships we’d accumulated with service providers over the years, we thought this wouldn’t be a big challenge.

But it was.

And that, in and of itself, is a great lesson we’re happy to share with anyone like us who is trying innovate in an existing market.

Let’s be honest: every new venture will face some hard stuff — really hard — especially when it comes to communicating your vision and getting others to buy in. This is true even when your idea is brilliant and benefits everyone you’re preaching to, even when it seems so clear to you (and other really smart people on your team) that, of course, this idea should catch on like wildfire.

And the major learning from that great lesson is to persevere. You’ll gather invaluable insights as you struggle to face and overcome the hard stuff. In our case, we learned at least five important lessons:

  1. Neutrality is everything: represent everyone — or no one: Service providers are reluctant to share information if they think it will be used against them by competitors. Only by maintaining neutrality and not advocating one solution over another; not favoring buyers over sellers, or vice versa; and building something everyone can benefit from have we been able to break through.
  2. Gathering and validating data is ridiculously complex, and may always be: The data we compile is complex because there’s no precise, standard language for what different services are called. This is not only the case across service providers, but it’s often the case between different groups within the *same* service providers. On top of that, our sources of data are constantly moving and changing. No matter how extraordinary our technology is, the data validation aspect of our business will always be a huge challenge. The good news is, this complexity also frustrates buyers and service providers alike, motivating them to help us fix the problem on their behalf. That is what makes our solution a big deal: we are solving a big, fat, hairy problem.
  3. We had to conquer our “Catch 22”: Service providers would only participate and give us the best data if we could assure them access to qualified, high-value buyers. And, of course, those buyers would only participate if we had the best service providers and data. The classic two-sided marketplace conundrum.
  4. Building relationships is really hard work: We launched Inflect with what we thought was an incredible hand: our currency is access and relationships, and we have them in spades. From our team’s previous venture, Silent Partner, we have 15 years of deep relationships with dozens of service providers. Still, finding the right people with the right data is hard. Which providers are important? Who are they, and how do we engage them? Are we even speaking to the right person, or is it actually a whole series of stakeholders? Is the data even in one place and structured properly? It’s as though everyone is speaking a different language. So, how do we normalize while still speaking the correct ‘dialect’ to each party? The only answers here are relationships, and that takes rare access and focused effort.
  5. Pay it forward: Inflect is a for-profit business to be sure, but our goal isn’t to make money every time someone uses our platform. We’ve spent our lives in this industry and genuinely want to make it better. We think that people should have easy, open access to the accurate information they need to do their job. We also think there is something wrong when the used car industry is more transparent than the one you are in. Hell, you can buy a used car on the internet easier than you can buy the internet on the internet. Our mission is to fix that.

Perhaps some of our hard stuff sounds familiar to you. Or, chances are, you face some bigger-than-you-thought-they’d-be challenges that are unique to your business and your vision.

One of the reasons that I can readily admit to underestimating the hard stuff in our journey is that we are making real progress. We’ve finally hit a tipping point with service providers who are now proactively reaching out to participate with us and provide their data. In fact, we’d like to send a shout out to the 30+ service providers who have joined us since our launch in June:

Current participating Service Providers

And we’re looking forward to working with everyone else to make our industry the best it can be.

And for other startups out there, take it from us: when you wonder “why hasn’t anyone done this before?” it’s probably because there’s some really hard stuff in there that no one has figured out yet. Acknowledge the challenge, lean in, persevere and iterate your way through to the other side. The reward is knowing you’ve done something useful and solved a core problem a bunch of smart people said was too hard to fix.

When everyone says it’s impossible but you do it anyway, you’ve really got something.