According to a Harvard Business School study, start-up companies fail at a rate of about 40%. Certainly, there are many factors that play into that failure rate. I’d like to talk about one specific issue that I have noticed, and personally struggled with, that impacts start-ups, software start-ups in particular. I call it the Maven Problem.
In case you didn’t know, a maven is a person who is a trusted resource about a subject who likes to share his or her knowledge. Generally, mavens have large networks of people who listen to them because of the expertise and their willingness to impart that knowledge to others.
Many entrepreneurs seek out mavens early on for several reasons. First, they hope to establish a relationship that the maven will talk about, building awareness for the new venture. Second, to get feedback on the product or service the new venture is offering. This makes perfect sense, since the maven is supposed to be somebody who really knows about a subject. The start-up shows the maven their wares, reveals their future plans, and listens to all of the things the maven has to say about how they would like to use/would use/wouldn’t use the product. The feedback is priceless, and the entrepreneur can go build a product that the maven will be happy to talk about.
The problem is, the maven is a trap. The maven is not like your typical customers (unless you’re building a tool for maven-types). Mavens typically have larger networks, and therefore a larger influx of communications from people wanting to know their opinion. Because of this, the maven has a higher degree of need to organize. Mavens also tend to communicate outwardly in a different way. I suspect that most mavens send outbound messages more often than regular people. This may not always be the case depending on the rate of change in their specific area of expertise, but I can say with social the rate of maven communication seems higher. I also suspect that mavens have a very different purpose for their outbound communications than regular people do. Mavens are communicating with the intent of educating others, which may lead to different needs for communication formats and lengths.
I originally had the idea for this post when reading a great article on Techcrunch about Plancast, the now dormant event attendance communication tool. The founder of Plancast, Mark Hendrickson, performs a postmortem in which he tells us the product won’t be developed further because he missed a very important concept early on, specifically that events are not good fodder for sharing. He clearly spent a lot of time analysing the situation and he cites a number of very good reasons. I think he missed one, though. I suspect that he designed Plancast based on maven feedback and thus missed the use cases for the rest (majority) of his intended user base.
You see, mavens, especially the social media mavens, have very different event calendars that most of us. They also like to tell people where they’re going (i.e. which conferences they’re speaking at or attending). For most users, Plancast became a listening platform, essentially “what is Socially Active Bob doing this week” as opposed to a way to plan what they wanted to do. For those that did use Plancast for planning their social calendar, they had far fewer events to “cast” than most mavens. The majority of stuff broadcast came from a minority of people. Heck, even mavens have issues using Plancast because they don’t want to commit too soon to what they’re going to do, because they have so many options and they don’t want to say they’re going to be someplace and then not show up.
I think Plancast was made for mavens, and there just aren’t enough of those to support a business.
Basing your product design on maven input is a good place to start, but ultimately, you need to gather feedback from the everyman customer (however that is defined for your business). This is the person who uses your product in the most common ways, with the most common frequency. If all goes well, customers who fit this mold will form the bulk of your users, and keeping them happy is the path to long-term success.
Doing so should not prohibit a maven from glowing about your product, especially if you can arm the maven with the kind of information that they love. Tell the mavens who talk about you who your everyman user is and what they need. Show the maven how your product fits the everyman’s needs. Any maven worth their salt will appreciate the opportunity to talk about how they understand the needs of the regular user.