Long ago, when I was a product manager at Solbourne Computer, we were trying to answer some nagging questions about our market. We built very fast symmetric multiprocessing Unix servers — back when symmetric multi-processing (SMP) was a brave new thing. In the early going, our machines were essentially hand built and we had difficulty meeting demand. As we worked our way down the manufacturing curve, however, we learned how to build machines more quickly. It soon became clear that we could not only satisfy demand but exceed it.
So we needed more demand. To identify potential sources of demand, we studied all of our sales to date. What patterns could we identify? Unfortunately, the raw data revealed almost nothing. There were no real patterns in terms of SIC code, geography, or industry. We had sold servers to national laboratories, astronomical observatories, large companies, medium-sized companies, universities, B2B companies, B2C companies, and so on.
Since we couldn’t identify any clear patterns in the data, we decided to go out and meet our early customers. We reached out to all of our customers and requested face-to-face meetings. Ultimately, we scheduled meetings with about 50 different customers.
As we returned from our customer calls, we held lengthy meetings to discuss the results. Again, no patterns emerged. Finally, someone suggested that we simply describe our customers. Were they fat or thin? Short or tall? Old or young? Frankly, I thought that was a dumb idea but it turned out to be brilliant. As we began describing the customers, a very clear pattern emerged. First, they were all men. Second, they were in their early to mid 30s. Third, they were all heads of their department. Titles varied but they were what we would today call the CIO. Fourth, and most important, they had recently replaced a much older manager. They were new in their positions and wanted to make their mark.
Why did they buy Solbourne? We were a small company with hot new technology — symmetric multiprocessing. But we also ran on the Unix operating system — a very safe choice. Further, the benefits of SMP were well understood — the concepts were proven though the technology was new. So newly installed, youngish CIOs could use us to demonstrate that the old regime was out; a new regime was in. They could look bold without worrying too much about failure. When we figured this out, one of our pithier sales reps said, “Geez… it’s like dogs peeing on a wall. They’re using our machines to mark their territory.” All we had to do then was to figure out where the new CIOs were. But that’s a different story.
So, what’s the moral of the story? We thought we were selling very sophisticated, state-of-the-art servers. But actually, we were fulfilling a psycho/social need. We gave our buyers signaling equipment. With Solbourne servers, they could signal that they had arrived. It was a sobering lesson in selling technology. It’s often not the technology that matters but rather the (often unspoken) need the technology addresses. It’s also a lesson in the power of face-to-face meetings. If we hadn’t met our customers personally, we never would have figured it out.