Why Distribution Will Make or Break Your Company

Yesterday, as I was sitting with a friend talking about his early stage company, it hit me.  We were reviewing what he has built, where he is currently and what he is looking to do next.  It was becoming more obvious to me as the meeting went on he was experiencing a common startup dilemma: Great product, No distribution.

Here’s a little background:

This founder has an incredible technical history.  He has worked for very a large tech company here locally and knows his stuff. You can tell he is quite intelligent.  His product is a bit over the average person’s head, more enterprise and B2B focused.  His target customers are business owners and website owners.  He has vast domain knowledge and understands where his product will benefit his users.  He even has a beta version with a small initial user base.   I told him he is in a good situation but has a few big hurdles to figure out.

The problem is he is technically bent, not marketing bent.  Technical people think all you have to do is build a great product.  Although that is true, marketing people understand the positioning of the great product is what determines how big you will grow as a company.   Being foreign, he lacks the clarity in speaking English required to deeply explain his product.  This is fine, but since it is just him right now he cannot depend on a sales oriented approach.  His product is not inherently social, so he cannot rely on word of mouth.

This person is not alone.  I was a part of the recent Founder Institute Seattle winter 2011 class and encountered many companies with similar challenges.  Highly technical team.  Very interesting product.  Solves a unique problem.  But no clear distribution model.

So if you are not building the next social sharing tool, how the heck do you find the vehicle to expand your user base?

Find distribution channels.

1.  Where can you get a free listing or publicity?  There is a magnitude of places on the web where galleries or showcases of applications bring  additional tools to product users (think Google apps).  Is your product is an add on, a second generation tool of an existing product, or interactive with a larger ecosystem?  All these allow you to be highlighted in galleries supporting the main ecosystem.  Find ‘em or you will wither on the vine.

2.  What major company needs your product?  One of the best methods to major distribution is to land a very large and visible company as an initial customer.  Maybe you allow them to use it for free with the agreement they will promote it.  Maybe book them with a very large price tag to help you float for the next 6 months.  Whatever the agreement is, make sure you can find a market leader who will provide the credibility necessary for others to follow.

3.  Social Proof.  Although your product is not inherently social, you can still figure out ways to bake in social proof to the everyday use of your product.  It’s the old hotmail bit… every time an email message was sent, hotmail automatically added to the end of each message “Get your private, free email at http://www.hotmail.com”.  This idea is still one of the best marketing concepts every created.  Figure out how to implement it your own unique way.

4.  Find the Influencers.  The main thing I tried to nail home with my friend was he needed to find the one percent, the main target users who will become the influencers for his product.  Together with the above mentioned ideas, this is how you integrate yourself into the proper distribution channels.

And to bring it home, here is the only way I could describe it to him.

Dude, I just started blogging 2 weeks ago.  When you start a blog, you begin writing with the knowledge that only 20 or 50 people will be reading your stuff.  I quickly realized this and decided I needed to ink a few distribution deals if I was going to grow my readers.  I reached out to John Cook at Geekwire.com.  He like it and got me on there.  I reached out to an editor at BusinessInsider.com.  She liked it and hooked me up.  Now, thousands of people are reading my stuff and it is starting to grow.  People are adding me on Twitter like crazy (that was your que) and now they are connected to me independent of those resources.  Without those distribution deals, I was dead in the water.  You need to do the equivalent of that with your product or you will never grow.

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