If you feel like business, communication, and even life itself have accelerated in the last 5-10 years, you’re not alone – and you’re definitely not wrong. Mobile technology introduced the on-demand Age of the Customer. Our phones now wield more power than a top-of-the-line computer from the last decade, which means we can find and access anything we want, when and where we want it. You’ve felt this shift firsthand, but let’s think about what unprecedented consumer speed and connectivity mean for aspiring entrepreneurs.
First of all, launching a business is a very different endeavor today than it was in 2007 or even 2012. In the past, every door would slam unless you had an airtight business plan, a clear source of funding, and big marketing dollars. The Ideas Economy has changed those rules. Success begins with a killer concept (as it always has), but that’s where the similarities end.
Now, it’s all about strategic execution and perpetuating your strengths. Building momentum. Attracting customers who are overwhelmed by noise and options. But here’s the best news: you don’t have to do it on your own. You don’t have to be a software engineer to set the market on fire. Coding, IT, and software engineering are not core competencies you need to possess – even if you’re building a digital app.
So, what do I need?
An Industrial Strength Partner (ISP). This is a team, company or specialized agency that can fill in the gaps and supercharge your business. If you think about creating an app, there are six areas your partner needs to have covered:
– Ideation – exploring the concept, expanding (or narrowing) functional possibilities, mapping core features, and thinking through possible snags, issues and opportunities.
– Validation – initial testing to prove that your idea has legs, which might include user or customer interviews, lean prototypes, focus groups, research and market analysis.
– Development – the technical work of designing and coding the app or digital product, including core functionality, billing and payment flows, customer service integrations, mapping and location features, scalability, security and geo-targeting requirements, and any other technical details.
– User Experience (UX) – ensuring the app is clean, simple and easy for anyone to understand. From onboarding screens to strategic gate placement, smart UX work eliminates friction to create an app that people love to use.
– User Interface (UI) – design, branding and everything associated with an app’s look and feel. Professional UI is an art and science that builds legitimacy, attracts users and ensures a clean, aesthetically-pleasing product.
– Quality Assurance (QA) and testing – the final stage of finding and exterminating bugs, clarifying screens or user flows, integrating feedback, enhancing the onboarding process, tweaking brand features, and anything else that gives your app its best possible shot at success.
All six of these product stages require deep, specialized and ever-changing expertise. People now devote their entire careers to digital product design, for example. They know which button colors inspire action and why a specific form should cross six screens instead of three. It would take several lifetimes to acquire and maintain this kind of dedicated knowledge – and you have a business to run.
Are you a challenger or an entrepreneur?
Any new product or business falls into one of two categories: challenger or entrepreneur. We all know what an entrepreneurial brand looks like. These are the pioneering ideas, platforms, services and products that break fresh territory. It might be a new fitness program (like Soulcycle), a craft beer startup, or lending clothing for special occasions (Rent the Runway).
A challenger brand, as you would expect, goes head to head with the big dogs. It disrupts the status quo. It changes the rules, like streaming digital content instead of renting a physical DVD (Netflix, and now Iflix), or buying a mattress online, rather than enduring fluorescent-lit retail stores playing Celine Dion ballads on repeat (Casper). Brands like Whole Foods, Virgin, Glossier and Warby Parker saw holes in their respective industries and filled them with a new approach or better products, battling market giants in the process.
The Force Multiplier effect
Whether you’re a challenger or an entrepreneur, you are also a tech company. In 2017, it’s inevitable. Think about how you interact with products and services in your day-to-day life. Airlines, retail stores, health and fitness brands, content producers and productivity tools; they’re all tech-driven, whether they began that way or not. In order to compete, they need to nail the technology that fuels their businesses. That’s where the Force Multiplier comes in.
Imagine you’re building a challenger brand in financial services. You’re tired of bank fees, bureaucracy, or whatever gets under your skin, and you have a better model in mind. Once you hone in on a disruptive concept, building out your technology is the next step. In this case, that tech requires some pretty serious security, firewalls and usability, not to mention all the government compliance requirements you have to demonstrably meet.
You could hire a team to build and maintain your digital infrastructure, but it will cost 15-20X what you’d pay to work with an external partner. Contracting with experts allows you to stay hyper-elastic and reduce your risk.
What do I mean by “hyper-elastic?” It’s the ability to grow and shrink as business demands. You can scale up digital storage and hosting, for example if the idea takes off, or wind it down during a lean period. You can quickly add product features if your customers are salivating for more, or move into a new city or country where people are clamoring for your service.
A partner that can work with your business as it shifts and evolves is a force multiplier: it’s a competent, reliable extension of your company, for a fraction of the cost, and it enables you to dramatically expand your market reach.
Force multipliers in action – a brief case study
After Thomas Edison invented the incandescent lamp in 1879, he went on to form a series of companies that merged into Edison General Electric Company in 1890. GE, as we know it now, has developed and manufactured lighting, power generators, locomotives, home appliances, healthcare technologies (like MRIs), and much more.
In the late 1980s, GE’s legendary chairman, Jack Welch, traveled to India hoping to sell products like plastics and airplane engines to the Indian government. He and his team ended up creating a joint venture with Wipro Ltd. – a software and services company based in Bangalore – to manufacture an ultrasound machine for GE’s medical division, which could be sold in India without importing taxes or red tape. While the Indian medical market didn’t open up dramatically for GE, the company found a powerful technology partner in Wipro. GE launched thousands of ventures with Wipro until 2009, when it merged its healthcare business unit in India with Wipro to create Wipro GE Healthcare.
As recently as 2016, Wipro and GE announced that they were partnering to build and promote industrial apps and integration templates for global manufacturing customers. By working strategically with Wipro since the early 1990s, GE has expanded its reach into new places, while making technological shifts that wouldn’t have been possible without Wipro’s digital and software engineering expertise.
I’m not saying the partnership is perfect, nor do I have the inside knowledge to know if both sides have benefited equally. From an observer’s perspective, however, Wipro definitely helped GE modernize its technology and become more competitive.
How do I find my Industrial Strength Partner?
Knowing you need a force multiplier is one thing. Finding the right one for your business is another matter entirely. Like all business decisions, there’s a strong element of trusting your instincts, asking for referrals, and doing your homework. In addition, here are a few questions to ask when you’re investigating potential partners:
What is your core competency?
The language can be confusing, so it’s important to know where a firm’s expertise lies. Is it a web development company that also does mobile consulting, development or design? A product company that offers dev services on the side? Or are you hiring a mobile-first firm with app development in its blood? Look for a partner that’s specialized in the field you’re entering.
Do you offer a full suite of services?
Here’s where those six key elements of app and product development (above) come in: ideation, validation, development, UX, UI, and testing. Today’s digital market is so competitive that you can’t skip any part of the process – and you need people who know their stuff in all these areas. A mobile-first company that was born and raised in the smartphone era will also have a major advantage if you’re building a digital product.
Can you support me as I scale?
Even what looks like a simple app has complex technology under the hood. If your business flourishes and you need more support, changing partners after the product is built can be tricky – and less cost-effective. It’s not impossible to start with a small team and move to a bigger firm down the road, but you’ll save time and frustration if your current team can scale with you. That’s also what makes a partner industrial strength.
Can you help me expand geographically?
Scaling can be supporting more users and adding features, but it can also mean moving into new global markets (complete with their own infrastructure, challenges and opportunities). Imagine your product grows exponentially in Europe, but you’re based in the U.S. Does your partner have people on the ground overseas to help you function and grow? A partner who works globally also understands what it means to run an international business. That’s a major advantage when you’re looking for global support.
Let’s talk about your track record
It might seem obvious, but it’s important to look at what a company has already built. How would you rate the quality of their work, even from a user’s perspective? What do their clients say about the experience and the return on their investment? Dig beyond the website and talk to real people. Make sure any potential partner understands your industry, or has the agility and processes in place to gain that knowledge fast.