In the software business, we hear the phrases Proof of Concept, Proof of Value, and Pilot, used interchangeably – so much so that they all seem to refer to the same thing: a product implementation for a client that is less than, but on the way toward, production. But words have meaning, and vocabulary sets expectations. As a startup vendor selling to large corporates, you need to think carefully about the onboarding trajectory of your product, intentionally about the name you give to each phase, and methodically about how you sell this to your clients.
Know what you are proving and to whom
Are you proving that the technology works, or proving that it brings value within a business context? If you are proving the technology, then the project is bringing most value to you, the vendor, and less value to the client. Perhaps you should do this proof on your own time? If you have a willing client, know that they are helping you out, and it is going to cost you — in terms of time, goodwill, and potentially reputation. At some point, sooner rather than later, you should focus on proving value to a business. Proving value involves showing that you can solve a business challenge in a novel way within the context, environment, and constraints of the client’s business. ‘Value’ at this point in the process is expressed as a deliverable that you leave with the client, regardless of whether they go on to the next phase in onboarding your product or not.
Create value for the client
As a solution provider, you are immersed in some area of business or technology, with expertise beyond that of your clients. You are also an abstract thinker, able to step away from the operational details of one organization in order to craft universal frameworks. In a good Proof of Value project, you bring this expertise to the table, and provide to the client insights that they may not have seen before. Whether you are delivering software, a white-paper, or anything in between, a Proof of Value engagement should include an implementation blueprint, a workflow analysis and optimization strategy, or a vocabulary and strategy that the client can use for alignment, planning, and decision making. The engagement results may also include aspects of a Proof of Concept to validate that the technology works within the specific needs of the business solution (scale, throughput, etc.), so that the client is clear that they can continue to full implementation.
Create value for your company
If the client drops out of the lifecycle at the end of the ProofOf project, you should not be left with a total loss. Each ProofOf project must result in some value for your own company. In the early days of a company, a component of the value you receive is the tools or workflows you build to drive the implementation. You will invariably need data generation tools such as test harnesses, UI simulators, bulk-data cleansers & loaders, service stubs, and proxy servers. I have seen these early tools grow into the most-used parts of a product once it is out in the wild. You will be developing processes, workflows, and implementation guides. These feed the refinement of your product, build documentation, and grow an internal FAQ of lessons learned. As your company matures, the ‘value’ you get from a ProofOf project shifts more toward cash, though I believe that should be a component from day one. Other types of value that you get from this project can include references, press-releases, and of course, one step closer to a full commercial license.
Show a path to production
Never go into a ProofOf project without knowing the definition of success and knowing what follows success; and never go into a discussion of these two items with your clients without having your own path and guideposts laid out in advance.
- You as a vendor need to have a clear sense of when you need to prove the concept, prove the value, provide a trial, or engage in a pilot.
- You have vocabulary around this journey that is specific to your company and your product, with labels, definitions, and deliverables for each phase.
- You articulate the value to the client, and the value you expect in return, for each step in the journey.
- And you convey that any ProofOf project is not the end of the road, but rather a step towards something much bigger.
Articulating the path brings you tons of credibility, and helps you control the conversation.
Tactical project management
For each phase in an onboarding journey, there are classic project-management items to address. Before starting an engagement, be clear about the participation you expect from both the client and your own team. Set clear objectives, key-results, and deliverables. Set the scope of the project, the data sets you will use, the limits or throttles that apply in this situation. There is lots to say about each of these — perhaps in a future article.
I have discussed here how to define a clear path from Proof to Production, ensure that you and your client understand the roadmap, and follow rigorous project-management principles. With these steps, you are doing what you can to take control of the startup-enterprise relationship and build your company by delivering value.
Executive Director, EvoNexus Fintech Incubator