The first challenge any aspiring entrepreneur faces is, of course, what product to build to solve a consumer pain point or market inefficiency. Edwin Land, co-founder of the Polaroid Corporation, once said, “If anything is worth doing, it’s worth doing to excess.” Whether your business is B2C or B2B, I firmly believe that what’s worth “doing to excess” is making sure you’re solving a real problem for the consumer. At Kasisto, we built KAI, a conversational AI platform for the financial services market. Banks make KAI available to consumers, so in order to be successful we have to constantly focus on how real people are using our software and whether it’s helping them better manage and understand their finances. Once you’ve decided on your path, what’s next? Here are my top 5 tips for entrepreneurs:
Pick the right market
Pick a market where innovation is welcomed. Asia is having a startup moment, particularly in fintech. Banks in Asia are less regulated than in other markets, so they are rapidly innovating and creating the future of financial services. Big tech giants like Alipay, Ant Financial and WeChat are investing in all-digital financial products and services and quickly acquiring customers, creating a unique challenge to the incumbent banks. In response, forward-looking banks are re-making themselves from within, embracing innovation and new technologies that can transform the customer experience. That’s why, even as a company based in New York, we looked for our first customer in Asia. Picking a market that has the regulatory framework and momentum to facilitate the innovation you envision for your company can give you a head start.
Pick the right first customer
Your first customer is critically important because they can help you shape your product and open the door to conversations with the next customer. Choose someone who wants you to succeed and understands part of that success will be wider adoption of your product by the industry. Defining and delivering measurable ROI for the first customer is a must-do. Our first customer, DBS, was instrumental in making introductions for Kasisto, which was invaluable and spearheaded a strategic investment. They were open to making introductions and speaking about us publicly, in part because they saw we would benefit from more exposure and room to develop the product, which in turn would benefit them as well.
When considering customers 2, 3, 4, and 5, look for a mandate for action
Most companies today have a chief innovation officer, an innovation team or an innovation lab – sometimes all three. And they are all interested in doing a proof of concept (POC). POCs can be very tempting for startups but require structure and discipline to execute. A startup can die a thousand deaths in an innovation lab while moving from one POC to another. At Kasisto we always ask ourselves, “What are we proving?” to make sure that POC success criteria and next steps are clearly defined and understood by both parties. DBS was an ideal first customer for us because innovation didn’t exist in a vacuum but was critically connected to the rest of the business. The company was committed to evaluating and rapidly deploying innovative technologies to its customers. When we went out to prioritize and target customers two, three, four and five, we knew we were looking for banks where a funded digital transformation program was being led by a senior executive. Every bank wants to create a branded customer experience, but we are looking for banks that can deploy our platform in the most innovative way.
Focus on your employees to make your customers successful
How you treat your own employees translates directly into how employees treat customers and stakeholders. It is vital to create a culture that empowers employees so you hold on to them and they in turn retain customers. For example, after working with DBS and Standard Chartered Bank, we made the decision to open and fully staff a Singapore office with engineering, sales and solutions teams. For a short while, we tried to manage remotely from New York and weren’t getting the results expected so we invested in building a local presence with the same hiring standards and top-notch talent.
Do the right thing
In most industries, word of mouth and reputation are extremely important. You have to be open and direct with customers about what you can and can’t do. Let’s face it, things are not always going to run smoothly with customers. In one instance, as CEO I took a hard line from a project manager who told me, “We are not going to do that. You may disagree, but here are all the reasons you should reconsider,” and I did. In this case, I screwed up and was really glad this employee recognized that. As CEO, I want employees working on the front lines to tell me what to do and always keep the customers’ interests top of mind.