How to apply the lessons of Lean Startup in B2B

Eric Ries’ Lean Startup helps corporate entrepreneurs build products that customers want, while minimising wasted effort. For consumer products, this means using small, cheap experiments and Minimum Viable Products (MVPs) to validate a new product. However, when developing B2B products, the approach needs to change. Here’s what I’ve learned:

1. In B2B, relying on mass customer experiments can be damaging

In B2B markets, it’s difficult to rely exclusively on small cheap customer experiments for validation and design cues. B2B markets have fewer players, reputation is at risk; long sales cycles and complicated purchasing decisions render many experiment types untenable. Mass customer experimentation with half-finished ideas can quickly alienate an entire B2B industry – and can cause damage to your organisation’s reputation.

2. Instead, spend time on-site to discover needs and build trust

When developing B2B products, focus heavily on building deep enduring relationships with a smaller number of customers, rather than mass experimentation with many. Invest time by sending teams on-site, to observe and interview customers in their environments. This will help you understand needs and build trust.

3. Use industry events to foster relationships and get early feedback

Industry events can be useful arenas for relationship-building and lean B2B testing. Mention in a presentation that you are building a new proposition, and would like honest feedback from participants. By including a call to action, you give yourself the opportunity to start building collaborative relationships with buyers, while also collecting valuable early feedback on your idea.

4. Understand the needs of all of your buyer-types

Most of the time, to sell to a consumer you only need to convince that consumer to buy. However, selling big ticket items to other businesses can involve a web of stakeholders and relationships – all contributing to the buying decision. In their guide to relationship-based sales, Robert Miller and Stephen Heiman describe three distinct roles: economic, technical and end user buyers. All may have different needs and opinions on your product. The key learning? To design and test a B2B product properly, you’ll need to work with all three buyer-types.

5. Early on, focus more on co-creation, less on user analytics

Early B2C product development often consists of small amounts of co-creation accompanied by significant analysis of experiment data (e.g. from Facebook ads and landing pages). So in early B2B product development, you should reverse the emphasis: spend significant time and effort co-creating with a few valuable customers. There are good reasons to do this. First, if senior people in target organisations commit time to work with you, this is a good desirability test. Second, co-creation workshops offer instant feedback, meaning higher quality features and less waste. Third, a few large B2B customers can be hugely representative – solve for them, and you’ve solved for a large portion of the market. Finally, if you nail the solution, these organisations could be your first paying customers. And for B2B ventures, that can be enough for success.

Quickly validating B2B ideas requires a different approach to consumer business, and I hope these hints help with your own B2B venture. Happy hunting!