The Importance of The Sales Cycle in Getting an Innovation Off the Ground

Time hurts all deals. -- Anonymous

A key reason innovations fail is that inventors neglect to correctly assess how long it takes to sell something truly new, and while they figure this out they usually run out of capital.  I came to believe this because from about 1995-1998 I had the great good fortune of directing a "field studies course" when I was an Associate Professor at the Harvard Business School.  In a this course students were free to designed new businesses, or solutions for major parts of existing businesses.  For example, back in 1995, Tim Brady was a student and he crafted the early marketing plan for Yahoo!.  Tim has been a roommate of Yahoo! founders Jerry Yang and David Filo while at Stanford.  You can imagine how fascinating it was to see the passion and brilliance of all these young people across a wide variety of topics.

In this role, I discovered that every business plan had a "high", "medium" and "low" sales projection -- but none had a fast, medium, and slow sales cycle.  When I told students to redo their spreadsheets assuming the first sales would take 2, 3, or 5 times as long as they had assumed the character of their analysis changed radically.  Here's at least five things they did:

  1. Became much clearer on their exact target audience -- beyond the generic title, down to the types of buyers within target accounts;
  2. Focused much more on getting the first real sale with a referenceable account -- not just with a friendly audience;
  3. Hoarded cash just in case it might take a lot longer to get new cash in;
  4. Crafted creative ways to see if their assumptions about the benefits of their product were real and valued by the target buyer;
  5. Came to the realization that sales speed is critical to reducing risk.

So, in your innovation efforts do you only deal with high/medium/low, or do you realize the real trick is slow/medium/fast?  I'd love to hear your stories.

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