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A Little Like Having a Child

John Friess, Vice President of Marketing, wired.MD

When my brother, Mark, was a medical student at Oregon Health Sciences University and engaged in a study for the National Institutes of Health, he discovered that patients diagnosed with diseases they knew little or nothing about would turn to the Internet for information, because their doctors were often too pressed for time to provide all the information they desired.

Yet Web-based medical material usually was biased toward the interests of the sponsoring site or ineffective for those who are illiterate or have low learning levels. So Mark and I launched wired.MD in March 2000 to develop physician-proscribed educational videos for airing in waiting and examining rooms - which we had researched and knew to be a far better use of patients' time than flipping through non-pertinent material, such as People magazine.

Our product, which we named streaMed, took three months to develop in prototype, and another 15 months to bring to market. We set November 1, 2001 as the launch date and managed to deliver on time. In the course of doing so, we learned a fundamental lesson: that bringing a new product to market is a little like having a child. One must commit, prepare, establish a date against which to plan and work - and finally, deliver.

It is a lesson that has value for all entrepreneurs. What follows is a look at how to bring a founder's stock-in-trade - the idea - to where it must eventually go if there is to be a company - the marketplace.

Commit

The first step involves commitment, and it comes in a simple package. Bottom line is that if the product to be launched is an original - the one that will define the company and entice investors and analysts, to say nothing of customers - everyone in the company must be 100 percent engaged. If, on the other hand, the product is a derivative - one that recasts the product in a new medium or brings it to a new market - the degree of commitment still applies, but likely to a smaller group within the company.

Either way, however, commitment is fundamental. A company's leadership needs to engage in the research necessary to understand how the proposed product differs from what is currently available, how it can be produced in quantity at an acceptable quality, and whether it can be offered at a price the market can bear.

At this stage, the entrepreneur must also begin investigating the possible legal entanglements. One issue is whether the name of the product has been taken by another entity. A way to check for free on this matter is to consult the Web site sponsored by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

A related issue is whether the product itself infringes on others' patents and, conversely, whether it can be protected from others' infringing. Engaging a patent attorney is a must. At wired.MD, for example, we found that we couldn't protect the delivery mechanism for our videos, but that we could protect the content by trade marking the name, streaMed, which stands for "streaming video medical information."

Prepare

In the wake of commitment comes preparation, laying the additional groundwork necessary to deliver the product. We at wired.MD, for example, initially sent streaMed to five clinics in Oregon as part of a beta test against which we would test its effectiveness and make alterations.

In the course of doing so, we began making investments in additional resources, a step without which no company can bring a product to market. A lack of critical resources, in short, is the single most inhibiting factor in slowing progress. While entrepreneurs should by all means be frugal and creative, they must also understand that investing in the second computer or the cell phone equates with investing in the company's future.

In two rounds of funding last summer and over the winter, we were able to raise $875,000 and $500,000, respectively, largely from individual investors. (A third round with a $1.2 million target is currently underway.) The financing enabled us to rent office space, thus avoiding having to work virtually, as is the case for many startups. A physical grounding from the start was essential for setting up the studios necessary for developing and refining highly specialized content, we thought.

Another preparation essential involves assigning the right people to each of the myriad tasks integral to a launch: the artist to the job of designing the packaging; the gifted linguist to the task of writing the marketing copy; the skillful negotiator to the responsibility for working out the right price with the Web developer or manufacturer. At this stage, also be prepared to supply rivers of caffeine and streams of email for smoothing frazzled nerves along the way.

Set a Date

As your product is a promise as well as a tangible - a promise to investors that it will assure your company a leadership position in the industry, your customers a unique solution and your employees a financial future - you must assure that commitment and preparation lead to a timely launch. If a deadline is missed, a company's place as the leading provider could be jeopardized as competitors rush in to fill the void.

There is no better method for assuring a timely launch than by setting a date. Just as the expectant parent's due date acts as the benchmark against which all progress is measured, a firmly established launch date holds business people accountable. Nothing, in fact, can happen without it.

That wired.MD was able to meet its November 1, 2001 launch date was a triumph of execution over what I believe is the biggest pitfall for any company so engaged: that the energies of a multi-talented group of people continue scattered and unfocused. To guard against that, we employed tactics such as situating a whiteboard in a central gathering area, so that employees could track progress and post a countdown to the launch date.

At weekly Monday afternoon meetings, we candidly discussed progress toward sub-goals. Whenever we fell short, we readjusted our plans to get back on track. At the same time - you will find that in a product launch, you are executing on a lot of tasks "in parallel" - we learned that we were having trouble getting our specialized content reviewed in a timely manner by the doctors we engaged as consultants. So we made the critical decision to hire a physician as medical director on our staff.

Deliver

Is anyone prouder than the set of parents at the long-awaited delivery of their child? Well, perhaps the set of founders at the long-awaited launch of their company's new product.

This is a time for a joyous - yet decidedly purposeful - announcement. A press release should be written, ideally by the company, and tailored to the needs of varying news outlets: one version targeting local angles for the community newspaper; another in-depth facts for the trade press; a third the visuals for the broadcasters. Don't be afraid to shout the good news far and wide - contact industry analysts and editors, potential customer and partners - and to highlight local angles, beta sites and plans for reaching customers.

From the moment the announcement is made, there is no turning back. At wired.MD, we sold to our first five customers at a trade show held shortly after the launch, and we now offer videos on 230 diseases for an average monthly cost of $80 to our doctor-subscribers.

The product launch was, in short, our "child's" birth announcement, as it will be yours. Now the goal becomes to nurture, feed and build upon the product. Investors, employees, competitors and watchful analysts will be expecting nothing less.

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