Pitching a business case for any new product idea is a challenge. Pitching one for a non-revenue generating idea is even harder. A few years ago, I did exactly that, involving the small matter of an ask a little south of $1 million.
At the time, the product was being positioned as a customer benefit and a strategic differentiator for the company. Although the potential for driving revenue was there in the long-term existed, the immediate ROI was operational efficiency. The problem was it was going to cost a lot to do right. (Yes, we were waterfall, but that’s another matter.)
I still remember the day we pitched the business case. Up until the day before, I was crazy nervous. I mean, who approves close to a $1 million funding request for something that has no promise of revenue? Sounds crazy! We had 30 mins to present our case. I must have practiced my presentation a hundred times in the days prior to the meeting with the executive committee.
In the end, our ask was approved within two hours of our presentation. It was amazing. Several folks who had been at the company for many years told me they had never heard of any proposal – even one with revenue attached – being approved so quickly. I don’t know if that’s actually true, but I’ll admit – it felt real good!
As I reflected on the reasons for the success of that business proposal pitch, the lessons learned from that experience are captured in a famous Sun Tzu quote:“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.”
I learned that in order to sell any proposal there are a number of pieces that need to be in an advantageous position prior to your actual pitch. The business case itself is, of course, a key asset. But it’s just as important to consider the market, company culture and human factors that can have a decisive effect on the success of any proposal. Here are the pieces I put into place to increase my odds of success:
A robust business case. Of course, it starts with this. Although, at the time, I wasn’t aware of tools like the Business Model Canvas or Lean Canvas, I did make sure my proposal contained all the necessary components. This can be a blog post in itself, but briefly: clear articulation of the customer problems, business challenge and proposed solution; fit with existing corporate strategy; critical resources needed; a financial analysis showing historical spending and benefits derived thus far (which, by the way, was not much), the investment ask and ROI; and the impact of pursuing the investment vs. not doing so.
Customer validation. We knew our chief problem was a poor user experience. But we had to make the case that it was beyond just “fixing a few broken links and prettying up the fonts”. To do that, we conducted a usability study to test three key customer hypotheses around validating the premise of our solution, the user experience, and the business model. For each hypothesis, we defined our success criteria to validate our assumptions. As we had predicted, while customers validated the premise of our solution, they overwhelmingly trashed the UX and completely invalidated our business model hypothesis.
We had video taped the entire study. So I cut a 90-second video montage to play to the execs that ended with what I called the Money Quote: “If this is the experience, then next time I see it offered to someone, I’m going to warn them, ‘Don’t buy it, because it sucks!'”
Fit with the corporate business strategy. I’ve talked about the importance of Opportunity/Company Fit for a product idea here.
A coalition of the willing. I knew there were others in the organization who felt my pain, and some who were more interested in trashing the product. I wanted to convert sympathizers into supporters and either minimize the detractors or at least be in a position to address their concerns. The goal here was to make sure that by the time I approached the execs, they knew there was organizational support behind the product. I also wanted them to know I had done the legwork to capture and address any concerns from those who remained unsupportive (especially the vocal ones).
“Earlyvangelists”. As early as possible, I began to meet with key members of senior and executive management to try to get their buy-in and early feedback. This allowed me to gather early insights into potential challenges, the things the C-suite in particular care about, any political concerns to ensure support from these stakeholders, and gain internal “earlyvangelists”. This word was coined by Steve Blank to define “a special breed of customers willing to take a risk on your startup’s products or service because they can actually envision its potential to solve a critical and immediate problem.” In my case, I was looking for those internal folks who could envision my proposal helping to solve a critical problem they were facing in their own agendas.
Empowering others to pre-sell for me. Those early conversations helped me identify an “influence map” that depicted how organizational relationships worked top-down. For each member of the executive committee I identified the folks whose opinions he or she valued the most. If I had a direct relationship with this person, great. If not, I’d go down to the next degree. I then presented my proposal to these folks to get them on my side, tailoring my presentation to my audience. Once done, I’d ask the person for feedback on how to get the executive’s buy-in. This would empower them to pre-sell my idea to the exec in conversations that I would not be a part of.
A scorecard of who’s in vs. who’s not yet. I converted my influence map into a scorecard where I tracked who was on board vs. who wasn’t, and for the latter, what their concerns were and my next steps to address them.
A presentation that fit with the culture. How the presentation is prepared is just as important as the business case itself. I’ve worked at a company that had little appetite for decks: the rule was never more than 5 slides. I worked at another company where meetings would not be able to take place without a Powerpoint deck: 20-page, even 60-page, presentations were the norm.
Iterate the business case. As I gained feedback and insights from the above activities, I followed a Build-Measure-Learn cycle for creating the proposal itself, continually tweaking and re-testing it before it was show time ready.
Great mentors/advisors. This can also be a blog post by itself. Having solid mentors and advisors are so essential. I made sure to look beyond my immediate manager and his manager. For example, I built a relationship with a senior manager in Finance to get his feedback on my financial analysis. He had nothing to do with my proposal or product, but his feedback helped strengthen my financial model, and since he was closer to some of the senior executives who were close to the CFO, I gained insights into the the things important to them.
All this is not to say you can’t sell a business case or proposal on the strength of the content alone and (if you’re so lucky) personal charm. Certainly, there are situations where that’s all you have to rely on. But when possible, it’s important to spend the time upfront planning, strategizing and creating coalitions If you do so, odds are you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how swimmingly the actual pitch goes. In other words, win the battle before it’s actually fought.