Validate to find customers in AT ventures [New blog series: AT, Entrepreneurship & Finance - from Assistive Tech Impact Fund]
This blog series was authored by Dr Rhys Williams, with insights from our UK aid funded AT2030 programme - Assistive Tech Impact Fund. Part of GDI Hub innovation arm: GDI Hub Accelerate
Any company that hopes to be successful in the long-term needs to find a customer base that can reliably pay for products and services. Companies that create Assistive Technology are no different, with many companies opting for a business-to-business (B2B) model. For AT companies that are providing goods and services in LMICs, these models can be challenging, because customers could be governments, hospitals and clinicians, non-government organisations, charities, and faith-based organisations.
One of the first hurdles companies need to overcome is simply finding an entry point into each customer. Each of these customer types often has layers of admin, management and senior management that must be contacted and ‘sold’ to, before the right department can be found. Finding your way around these organisations often takes time and patience, leveraging your network, building new contacts and being persistent and tenacious.
When you do find the ‘right’ person, entrepreneurs often find that these customers are deeply sceptical of their AT due to tight budgets, and a sense of duty and responsibility to buy AT that is safe with proven benefits. When speaking with founders who have experience selling AT, many customers asked to see large amounts of research and evidence on top of regulatory approval and certifications before they’d even consider purchasing. Even when the type of AT is unregulated, customers still want to see convincing evidence before they can begin to trust the AT enough to consider purchasing.
Building up a strong evidence base isn’t just a way to build up trust with customers, it is also an essential way to protect your brand. In most entrepreneurship circles, and especially software, it’s not uncommon to hear the phrase ‘build fast and break things’. One quirk of B2B-AT customers is that customers are often well connected to each other. As one AT entrepreneur reported:
“All of the clinicians that we’ve met, they know each other. Whatever happens to the first one using the AT, everybody will know about it immediately”
In the context of AT, companies that try to rush and end up releasing poor quality AT not only risk harming the end-users, but also damaging their reputation throughout the network of potential customers. A poorly-developed AT that is sold to one customer can quickly lead to a damaged reputation and low trust across the entire ecosystem.
What can help?
To find AT customers in LMICs, AT entrepreneurs often need to play the detective. Sometimes the best way to find customers is to map every stakeholder that comes into contact with your AT, and systematically work your way from the end-user up the chain. Sometimes finding customers involves mining your network, getting warm referrals and introductions. You may even need to resort to cold-calling, LinkedIn or email lists, but one thing is certain, once you find the right person, sales is all about building trust. In the AT sector, we’ve found that trust is built through cold, hard, evidence-based AT.
For this reason, entrepreneurs in the AT sector should adopt a mantra that is closer to ‘less haste, more speed’, as opposed to ‘move fast and break things’. The risk of releasing and selling a bad AT device is that due to the highly connected nature of customers, no one will trust your products, and without trust, you will not be able to repeatably sell or scale your company in a sustainable way. Well validated AT is crucial to the long-term success of any AT company and must therefore be taken seriously.
This doesn’t mean that AT entrepreneurs must wait for everything to be perfect before going to market, but it does highlight the importance of developing rapid internal AT testing processes and making product validation a part of your core activities. Whilst not every company can have the expertise of world-leading scientists and clinicians in-house, partnering with universities, PhD students, postdocs, or even having academics or clinicians as advisors or board members can go a long way towards establishing these processes. A strong internal maturity around validation processes, product standards and regulations can help to maintain the quality and the integrity of AT, whilst enabling rapid iteration. In combination, AT companies that can achieve these goals can continue pushing the boundaries in AT development, whilst also ensuring that customers can trust their AT and buy in confidence.
All of our research contributes to the UKAID funded AT2030 programme. Sometimes our insights are often collected through confidential interviews so we can’t attribute the original source.