This is part of an ongoing startup advice series where I answer (anonymized!) questions from readers, like a written version of Smart Bear Live. To get your question answered, email me at
asmartbear -at- shortmail -dot- com.
Frustrated Builder writes:
I have a general-purpose reporting tool that automatically creates reports from certain kinds of data sources.
But although I have six very happy customers, I’m having trouble finding more.
How do I get unstuck? I know people need this tool!
I’ve had to solve this problem before.
At Smart Bear people were always asking for reports, but everyone wanted a different report. One customer wanted detailed usage metrics per employee. Another wanted a prediction of how many bugs likely remained in each source file. Another wanted to see which source files were most risky. Another wanted audit trials. And so on.
So I made what I thought was a smart move. Rather than chase this insatiable, growing list of reports, we built a fully-customizable reporting system. The user could select from 50 columns of data, apply 50 filters, sort, group, and even take reporting data directly into a database query or another custom reporting tool for further analysis.
“Just like Salesforce.com,” I would say as the one-line spec. “They’ve shown the way.”
But in hindsight it was a failure, for the same reason that you’re hitting the wall. Which is:
People don’t want a custom reporting tool. They want a specific report, just like they were asking me for.
“But look,” I’d say in bewildering, frustrating support calls, “you can make that report! You just pick these seven columns, group by this thing, filter this out, and you’re 80% of the way there. If you really want to go all the way, use this feature to live-import into Microsoft Access and you can LITERALLY DO ANYTHING!”
It never worked. My brilliance was met with silence and then: “So….. can you build that report for us in Access?”
People don’t want a “tool.” They don’t want to “harness the power of a database with the simplicity of a blah blah blah.” They want an end result. People search for “saas business accounting model spreadsheet,” not “custom business intelligence analysis tool.”
Your tool is a means to an end, and you need to sell the end. The fact that it’s “fully customizable and flexible” is great because it means a customer can become more and more adept, and therefore more and more successful. Fabulous! But it’s not how you sell it.
So here’s what you do: Go through your existing six happy customers and pick out a single use-case in which you do an exceptionally good job and includes as many of those customers as possible, even if that number is “one.”
Then nail that sonofabitch. Make a landing page promising nothing but that one report. Split-test some prose and the call to action, put a great customer quote in there (by definition you have one!), get some traffic with paid search, then get some press around the customer’s story (not your story) where you drop your landing page as the way they solved the problem.
Don’t worry, this doesn’t define your company or your future. Well maybe it does — this might be repeatable! You might be able to build 10 or 100 of these over time, each a unique, independently optimize-able path to get customers, feeling out which niches and what marketing language works best. Sounds do-able!
Or maybe you will indeed end up like Crystal Reports or Microsoft Access or Business Objects or whatever, becoming known as a general-purpose tool after all.
It doesn’t matter (right now) how your future unfolds. For now you just need more customers, and this is a simple, direct path.
After all, if you can’t sell a table to someone who wants a table, you certainly can’t sell them a hammer, nails, and plywood without instructions!
Add your advice to the discussion section!