Helmuth von Moltke, the Elder, a 19th-century German Field Marshal, penned that phrase sometime in the mid 1800s as he led one of many battles in Europe.
The line has been badly truncated from the original and is often misappropriated. The full quote, translated from 19th century German, is “No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main strength”.
Moltke made a name for himself in leading and winning many battles during Prussia’s consolidation of land and power in the mid-1800s. A disciple of Clauswitz, he published many works on the art and strategy of war. His words are often used out of context to give misguided leaders a reason not to plan, when the reality is that Moltke was a pragmatist. His own preparation and planning for historic, well known battles, was incredibly detailed and exhaustive, and he believed that leaders should have a plan for every foreseeable outcome. His second, less well known motto was, “Strategy is a system of expedients.”
And, while I prefer not to think of our business partners and clients as enemies, these statements, and Moltke’s theories, have a number of parallels with running a business and with our experience at Meal Ticket. I’ll tell you first what this means to a startup business in general, and how it has been realized here at Meal Ticket.
Probably most relevant to this pragmatist’s theories is the pre-launch development of a software product. Eric Ries, in his book The Lean Startup, talks extensively about the need to launch with a Minimum Viable Product (MVP), in order to assess the market’s reaction and make changes. Software startups are notorious for spending way to long in pre-launch alpha or beta versions, refining based on management’s best guesses for what users want, rather than just getting the product out there and getting feedback. There’s a reason Gmail was in ‘beta’ for 5+ years.
Google, rather than trying to launch with a fully baked product, just put it out there and started collecting user feedback and refining the experience. Gmail has now become one of the most robust, usable mail clients available.
(It’s not always this challenging)
Modeling and Planning
I have never seen a financial projection or marketing plan from a startup that was within 20 percent (high or low) of the target. The number of variables used to create a planning model is necessarily reduced and simplified, in order to create a manageable model, and this in turn reduces the model’s predictability.
More importantly, startups are usually breaking ground in terms of building new markets and new products for those new markets, so predicting an outcome in this environment is near impossible. The closest we can hope is to get a near term (< 1 year) prediction of revenues, and to more closely estimate expenses during that time, so can get an idea of know much money it will cost to get the product to market, collect data, and refine.
Most importantly, and this is relevant to the previous two points, is that at every step, we are dealing with products and services that get used by people. People are finicky. They may tell you they want something and not use it. They may tell you they don’t care about a particular feature, and then complain when it’s not there. They don’t give unsolicited feedback because they had a positive experience, they usually only take the time to comment when something bad happens.
The fact that people are involved with every step of the process means that the outcome will inevitably be unpredictable, and that companies and product managers must have the flexibility to change as market demands make themselves known.
One of the key strategies recommended by Ries and others is to get the MVP to market and make adjustments. An adjustment can be small tweaks or feature-adds, or it can be a Pivot. A pivot is a substantial change to the company’s strategy, which usually involves a re-write or re-release of the product, in a much different format.
We’ve experienced this firsthand at Meal Ticket. We started this business with an idea to create a social marketing platform for restaurants. While we had some success with this product, we realized that the bigger opportunity, and the bigger market need, is in a product that is focused on delivering manufacturer promotions to restaurants. This realization and pivot was not an easy thing – it involved months of discussions, fact finding, software rewriting, strategy adjustment, resource re-allocation, and client communication.
But, we realized that there’s a huge need in the industry for this solution, and that the headache involved with shifting our focus to this strategy is worthwhile.
It comes down to this: are the dogs eating the dogfood? (These metaphors are going to get me in trouble with our clients!). If the intended audience is not using the product as it was designed, it’s time to rethink the product and strategy, and consider a pivot.
Wink Jones is CEO of the Boise company Meal Ticket.