The Window is Never Closing on Customer Need


Rana K. Gupta formerly served as director of faculty entrepreneurship at Boston University, co-reporting to Technology Development and Innovate@BU. He helped BU researchers bring technology and other research breakthroughs to the marketplace to increase their impact. He also managed BU’s Ignition Award program, which offers faculty commercialization funding.

Situation #1: When I first became a CEO in 2006, the Board said, “The window on this opportunity is closing!” It scared the heck out of me. Although we sold the company, which sounds like a success, neither we nor our acquirer solved the (cancer diagnostics) problem we set out to address; we did not create the impact (in cancer diagnosis and treatment) we set out to achieve. To my knowledge, it still has not been solved as we envisioned over 15 years ago.

Situation #2: The other day, a researcher told me the window is closing on her opportunity. Furthermore, she was worried about not having a first mover advantage.

Take note of the people “out there” who tout the notion of the closing window. As I’ve said before: always note the source. They are probably venture capitalists and the media. It’s a catchphrase that creates false urgency and makes the author sound like an authority.

More importantly, those people are not trying to address a need or create an impact, or they would not be talking like that. Because the window is never closing when positive impact is your objective. Said another way, the window is never closing on needs.

Interim conclusion: As long as you’re focused on needs, there will always be demand for a solution to address those needs. Let go of markets, industries, and competitive products (e.g., “Someone’s already doing that” – THAT one kills me – of COURSE, someone’s doing it!) and focus on needs.

Let me offer some additional thoughts for those who think you must hurry.

Consider two mature industry examples: Southwest Airlines and Tesla. I choose these because, for those of you who think the window is closing, Southwest and Tesla were entering VERY mature industries with multiple competitors when they opened their doors. Wouldn’t the window have closed decades ago in both of those industries? And yet, Southwest set itself apart by addressing consumers’ needs. Whether it was offering a lower airfare price, bringing some humor to flights (their stock market ticker is LUV), relaxing their dress code, no assigned seats, not charging for changing a flight, starting with short hop flights, or several other incremental differences, they listened to and addressed customers’ needs. Likewise, Tesla came out of nowhere to be the most valuable car company by addressing needs no other car company was addressing: cool tech, environmentally friendly, upscale.

Take note, both started in niche markets; neither tried to go after everyone when they launched, even though pretty much everyone flies and drives.

First mover advantage–another way of pointing to the metaphorical window–is over-rated and a game for VCs with a lot of money. Rather, learn from your competitors who may have gone first and their mistakes. Study their target markets and ask their customers what they don’t like about that solution. Execution and focus (i.e., addressing a first target market’s needs) are more important than the product.

While we’re on the subject of product, here’s the BIG point: windows close on products. So products that came and went were replaced by better products that addressed customers’ needs as they changed. Here’s a personal example. I was once, in 2015, proposing a product idea to a company. The nice man replied, “That is SO 90s.” Perfect–I deserved that. I was not addressing their need; I was offering an idea whose time had come and gone. That window was closed.

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