There’s an episode of Silicon Valley (S3 Ep. 9) where Richard glumly declares, “Being too early is the same thing as being wrong,” as his bleeding edge tech company Pied Piper is cratering.

I thought it was a great line. It punctures the myth a lot of us have been told (or told ourselves) while we’re struggling for product traction. in the end, if the market isn’t ready for it, then it’s the wrong product from a business standpoint. Not always, but usually.

Many of us in startups have at some point heard some version of, “We’re ahead of the market,” to explain sluggish sales. In my experience, that statement is usually cover for one of these more serious problems (and one of the reasons why doing win/loss analysis is important for the team).

Your Customers Have Bigger Problems.

When a sales conversation gets stuck in the “We’re not ready for you guys,” stage, they usually don’t mean that your product is too advanced for them. Usually, it means they’ve got bigger things on their plate right now. Some portion of your sales attempts will always end that way, but if it’s happening a majority of the time, you may not be solving an important enough problem for your customers more generally.

You’re Trying to Change Behavior too Much

Your product can bring customers loads of benefits if people would just sit down and use it already. The trouble is, it doesn’t fit with how they go about their job. Or maybe they’re not quite skilled enough to use your product and don’t see a great incentive to learn how. Never underestimate the challenge of changing how even modest-sized groups of people get work done. God be with you you if you’re trying to “change the culture.”

You’re Selling to the Wrong People

Anyone in B2B product who’s ever designed something with a target user in mind, only to find out that your target user’s consultants are the real users knows this issue. When the group that benefits from the product is not the one using and paying for it, business development is more complicated. Maybe you’re not ahead of the market; you’re just fishing in the wrong pond.

Your Product Has Gaps

Being ahead of the market may mean that you need to “come back to the ball” a little bit to make it easier for customers to try and buy. Whether its the business model or the product that needs changing, if you really believe your produtc’s capabilities are ahead of the market, you may need to meet them halfway – or all the way. For instance, Amazon rolling out a free 3G service called Whispernet (footing the bill themselves) to make its store more easily accessible to Kindle users helped the product and ebook store take off. Is there a critical enabler missing for your product?

The Exception

The exception to all of the above, which I have much more sympathy for, is when the regulatory, political, or social climate just rejects a product for reasons that seem hard to understand.

A couple of examples:

Self-driving cars – Yes, they’re starting to roll out. And while I share the cybersecurity concerns, it still seems like a slam dunk that we’ll get get SDCs later than we ought to. Personally I can’t wait for the day my car drops me off at dinner, finds a parking spot by itself, and then picks me up and takes me home while I catch up on emails, nap, whatever.

The smart gun – NPR’s Planet Money did a neat story on the “smart gun” Colt tried to market. You would have needed to be wearing a special ring on your finger for the gun to fire. It would have been a step forward for handgun safety, but all sides came together to shut it down. Too bad.

If you’re working on a product tied up in that kind of mess, hang in there! And if we can help, let us know.

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