How to Tell When It's Time to Put Your Pet Project to Sleep
I'm a business owner with what entrepreneur and author Trevor Owens calls “one of the most difficult decisions a CEO has to make."
I need to decide whether a service offering I co-created and now lead:
• is worth investing additional time and money in
• should be set aside to be pursued solely as a personal passion
• should (gulp) be killed outright
The service offering in question is called Comedy Experience. I created it after performing standup comedy as part of an ongoing midlife crisis that, truth be told, first surfaced when I was a high school sophomore.
After two years of performing standup, I noticed subtle, but very real, improvements in my abilities as a leader and business executive. I possessed more confidence in front of a group. I listened better and instinctively began to read audience reactions. I adapted to those reactions in nanoseconds and found myself capable of turning a negative or impassive group into an energized, supportive one. That's pure gold to any business executive.
Supercharged by my own improvements, I partnered with my personal coach and professional standup comedian Clayton Fletcher to create an ongoing series of training sessions, and rolled it out to my 100-person staff. These soon became part of our management development program. Through Comedy Experience, our leaders discovered how much more effective they could be if, like standup comedians, they displayed vulnerability and authenticity in front of our employees, as well as clients and prospects.
Even more important, comedy began to subtly, but most certainly, improve our culture. It broke down barriers, connecting our employees in new and fun ways through a shared learning experience.
The trade media loved our use of comedy in the workplace. So did national outlets, ranging from Inc. and Forbes to MSNBC and TVTaxi. Sure enough, the phone began ringing, and organizations including MetLife, Colgate, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and a group of OB/GYN doctors asked us to lead comedy experiences for their staffs. In fact, it seemed the more serious the business, the more anxious the executives were to learn the art and science of comedy (and how to apply each in business settings).
So What's My Problem?
No one ever saw Comedy Experience as more than a one-off, half-day event, in spite of our best efforts to position it as a critical component for any workplace culture aspiring to become healthier. We got nowhere.
So we changed tactics. Instead of pitching it to human resources managers, we went to sales directors. That went over like an Andrew Dice Clay joke at an evangelical retreat. Not willing to be yanked offstage, we next packaged it within our events group and offered it as a component of the conferences and retreats we're hired to coordinate. Again, the silence was deafening.
Desperate to cure my ailing service, I went to the man who literally wrote the book for dealing with such business conundrums: Trevor Owens. He is the author, with Obie Fernandez, of The Lean Enterprise: How Corporations Can Innovate Like Startups. He's also the co-founder of enterprise software company Javelin.com and an expert in Lean Startup methodology, a scientific approach for quickly determining if a product, service, or business idea is marketable (or, as in my case, could be turned into a long-term profit stream).
The Product/Market Fit
Owens suggested that I go back to former Comedy Experience clients and conduct what he calls the Product/Market Fit test. He describes the fit as the tipping point at which an idea solves an important problem in the market.
To determine if Comedy Experience was a fit, Owens recommended I use an online tool called Survey.io to ask my previous clients a single question: "How disappointed would you be if you could not have attended Comedy Experience?" If fewer than 40 percent of those who had experienced my firm's comedy training answered "Very Disappointed," I would know the service offering had no future. But if more than 40 percent said they would be "Very Disappointed," that would be a green light to try fixing the sales process.
Owens said I should review my success rates in closing human resources managers and sales leaders, and compare that with my success in closing training managers and business unit executives.
He also offered a trick for figuring out the right internal buyer for a business-to-business sale: Get referred down from the top. "When an innovative service such as the one you describe first becomes available, you need more than an advocate within the organization. You need the right advocate, with power and the budget authority, to get this done," he says. In other words, I should sell Comedy Experience to my fellow CEOs and have them refer me to the most likely buyer in the organization.
Owens also suggested a way for me to get past the problem of the service being seen as a one-off event. Typically, a prospect will tell me, "We'd like to test this with 20 people within our 200-person-strong research and development group for $XX, and, if it works, we can discuss an ongoing monthly retainer at the number you quoted." As noted previously, the ongoing work never occurs.
So Owens said I should test selling big. I should paint a picture of the rapid improvements a 200-person unit will experience over a six-to-12-month period, using my own firm's results as validation. Crain's New York Business named Peppercomm the best workplace in New York City as a direct result of our comedy-based culture. He said I should emphasize that a one-off event of 20 people is essentially useless, but it could provide momentum for a larger event internally. By reducing the perceived value of a one-off event to zero, I can test the interest level in the big vision.
When you're facing a similar challenge, Owens recommends asking yourself these questions:
1. How much time and money do I want to continue to invest?
2. Am I properly incentivizing the employees who are helping me sell it? Owens suggested I follow the "Innovation Colony" approach from his book, making the comedy product a separate legal entity and giving employees a share of the equity in exchange for sharing the risk. Entrepreneurial employees need entrepreneurial compensation to stay engaged and succeed.
3. Is this a personal passion of mine or a genuine revenue stream? If, as Owens suggested, it might be just the former, he encouraged me to keep at it but to redeploy resources to other proven sources of profits for my firm.
I felt energized, but sobered, by my conversation with Owens. I intend to bounce the survey question he suggested off former clients, and to redirect the service's value proposition and sales pitch to a CEO-level decision maker. Then and only then will I decide whether to fish or cut bait.
Worst-case scenario? I can always take out my frustrations by performing every Friday night at the Greenwich Village Comedy Club. So, have you heard the one about the CEO who thought he could sell comedy as if it were toothpaste?
STEVE CODY | Columnist
I'm a climber, comedian, and dog lover. But not necessarily in that order. I also happen to be co-founder and CEO of Peppercomm, a strategic communications firm headquartered in NYC, with offices in San Francisco and London. I publish RepMan, a daily blog, and have had the opportunity to appear on CNBC, MSNBC, NPR, and a host of other top-tier media over the years. firstname.lastname@example.org