Donald Thompson is the chairman and CEO of Walk West, a digital consultancy focused on communications with regard to PR, digital marketing, web development, content creation – anything that allows clients to create an authentic brand and deliver that brand message through digital communication.
Prior to Walk West, Donald was the CEO of an IT engineering services firm called I-Cubed, which exited in 2014 to KPIT. He also created a marketing automation services firm that he spun out to Berringer Capital in 2017.
While Donald is currently focused on the marketing and communication side of business, he has a solid background in product and service development, and bringing those to market, to million-dollar firms and multi-billion-dollar firms like Adobe, IBM, Lockheed Martin and others.
Teresa: Please tell us a little bit more about what you will be speaking on at the upcoming 2020 Product Innovation Summit?
Donald: When you think about product development, there are a couple of stages you probably fall into. You may be an entrepreneur seeking funding from an investor to pursue your dream. Or, you may be inside a larger company and want to take a product in a new direction. Either way, we all have to communicate and sell our ideas in order to get the support we need to do something important.
Most things that are significant aren’t done by soloists. There is probably an investment team, a recruiting team, and so on. What I am going to talk about is how to create a path forward, and the process it takes to make a compelling enough product or idea so that people want to take the journey with you.
Nothing happens in business without something being marketed and sold. This applies to ideas as well. How do you link your idea to the business benefit of the organization you represent or are trying to sell to? That is why a lot of ideas don’t sell. There is not a direct link to business impact. If you are pitching an investor or pitching an internal executive to get funding for your idea, and you can link the success of your project to the direct business imperative, you can increase exponentially the chances of that project getting funded, and getting the right people on your team.
I will also talk about how to give yourself the tools and methods to implement your idea, because you have sold your idea powerfully enough to get the support you need.
Teresa: Can you talk about some of the other challenges or obstacles people might face when it comes to selling their ideas or bringing those ideas to life?
Donald: One of the other main obstacles, and I have a podcast out about this, is that they have an idea they think is great, but they don’t do their research to find out if the market wants or needs what they want to sell. I was talking to my friend, Chris Heivly with TechStars. He said “if you talk to 100 people and you are still excited, good, but if you are still super excited and you have champions that want to be part of what you are doing, then you should probably continue.”
Keep in mind that after talking to 100 people, you are also going to shape what that idea should be from a commercial standpoint. So many people simply don’t want to do hard work. They just want people to give them money for what they think, not what they do.
There is tremendous value in having people you trust and respect critique your idea, and then either adjust or push against that feedback. You need to be able to talk about your idea with a broad group of people, to defend it against rebuttal, to talk about it in a concise and powerful way, or to pivot your idea and make it something more powerful than you imagined.
Teresa: How open do you think people are open to that pivot you talked about, to listening to feedback and changing the direction of their product or idea?
Donald: You have to ask yourself – are you looking for validation for the way you think about your idea? Or, are you looking for insight to grow and build something amazing? People that want to fund innovation are looking for someone who is looking to take real-world feedback and make decisions based on that new knowledge. Selling your idea has to come with enough confidence to push though, but enough humility to take quality feedback.
Teresa: I have heard you talk about “high-impact” ideas. Can you elaborate on what you mean by that?
Donald: A lot of that “impact” is purely financial. Is your idea going to change your company’s trajectory incrementally, is it going to overwhelm your competition, or is it going to take you in a totally new direction so you can dominate a new market?
There is innovation in incremental change, like how the iPhone changes slightly year over year. But that is different than innovations we see in AI or AR, that are making communication radically different. In my opinion, high-impact ideas are ones that are radically different, or something that creates a radically different result. Remember the bag phone? Big innovations in batteries paved the way for cell phones to be used in a radically different way. The improvements in batteries may have seemed incremental over the years, but they were high-impact in how they radically changed the way we use the cell phone.
Teresa: I know you have already talked about some elements of the idea evaluation process, but can you talk more about what else that evaluation process should consist of?
Donald: One of the things that is really important, in my opinion, especially when launching a new product, is how strong your beta customers are. On the front end, we talk about research. On the launch end, the beta program is key. When you think about how strong Gmail is today, you might not realize that 10 years ago, it was in beta testing for 1.5 years. They got hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of people to use it. Then, they captured the data about what people liked, didn’t like, etc. They used it in marketing, but also used it to accelerate their product into what it should be and what it has become. Before you launch something, you should have just as strong of a beta audience as you did your research audience. It is a similar thought process but much more hands on. Based on that, you can really understand the robustness and scale of your idea or product.
The cool thing about technology is that you can create some really nice frames that have the look and feel of the product without spending money to build out the product. You can build click throughs for your software so people can understand user experience and messaging. And, there are a lot of cool rapid prototyping tools that allow you to really test before you invest.
Join us for the 2020 Product Innovation Summit, February 26th, to hear more from Donald.