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Have Opinions on Pilots?

Interested to hear thoughts and opinions on pilots for established early stage companies already producing significant revenue. Might be biased and don't believe they result in high conversion rates and can act as kick the can scenarios with low engagement, but I guess it is all about the execution like anything else. So if you have opinions on critical elements within pilots for newly established enterprise B2B relationships that lead to success and should be included and/or pilot substitutes you have used that create a better ground floor in which to provide customer value that has a higher chance of monetization, it would be great to hear your thoughts!

5 Replies

Kenneth Friedman
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Kenneth Friedman Entrepreneur
Sales & Business Development Executive: CSO/EVP/SVP ★ “Corporate Invigorator” ★ Expertise Selling into 20+ Industries
Pilots in general can swing either way depending on the product/service and the end user client/s. My experience has been that if given the opportunity, a company whether start up or established should indeed embrace the opportunity as it leads to "Brand Recognition" and perhaps total roll-out. It also adds to a company's credibility as a client feels there is viability with potential traction and has taken a shot with you. The cost/benefit must be weighed of course. It also allows for a more definitive marketplace intel and will allow changes/improvements if needed in the product/service. One size does not fit all. In the end, the action adds to the Company repertoire/resume of 1st timewins.
Will Nankivell
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Will Nankivell Entrepreneur • Advisor
Sales Consultant at Fixt Inc.
I love pilots. I found every unsuccessful pilot does not have clear objectives and do not include a trial close. Define what a successful pilot looks like for the client and gain their commitment to purchase if those conditions are met. Failed pilots typically have no term, no deliverables and no next steps defined if the pilot is successful. Good luck.
Alf Poor
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Alf Poor Entrepreneur
Chief Operating Officer at Global Data Sentinel
If the client's intention is to truly take a good look, a paid evaluation is a reasonable proposition. but should be used only as a last resort. The word "Pilot" *should never* be part of a start-ups vocabulary; your resources are too scarce to work with clients who are not committed. Going forward, it should be known only as "It that shall not be named". Now we've got that out of the way, let's look at it from a practical angle. It's enticing to get involved, you may even feel proud to have a pilot with a client, as it feels like it's positive activity, but the majority will not proceed. You can use pilots to learn, but call them betas and never associate revenue with pilots. Consider any deals that are actually closed as a result of a pilot to be a bonus. Adding pilots to your pipeline or revenue forecast will at best result in eye-rolling from your investors, and at worst instigate a conversation around your forecasts that is akin to a proctological exam. So, surface them to investors at your own peril. If you absolutely have to conduct a pilot, i.e. procurement or biz dev at the client has set this out as one of their evaluation criteria and they're inflexible in a way that would make a union rep blush, make sure you agree success criteria and length of pilot, so you can prove your solution and shut it down quickly and efficiently. Pilot = lack of confidence by the client. After a few start-ups, many of us have heard it all from prospective clients. It could be that you're a start-up and have no reference-able client that is noteworthy or applicable to the client's area of activity, it could be they are concerned you're too small to handle a client of their size. Whatever the reasons, these are typically sales issues around the matching of needs and benefits to your solution or service and not the reason to start a pilot. A properly managed sales process will see you handle objections that ultimately lead to a pilot-free sales cycle. To avoid Pilots be honest with the client upfront, as it saves pain down the road. Here are some I have successfully used: "We do not offer pilots, as they are a drain on both sides' resources. If you would like to consider a paid evaluation, we would be pleased to discuss this with you, but we would want to ensure there are success criteria defined upfront and that any evaluation is carried out within an agreed window to ensure it is fair to both sides". OR: "We do not offer pilots, we did have a beta phase to hone our solution for companies like yours and we found these were the features or benefits that they loved, cite feature X, or benefit Y. What exactly makes you unsure about proceeding?" Then close your mouth and wait for their answer. Trust me, they'll thank you in the morning and they're very likely to respond with something that you can learn to manage in the sales cycle. If your solution is complex or requires implementation, set up a client-friendly sandbox in the cloud to enable them to test your core features and validate your solution in an environment you control. Never, ever, ever, do a pilot where you spend time and resources on set-up and implementation within a client's environment, even if it's pre-production, as it won't be any more likely to convert to a sale than an free trial of an easy to download and install app. In case you didn't get it by this time, I'll spell it our for a final time. Pilots are a start-ups worst friend and should be avoided at all costs. It's the client's way of saying I don't understand your value versus the competition, you could be the victim of client's with burnt fingers from snake oil salesman at other tech firms, or it could be that you've oversold to the point it's too good to be true, or you may have even used too much tech speak to hypnotize your audience so they need some time to look at it away from your hipster-infused, silver-tongued, repertoire. Whatever the reason, and in any event, a pilot is simply hesitation to proceed by the client - so never see it as anything other than what it is.
Mark Silva
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Mark Silva Entrepreneur
Finance & Operations at KITE
While I agree with the scarcity of time and resources, I disagree with Alf on the characterization and allergy to pilots for startups. In the lean startup methodology it may be the best way to get to learning milestones alongside of an important early customer or new market. Consistently we see pilots turning into commercial relationships and game changers for founders seeking product market fit validation. The eye rolls he mentions will likely come from CROs or sales-oriented folks selling existing wares. Most founders and strategic-oriented folks looking for growth opportunities will value the benefits of executing alongside of their prospective new customers.

More Global 1000 companies are establishing new programs and processes specifically to embrace pilots and guide them to larger commercial opportunities within the enterprise upon successful completion of a pilot. Some examples of large companies doing this:

  • Visa is in its second year of The Everywhere Initiative, a startup partner platform that awards $50k for each paid pilot program selected. There are still two days to apply if you're interested:https://usa.visa.com/visa-everywhere/everywhere-initiative/initiative.html
  • Unilever through its Foundry platform has mentioned executing over 60-pilots in the past year with over $3m in paid tests with 50% going on to larger commercial engagements
  • Diageo has Diageo Tech Ventures that actively seeks pilots with startups to solve big business challenges
  • R/GA & TechStar accelerators do this in a more hands-on way as well as supporting with mentorship and investment
Full disclosure, our company, KITE, supports many of these programs but should also qualify the vantage point we have that pilots can be game changers. We see it all the time. You can't hit one out if you don't step up to bat, though. Cheers!

Alf Poor
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Alf Poor Entrepreneur
Chief Operating Officer at Global Data Sentinel
I think the key for me in your remarks is regarding Unilever and "paid tests". Don't be afraid to ask for paid evaluations. And, market validation and milestones are certainly part of the process, but we call them beta so it's clear to all it's part of the product development and validation cycle. Once you're to market, avoid the dreaded pilot if you can.
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