Fear traps many would-be entrepreneurs into a stalled world of what-ifs. For me, fear became a great motivator — when your life depends upon it, the motivation just shows up.
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When I started Inbenta, there were no investors in Spain, and there was no system in place for raising money. Without working capital, I started my business the only way I could: selling and implementing someone else’s technology. This option gave me the brand, the credibility and the capital that I lacked. But, I soon learned, not having your own technology brings limitations.
The first obstacle, I learned, is how little control you have over someone else’s technology. The second came when the company I was selling for announced that it was selling the company. This announcement created a very big problem for me. I felt an emotional tie to my customers and felt committed to ensuring them success with this technology. I think a bond like this develops quite easily when you are implementing a technology for a customer — you are sharing the same objectives with them, so solving their problems becomes your goal. Thus, it was excruciating for me when the company began telling these customers that the company was for sale.
I had also been steadily recruiting and coaching a core group of technologists who specialized in search and computational linguists. I had no idea if the new company would even have any need for us. At the same time, Spain was facing an extreme financial crisis, and business was very uncertain. So, it was unclear if I was even able to continue to be a reseller. Should I let this team of consultants go? Or did we have the talent and knowledge to create an entirely new technology?
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Solving your problem usually involves solving your customer’s problem.
One of the challenges that comes with creating a new technology is that each customer is unique. They each have their own histories, markets and legacy systems — each enterprise is a complex animal. Building a technology that solves one customer’s specific problem may not be a solution that you can sell over and over again to other customers. We knew that to be successful, we had to focus on what the customers needed, and not something that would be the easiest for us to build. We had to fill a need. The key question for Inbenta was, could we build a technology that solves a problem that can be resold?
I felt a great deal of pressure on me to sell something to someone. I finally realized that the way to solve my problem was to solve my customers’ problems. That was Inbenta’s pivotal moment — when I realized that the team I built could and should develop our own artificial intelligence solution. We pivoted from being a value-added reseller to a software-as-a-service company.
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When you’re unknown, believe you’re stronger than the big names.
But, the solution was not so simple, and combined with the financial crisis in Spain, this was a particularly scary time for me. I was legally bound by an 18-month non-compete clause with the other company. For the next 18 months, I was required to continue to provide implementation support to the customers I sold the previous technology to, but I was prohibited from selling our new technology to them. I spent this time building a new customer base from scratch for Inbenta while continuing to support the former customers.
I did have a pipeline of potential customers, who had not yet signed a contract with the previous company. These customers, of course, had doubts about a new company that had an unproven technology. Without proof, how did they know the technology was going to work?