Burt Hurlock | Crain's

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Burt Hurlock

Background:  

Burt Hurlock is the CEO of Boston-based Azima, a global machine-condition monitoring company that provides plant managers with the information they need to ensure machinery uptime, plant availability and reduced maintenance costs.

The Mistake:

Our company uses a monitoring technology proven very effective decades ago. It’s called condition data, and it tells you about the condition of a machine. We principally use vibration analysis, as well as oil analysis and infrared imaging analysis. It’s a pretty amazing piece of technology, but it’s not new, and it has always required an expert to collect and analyze the data to explain exactly what’s going on inside a machine.

That last part was the problem we had with it. Only one person could cover a certain number of plants, and that’s all they could ever do because eight percent of the work was collecting data. It was really inefficient and not scalable.

So we put together a complicated business model that involved simplifying the data collection process, mirroring all that data in the cloud and using an expert system to screen a lot of it so that our experts were looking only at the relevant data, rather than all of it; we had a piece of software that allowed us to say that 85 percent of the data shows nothing is wrong, so no one needed to look at it. That was considered pretty controversial because these experts felt that was part of their job. But we thought we had a really simple solution to what had been a perplexing problem for decades, and we assumed that the broad market would understand that.

That’s where we went wrong.

Initially, we developed a very conventional push sales strategy, where we had a dozen salespeople distributed nationally, knocking on plant doors and saying, “If you liked how it was done before, you are going to love the way we can do it now.” But we got all these blank stares.

We spent five years on this push strategy, trying to convince people it was a great idea. We did eventually convince people, but it took us an average of two years to get them on board. You can’t survive like that. So we hired a sales consultant who looked at our problem and said, “I think you’ll find a group of people out there that’s been thinking about this, and it will instantly resonate with them. There won’t be many of them, but I know they’re out there. To find them, you’ll have to completely reposition your sales strategy from a push to a pull.”

A pull strategy means you are putting a message out there specifically designed to attract the attention of a well-defined buyer. You don’t find that buyer by knocking on doors like we were doing before. We had to reposition ourselves as thought leaders in the industry, write about the topic in a compelling way and make our opinions broadly visible in the market. That way, the people we wanted to target could find us. So we published a lot, trying out all kinds of messaging we thought would resonate with our target buyers.

The effect was dramatic. In less than a year, we found the people we were looking for — but they were not suppliers of the service, like us; they were buyers of the service.

You have to present a problem to people in a way that resonates with them, rather than trying to convince them to opt in.

The Lesson:

When you have an innovative idea that seems obvious to you, it’s a mistake to assume that it’s obvious to lots of other people; it’s also a mistake to assume it’s not obvious to some of them. The trick is how to find the ones to whom it’s obvious.

You have to present a problem to people in a way that resonates with them, rather than trying to convince them to opt in. At least, that’s how it worked out for us.

In the heavy-industrial market, technology adoption is incredibly slow because the businesses were built on practices and processes that are very hard to change. The organizations are so big and highly structured that anything new could present a career risk. That’s why you have to find the innovators and the early adopters. 

​We had to find a way to get in front of these people, and it was the difference between using a fairly blunt marketing instrument like a magazine ad — something that wasn’t very dynamic — and one that was more sophisticated. By writing about the problem we were aiming to solve, our target buyers found us. And it was way cheaper to find our target that way because we didn’t need a bunch of salespeople to do it.

Azima is on Twitter: @AzimaDLI.

​Photo courtesy of Azima

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