The FUGLY BABY problem

Has this ever happened to you?

You’re browsing the internet, scanning through your social feeds and you come across a proud parent introducing their latest contribution to the gene pool and your first thought is:-

“WOW – what a *&%@$ baby!!!”?

No? Maybe it’s just me then …….

Now here’s my question to you – “would you tell a friend they had a fugly baby?”

I suspect the answer is “probably not!!” – especially if you value your friendship!

In the world of startups and innovation, I repeatedly come across startup founders and product managers that passionately believe they are about to unleash all sorts of awesomeness on the world to a cacophony of “oooo’s” and “aahhhh’s” and they resolutely refuse to accept that they might just have just given birth to a fugly baby that nobody except them is ever going to love ……

Analyst group CB Insights carried out 101 startup failure post mortems and the NUMBER ONE reason they found for startup failure was “No Market Need” / lack of proposition validation – which I blame in part on the fugly baby problem!

CB insights

Image Credit CB Insights

The problem stems in part from the founder’s (or product manager’s) belief that they don’t need any involvement from marketing type people until they have built their product and are ready to launch into the market – at that point they (incorrectly) assume that all that marketing have to do is share their wonderful creation with the wider world and everyone will beat a path to their door.

This is a fatal assumption!

Tech founders are generally the absolute worst. They get so caught up in with what they can do that they don’t dedicate sufficient time to consider who they are doing it for. Just because they have identified what they believe to be a gap in the market for their awesome toolset and they have spoken to a group of likeminded people in an “echo-chamber” who reflect their thinking back at them does not mean there is actually a market for their offering – largely because nobody in their circle will tell them they have a fugly baby …….

Now before I continue I have to declare right up front –


I’m just more than a little frustrated with the lack of understanding of what the function of marketing is – or at least is SUPPOSED to be!

Marketing is not your fairy godmother. It does not have a magic wand to wave to transform your proposition. The function of marketing in a startup or new proposition development phase is to help SHAPE your proposition by challenging your assumptions and biases. By relentlessly soliciting feedback from your target audience so that you can iterate rapidly and helping you to prioritise what goes into your MVP they increase your chances of success when you launch. You need to involve someone with a marketing mindset right from your very early concept phase – particularly for product validation – unless of course you want to contribute to those CB Insights stats?

Proposition validation begins with identifying your target customer personas:-

  • WHO are your target customers?
    • you can’t just say “everyone” – you need to be specific – and create multiple persona types to be targeted
    • what do they do every day?
    • where do they do it?
    • where do they currently get their products and services from?
    • what are their interests and passions?
  • WHY should they care about your proposition?
    • what challenges do they face? (pains)
    • what new opportunities are you providing them? (gains)
    • why your product or service specifically and not that of a competitor?
  • HOW will you become relevant to them?
    • how will your product or service impact them?
    • how will you make their lives easier?
    • how do you propose to become a new habit in their life?
    • how will you become something they really can’t do without?
  • WHAT products or services are you specifically going to offer to meet their needs?
    • don’t just bundle stuff “because you can” or “because it’s cool”
    • what will hook your target customers?
    • what will they be prepared to pay for? You do want paying customers at some point don’t you?
    • if the target customers are not going to be paying, then who is? That’s a whole different set of personas and you’d better figure that out before it’s too late
    • what will your go-to-market strategy be?

This is a non-exhaustive list and fellow fans of Simon Sinek will recognise the approach. I’m sure that I’ll get flamed by marketing professionals who do this for a living (like the truly talented TAELON who has bucket loads of experience in this area) as I’m pretty sure that there are gaps in my points above – but the essence is that once you have identified who you expect your product or service to appeal to, you need to GO AND ASK THEM what they think of your baby ……. and brace yourself if they are brutal!!

I’m currently struggling with a prospective client on exactly this issue. They are a small bank and they want to launch an entirely new platform as a “Digital Bank” in order to gain market share by attracting new customers. (It’s a very specific geography with currently low penetration of digital banking services – feel free to reach out to me directly if you think you could help them). My first statement to them was “let’s take a look at your customer personas” and this has been met with some incredulity – as far as they are concerned “everyone” is a potential customer ………..which is EXACTLY why they have no idea where to start with their project!!!!

Contrast this with the following story of a recent UK startup that clearly did its homework in the form of market validation:-

Bar 18/81

Bar 18/81 Birmingham

One of my daughters and her partner have recently set up a small business – a speakeasy style “Hidden Bar” in Birmingham

(which by the way is absolutely phenomenal – not just because I may be a little biased – read the reviews for yourself!) – now if any of you have ever tried for yourself, you will know that it is INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT / TEDIOUS / ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE to open up a business bank account – particularly for one in the food and beverage industry!

They first approached the high street banks that they had held personal accounts with for many years – none were interested. They then tried other high street banks – they were even less interested!

While we were all sitting in the garden one Monday afternoon sipping cocktails, they expressed their frustration to me and I recalled a new startup called Anna – which had recently launched a product into market to specifically address this problem for small business owners – I suggested they give them a try.

What followed was a perfect example of understanding your target audience. The onboarding process was mostly handled by an AI/chatbot that stepped through identity validation (using both a selfie and then confirming against a government issued photo ID) which then validated the company credentials using a realtime check against companies house (which confirmed my daughter was indeed a registered company director) and within a total of approximately 9 MINUTES …….. their company account was open.

9 minutes …….. friction free …….

They were even more gobsmacked when less than 48 hours later, their company card arrived!

Anna is off to a good start and taking a look at their product roadmap, they already have a pipeline of products that will further address many pain-points for small business owners like online invoicing, tax reminders etc etc – but they launched with the single most important part of the process – onboarding – and they nailed it!!

In my opinion, Anna is most certainly a beautiful baby and I sincerely hope it will continue to grow and flourish.

Care to share what your baby looks like?


I’ve established that I don’t offer marketing services – but I can certainly help you with your innovation inspiration and ideation – please take a look here to find out how