Bend or break – is the customer always right? A guest blog from Peter Birkett, CEO of Southampton Science Park

The ability to be flexible with your market offering is critical, particularly when that offering is new and unique. It’s essential to listen to what your customers are saying, and to be prepared to accept that there may be something about what you’re offering that’s actually not quite right. In this situation, you need to go back and ask yourself whether you should change what you’re offering to meet what they need, or whether to maintain the courage of your conviction, and carry on. You need to be adaptable, but equally, you’ve got to be careful that you don’t finish up just being pulled this way and that every time you talk to a customer. It’s great to have the flexibility to modify and change your plan, but you’ve got to be careful that what you don’t finish up doing is providing a bespoke solution for every customer, because then you’re going to struggle to deliver. 

Key to your success is not to try and be too many things to too many people. Whilst it’s great to have a business idea that could be applicable in a number of different markets; you’ve got to pick one and go with it, and accept that other aspects of it, other opportunities, are going to have to wait until you’ve got that one to market. The biggest mistake that a lot of people with really exciting technologies that are broadly applicable in a number of markets make, is that they will try and pursue all of them, and fail on all of them.

When I think back to when I first started the simulator company, cueSim Ltd, we knew exactly what we believed we should do, but it turned out not to be precisely what the customer wanted, so we had to change the product. With the alterations, the customer subsequently bought in, but in the meantime we were approached by several universities that wanted something else again, and so we produced a new product for them too! Big mistake! Everyone wanted something slightly different, none of them had budget worth talking about, and in the end we made a loss. We shouldn’t have gone down that route, but in the early stages of a start-up, you want to please everyone. Having to make the decision to say No, and pursue your original goal, knowing full well you’ve just turned down a £120,000 contract; that’s tough.