Go-to-market as a built-environment startup: How do you eat a woolly mammoth?

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Desmond Tutu once said, “there is only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time.” Not sure who is eating elephants, but I get the point. When you face an enormous task, it’s helpful to take just a little bit at a time. If you try to eat the elephant in one bite, you’re going to feel overwhelmed and incapable. And you’re going to fail.

Yesterday I was talking to several of our incubator startups about their go-to-market efforts and obstacles. I learned that some are struggling to reduce the friction to acquire customers because they are trying to attack large segments with very few resources, and their pricing strategies may not align with the industry. When you’re going to market as a built-environment tech startup, it can feel a bit like trying to eat an elephant. Or maybe a woolly mammoth; our industry can be a little stodgy, after all. (In previous articles, I identified some core issues in our industry that keep us from innovating. Read about R&D for real estate owners and developers and the cap-ex/op-ex conundrum.

My first real startup went from two guys to over a thousand people in three years. We grew organically and through acquisitions. My partner and I were engineers and had never scaled a sales organization. One of our early acquisitions was a company with a stellar sales team. I remember the CEO of that company teaching me that the first thing about sales was to understand the organizational chart. I didn’t appreciate his wisdom until much later. But yesterday I was reminded of him, and reminded that step one of eating the go-to-market elephant (or the woolly mammoth, as the case may be) is to understand the organizational chart of the industry. So here’s that chart: not for every construction-industry company, but for AEC (architecture, engineering, and construction) firms specifically. 

The C-suite

Who they are: The C-suite is composed of the top executives in the company. This can include a CEO (chief executive officer), COO (chief operating officer), CFO (chief financial officer), and more. 

What they’re responsible for: CXOs are focused on solving problems that affect the entire firm. They only focus on projects that are very large and that are at risk.

Why they matter: A great relationship with the C-suite helps with influence and provides your “license to hunt.”

Helpful hint: In our industry, CXOs rarely make unilateral decisions. In fact, their budget could be a lot smaller than you think. Their budgets are limited to “overhead” and they have limited influence on project budgets.

Regional Management:

Who they are: This is the group of executives that manage regional office cost centers.

What they are responsible for: They are focused on managing people in these locations.

Why they matter: They are manager-doers, so they have some decision making power on the projects they manage but mostly have influence over the project managers and market leaders.

Helpful hint: All they care about is people utilization and project profitability.

Market Leaders: 

Who they are: These are the people that are focused on market leadership in a certain segment (e.g. healthcare, K-12, higher education, office, and more).

What they are responsible for: Their job is focused on business development in those sectors and they have a sincere interest in engaging with these markets.

Why they matter: Market leaders have great influence because they are the entry point of new products and relationships to their customers.

Helpful hint: They want to ensure they have the right expertise to serve the market. The majority of their focus is on the projects in their segment, their profitability, and the pipeline of new projects.

Project Managers: 

Who they are: While their title may not explicitly be “project manager,” this is the function that they serve. This list would include job titles like principal, project engineer, project architect, and senior engineer.

What they are responsible for: They are the leader of an architectural/engineering/construction project at their firm.

Why they matter: The surprising thing is this is where the decision-making power sits. They have great autonomy to make purchases that improve their project profitability and value. Helpful hint: In some organizations, the project managers have a negative view of anything that “corporate” may recommend. The challenge? Timing. Very few project managers will deploy a new solution in the middle of the project. And to reach them, you need to focus on how your solution will add value to the project. 

Given this organizational breakdown, how do you get market penetration? 

  • Focus on a single market segment. Create targeted campaigns to educate the market leaders. We have been very successful with webinars and whitepapers.
  • Focus on project managers. Creating project-based campaigns has been a very effective strategy for us. Project managers are always either about to start a project (ideal timing), midstream (not good timing), or close to wrapping up a project (decent timing). 
  • These campaigns should be focused on project managers in the markets that you have influenced above, optimized for regional targeting and project size.

Project-based campaigns are the most effective marketing activity in our industry. So how do you eat a woolly mammoth? One project at a time.

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