Startups Should Test and Learn Their Way to Success

I’ve been involved with 51 startup tech companies as a founder, executive, investor or consultant since the 1980s. Most were entrepreneurial startups but a few were “intrepreneurial” businesses inside Fortune 500 companies. The primary difference between the startups that succeeded (achieved the objectives of the founders or leaders) and the startups that failed, was how their leaders resolved the key decisions that make or break a startup business: what products or services to develop, which customers to pursue, which business model to implement, how much to spend on different initiatives or functions in the company, how to fund growth, and so on.

The approach that worked best in my experience with these startups was “test and learn.”

How does a startup test and learn? How do you know that your testing and learning efforts are focused on the right issues, have the right metrics, and yield the right answers? The founders and investors in a startup are in a hurry, so how can startups test and learn really fast?

The most complete answers to these questions that I’ve seen are in Eric Ries’ book, The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses. By following the “Build-Measure-Learn” process explained in Ries’ book, startups can get continuous feedback from the market, so that they can decide whether to continue with their current plan or “pivot” into other directions. Build-Measure-Learn becomes a cycle with a built-in feedback loop that improves the quality and “rightness” of decision making.

When I co-authored Building Routes to Customers in 2009, I had been applying the Routes-to-Market (RTM) methodology to help managers and executives make these same decisions more systematically and successfully for over a dozen years in both large companies (IBM, Microsoft, HP, Cisco) and small companies (Knoa, e-Smith, ShoreTel, HaloSource). When first-level managers in these companies were empowered to work as a cross-functional team and use RTM to make these decisions in their businesses, they outperformed the previous results in their businesses, turned around troubled businesses, and/or launched impressively successful new businesses. The RTM and Build-Measure-Learn methodologies have many things in common, but the linchpin is test and learn.

So how do you test and learn your way to success?

  • Step 1 is to develop an hypothesis about how customers will act when you provide a new or changed product or service to them.
  • Step 2 is to measure how the customers really act.
  • Step 3 is to analyze the information from the measurements and determine what the impact was on the customers’ actions. For example, did current customers buy more, or did new customers buy for the first time. Other kinds of change in customers’ behavior might be more important, such as telling their friends or colleagues about your product.

You need to test and learn scientifically, not subjectively.

Testing requires discipline, not the chaotic thinking of the founders of many startups. Learning requires an open mind that’s not wedded to the assumptions of the startups’ leaders. Test and learn is the yin and yang of making the decisions that drive success.

Dave Drives Profitable Turnaround with Routes-to-Market

In this quick and easy to understand video, Dave, a product manager for a footwear company, uses the Routes-to-Market methodology to turnaround sales.


Using RTM in a Marketing Life Cycle Process

In 2001 Adobe Systems executives made the Routes-to-Market methodology the cornerstone of their Marketing Life Cycle process. Their goal was to transform the company’s engineering culture to focus on customers. The results were exceptional — over the next 6 years Adobe’s sales grew 179%, profits increased 252% and its stock price rose 179%, more than 5 times the gain in the NASDAQ Composite Index and more than 6 times the S & P 500 Index. In the video below, Peter Raulerson interviews Mamta Shah, Adobe’s Director of Strategic Planning, about Adobe’s experience in adopting Routes-to-Market.


Using RTM with Distribution and Alliance Partners

The Routes-to-Market (RTM) methodology has been used extensively by product vendors and their distribution partners to develop and execute joint business and go-to-market plans. Using RTM in this way has generated significant incremental revenues and profits for the vendors and their channel partners. IBM, Microsoft and Cisco have done this with thousands of their resellers, distributors, independent software vendors (ISVs) and systems integrators. RTM has also been used by partners in strategic alliances to develop and execute joint go-to-market plans. Alliance partners that have used RTM in this way include IBM, SAP, Cisco, Wipro, Nortel and Sony.

In the video below, Peter Raulerson interviews Dhun Zwirble and John Skinner of the consulting firm Alliances & Channels, LLC, about using RTM with distribution and alliance partners.

Please see Dhun and John’s feedback about RTM and Building Routes to Customers.

Crossing the Chasm with Wireless Scanners

Using the Routes-to-Market methodology, the management of technology start-up Baracoda changed the go-to-market strategy to take their innovative wireless barcode scanners across the chasm and became the leader of a new product category. Here’s a video interview and case study explaining how they did it.


Bluetooth Scanners

In 2002 Baracoda, a French start-up manufacturer of wireless data capture devices, introduced an innovative line of barcode scanners that used Bluetooth instead of physical wires to connect to data networks. Bluetooth is a standard for wireless communications between devices, widely used today to connect headsets wirelessly to mobile phones. Barcode scanners read barcodes printed on packages and manufactured goods, for applications such as managing inventory in a warehouse. Baracoda’s innovation was embedding Bluetooth technology in barcode scanners before the established barcode scanner manufacturers did that.

Hitting the Chasm

A few early customers bought Baracoda’s Bluetooth scanners, but Baracoda’s management was surprised that sales did not pick up as expected after they signed distribution agreements with barcode scanner distributors throughout Europe. Management thought that customers would buy Bluetooth scanners for their existing barcode projects because they were easier to use than scanners requiring wired connections. But the distributors were returning Baracoda’s scanners one after the other because they could not sell them.

RTM to the Rescue

In 2003, interviews with Baracoda’s early customers found that, instead of using Bluetooth scanners in traditional barcode applications, they were rolling out new applications which required data entry via barcode for mobile workers, such as field engineers recording part numbers when doing repairs, and delivery teams doing product replenishment. Baracoda’s early customers were enthusiasts and visionaries in phase 1 who invested in developing their own software to make Baracoda’s Bluetooth scanners work in their mobile environments. The reason that sales had stalled was that pragmatic customers in phase 2 could not buy scanners without software for their specific needs. The customer interviews also revealed that customers who had bought wired barcode scanners did not see the business benefit for replacing their existing scanners with wireless units.

Crossing the Chasm

With those insights, Baracoda’s approach changed radically. They started contacting independent software vendors who were developing solutions on mobile platforms, and gave them free scanners, technical training, support, and co-marketing help. Sales picked up as each software vendor completed development and their customers started buying Baracoda’s scanners.

Success in the Mainstream Market

In 2004 Baracoda’s US sales team closed a significant contract with Nextel (which later merged with Sprint) to distribute and support Baracoda’s Bluetooth barcode scanners to Nextel’s application partners, so that they could deploy mobile applications for Motorola and Blackberry handheld devices on the Nextel network. Nextel’s application partners did not want to deal with multiple vendors of Bluetooth scanners because that would greatly complicate their deployments. Nextel chose Baracoda and acted as a “value-added” distributor by providing an immediate physical point of presence across the US and access to all Nextel partners and customers. The result was a rapid increase in Baracoda’s sales as Nextel partners sold Baracoda scanners combined with mobile applications software in several industries including construction, field services, professional services and real estate.


Baracoda succeeded in navigating the transitions from phase 1 to phase 2, and from phase 2 to phrase 3. When management understood how phase 1 customers were actually using Baracoda’s product, they realized that it met different customer needs than they had originally thought, and they changed their approach to exploit that opportunity, bringing Baracoda’s product across the chasm. By showing Nextel management that they could accelerate the success of their applications partners by giving them a single, common product to deploy (instead of a variety of incompatible products), Baracoda drove the transition from phase 2 to phase 3 by triggering a tornado of orders.

Introduction to RTM

In the video below, Peter Raulerson gives a 2-minute introduction to the Routes-to-Market methodology and our book Building Routes to Customers: Proven Strategies for Profitable Growth. You can also watch this video on our book’s webpage on

The Buying Cycle and the Sales Cycle

The Sales Cycle is the sequence of steps that vendors follow to engage with customers throughout their Buying Cycle, as shown below.

Buying and Sales Cycles

As you can see, the Sales Cycle includes all of the customer-facing activities of marketing, sales, distribution and customer service.

Across the 5 steps of the Sales Cycle, vendors have a choice of many resources for communicating with customers and for providing products and services to customers. The resources can be internal or external to the vendor. For communications, the resources include a wide variety of media (websites, TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, billboards, the vendor’s newsletter, etc.). To provide the vendor’s product or service, the resources include many different types of sales and distribution channels (e-commerce, telesales, catalog, retail, specialized resellers, distributors, etc.). After-sale services can also be provided by various resources (systems integrators, call centers, factory repair, field repair, self-service, etc.).

A “route” is a combination of internal or external resources that moves the customer from the beginning to the end of the Sales Cycle.

The Routes-to-Market methodology helps vendors plan, operate and optimize their routes. Optimized routes produce more revenue and profit per dollar spent on marketing, sales, distribution and customer service.

The RTM methodology was originally developed by the authors at IBM and has been subsequently adopted by Adobe Systems, Canon, Cisco, F5 Networks, Hewlett-Packard, Hitachi, Plantronics, Sharp, Sun Microsystems and other companies. The authors’ book, Building Routes to Customers, includes case studies on some of these companies’ use of RTM.