One of the downsides of working for a little startup that is going to change the world, but doesn’t quite have the name recognition yet - is that you get asked for customer references all. the. time.
Now on one level, I have absolutely no problem with this. It makes perfect sense from the point of view of a prospective customer: some rando just showed up, and sure, he’s got some good PowerPoint game, but I’ve never heard of him or his company - why should I waste any time on him?
The problem that a prospective customer might not appreciate is that by the nature of things, a growing startup has many more prospects than existing customers. Every single member of the sales team, if they are doing their job, has as many sales prospects at any one time as there are total customers in production. If we were to walk each of those prospects past a real customer, just so they could kick the tyres and see whether we have something real, pretty soon our existing customers would stop taking our calls - not a clever strategy, when we sell subscriptions and rely on customers renewing their contracts.
The trick, then, is to balance these requirements. On the side of the prospective customer, the goal is to validate whether this interesting startup has an actual product - or just an interesting idea and some vapourware slides. This is an absolutely valid goal - but prospective customers should recognise vendors’ incentives as well.
Reputable vendors who actually intend to build a lasting business have no more interest in wasting time and resources in projects that do not go anywhere than customers do. We know that our tech works (again, assuming for the sake of argument that the vendor you’re talking to is not just a straight-up scammer), so our goal is not to waste our limited time and resources chasing after something that is never going to be a successful, referenceable production implementation.
So, all of that being said - please don’t ask vendors for references on the first date. If the vendor you're talking to is any good, they will be qualifying you as aggressively as you are qualifying them. We vendors are very protective of our customers - once more, assuming you’re dealing with a reputable vendor in the first place! Please don’t see this as us being difficult or having something to hide; rather, it’s a preview of how your own relationship with us as a customer would be. If you trust us with your business, we will be equally protective of you. You want to be sure that if we come to you in the future with a request to talk to someone about your experience with our products, it’s for a good reason, and not something we will ask you to do every other week.
Once everyone is comfortable that there is a real opportunity - that is when we can get other parties involved. Until then, here’s a white paper, here’s a recorded webinar, here’s an article by an analyst who spoke to some of our customers - but my current customers are sacred to me, and I won’t introduce you to them until you convince me that you’re serious.
This has been your subtweet-as-blog-post of the day.