How can a startup with its unproven product gain traction, pull itself out of obscurity, and become a thing? This happens to be the billion-dollar question on the minds of management professors, investors, and founders. With little traffic generating almost no meaningful metric to analyze, no historical pattern to take as a yardstick, and no customer base to receive feedback from, it is no wonder that founders begin to feel lost shortly after a product launch. The feeling is akin to waking up in a boat in the middle of the ocean, not knowing in which direction to row. You can row in any direction, but for what reason? What if you are actually getting further away from the nearest shore while you think you are rowing in the right direction?
Paul Graham called this state of being lost "the Trough of Sorrow." Ben Horowitz dubs it "the Struggle." For Bruce Cleveland, it is "the Traction Gap." Geoffrey A. Moore, in his book Crossing the Chasm, which we review this month, describes it as "the chasm." A reference book that inspired other authors and has been cited thousands of times for almost three decades, Crossing the Chasm is about market development, focusing on how companies can grow their early market success into mainstream market dominance. Between the early and mainstream markets stands the chasm, which swallows many startups that initially showed promise. Moore analyzes why high-tech marketing produces inconsistent results, with some startups hitting the jackpot and others going under.
Moore sets off reviewing the two previously dominant frameworks in the field: High-Tech Marketing Model and the Technology Adoption Life Cycle that it is based on. The latter groups customers into five: Innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards. The High-Tech Marketing Model assumes that successful products capture the first group, the innovators, and smoothly move from left to right, with each segment becoming a point of reference for the segment to its right. In his book, Moore debunks these two frameworks and asserts that there are cracks between each adjacent segment, posing obstacles to smooth market development.
Moore introduces his own insights into the Technology Adoption Life Cycle and revises it. He gives us a psychographic analysis of each segment. He characterizes the innovators as "the technology enthusiasts," the early adopters as "the visionaries," the early majority as "the pragmatists," the late majority as "the conservatives," and the laggards as "the skeptics." These personas represent customer archetypes with distinctive features described by the author in laser-sharp detail as if he is looking at a photograph and telling us what he sees in it.
Moore argues that the chasm happens to be between the visionaries and the pragmatists. Whereas the visionaries are risk-takers chasing breakthroughs and seeking "order-of-magnitude" returns on their investment, pragmatists are level-headed business leaders who want to play it safe, invest in proven products, and only buy from the market leaders. Because these two have almost diametrically opposed characters, Moore states that visionaries can not serve as a reference base for the pragmatists. Pragmatists want to see competition before deciding to use a product. So, a product should either beat its competitors, if there are any, or build a market first and wait for the competition to show up before being taken seriously by pragmatists. It is an idea also echoed in Traversing the Traction Gap, which we reviewed last month, as the authors of the book emphasized the importance of "category creation."
Crossing the Chasm lays out what B2B companies can do to engender adoption for a product among the pragmatists. The author uses a D-Day analogy to drive his point home. Just as the Allies landed on a few beaches in Normandy in June 1944, secured beachheads, and went on to drive the entrenched Axis troops out of their positions, Moore suggests companies do the same with their new products.
"Cross the chasm by targeting a very specific niche market where you can dominate from the outset, drive your competitors out of that market niche, and then use it as a base for broader operations."
The fact that the book still has relevance after nearly three decades speaks to its success. Today, you can hardly read a book on management or listen to a podcast about marketing without reading or hearing it get cited. However, Crossing the Chasm is not without its problems.
First, it was written in the golden age of B2B marketing. Therefore, its inferences do not automatically translate into today's more dynamic startup world. Two short appendices added to the main text seem to have done little to bridge that gap.
Secondly, the author's style can sometimes render the text a difficult read. The book is full of analogies and metaphors: Knocking over the headpin, assembling an invasion force, taking the beachhead, crossing the chasm, visionaries, pragmatists, pioneers, settlers… Trying to figure out what all these metaphors map to in the mind of the author can be quite the challenge and adds to the cognitive load of the reader trying to chart a route out of the chasm.
Lastly, when dealing with the market segmentation problem, Moore brings very little to the table other than advising his readers to rely on "informed intuition." His suggested methodology basically involves the marketing team coming together for a brainstorming session, laying out possible use cases and people who would be interested in them, and generating scenarios around these personas. He tacitly concedes that this methodology is not scientific at all, and thus not repeatable. This point considerably undermines his framework as he introduces no quantifiable, measurable and repeatable process for his readers to implement. "Gut feeling" doesn't make a good suggestion for founders with little to no experience.
Still, Crossing the Chasm remains a must-read, if not for anything else, to understand and appreciate the impact it has had on a whole range of books on high-tech marketing. Supplement it with Anthony Ulwick's Jobs to Be Done and Bruce Cleveland's Traversing the Traction Gap, and you may consider yourself well-armed for your next battle on your way to building the next unicorn.