The Power of Positive Feedback

In one of my early jobs, I was a young engineer working for a company assembling electricity meters. Several thousand employees were working day and night putting those together, and the main activity was using small screwdrivers to screw together the many parts of the device. A key productivity tool was the electrical screwdriver – helping with higher productivity, but also creating quality problems, as workers were using the power of the electrical screwdrivers to force-jam many small screws. My project was to find a technology solution – embed a screw-hole thread alignment sensor in the screwdriver, measure the quality of the threads and allow only “good” screws, etc. In the end, I developed a simple control solution based on positive feedback theory. In everyday life we are mostly used to negative feedback control systems, the ones trying to “correct” a measured state – the simplest would be the thermostat. If it’s too cold – crank up the heat, if it’s too hot turn on the AC. A negative feedback system will take the opposite action in order to stabilize the overall behavior. The alternative is the positive feedback controller, which amplifies desired behavior. You would not use such a controller for a thermostat, since it will just make your house warmer and warmer. But for an electrical screwdriver it made sense – the easier it was to turn the screw, the faster it would turn, and proper thread alignment meant only 2 seconds of work. The opposite was the jammed screw, where my “smart” screwdrivers would just stop working and workers complained that it “lacked power”…

Many times I think about this story when talking with startups. It applies to both B2C and B2B go-to-market strategies. What does positive feedback mean for a growth-stage startup?

It means analyzing your early customers and focus only on the ones that love your product, and enhance or improve the features they love. It has been described as “customer focus”, “lead user strategy” and so on – the key being to give early adopters more of what they want, and focus a startup very limited resources on those customers only. It means analyzing your B2B sales efforts and drastically pruning the efforts sunk into those potential customers that are not enthusiastic about your product or service. Positive feedback means spending most of the startup time end energy with, and for, the customers or potential customers that want to work with you – and totally, quickly, rudely ignore the others.

The wrong instinct is to try to satisfy all customers — remember “customer focus” religion? I have heard many times that “all customers matter”, that “we need to get to 1 million customers” and seen so many startups spreading thin trying to make that happen. Some of the features suggested by fringe customers even make sense to the team — the key discipline is to be able to develop and enhance only those that delighted customers want, and cut everything else. If customers are enterprises, there is the temptation to “follow up” forever — to keep prospects in the pipeline for months if not years until they explicitly say “no”. My advice to all is very simple — an early stage startup should work only with customers that crave their product or service. Stop proof-of-concept and pilots that even smell like kicking the tires. And if no one is delighted with what you do, time to move on…

For professionals trained in basic engineering principles, we have been told that negative feedback is good, it creates stable systems, and positive feedback is bad because it creates instability – examples like falling bridges from vibration come to mind.

But for a startup instability and disruption is the name of the game, and positive feedback thinking should be at the top of the strategic toolset.

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