Thought Leadership

Which comes first – Product or Market? How to marry an academic and a business world view

31st May 2018

By Martina King, CEO of Featurespace

As CEO of a technology business, with academic origins, I’m often asked “Which comes first, the product or the market?”

Working in a building on a Cambridge University campus (1209 – present day), we are surrounded by visionaries; past and present, by people motivated to invent, to change the world, to make a difference. Many of these visionaries would like their inventions to be universally adopted and, in the process, deliver their inventors a fortune. Cambridge has produced a number of hugely valuable companies. However, the majority of inventions that have made it out of the treasure trove of concepts have been commercially developed by others.

My experience joining Featurespace as CEO was tricky. The company had a team of exceptional people who knew their academic subject better than anyone else (adaptive pattern recognition, statistics, signal processing and computer engineering), people who had worked hard to create a utopian view of their concept in the world, people who were already battle-weary from trying to persuade an indifferent population that their way was the best.

The company approach in 2011 was the product came first, a “we will tell you what we make; you sell it” attitude prevailed. My natural reply was “what problem are we solving and for which customer?” – to that question, there wasn’t a clear answer.

At that stage, no-one in the business world was discussing machine learning and its impact, although “predictive analytics” was becoming a hot topic. After what felt like an eon of work to identify a business problem our academic concept could solve, we found that an early version of the software was performing superbly and matched a large, important and valuable business problem – modern-day fraud attacks. There were many reasons why we should have ignored this market; a successful and deep-pocketed incumbent and a lack of trust for an opposing solution to the prevalent thinking were two significant obstacles to overcome.

Our break came when we found a few pioneering potential customers who were battling for change and a payments industry expert (Roger Alexander) who, having been inquisitive enough to spend a day with us, told us we could revolutionise the industry.

Professor Bill Fitzgerald and Dave Excell did not invent Adaptive Behavioural Analytics and the ARIC platform to reduce fraud. However, through working with the market and customers, listening, building trust, tweaking, and bridging the gap between start-up and fully respected business partner, we have been able to build our customers the product of their dreams and in return they are rewarding us for our efforts. So, was it the product or the market? It was both.

As Charles Darwin, one of Cambridge University’s finest Alumni said, ‘Only the adaptive survive’.