Often, we are really not the best critic for our own product. With our emotional attachment and biases, leaving the final say to ourselves will not help us improve. This episode’s guest is someone who shares this unique perspective and highlights the importance of working with the customer in the product development cycle. Betsy Westhafer and Tony Bodoh sit down with former Army Ranger and inventor of the RopeSafe Edge Protection System, Jonathan Norton. Here, Jon shares with us his own journey and the moment that led him to form his company—where he saw a problem, determined whether it was real, and got input from the field. He highlights the importance of being open to feedback, the discipline required when validating that customer feedback, and the approval process that goes with it. Jon then talks about why culture matters so much and why you need to adjust accordingly to the information your customers provide, even if it seems contradictory to your own perspective.
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Seek Out Information That’s Contradictory To Your Own Perspective With Jonathan Norton
Be Willing To Kill A Product Based On Customer Feedback
We are interviewing Jon Norton, who is a combat veteran and also an entrepreneur who’s been building his company over the last few years. He has some interesting perspectives on how to work with the customer in the product development cycle and we want to talk about that.
I’m excited about this interview. In our prep session, we got to hear some good nuggets that will be awesome for our audience to learn from. It’s an exciting relatable product. Everybody’s going to understand what it is he does and why. I’m excited to talk to Jon. Welcome to the show, Jon.
It’s great to be here, Betsy and Tony. Thank you.
Give us some background into your experience, your entrepreneurial journey, where you are now, and how you got here. We love to know a lot more about you personally.
I’m a former Army Ranger and a combat veteran. I did two deployments to Iraq. During my last duty assignment, I served as a Ranger instructor for US Army Ranger School. I was privileged to get to work with some of the best leaders in the US Army. After I left the military, I started my family and also started my business which is called RopeSafe, USA.
Tell us a little bit about your family.
I’ve got a beautiful daughter and two boys that are everything to me and some of my deeper motivations for wanting to be an entrepreneur in the first place. I live in Connecticut. I’ve been married to a very understanding wife on my entrepreneurial journey.
One of the things that we loved when we were talking to you in the prep was this concept of how you got this product to market. Can you walk us through that? How you first came up with the idea, what the need was, and the problem you’re solving. Walk us through what your product is all about and why you’re passionate about it?
I’d love to add value to your readers. To rewind the clock a little bit, during my last duty of assignment, I was a Ranger instructor and I was responsible for the safety of over 1,000 Ranger students per year doing military mountaineering. Everything from rappelling to mountain rescue, raising and lowering, climbing and everything to do with ropes and cliffs. One morning I witnessed a student, whom I was responsible for, lose his footing while on rappel. For those who don’t know, it’s somebody who’s sliding down a rope from a vertical surface. He was on rappel, he was attached to the rope and he lost his footing. What he did was he pendulumed like a grandfather clock and that force sheared right through our rope protector that we were using at the time which was a cut fire hose. Fortunately, the rope held but that was a scary moment.
We didn’t have a good solution for protecting our ropes at the time. We did the best with what we had but that moment always stuck with me, even after I left the military service, I’m a climber myself. I started to get back into climbing and I had this same problem. How do I protect my ropes from shearing on the edge of sharp surfaces like rocks? In firefighter cases, buildings, or construction workers, steel. I started to play around based on that need. I’ve seen this problem in my experience, I have this problem so I created a simple prototype of this product. I look back on it now and it’s quite embarrassing. It’s ugly, but it was novel.
I shopped it around a little bit to my local climbing community and I asked for their feedback. Come to find out, their response was, “That’s innovative. That’s new.” I started to get an understanding of the problem that, “Is it just me or do you also experience the difficulty of protecting ropes from abrasion and at worst, failure?” I come to find out they had. I don’t know if you want me to walk through the entire totality of the journey, but that’s what kicked it off for me.
One of the things that stands out to me and it was a phrase you used and you alluded to it here and that is, is the problem real? You repeated that 3 or 4 times, at least I’ve got it in my notes that often. To tap on that, you asked the community that you’re in, you asked the other climbers out there. You’re getting this response, “That’s something new. That’s something different. That’s something we need.” Take us through your evaluation process of, is this a real problem? Is there a market here? Ultimately, for the readers, this all ties back into customer experience, because if the customers aren’t experiencing a problem, they’re not going to buy your solution.
You said it best right there, Tony. The evolution of the product development process started there at a local community with a basic prototype. I invested $40 into developing it. It’s simple. Based on those interactions with prospective customers, I learned that there was, at least at the local level, a need for this solution. Based on some feedback that I had received from that local climbing community, I went and developed a second variation of the product. Concurrently, I also think it’s important that once I validated that there is a problem, I did seek intellectual property protection. I was able to do it inexpensively through my local university that did all my patent work in trademark registration for free.
To point that out there to your readers, your local colleges, there are students that are eager to sink their teeth into the real-world design and patent ideas. Because that is a long process, I took the second adaptation variation of RopeSafe and I shopped it around to the Department of Defense. I sent the product down to the 5th Ranger Training Battalion and several other major military organizations within the Department of Defense including Navy SEAL teams, Green Berets, and Army Rangers.
I started to gather a lot of data based on actual field testing by the customers. I was able to take all that data and start formulating further adaptations to help solve their problems. One thing during those interactions that I honed in on, “Is this a problem that you are experiencing? How severe is this problem? Do you already have an effective solution?” Trying to tease out from the customers, “Is this a real problem? Do you have a solution already that you’re using? Is that solution effective? What are some of the problems that you experienced,” and then asking, “Does the RopeSafe solution solve this particular problem that you are experiencing?”
One thing I was careful to not do is to validate my own biases. You can run into a trap, because we all think our invention is the best, to fall into confirmation bias and asking questions like, “Tony, do you like this product?” More often than not, they’re going to say, “Yeah, it’s cool.” I focused on what is it that you don’t like about this product? What is problematic about the current design that I have? How would you make this better? Would you invest in this solution? Those questions that tease out helped me gather a tremendous amount of data from multiple sources and create a follow-on variation, which is close to the commercial solution.
Jon, I want to take that a step further. You would talk to us about your experience where you were embedded with the customer at the event, Tech Warrior. Can you walk us through? What I would love for our audience to read is, tactically, how do you get that customer information? How do you put yourself in a position where your customers are going to be willing and available to share their feedback with you? Let’s go a little bit into the weeds on how you did that at Tech Warrior.
I’ll also share the predecessor to that going down to the fire department in New York with multiple of their rescue engines. I remember long trips into the city to spend nights and evenings with the FDNY. Those sessions were completely invaluable. You get to better understand who your customers are, what’s important to them, why they choose to serve in that respective profession. There is a lot of information you gather by being in person that’s important, but in addition too, I got to understand how firefighters operate.
I’m a soldier, I had a hypothesis that this solution would be useful in the fire protection services industry. I got to ride with Rescue One, which is an amazing experience. I got to be down at Ladder 111 and Engine 214 in Brooklyn and watch how these guys train and they are incredible. They’re highly-trained professionals in high-angle rope rescue. I also got to learn, what are some of the shortcomings of the product? Based on that real-world training, me sitting on a ledge with a firefighter using the solution going over the edge to conduct a rescue mission. That information was incredibly invaluable.
Fast forward, it helped me strengthen the product. It helped me get it to the right length because the devil is in the detail. Fast forward to the Tech Warrior Ops event based in Dayton, Ohio, there was an Air Force Pararescue team. For those that don’t know, the Air Force Pararescue community is highly trained. I call them combat surgeons, but they’re technically not surgeons. They’re incredibly trained medical professionals but also in high angle rescue. By timing and luck, they were there and they were doing a rope rescue mission in a complex environment. I happen to bring several of the RopeSafe devices for them to use. I was able to work with them for an entire day. I got to understand that respective customers because each one of them is unique in their way. I got to understand that this is a solution that adds value. That experience was invaluable.
One of the things that I found interesting is you talk about the segmentation of customers, you call it from a data perspective. You were telling us that there was a commonality that you saw, and you didn’t want to go too far in the weeds on any particular specifications until you knew that that would serve a wider audience to start with. Take us through a little bit of that process. Eventually, you’ll be branching out and creating products and all of that, but that initial product, if someone’s trying to go to market, what would you recommend there?
It’s casting a broad net. That particular experience you’re talking about, I flew down to Virginia Beach to meet with a famous SEAL Team unit. The one that was responsible for the killing of Osama bin Laden. It was a humbling experience. That particular unit, I got to spend a day with them and observe them as they would implement the solution. During that process, they had some design recommendations that I had not heard before. I’ll admit, it was tempting to not go forward and make a design change based on their feedback but it was the first data point that I heard. I hadn’t heard it from all the other army units that I’ve been to. I hadn’t heard from the fire departments.
I had to make a choice. Is this just a customization that this particular customer is looking for or is there a universal application across multiple industries? I come to find out, I vetted that idea across my other testing partners. It didn’t flush out that there would be much of a value add across multiple industries. I ended up not doing it. It’s important to note that this particular testing partner then became a customer even though I didn’t do what they had asked me exactly to do. I ended up explaining some of the logic behind it. It’s easy, especially when you want to please your testing audience, you want to do what they say. You have to be going with a hypothesis about the efficacy of this product but you’ve got to validate it across multiple different customers.
I think that is such a key point to make is the discipline it requires not to do everything that your potential customers and customers ask for and that you have to be discerning with that feedback. It can be costly to try to customize every solution for every customer or prospect. That’s a good segue into the next thing I want to talk about, which is the mindset of an entrepreneur, the journey, the discipline, and the persistence. All of those things that, obviously, the military mindset ties in so well for. Tony and I have talked about this a lot. We love veteran entrepreneurs because there’s so much that people that have served bring to the business world in terms of leadership, discipline, and mindset. Can you talk to us a little bit about what that means in your particular scenario?
One thing that I will say is, early on in the product development phase, it’s hard not to be emotionally invested in your product and I know, I certainly was. When I sent an ugly prototype, I say ugly but it’s an early and low-cost prototype, down to a customer in Fort Benning, Georgia area, I didn’t know how that testing was going to go. It was nerve-wracking to get a phone call thereafter and knowing that with a few simple words, they could make or break your product. It’s important to have the willingness to ask those tough questions that you don’t want to hear the answer to. You don’t want to hear that there’s a flaw or an error in your product, but I would argue that this is exactly what you want to hear. You want to hear the bad news.
This prospective customer clearly said, “There is value here in what you’ve developed, but you need to do this X, Y, and Z.” Those recommendations would not have come up if I asked simple questions like, “Do you like this product?” It was more like, “What do you not like about this? How would you do this differently? What testing do I need to have done on this to build your confidence in this solution?” That may not have been exactly what you were referring to, Betsy, but I did want to reemphasize that point. It took some emotional strength to be able to ask some of those hard questions.
That’s exactly what I was looking for, that emotional strength plus the discipline to act on that feedback and know that that’s how you play the long game. It is being able to take that feedback, discern it, and then decide how is that going to help me build my company?
I wanted to bring up efficiency versus effectiveness. The way in which I went about developing this product would arguably be not an efficient process but it was effective. We have had sales in the defense, the first responder, and the construction industry. We’re on a nice growth path because we took the time to go out and get feedback within multiple industries and synthesize all that information to develop a solution that works across that doesn’t require customization for each industry and vertical that we go into. It’s a solution that works. It doesn’t matter if you’re a firefighter, a high angle construction worker that uses life safety ropes, or if you are a soldier that’s rappelling out of a helicopter. It’s a universal tool.
One of the things that you talk about too, and we’ve heard this from other entrepreneurs who are in the early stage is that it wasn’t just about validating the product and what improvements need to be made. It was also when you were embedded with your customer. You learned who had to approve the transaction and what the process was. What do you have to go through to get the thing purchased because you can develop a great product, but if you don’t understand that part of it as an entrepreneur, you’re still dead in the water?
It’s hard to gather that information. I shouldn’t say that just over the phone but you’re exactly right, Tony. At least in my industries, in the multiple industries that I am in, each one of them has a unique and distinct decision-making process. There are influencers that influence the decision-makers and there’s a lot of subtleties stat that you have to understand to be effective to make an effective sale. All of that information had come from the face-to-face and over the phone interactions and asking some of those questions.
After understanding that there is value here in the solution, “Tony, tell me who else within your organization has to approve this type of purchase? Are there others that have to validate the efficacy of this product? Is it just you? Is there a subject matter expert within your organization that has to look at this?” Asking those questions helps you tease out what the approval process is for. Each industry, each customer is a little bit unique but there tends to be similarities across these industries.
The Department of Defense, there is a clear pathway, I guess you could say. Once you understand what the process is, that tends to be universal across multiple organizations but you need to know the who. You might share with me that, “Jon, you’re right. I have to talk to Master Sergeant Smith and he’s going to need to see your testing data on this product before we can approve the use of this system.” “By the way, we have to run this by our Sergeant Major of Safety. He’s got to give us the blessings and then we’ve got to get approval from our logistics shop.” You would know that and engaging with your customers, if they see value in your solution, they are going to want to help you to complete that sale. They’re going to be your customer advocates. They’re going to be your product advocates and they’re going to be like, “Jon, send me your test data. I’m going to shop it around internally. I’m going to get all the approvals for you.” That only happens when you ask those specific questions.
It’s a well-known fact that the military has an amazing culture. I’ve seen that with members of my family that are in the military, that brotherhood/sisterhood, I’ve got your back. That amazing culture. How are you building that culture within your company? What’s your vision for what you want that to look like?
This applies to any industry, any company that is a startup or even an established business that’s building a company, it’s being a mission-driven organization. Our mission is to create and deploy the best and most functional safety products to our military and first responders that are protecting our country and community and keeping your family safe. That is the driving force behind my company. My customers pick up on that. I have to be a profitable organization to exist but my mission is that.
We are also a company that has a specific culture. I’ve designed the culture of my company, based on my personal value system or something similar to it. Every subcontractor, employee, and consultant that I engage with are crystal clear on why we are doing what we’re doing and the culture of my company. That governs all of our behavior. We are a company that operates with integrity. It’s a fine example of the culture that we want to run. If we make a mistake on an order or we overcharged somebody, we are the first ones to pick up on it and correct it. In every interaction we have, it’s value-based. That’s the type of organization that I’m building. Ultimately, it’s what will be long-lasting.
That’s a great place for us to turn a little bit from. We talked about the product development cycle, we talked about the purchasing cycle. We’re getting to know all of that information. What you’re talking about when you talk about culture and leading back into customers is what people might traditionally call customer experience, but you’ve been talking about customer experience this whole time. As you move out of the initial product development stage, and you’ve got your product out there in the market, what do you see as the next phase of development for this experience as a whole?
It remains a customer-centric organization. From my communications to prospects, to my pitch deck when I go and direct sell to an organization, to my marketing collateral, to my website, everything that you will see, it is specifically centric to the customer. You’ll see the opening slide of my pitch deck is an Air Force Pararescue operator hanging on a rope using a RopeSafe system. You’ll see my YouTube channel, all my video content are firefighters using this product. My quotes are based on real customer quotes. It’s everything. It’s in the fabric of the customer’s voice. I’m the CEO of the company and of course, I’m going to say positive things about my product but what builds significant credibility in a prospect’s mind is when a major customer or even competitor per se has invested in your solution.
That’s how I try to position my product in the marketplace. I have a pitch deck for first responders. I have a pitch deck for the Defense Department. I have a pitch deck for the commercial construction industry because what is important to a firefighter compared to a construction worker compared to a soldier is unique, and why they would make a decision to purchase your product is also unique. Hopefully, that answered your question, Tony.
That was right on target in the way you’re developing even further into, how do I engage these people on an ongoing basis? You were on target with that. One other thing that came up as I was thinking about the way you used this phrase about how you wanted information so you could kill the product if it wasn’t a good idea. It ties back into something and it’s important in the world we live in where cashflow has been constrained with businesses closing down and all that. It’s not going to come back quickly. People that are out there developing new products and doing those types of things, you developed yours on a shoestring budget and that question was critical. Take us back to that question and how you use that in different phases of your work and how you may use it now.
It’s important, at least in my experience, that you seek out information that is contradictory to your perspective and have the willingness to kill a product. We’ve all heard the old cliché, 99 out of 100 products fail in the marketplace. How much capital do you want to invest in this specific solution? I know it’s completely different for software companies, but the principle is the same. I went out with an early prototype of RopeSafe that cost me $40, but it had the basic design concept so that I can get feedback and understand, is this a viable solution to a real problem?
At any point in time, I asked questions that would help me evaluate, “Is this worth my time, energy, effort, and capital to keep going?” I was ready at any point in time during the development process to kill this idea. If I had multiple data points from multiple customers that said, “Jon, this is neat but I wouldn’t buy it,” “Jon, this is neat, but we have a good enough solution,” or “Jon, I like what you’re doing here but this doesn’t excite me.” I was prepared for that potential outcome. During each interaction, when it became evident that there is a problem and this solution does address this. That gave me real data to then make the next level of investment in the product and minimize my cost exposure.
One of the things we’d like to do on the show is to give our guests an opportunity to give a shout-out to any community, organizations that they may be supporting or participating in or sitting on the board for. Tell us a little bit about what you do in terms of community while raising three kids and running a business.
I’m incredibly grateful for the Institute for Veterans and Military Families, the IVMF. They’re based in Syracuse. As well as the Entrepreneurial Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities Program. I had the good fortune to participate in that program through the University of Connecticut. If there are any veterans that are reading, I’d be happy to share more about that program and connect you with the program director. It’s a ten-day long, intensive entrepreneurial training that gives you the fundamentals, the building blocks for how to run a business. I didn’t know how to run a business. I thought I knew, but I didn’t know. That program, one, gave me some foundational skills necessary to run a business and two, it introduced me into a community that has a sea of goodwill that wants to help veteran entrepreneurs be successful. The IVMF and the Yukon Entrepreneurial Bootcamp for Veterans Program.
Jon, thank you so much for being here. We appreciate your time. We’re inspired by your story. I’m looking forward to watching your trajectory because you’re doing a lot of things right. I have to think that success is all but guaranteed for you. Thank you so much for being here.
I’m glad you said that because we want our audience to be able to reach out to you if they have the interest to do that. Again, thank you, Jon. Stay well and best wishes to you and your family and your team at RopeSafe.
It was a pleasure. Thank you, Betsy and Tony.
Jon is an amazing person. His vision for what he wants to create and how he’s getting it is so fascinating. The thing that stands out most to me is that level of discipline, but there was also that spirit underlying it. That vulnerability to hearing bad news and a desire to know what that bad news is so that he can take it and make improvements. Often, we don’t see that in the world now, especially in business. As we wrote in our book about unfiltered listening, he’s going right there as a CEO, as the inventor of the product, and doing as much unfiltered listening as possible.
It strikes me, that warrior attitude like, “Bring the bad feedback, I’m ready for it. I want to learn from it. I want to overcome it.” I love the spirit that he brings to the table. When he was talking about the mission, he’s so mission-driven, and I love that spirit. It’s grounded in the customer, which is what we’re here to talk about. It is when your mission is in alignment with the customer and you get to know your customer. I found so much value in so many different points that he made. I thought it was a fantastic interview.
The one thing that’s unlocking for me as we’ve done some of these interviews and I think with Jon here, he put his finger on it. There’s not just the product development cycle that you need to have your customers in, it’s the purchasing cycle. Who’s going to buy this product? Who’s going to approve this product? Who needs to sign off on it? There are all those different people within an organization, especially in a B2B world, but even a B2C. It’s like, “If I’m buying something, do I have to check with my wife? Do I have to check with my kids?” Those are things that are so important for us to think about, not just the product development itself. Fast forward, once your product is in the market, how do you develop that customer experience? It’s not something that’s just out there. It’s how are they experiencing the use of my product? How do they implement my product? How do we onboard them into this lifestyle of using my product or my service? Jon is doing such an amazing job of that and we touched on just a few elements of that in the interview.
From a process standpoint on how to build a company, he could write a book on, these are the steps you have to take. That wraps up our episode with Jon Norton. Thank you so much for being here and joining us for these conversations. We hope you’re getting a lot of value. We look forward to seeing you next time in our next episode.
- Jonathan Norton – LinkedIn
- Jonathan Norton – YouTube
- RopeSafe, USA
- RopeSafe, USA – Instagram
- RopeSafe, USA – Facebook
- RopeSafe, USA – Twitter
- Tech Warrior
- Institute for Veterans and Military Families
- Entrepreneurial Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities Program
- ProphetAbility: The Revealing Story of Why Companies Succeed, Fail and Bounce Back
- The Congruity Group
- Tony Bodoh International
- ProphetAbility Membership
- ProphetAbility for Teams
About Jonathan Norton
Jon Norton is a former Army Ranger and inventor of RopeSafe Edge Protection System.
RopeSafe protects a load-bearing rope from being severed on sharp surfaces and is designed for Military, First Responders, and Rope Access Professionals.
Jon’s customers are the Men and Women who put themselves at risk to save our families and keep our Country and Community safe.
Rangers Lead The Way!