Create a ‘permissionless’ pilot program that drives sales and delights customers

I’ve noticed a new pattern that’s enabling startups to close big contracts, fast.

These founders and early employees are successfully inverting the entire traditional, notoriously slow enterprise sales cycle by shifting the customer’s “wow moment” from the end of the sales cycle to the very beginning. Let’s explore the world of “permissionless” pilots.

It’s generally accepted that the faster your product can deliver that “wow” feeling to customers, the better. But today, far too many products take forever to deliver that moment. Enterprise sales happen through a long slog of sales calls, procurement, contract negotiation, and technical integration.

Those all occur before a prospect can experience that wow moment and believe with confidence that a product will work for their use case. Candidly it’s a miracle any enterprise sales close at all.

Image Credits: Jake Jolis

The catch-22: “I’ll give you my data once I know it works on my data”

There’s a reason for this. In enterprise software, products generally require your customer’s data to work. What about doing demos with fake dummy data? That’s like watching someone else drive a car at the dealership. It’s a lot more exciting to test drive it yourself.

Image Credits: Jake Jolis

But most prospects don’t give away their employer’s data until they’re convinced it’ll be worth their while. Getting the green light to share or integrate company data with a third party involves jumping through hoops. Prospects must spend social capital along the way, first to secure internal political support, then to navigate formal approvals.

On the other hand, rarely do customers really get to “wow!” before they’ve seen your product used in their own specific context — that is, with their very own data. You’ve got yourself a catch-22.

Image Credits: Jake Jolis

To break out of this vicious cycle, let’s instead imagine if your product could show a customer exactly what the experience would look and feel like when used on their own data, in their context, before they spent any time on sales calls, procurement, legal, integration, and so on. That would change everything. . . .

Enter the permissionless pilot

This is where the permissionless pilot comes in. It’s a cheat code that sets the customer time-to-value to zero. It’s your tool to overcome customer skepticism, and to do so immediately.

The permissionless pilot is a product demo that uses public, customer-specific data to instantly deliver the ‘wow!’ moment.

With the permissionless pilot, you shift your prospect’s wow moment from the end of the sales process to the very beginning, to the same instant they first hear of your product. You don’t need them to agree or configure anything before the demo just works, hence “permissionless.”

So what is it? The permissionless pilot is a product demo that uses public, customer-specific data to instantly deliver the wow moment.

Image Credits: Jake Jolis

How to create a permissionless pilot

The three basic steps to a permissionless pilot are:

  1. Get the public data.
  2. Build a tool for it.
  3. Drive demand to that tool.

Not every company is a candidate for permissionless pilots, but the steady proliferation of public data in the last 10 years means there are certainly untapped opportunities for more wow moment demos. Recent advances in ML techniques like computer vision and natural language processing with large language models (LLMs) also allow us to structure vast amounts of unstructured data, creating additional permissionless pilot opportunities.

Image Credits: Statistia via Exploding Topics

A real-world example: How Emerge uses the permissionless pilot

Permissionless pilots aren’t just some hypothetical VC idea. They’re actually being used in the market to win big customers faster. Here’s one example from a portfolio company of ours that leverages a particularly clever type of public data: the binary code for every mobile app in the iOS and Android app stores.

For background, Emerge Tools (a Matrix Partners portfolio company) is a mobile application performance management (APM) and optimization suite that among other things allows developers to make mobile apps smaller so they’ll take up less space, require less data and time to download, and load faster on start. In less than three years, the startup landed customers like DoorDash, Square, Airbnb, Duolingo, Dropbox, ClassPass, Bumble, Faire, and other household names they can’t yet name publicly. All without sales reps.

To shorten the time-to-wow, the team built a system to provide instant analysis demos for any prospect by reverse-engineering the publicly available version of any native mobile app. This allowed them to show mobile teams their product’s value by simply looking up their app by name (no integration required). Their automated insights found savings that would help shrink the size of several popular iOS apps by over 40%. Note that at no point in generating the public demo did customers have to hand over data, redline contracts, or build internal political support for considering a new vendor.

The big contracts followed, not because of a short-lived gimmick, but because the customer persona — mobile developers — could quickly examine insights related to their very own app and proceed to implement the recommendations right away. For most, that experience just beats talking to a salesperson.

Where else could permissionless pilots work?

Brainstorming time. This short list should merely get your own creative juices flowing. The hundreds of startups out there that could benefit from permissionless pilots will know their own data sources and use cases far better than I can guess off the top of my head. I’m just giving you the framework.

Industry Potential use case Data source
Cybersecurity bug bounty hunting White-hat vulnerability and threat detection scanning, à la HackerOne. Web apps
SEO Suggest improvements to companies’ SEO implementation based on Google data, à la Conductor. Google search results
E-commerce optimization Cross-reference millions of e-commerce listings to suggest conversion-driving improvements to copy, images, videos, prices. E-commerce listings
Hedge funds Forensic intelligence to detect fraud and earnings quality failures buried in filing legalese, à la Bedrock AI. SEC filings
Web-based marketing Without forcing account creation, Mutiny allows any prospect to see how the software would personalize landing pages based on different audience attributes. Landing pages

From GitHub open source repos to rental listings, YouTube videos, and job postings, the world is your oyster.

To help with idea generation, start by just writing down all the public data sources relevant to your product or industry that you can think of. Next ask yourself: “What could my product do assuming it never got any proprietary customer data, but could ingest all those public data sources?” In terms of your answer, you’re aiming for a demo that does “something cool.” I’m not sure why, but “cool” is the adjective that tends to come to mind for the builders when they picture it.

It doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t have to be something customers would pay for. For good permissionless pilots, “something cool” is a good start.

If it’s not already obvious, it’s worth mentioning here in closing: Permissionless pilots can be a powerful tool. Deploy your pilots in a way that builds up your brand, not in a way that destroys it. Think about what tone you want to strike with prospects, how you want them to feel when they see the pilot. Good luck out there!