Startups

Managing customer discovery when you can’t leave the house

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Steve Blank

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Steve Blank is a founding faculty at the Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation at Stanford University, an adjunct professor at Stanford and a senior fellow for innovation at Columbia University.

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With in-person classes canceled, we’re about to start our online versions of Hacking for Defense and Hacking for Oceans (and here). The classes are built on the Lean Startup methodology: customer discovery, agile engineering and the business/mission model canvas. So how do our students get out of the building to do customer discovery when they can’t leave home? How do startups do it?

Reminder: What’s the point of talking to customers?

Talking to customers seems like a simple idea, but most founders find it’s one of the hardest things they have to do. Entrepreneurs innately believe they understand a customer’s problem and just need to spend their time building a solution. We now have a half-century of data to say that’s wrong. To build products people want and will really use, founders first need to validate the problem/need, then understand whether their solution solves that problem (i.e. finding product-market fit).

Finally, to have a better chance of a viable enterprise, they need to test all the other hypotheses in their business/mission model (pricing, demand creation, revenue, costs, etc.).

The key principles of customer development are:

  1. There are no facts inside the building, so get the heck outside.
  2. All you have are a series of untested hypotheses.
  3. You can test your hypotheses with a series of experiments with potential customers.

Now with sheltering-in-place the new normal, we’ll add a fourth principle:

  1. In-person interviews are not the only way to do this.

Reminder: What’s the point of getting out of the building?

One of the reasons for interviewing people in person is to engage in a dialog that lets you be sure you understand the problem you are solving and measure customers’ reactions to the minimal viable products you put in front of them.

There’s a rule of thumb that says, “if you can see their pupils dilate and can tell they’re not checking their watch,” it’s a valuable interview. The gold standard are in-person interviews where you can not only do all of that, but get to see what’s on their desks, the awards on their walls, the books on their shelves and other ephemera that offers clues about their interests and behavior. But today, with the COVID-19 pandemic, that’s no longer possible. So the next best thing is a video teleconference.

Video teleconferencing is your virtual friend

Video — with enough resolution (Zoom, Skype, etc.) to see someone’s facial expressions — is more than an adequate substitute, and in some cases superior, as it allows you to connect to more people in a shorter period of time. (When we first taught the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps 11 years ago, the first 75 teams did customer discovery this way.)

Our classes require students to talk to 100 customers/beneficiaries in 10 weeks. Before the pandemic, customers were found where they worked or played. Today, while some may still be at work, most will be sheltering at home and almost all have more time on their hands than before. (You certainly do! Because you’re not traveling to customer interviews, you ought to be able to do more than 100 interviews.)

Getting a meeting in the midst of chaos

Don’t assume that potential interviewees are answering their work phonesAnd if they’re working at home, they may have a different email address, so don’t use the same opening email pitch you did before the virus. Your email should recognize and acknowledge the new normal (i.e. Hello, my name is ______. I know this must be a crazy time for you. I’m a student/PI at ______ University. All our classes have gone online. I’m investigating whether [problem x] would be valuable to solve today or when the world returns to normal. Would you be willing to speak to me?).

One upside is that you may now be able to get access to people who normally have a cloud of administrative gatekeepers around them. If you have a solution that is relevant to their business in this uncertain time, reach out to them.

Find out how their world has changed

In addition to the standard customer discovery and validation questions (how they do their job, what pains they have around current solutions, etc.), you need to understand:

  • What were their needs/problems/solutions/industry pre-COVID 19?
  • What is it like now?
  • Have there been regulatory changes? Customer behavior changes?
  • What do they think it will be like when the recovery comes?
  • Will their problems/solutions be the same or do they think they may change?

Presenting your minimal viable product (MVP) online

An MVP is an experiment. It’s what you can show a potential customer/user/beneficiary/partner that will get you the most learning at a point in time. You build MVPs to validate the need/problem, then to validate product/market or mission/solution fit and finally the rest of the business/mission model canvas. You can use wireframes, PowerPoint slides, simulated screenshots, storyboards, mock-ups or demos. The rest of the canvas might be validated with price lists, spreadsheets, etc. (Alex Osterwalder and David Bland’s new book, Testing Business Ideas, is a great help here.)

Given that you are now presenting over video, you are going to try to communicate a lot of information in a small window on a computer screen. Rather than doing every demo of your MVP live, consider 1) recording it and 2) highlighting the key points:

  • Break your MVP demo into <1-minute segments. Edit the video to illustrate each of your points. This allows customers/beneficiaries to interrupt and ask questions and allows you to jump to different parts of the demo.
  • If you would normally have your potential customer hold, feel or use the product, make sure you demo someone doing that. Take the time to zoom in.
  • As you show your MVP, split the screen so you can see the customer’s reaction as the demo unfolds.
  • Practice, practice, practice the delivery of MVPs. Anticipate questions and prepare your answers to them.
  • Ask if you can record the session. If not, make sure a team member is online to take notes.
  • Remember: at this point, you’re testing hypotheses, not selling.

Validate the rest of business/mission model components

A common mistake in building a startup is testing only product/market (mission/solution) fit. But other business/mission model components must be tested and validated, too. How can you test demand creation hypotheses while sheltering in place to avoid the COVID-19 virus?

Important ideas you’ll want to consider: Are potential customers/beneficiaries now reachable in new ways? How can you test distribution/deployment? Are they the same now? Will they be the same after the recovery? Which changes are temporary? Which are permanent?

Your business model and the world have changed

If your business model still looks like your original assumptions a month ago, you’ve been living under a rock. Every part of your business model — not just product and customer — will change now. Recognize that in the post-pandemic world, the map of surviving competitors will change, regulations will be changed, distribution channels may no longer be there, the reimbursement environment will be different, etc.

Ask everyone you interview, “What’s changed since the COVID-19 virus? What will the world look like after?” (Be specific. Ask questions not just about product, but about every other part of your business model.)

Some discovery can’t be done now

The reality is that some discovery and validation can’t be done right now. If you need to talk to people on the front line of the COVID-19 fight (e.g. first responders, healthcare workers, delivery, remote work, telemedicine), ask yourself if your solution is relevant to making people healthier, safer, more effective? If it is, then keep at it.

If not, don’t be tone deaf. In the midst of the crisis, testing ideas for businesses that are shutting down (travel, hospitality, etc.) will not work. Even if they’re great new ideas for when recovery comes, most responses you’re going to get will be framed in the moment.

If so, put your project on hold or find another problem to solve. Be conscientious about not taking people away from the important work required on the front line of this fight.

Lessons learned

  • Customer discovery and validation can be easily done via video teleconferencing.
  • Recognize that many potential interviewees are working from home.
  • Break your MVP demos into small pieces, leaving time for people to respond.
  • Adjust your questions to understand how customers’ situations have been changed by the pandemic.
  • Some customer discovery can’t be done now.

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