How to evaluate and validate your idea.
At this point, you have your problem hypothesis, your thoughts on what a potential solution will be, and who the potential customer or user could be. This means that it is time to get out of the building and your comfort zone and start talking to people, but the question is who and how do you go about talking with them?
Steven Blank, author of The Four Steps to the Epiphany, provides the following description of this group which will help you recognize a potential “Earlyvangelist”:
1. They have a business problem.
2. They are aware that they have this problem.
3. They have searched for a solution.
4. They have put together a D.I.Y. solution.
5. They have access to the budget required to purchase a solution.
You can also classify this customer as someone that is considered an innovator or early adopter. You are looking for someone that is part of your niche market, who would consider the pain of dealing with bugs in the first iterations of your product worth it.
There are tactics that you want to use and tactics you should avoid. Giff Constable gives a nice framework of some of those topics in his book Talking to Humans, and I’ll add in some personal anecdotes surrounding each.
One person at a time
The reason you only want to talk to one person is that if you don’t, your data is going to get tainted with group think. You get no useful feedback when this happens as there will be one dominant person in the group that dictates the direction of the conversation.
Pro tip: If you are given the opportunity to speak in front of a large group of people and still want to get useful feedback without tainting the data, you can ask questions and have them write down and/or email you their responses. You do not get to ask deeper follow-up questions until you sit down with them, but it can afford you some data to work with.
Know what you are going to ask and what you’d like to achieve out of meeting with this person. Have your questions written down and available for reference. You need to take notes; you can either do it yourself or ask someone to come along to write down the answers so that you don’t miss anything. One of the developers from my team came to meetings occasionally in order to add new perspective and to take notes.
Don’t probe and present at the same time
Your goal here is to ask questions about the behavior of your potential customers and to find out if the problem you hypothesized exists. If you ask a question and then present a solution, it is going to give you false data and perhaps confirmation bias when you go to ask another question. If you do want to ask questions around specific features, do so at the end of the conversation. Split the appointment into two sections, the first being the behavior piece, and the second being the feature piece.
Try to kill your idea
As entrepreneurs we are extremely susceptible to falling in love with our idea. Instead of hearing the negatives during customer discovery all we hear is what we want to hear, otherwise known as confirmation bias.
Be wary of people being polite
Ever look at a baby and think, “That is the ugliest baby I have ever seen in my life,” but you then still tell the parents how adorable and cute their baby is? The same thing will happen if you are pitching your idea. They believe they are helping you by being positive and giving you good feedback, but in reality they are looking at a cliff and telling you to drive off of it. Make sure you are diving deep and focusing on any of their hesitations.
Ask open ended questions
Yes/no questions put you in a box of your own construction that doesn’t let you learn or discover different perspectives that you hadn’t considered previously. When you ask open ended questions and let them talk, you have the opportunity to find out things you hadn’t even considered.
How do you manage your processes today? Why is that?
What is frustrating you about your current process?
What factors are limiting your process from being as effective as it could be?
What’s working well with your current process?
How do you envision your challenges being solved? What does that solution look like?
Don’t lead them down a path
Because I was in sales, this is something that got me into trouble, and it is something that can easily trip you up. I was used to leading people down a particular path to get them to the solution that I wanted them to get to. The challenge with this is that during customer discovery it leads to confirmation bias. I led them to my solution rather than trying to figure out if they had an actual problem.
Shut up and listen
Shut up as much as possible. Try to keep your questions short and unbiased. It might lead to awkward silences, but rest assured that this is what you want. Let them think about the questions that you ask rather than trying to fill empty pauses. Your goal here is to learn as much as possible.
Follow your nose and drill down
If you find something interesting or are unsure about something that they said, dig in. It might be uncomfortable to hone in, especially if the potential customer is talking about something personal, but ignore those thoughts. You need answers, answers that could make or break your venture.
Ask for introductions
How do you find more people? Ask the person you just interviewed for referrals. It is a lot easier getting a warm introduction than to start cold calling again.
Write up your notes as quickly as possible
The details of a conversation fade fast. If you haven’t recorded the session, write up your notes and color commentary as soon as you can. I brain-dump into a shared Google Doc so the rest of the team can see it.
Afterwards: Look for patterns and apply judgment
Blank, S. 2007. The Four Steps to the Epiphany.
Lucas is the founder of Spark xyz, platform management software for incubators, accelerators, Angel groups, and VC’s.