Conducting customer development with Clarity

There’s no substitute for purely objective feedback when building a new product

First comes the epiphany: I have the greatest business idea ever!

Then comes the creativity: I spec out a rough sketch of what the greatest business idea ever might actually look like once it becomes a product.

And then comes the humility: I need to bounce this product spec against potential customers to find out whether (a) it would alleviate a significant pain they’re experiencing, and (b) they would actually pay for it.

Most great entrepreneurs today agree on the indispensable value of conducting proper customer development before spending time and money building out their product. The Lean Startup movement has pushed Customer Development into the mainstream. It’s as standard a business practice now as setting up your accounting system, getting office space, and naming your company.

When I conceived the idea for UpdateZen last year, I did so primarily to solve a specific pain that I had personally experienced while managing several people and various departments at my first company. I was deluged daily with information and updates from everyone around me… my direct reports, my extended team, and various others in my business circle. I wanted to replace the summary spreadsheets, Word docs, email onslaught, texts, IM’s, and other mediums through which people updated me with a simple solution. Then I had my epiphany. I saw the product in my mind as clear as day. I couldn’t believe it didn’t exist already. But it didn’t.

I could’ve started building the product immediately, but instead decided that this time I was first gonna test my hypotheses against other executives at other companies in various industries. Were they having the same problem that I was? What solutions were they using to solve it? Would they be open to a new way of solving it? And most importantly, was the pain so sharp and my proposed solution — if executed well — so compelling, that they would part ways with $X/month to buy it.

First, as is natural, I went to my own personal network. I reached out to as many executives as I could… people I knew, people I’d worked with, people I was connected to on LinkedIn, and people who were referred to me by people I knew.

Then I discovered Holy Cow! I’d never heard of it. It looked too good to be true. Through a quick search on Clarity’s website, I was able to identify dozens of execs who fit the exact profile I was looking to interview: CEO’s, VP’s, Directors, and Managers at SMB’s (small-to-medium-size-businesses) with multiple direct reports. Bingo! I felt like I hit the jackpot. For $20-$40 a pop, I could have 15-30 minute customer development calls with potential customers who fit my target user profile, and who were complete strangers to me!

Now, you might think, why? Why would I want to speak with complete strangers rather than execs that I personally knew. And the reason, while obvious to some, might be counter-intuitive to others. Simply put, I wanted to receive unbiased, unfiltered, unadulterated, and 100% objective feedback on my concept for UpdateZen… from people with no axe to grind.

And that’s exactly what happened.

I went into each call very prepared. I had a set of questions I wanted to ask. I had a short PPT deck of slides that included rough mockups of my proposed iPhone and web solution. And then… I listened. And I learned. The people I spoke with shared insights that validated several assumptions, and more importantly, invalidated others. I took the feedback, went back to the drawing board, and refined and refined and refined my solution until — about 2 months later — I felt like I knew exactly what I needed to build.

And interestingly, I found two very nice by-products of my calls with the Clarity “experts”.

First, I made some excellent new connections… people I never would’ve been introduced to had I not reached out to them via Clarity. And since these connections were also folks that fit my exact user profile for UpdateZen, I am able to invite them to partake in our invite-only Beta release (starting in April!), and then eventually, hopefully, welcome as some of my first customers once we go live later in the spring.

The second nice by-product of using Clarity to speak with complete strangers who had no personal stake in my success or failure? I didn’t have to waste valuable time schmoozing with them about our kids, our families, our hobbies, the Mets, the Knicks, Chris Christie’s troubles, etc… Both they and I wanted to jump right into the conversation about UpdateZen’s product and vision. I got the feedback I wanted. They got a few dollars to donate to their favorite charity (that’s how Clarity works). A genuine win-win for everyone.

Lesson Learned: Do extensive and comprehensive customer development calls before building your product, and consider Clarity an extension of your personal network when searching for people who truly match the profile of your target user.

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