How I Did Customer Development by Driving for Uber

Last year I got really inspired by Steve Blank’s concept of Customer Development.

Customer development is not business development (generating customers), or finding customers to fit to your existing solutions.

I like Cindy Alvarez’s definition in her book Lean Customer Development: Build Products Your Customers Will Buy :

Customer development is a hypothesis-driven approach to understanding:

- Who your customers are

- What problems and needs they have

- How they are currently behaving

- Which solutions customers will give you money for (even if the product is not built or completed yet)

- How to provide solutions in a way that works with how your customers decide, procure, buy, and use

Hypothesis-driven means you have a bunch of assumptions (really, guesses) about your business, and you are going to test those hypotheses to de-risk your assumptions.

I could turn this whole post into explaining customer development, but I will just drop my two favorite resources here:

The Startup Owner’s Manual by Steve Blank

  • This is sort of the updated version of the original and iconic Four Steps to the Epiphany, which launched the Lean Startup movement
  • Focus is on the theory

Lean Customer Development by Cindy Alvarez

  • Takes Steve Blank’s fundamentals and makes them more concise, and more actionable.
  • Focus is on the practical (i.e. how to tangibly do it)

If you’re starting a new business, the first question you have about Customer Development is “Where do I find customers to talk to?”

You want to avoid friends and family. They love you too much and won’t tell you what you need to hear.

You want to avoid going out to the street and trying to talk to strangers walking. I’ve tried it — it’s not fun or fruitful. It’s hard to get their focus, and they aren’t interested in talking to you while they’re trying to get somewhere else.

You know what solves both of those problems AND makes you money at the same time?

Driving for Uber.

Most people say they hate a chatty uber driver, but if you talk about things they have opinions on, they love talking (especially if they’ve been drinking).

Here’s my customer development story:

I was recently the Director of Product for Front Gate Tickets, a ticketing software company that focuses on the full cycle of festival ticketing for clients like Coachella, Lollapalooza, ACL, and others.

You bought your ticket on our website (sorry for the wait room); you called us and asked where your wristband was; you got your RFID wristband in the mail from us; you registered your credit card and Facebook to your wristband on our site (for on-site cashless transactions and social engagements); you scanned into the festival gates with the hardware and software we built, and you would swear at us when our box office software told us that the wristband you just bought off Craigslist was counterfeit.

That’s a lot of touch points for a customer with our products. It’s hard to interview people at a festival when they’re trying to enjoy themselves and see some music, but the ride to and from the festival was the perfect spot to capture some qualitative data.

So I drove for Uber.

Heading to the festival…

I was able to pick up groups of people heading to the festival. Perfectly engaged and excited customers who had recently received their wristband and registered it online.

“What bands are you guys looking forward to?”

leads to…

“Did you register your wristband?”

Example answer: Yeah, but the process was really buggy on my phone. I wasn’t sure if it worked or not. (We had some problems with the responsive design).

“Why did/didn’t you connect your credit card?”

Example answer: I don’t want someone stealing my wristband then having access to my credit card (we didn’t sufficiently explain the security of their card and the fact that you have to put a pin number in when you purchase with cashless).

“Why did/didn’t you connect your Facebook?”

Example answers:

  • Yeah! Then I didn’t have to fill out a bunch of form fields (we only populate the name and email fields, but she was happy).
  • No, I don’t want it posting to Facebook without me knowing (we didn’t explain well enough that it would only post if the user scanned their wristband on a social portal, such as to enter a give-away contest).
  • No, I don’t want you to use my data (fair enough).

Heading home from the festival…

Again, perfectly engaged and excited customers who had just interacted with our products. Note: works best if they aren’t completely hammered.

“What was the best act tonight?”

leads to…

“Did you use Cashless to buy anything?”

Example answers:

  • Yeah it was pretty cool! Seemed faster than credit card.
  • I tried but after it didn’t work the first time, I gave up.
  • No, it was too easy and I was going to spend all my money.
“Are you going to throw up in my car?”

Example answers: [redacted]

Take Away Lessons:

Driving for Uber can be a great, organic way to “get out of the building” and talk to customers. (Tweet this).

It was convenient for me having access to people actively interacting with our products that day, but I guarantee just picking up random riders can lead to insights to whatever you building.

Let’s say you’re interested in building a better calendar and scheduling app (who isn’t?). Surely you’re going to pick up some busy professionals heading between meetings or in town on travel. Start up some organic conversations with your riders, ask the right questions (see Cindy Alvarez’s book for this), and you’ll start learning and validating (or just as valuable, invalidating!) some of your assumptions.

Maybe most importantly, don’t annoy them with questions if they don’t want to talk. Keep it natural and organic, and keep your mouth shut if they’re giving you signals to stop being the chatty uber driver everyone hates.

Oh, and I made a bunch of money while doing it. #surgepricing

Brendan Moore (@webmusicguy) is an Optimization Director for Clearhead: The Digital Optimization Agency in Austin, Texas. We work with clients to continuously validate hypotheses relating to design, experience, and functionality through tactics such as split testing, usability testing, personalization and analytics. Grossly simplified, we use design and data to make sure you’re making the right decisions towards profitability.

Previously Brendan was the Director of Product for Front Gate Tickets, and the Director of New Media & Social Marketing for Oniracom.

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