What The Alchemist Taught Me About User Research and Startups

Note: slight spoiler alert if you never read The Alchemist by Paul Coelho.

Talking to users can be a chore when you’re in a small startup. Being pulled in a million directions makes it easy to ignore user feedback and to pretend that you have a large enough sample size of user feedback to make product decisions.

User surveys, field studies, and focus groups allow us to gather helpful stories from our users, and in turn, create a better product.

Published in 1988 by Paul Coelho, The Alchemist is an international best seller, with over 65 million copies sold.

Just the other day I picked up this short read for a second time. I was having trouble sleeping after 14 hour days preparing for the launch of our second product, covalentcareers.com, and I thought that distancing myself from work and computers screens before bed would help me sleep better.

Turns out, there’s startup lessons everywhere.

The scene in The Alchemist that taught me about user research.

The specific scene in the Alchemist is where the shepherd, Santiago, is working at a crystal shop selling fine glassware in a foreign Arab land. The shop sits atop a very large hill where few community members venture due to the climb. Because of this, business in the shop is mediocre at best.

One afternoon he [Santiago] had seen a man at the top of the hill, complaining that it was impossible to find a decent place to get something to drink after such a climb. The boy, accustomed to recognizing omens, spoke to the merchant.
“Let’s sell tea to the people who climb the hill.”
“Lots of places sell tea around here,” the merchant said.
“But we could sell tea in crystal glasses. The people will enjoy the tea and want to buy the glasses. I have been told that beauty is the great seducer of men.”

In my desperate attempt to separate myself from work in order to sleep, here was another lesson, just not from Paul Graham or someone on Medium, but from the author of a New York Times Best Seller, who has been on the list most recently, for 7 years straight (409 weeks). 😮

Santiago is certainly gathering a different form of user feedback. He didn’t set out to perform a study, gather a focus group, or do a survey like we are formally trained to do. Instead, he had his mind tuned in to wavelengths outside of just his crystal shop. He looked at his business and how it related to all things in the world, not just his his shop.

The folks at Intercom would call this looking the situation as “jobs to be done,” and I would agree. Henry Ford, the car maker, would say “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

This distills down to really knowing what users what, even though they cannot conceptualize it or verbalize it.

Santiago looked beyond his core business towards a complete experience that involved his community and what how they spend their time on a daily basis.

The men climbed the hill, and they were tired when they reached the top. But there they saw a crystal shop that offered refreshing mint tea. They went in to drink the tea, which was served in beautiful crystal glasses.
Before long, the news spread, and a great many people began to climb the hill to see the shop that was doing something new in a trade that was so old. Other shops were opened that served tea in crystal, but they weren’t at the top of a hill, and they had little business.

What’s interesting is that Santiago completely flipped his bleak situation on it’s head. He had two problems to start; crystal glassware wasn’t very popular, and second, his shop was at the top of a hill that no one wanted to climb. He turned the little shop into a destination with a reward, something that freed people of their mundane lives in the regular market at the bottom of the hill.

My personal take home lesson on user research.

I think the lesson I took from this was that talking with users should be something that happens naturally and must be done through a wider scope, much wider than that of your product. Perhaps start further out than you ever imagined and get more and more specific and focused as you talk to more users.

Also, catch them in their natural habitat. Do you need to wear a sign around your neck that says “company founder, looking for feedback?” Or can you blend in and get real feedback and have more unbiased conversations as a layman without your trendy startup t-shirt, logo embodied and all? This is called the Hawthorne effect; if it effecting the way you do user research?

So much of what we have learned at CovalentCareers has been through authentic real life interactions and living side-by-side with the users we are serving. Less was from that of standardized user feedback and testing.

Get out into the wild and explore the jobs to be done.