Summary: You’re following the advice of Ash Maurya or Steve Blank and trying to talk to customers but are having trouble finding them. In this post I offer a way forward: (1) stop and regroup, (2) troubleshoot the source of the problem, (3) pivot based on what you’ve learned, (4) be patient.
In a previous post I introduced a concept called the Customer Development Viral Coefficient (CDVC) and explained how I find potential customers to interview.
Steve Blank pushes his students to interview at least 10 customers per week.1. If you’re talking to this many people you already know that asking for intros, scheduling meetings, compiling feedback, and thanking people is a lot of work. But your CDVC > 1 and you’re getting enough customer feedback to figure out if you have an opporunity.
What if you’re talking to less than 5 people a week? What if you’re asking for introductions and referrals and not getting them? Your CDVC < 1 and it’s no fun. In this post I’ll describe what not to do and what to do based on my own products.
Don’t Do What I’ve Done
Let me first caution you on what NOT to do.
- Don’t “take a break” from customer development to focus on the product.
- Don’t base your product decisions on feedback from a small number of people.
- Don’t pay people (e.g. offer an Amazon give card and recruit from Craigs List) to give you feedback. 2
- Don’t ignore cautionary advice from other entrepreneurs.
First, Stop What You’re Doing
You’ve got a big problem. Actually you’ve got two big problems.
- You’re not getting enough feedback and risk building something nobody wants.
- You’re going to face the same problems when you try to sell.
These problems are symptom of a larger issue. You haven’t found a Problem to solve, haven’t found a Channel to reach customers, or customers don’t want a solution from You.
Using Ash Maurya’s Lean Canvas you’ve got an issue with your Problem, Channel, or Unique Value Proposition:
Seriously, stop what you’re doing and regroup. Most entrepreneurs (including me) don’t appreciate how big these problems are.
Second, Troubleshoot the Source
Although my issues never fit neatly into one of these boxes, the process of trying to figure out the root of the problem allowed me to pivot effectively. Some tactics that have worked for me:
Review your problem/solution interviews and start looking for patterns. What profile of person have I been meeting? What aspects of the problems most resonated with them? How did they regard me (expert, outsider…)? Has anyone used emotional language (I HATE when…)?
Ask people why they didn’t introduce you to anyone else. You’ll be surprised at what you hear.
Get advice from entrepreneurs working on related problems. Make sure you filter the feedback and look for facts and not opinions.
Write down every possible channel you can think of. Refocusing on channels is one of the most effective ways to pivot.
Go to a conference related this problem or market. Stop by every exhibit booth during a quiet time and ask for advice. Often exhibit-only tickets are cheaper people are bored out of their minds.
Yep, the “P” word. Take what you’ve learned and make the best possible guess at a new direction. Maybe you identified a different Problem. Maybe the Channel itself is actually the customer. You’ve got more options than you realize and imperfect information.
Pick a new direction and re-start your Problem/Solution interviews.
Finally, Be Patient
If you came here looking for a quick fix, I’m sorry to disappoint you. I wish I had one. What I can do is assure you that the frustration and confusion you are feeling is not unique, we’ve all been there. Moreover, you’re in this position because you’re serious and smart enough to do Customer Development. You’ve smart enough to know that building something nobody wants is a huge waste of time and you’re determine to avoid that mistake.
My only advice – which I don’t take very well myself – is to be patient and not too hard on yourself. This process will take months and could take a year or more.
But if you follow a systematic process of discovery, I promise you that you will get to the truth. There is no guarantee of success, but you’re odds of success will increase dramatically.
- In my experience somewhere between 5-10 is optimal. Obviously this is highly dependent on your market, you’ll have to use your own judgment here. ↩
- The problem with paying for feedback is that you’ll talk to people who are motivate by a gift card, not by getting a solution to their problem. In this instance I’m not talking about usability feedback or product testing. These are instances where paying for people’s time can be very efficient. I’m speaking specifically of early-stage customer development where you’re looking for feedback from smart people, potential earlyvangelists who have a problem and are looking for a solution. In truth, there are instances where you can learn a lot quickly by giving people gift cards but I’ll expand on that in a future post. ↩