Summary: Steve Blank teaches entrepreneurs to test business assumptions by conducting dozens of interviews with prospective customers. At first it took me a huge amount of time, but over the years I’ve developed a process to make it easier. I manage a running list of interview candidates, organize my calendar with help from a virtual assistant, and have a well-crafted intro request email. I hope it saves you time as well.
Customer Development Takes Months with Many Restarts
When I’m working on a new startup idea I follow the process advocated by Ash Maurya and Steve Blank: I start validating key assumptions with face-to-face interviews and good questions. I don’t typically see patterns until I talk to 20 or more people, a process that takes me 2-3 weeks and lots of emails and hustle. Normally I run into either (1) a dead-end or (2) am forced to make a significant enough pivot that I restart the process from scratch.
For example, I discover a different problem bigger than my original idea or realize that I’m talking to the wrong customer segment and it’s time to restart with new assumptions. Another 2-3 weeks later, same result. It has happened every time.
Most of what is written about Customer Development concerns what is done during the interview, but getting lots of interviews can take a huge amount of time if not done correctly. In keeping with my promise to write more Lean Startup How To posts this year I’ll share a process I’ve developed over several years.
This process assumes I’ve already identified who I want to reach, what I’m testing, and my interview script. If not, this is a waste of time.
Create Running List of Candidates
First I open up Things, my organizer, and create a project called Interview Candidates. I then start listing out everyone I want to interview or who can help introduce me to interview candidates. Normally 5-10 are friends or colleagues who I can just send a “got time to chat?” email. I contact them first then tag them as “Waiting For” in Things. When they respond I tag them as “Scheduling” and follow the next step1
After the interview I close it. This process continues as I get introductions and add people to the list. Here is a mockup example.
Organize my Calendar and Give Instructions to my Virtual Assistant
Once someone agrees to an interview I have to schedule it. This process can get really tedious with lots of “are you available on X date” emails. I hire a Virtual Assistant (VA) to get me through this. I share my calendar with my VA and block out large chunks of manager time for meetings or calls. I then give her instructions on where I want to meet and how I want the conversations handled. Clear, specific instructions and an organized up-to-date calendar are critical for me to keep up the pace.
Since I’m in Beijing, China right now my mornings from 6-10 AM are the best times for Skype calls with lunches blocked out for meetings at Bitepita, the startup hangout in San Li Tun. I typically block out 30 minutes for Skype calls with a goal of ending them early.
Create my “Intro Request” Script in Text Expander
Before the call I prepare my “Intro Request” email script so I have it ready-to-go after the call. I write in Text Expander so I can quickly paste it into email. It can take me 30 minutes or more to craft this script. I have to bring my A-game and I revise this script constantly; after all, I’m asking someone else to do some tedious work for me and put his or her own credibility on the line.
- make it easy to forward
- include the magic words “advice” and “help”
- clearly state who and what I want
- keep it short
Admittedly, I can see some ways in which my current script falls short, but this is the exact text of what I used today2:
Hello, I’m Kevin Dewalt (about me). I’m working on a project to help entrepreneurs or active bloggers get more passionate product fans or readers based on new techniques I’ve been successfully using.
If you are using social media or blogging to build an audience or fans for your new product I would appreciate your help and advice.
Do you have time to give me some advice over a 20-min Skype call?
Thanks in advance for your help,
You’ll notice that I am making my “pitch” to whom I’m being introduced.
Post-call: Ask for Introductions
I normally end every call with two remarks. First, I offer to return the favor anyway I can. Second I ask for intros to other people. After the call – immediately if I can – I send that email. I send a few sentences thanking them and use Text Expander to paste in my “Intro Script”.
When an Intro Happens, Follow-up Quickly
When someone makes an intro for me I try to respond within 24 hours. I read any background information in the introduction and check up on their blog or profile. I’ve made great contacts this way and lifelong colleagues; the people willing to give startups advice are usually A++ talent. In my response I try to make a short personal or professional connection to the person to whom I’m being introduced and bcc the person who introduced us.
For instance, in my reply:
Bcc: Shardul, thanks so much, I owe you one!
Jack, awesome to meet you, if even just virtually. I noticed on your blog…
Jack then gets added to Things and tagged as “Waiting For”.
A Few Other Tips
- If you are a student, say so in your intro request. People will be more inclined to help you.
- Make Double Opt-In introductions.
- If someone makes an intro for you, ALWAYS follow-up. Remember that someone did extra work for you and put their own credibility on the line. 3
Yes, a LOT of Work, but…
On my current project I’ve been following this process for 4 months with periodic breaks to create mockups, do some research, or give myself a break so I don’t go insane from frustration. Look like a lot of work? It is. Entrepreneurs new to Customer Development don’t usually anticipate an investment of 20-30 hours a week for months, but that’s how it has been for me.
Nevertheless, it is not nearly as painful as investing months or years building something that nobody buys. Compared to that option, interviewing people and changing directions for 6 months is a cakewalk.
There is a lot more to this process – documenting results, refining interview scripts, I’ll cover those in future posts which you can get by subscribing.
Questions? As always, you can schedule some time to chat with me.
Photo Credit: Urban Hafner
- I’ve done this enough to know people like Ray Wu, Mike Michelini, and Shardul Mehta who are well-connected and great at this. They’ve helped me multiple times. If you’ve got a friend like this, jump at a chance to help them or pick up the bar tab. ↩
- Of course if you are “using social media or blogging to build an audience or fans for your new product” and want to give me some advice feel free to contact me ↩
- A few months ago an entrepreneur asked me for an introduction. I knew the perfect candidate and spent an hour getting the introduction lined up. The entrepreneur never bothered to respond to my introduction email. Think I’ll help them again? ↩