How I Hack Customer Development When I Can’t Get Interviews

Summary:  Face-to-face interviews are the lifeblood of early-stage Customer Development, but sometimes even personal introductions are not enough to get meetings if we don’t know people in the market.  In this post I outline 5 hacks I’ve tested to go from a “nobody” to a “somebody”.  Blogging, Content Directories, Meetups, Interviews, and Office Hours.  Listen to me talk about this post on SoundCloud.

If you’re doing Customer Development in a market where you know a lot of people, congratulations. I haven’t always been so lucky.  I’ve often pivoted to new markets where I didn’t know anyone.

Such has been my life as a Lean Startup entrepreneur – talk to people, fail, drink beer and throw things, pivot, find new people to talk to.

In a previous post I offered ways to quickly get dozens of interviews but sometimes even this hasn’t been enough – even with personal intros, people wouldn’t talk to me because I was a nobody.  I needed to become a somebody. Here what did and didn’t work for me.

Repositioning Myself from a “Nobody” to “Thought Leader”

The basic idea is that you need ways to quickly brand yourself as a “thought leader”: someone connected or informed so the most innovative customers – the ones you want to talk to – will give you feedback.

Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet.  I’ve had to be persistent and keep testing hacks.

Hack #1 – Blogging and Social Media

Ash Maurya and others recommend blogging as a way to connect with early customers. I’ve had mixed results. Blogs (and social media) have essentially two functions: credibility and audience.

Credibility is easy and has a pretty quick ROI. Setup a blog with a unique domain name and suddenly I was a bit more than a complete nobody.  But what I really wanted – and expected – was an audience so I could talk to people. Mostly it didn’t work, at least not fast enough.

I tried writing about medical finances for ClaimAway, my medical billing startup. Guess what? Nobody was looking online for solutions.    Blogging can be a huge waste of my time unless I’ve  got a unique, educational, or personal message. Barring that, I get ready for a lot of work and time. There is just too much content fighting for scarcer and scarcer mindshare.

Hack #2 – Create a Directory of Helpful Resources

Ok, disclaimer time.  I’ve never tried this as an entrepreneur.  My only experience is as a potential startup customer.

Mike Buckbee of BootStrapHero has THE BIG BADASS LIST OF 272 USEFUL TWITTER BOOTSTRAP RESOURCES.1

I’ve been learning how to use Bootstrap this year and regularly refer to this list. Mike has won my confidence as a Thought Leader because he makes the list.

Hack #3 – Organize Meetups and Events

I don’t know why more startups don’t try this. It is so easy to get started and you’ll get an initial signal about your ability to reach customers.

By organizing a meetup, conference, etc. you gain instantly credibility because you’re the face of the event. If you’re selling to enterprise customers it’s a no-brainer. The smart people in industry are dying to go to these type of events and they’ll even pay.

Some examples:

A few years ago a friend of mine was working on a enterprise security startup. So he organized a meetup and invited a bunch of us to a bar. I can’t imagine he spent more than 20 minutes planning it.

I didn’t care much about the topic but it doesn’t take much convincing to get me to a bar. Some people who did care showed up and my friend chatted with them for a few hours. At the next event he hosted a speech by a well-known industry expert.

I ran the DC LeanStartup meetup for years and know how much work it can be. But it also gave me the opportunity to meet people like Brad Feld, Dave McClure, Eric Ries and others.  It changed my career.

Meetups can also give an instant signal when they don’t work. When I started PuzzleRibbon, a startup in the Autism space, I organized a meetup for parents of children diagnosed on the Autism spectrum. Nobody joined, nobody showed up.

Turns out that parents of children with special needs are overwhelmed and don’t have time to go to meetups. Good to know, so I tried the next hack – interviews, which worked.

Hack #4 – Leverage other Thought Leaders with Interviews

You can read my previous post on how I very successfully used this hack to go from being an absolute nobody who couldn’t even get an introduction to meeting the most influential people in the industry.

Interview Thought Leaders and you look like a Thought Leader. It’s that simple.

Hack #5 – Hold Office Hours to Help People

I’m a big and growing fan of office hours.

I’m currently doing this to meet more entrepreneurs and it is a practice I plan to continue for the rest of my career.  While the impact has been great, getting started is challenging so I’ve started a new newsletter and am testing a new startup idea to help entrepreneurs use office hours to connect with customers.

If you’re working on a startup, you’re planning on solving problems for customers. You know way, way more than they do about the problem. By making yourself available to help them you’ll get a constant flow of customers bringing their problems to you.

It won’t work for every market – for instance, I can’t imagine enterprise – but if you have access to an audience it can be a great way to meet lots of people.

If you don’t have access to a lot of customers, try setting up office hours at a conference or event where a lot of potential customers will be. People are already there and the event organizers may help promote your availability.

Bottom Line:  Start Testing and Be Open to New Ideas

Hopefully my examples serve to illustrate that you have a lot of options, but it is difficult to know in advance what will/won’t work.

Can’t get intros to customers? Try blogging.

No readers? Try a meetup.

Nobody joins? Try helping people with office hours at a conference.

Frustrating as it is, by discovering channels that don’t work you’re already ahead of competitors who are sitting in their offices just building products.  Just keep going, but don’t spin your wheels.  If you want to bounce ideas off of someone, my time is yours.

  1. Isn’t that awesome? What a great match between edge and description.  Mike is such a great guy, btw.

4 Comments

  1. Hugo February 16, 2013 at 9:39 am #

    Be creative no matter what!

  2. Kyle Porter February 17, 2013 at 10:17 pm #

    I found this post through a Twitter link…

    I think you’re not giving writing enough credit. There is always room for provactive ideas. And if the market you are going after isn’t increasing in content consumption, then it might not be right for business. If this is the case…

    “There is just too much content fighting for scarcer and scarcer mindshare.”

    Then I’d look to a new segment. I want a market with increased mindshare through volume of interest.

    If you sold medical finance solutions to doctors and hospitals, they’d have 100’s of questions…if you answered the top ones through a blog, you’d immediately have somewhere to send them. Don’t expect people to just google it, get out and email/call, heck visit them. Building email lists is still underrated.

    The other ideas are awesome.

    One more: create a free product for your ideal prospect community. That’s what we’ve done with http://jobchangealerts.com and http://prospecting.salesloft.com. Not only has it given us authority, it provides daily value to our community and generates hundreds of weekly inbound leads.

    Love the direction of the post; keep up the great work.

    • kevindewalt February 17, 2013 at 10:35 pm #

      All good points, Kyle. WRT… I think you’re not giving writing enough credit.

      On balance, it seems like you’re talking about situations where you’ve already got some measure of product-market fit. Is that true? I probably could have made this clearer, but the examples I’m giving are for the extreme early days, when you’re trying to answer basic questions like “does anyone care? if so, who?” In these situations I get the most value from face-to-face dialog and content has proven for me to be a long road to get there.

      I’ve actually tried the free product approach too early. A few weeks of wasted effort and hardly anyone used it. I see this again…and again….with iPhone apps.

      As always, this is just my experience and I’m glad that you weighed in with contrary examples to make all of us smarter. Every situation is different.

  3. Trevor Owens February 19, 2013 at 9:34 pm #

    Love the “make a list” idea. Another one is to write a brief ebook and capture email addresses for people to download it. I guess you can find every single customer type on the internet so it’s just a matter of getting their contact info. Cold calling is another one. I find if you’re super humble most people will talk to you.

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