How to Know if You’ve “Done Enough” Customer Development to Start Building

Summary: Conventional wisdom holds that entrepreneurs should do Customer Development interviews until the answers become predictable or as part of a “timeboxed” process to run specific tests. I recently decided to stop Customer Development and start building the soHelpful.me MVP for different reasons: (1) I was learning nothing new, (2) it is a new market and people need to try the product, and (3) I was sick of just talking to people and needed a break.

A Frequent Question – When am I “done” Doing Customer Development?

Entrepreneurs often ask me during my Startup Help sessions, “when am I done doing Customer Development?As I’ve written multiple times, Customer Development can be a long, hard, grind – people naturally want to know when they can move on.

I recently decided to start building the soHelpful.me MVP & thought I’d share my reasoning for stopping Customer Development – an how it differs from the conventional wisdom.

Conventional Wisdom: You can Stop “When the Answers are Predictable” & by Timeboxing

Steve Blank’s answer to this question is, “When the answers start becoming predictable”. In other words, if you’re walking into an interview with a potential customer and you can (accurately) predict how the person will answer your questions, you’re ready to move on.

Trevor Owens of Lean Startup Machine and Lukas Fittl of Ash Maurya’s Spark59 favor “timeboxing”restricting the timeframe of your Customer Development to test a specific hypothesis to a deadline.

These are both good frameworks for thinking about the process – but I confess that my decision doesn’t fall neatly into either bucket.

I love the idea of “timeboxing” but often I don’t know how long the “timebox” should be – or what to do if I pass through it and still don’t have enough answers.

And what if the answers to survey questions never become fully predictable? Do I continue searching for clarity or can I take the next step when things are still ambiguous?

A Brief Backround – How I Reached this Point

Inspired by my friend Joel Gascoigne’s (founder, Buffer) routine of making himself available to help startups a few hours each week I decided to adopt a similar approach: I now block out a few hours each week where any startup in the world can get 30 minutes of free help from me.

(Yes, I’ll be happy to help you – yes YOU – with your startup)

In the past few months I’ve helped dozens of startups worldwide and found that:

  • I’m making a personal connection that helps build my reputation & audience.
  • Hearing problems & answering questions inspires my writing & product ideas.
  • It saves me time – at least in comparison to ad hoc coffee meetings and calls that are a pain to schedule.

Plus I just like it.

Other people saw what I was doing and started to ask me about it. I had a hunch they might want a product to offer a similar service to their potential customers & blog readers so about 2 months ago I started doing Customer Development on soHelpful.me.

After 2 months, dozens of interviews, and 50 pages of typed notes later I’ve decided to start building the soHelpful.me MVP.

(Learn more about soHelpful.me)

Here’s why I stopped doing Customer Development.

Reason 1 – I wasn’t Learning Anything New

I can’t say that answers to my survey questions started to become predictable – in fact, I continued to get valuable insight about different market segment motivations up to the last day.

It would be more accurate to say that I just wasn’t getting any new insight to inspire the next step. In other words, the ambiguity wasn’t going to change any decision about what MVP to build.

Reason 2 – Since it is a New Market, People Need to Try It

I’ve found that unstructured conversations about “problem” and “solution” are most effective when people know they have a problem – this usually means working on a solution in an existing market.

People who follow a paleo diet know that buying and cooking all the food can be a pain – they know they have problem – so Power Supply solves it for them.

That just isn’t the case with new markets like soHelpful.me – I’m working on a product for a market that doesn’t exist yet. I’m betting that I have enough insight into my potential customers’ motivation that will inspire a behavior change.

While they often agree with me after a brief conversation, neither potential customers nor I know if know if I’m right or just delusional until I let them start testing soHelpful.me – and see if it motivates a new behavior.

Reason 3 – I’m Tired of Just Talking to People

Yep. I confess – I burned out of talking to people and want to start building something.

I’m not going to let fanatical adherence to a process ruin the fun of entrepreneurship.

When in Doubt – Ask Someone for Help

Customer Development can be a confusing, long drag but unfortunately the alternative – wasting months or years building something nobody wants – is a worse option.

So tough as it is, it’s necessary – but don’t try to do it alone, it’s just too hard. Find another entrepreneur, join a NEXT program, or schedule some time with me to talk through your situation.

I’ll be happy to help you talk through your assumptions, survey questions, and help you interpret the results.

Photo Credit

7758832526_cc8f681e48_zI thought this photo by A Guy Taking Pictures of a foggy morning conveyed my feelings about my decision to start building the soHelpful.me MVP – I don’t have perfect clarity, just outlines of insight.

One Comment

  1. Cesc March 13, 2013 at 12:26 pm #

    “I’ve found that unstructured conversations about “problem” and “solution” are most effective when people know they have a problem – this usually means working on a solution in an existing market.”

    Nice insight. I completely agree.

I read EVERY comment and want to hear from you