Every Successful Startup Begins with Customer Discovery. Including Hardware.

Every Successful Startup Begins with Customer Discovery. Including Hardware.

14-Nov-2014 by SophiaKirova

“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.” Isaac Asimov once famously said. Despite being a master of Science Fiction, Mr. Asimov had a prudent take on life and his point strikingly parallels the prescribed ways for entrepreneurs to approach new ventures.

Following the general rules of thumb of the lean startup methodology, founders start with a hypothesis which they need to test and only customers can teach them whether they are on the right path. So, to paraphrase the beginning: let your customers brush up on your assumptions or no money will come in.

This is not not say that assumptions are useless – they’re human nature, and given that we couldn’t possibly know how the world goes round, assumptions serve as a great starting point; but building business on mere assumptions is like building a house of cards.

Just to sum up, here is how the lean story begins, explained in just 2 minutes:

Now it’s time to move forward and test these assumptions. Let’s roll up the sleeves and tidy up your business model, shall we?

Where to Start your Customer Discovery

Well, it quite simply starts with imagining your customers. In fact, let’s start by stop calling them customers; these are people, people who have names, families, troubles, dreams, hobbies, habits, favourite places they like to spend time at and people they dearly love spending time with.

They also have jobs and budgets. Even if you have chosen to build a B2B company, don’t think businesses – you would still need to work with people, people in organizations that struggle with some stuff, enjoy others, and deal with clients, a.k.a more people.

These are the people out there that you believe would fall in love with your invention/ service. So picture them with a fine paint brush.

How do you do this?

It’s called empathy. It’s the ability to develop a deep understanding of peoples’ needs and motivations’.

I really like the explanation given in this short animation:

HUB DIRECTOR: Gobblynne, “Empathy vs Sympathy” from Hub Media on Vimeo.

If you are making, say, the next generation inhalator, then your would need to imagine the lifestyle of a person with a respiratory disease: How do they look and where do they live? How do they feel when they receive a respiratory arrest? What do they do to prevent it, to sooth it? What are the consequences of these pains on their life, on their relationships? Are they happy with their current inhalator? Why would they prefer yours?

Stepping into the shoes of others isn’t the easiest thing to do. It actually pretty much resembles what actors do every time they are given a new part. I’m not saying to spend months in a nuthouse like Jack Nicholson or wear dark sunglasses like Al Pacino, but try to be earnest and experience what it’s like to live the lives of these people. This will help you formulated the main problem of your ideal community.

The next step in your customer discovery process is to test if this problem is real.

Get out and Meet These People in Person

Now that you have a good idea of where your future community likes to hang out, go and find them. Talk to them. As Steve Blank says: ‘There are No Facts Inside Your Building — Get Outside’, virtually or physically.

In pure marketing terms, this is called profiling your ‘buyer personas’. Mapping their habits based on actual data or conversations is the only way you can gain insights into people’s pains and gains: what they need and what they would enjoy; and thereafter assume the precise features of your product they would spend their money on.

This is the truly research moment of your journey. It is the kind of job for which you unravel the ethnographer within you. You connect to your curious and inquisitive self. It’s the time when you let people talk, ask open questions and scrutinize their experiences. Toss the yes/no questions and pitches, and just listen.


Just like a researcher, you’ll design your tools: make a list with a number of questions you would like to ask. Opt for such questions that can help you test your initial hypothesis. Have a rough idea of your price tag and have a clear idea of the functionality, but also the versatility of what you can make. For instance, if your new gearing system is able to accelerate cars 10 times faster than conventional gears, it might also have the same effect on wind turbines, which also happen to operate with the help of a gearing system.

And just like a researcher you will document your field work and analyze it to reach some insightful conclusions. These might surprise you, but most of all will help you adjust your business model to offer what people really want.

Build a Pilot Case Study

Thing is, you don’t simply want to interview a bunch of people and never hear anything from them again. You want their input once you start iterating on your product: which features do they like best; would a specific application that they didn’t think of before actually improve the attractiveness of your product. Does your product eventually solve their pain?

So what you are actually looking for is collaboration; building a relationship with people who can bear with you throughout the entire product development process.

On that occasion, people need to trust you. Trust is a process and takes time. The best way to win someone’s trust is by showing genuine interest and understanding of the thing they are going through. If people are willing to spend their time and give you a diary of their most intimate experience, you can in return offer them the exclusive, pilot use of your product.

After all, you’re not only building your business, but also your brand story. There’s nothing better than the happy people you’ve managed to help, sharing their personal journey with the world.

Coming up: The next time we’re going to explore how to start building your product, collect feedback through social media, your website, and how to start growing your customer community with a mailing list, BetaList and ProductHunt.

Features vs Needs

Falling in love with your initial idea can kill you startup. Talk to customers instead, and don’t be afraid to iterate, pivot, and just move on. It would feel much better working with people than watching your darling wither away.

Just for the record, check out these two videos that illustrate the difference between selling features…

And selling what people actually need:

Resources:

The Lean Startup by Eric Ries
The Four Steps to the Epiphany by Steve Blank
The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick