Discovery of a Steve Blank client at the time of the Covid-19 virus

With the in-person classes canceled, we are about to launch our online versions of Hacking for Defense and Hacking for Oceans (and here). The courses are built on the Lean Startup methodology: customer discovery, agile engineering and the Canvas business / mission model. So how do our students get out of the building to talk to customers to find out about customers when they can't get out of the building? How should startups do this?


Reminder: what is the point of talking to customers?
Talking to customers seems like a simple idea, but most founders find it one of the hardest things to do. The founders inherently believe they understand a customer problem and just need to spend their time building a solution. We now have half a century of data to say that belief is false. To create products that people really want and will use, the founders must first validate the problem / need, then understand if their solution solves that problem (i.e. find a suitable product / market. ). Finally, to have a better chance of becoming a viable business, they must test all the other hypotheses of their business model / mission (pricing, creation of demand, income, costs, etc.)

The key principles of customer development are:

  1. There are no facts inside the building, so get outside
  2. All you have is a series of untested hypotheses
  3. You can test your hypotheses with a series of experiences with potential customers

Now, with the on-site shelter of the new standard, we will add a fourth principle:

  1. Face-to-face interviews aren't the only way to test your hypotheses

Reminder: what is the point of physically leaving the building?
One of the reasons why people are interviewed in person is engage in a dialogue that allows you to be sure understand the problem you are solving and measure customer reactions the minimum of viable products that you put in front of them.

There is a rule of thumb that says, "If you can see their students dilate and say they are not checking their watch," it is a valuable interview. The gold standard are in-person interviews where you can not only do it all, and see what's on their desk, the rewards on their walls, the books on their shelves and other ephemera that can give you clues to their interests and behavior. But today, with the Covid-19 pandemic, this is no longer possible. So the next best thing is a video conference call.

Video conferencing is your virtual friend
Video (via Zoom, Skype, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, etc.) with sufficient resolution to see someone's facial expressions – is more than an adequate substitute, and in some cases better – as it allows you to connect to more people in less time period of time. When we first taught at the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps 11 years ago, the first 75 teams discovered customers this way. (More advanced tools for remote user testing like Validately, Usertesting, Lookback, etc. are worth checking out.)

Our courses require students to speak to 100 clients / beneficiaries in 10 weeks. Before the pandemic, customers were where they worked or played. Today, while some may still be at work, most will be staying at home and almost all will have more free time than before. (You certainly do! Since you don't go to client interviews, you should be able to more than 100 interviews.)

Get a meeting in the midst of chaos
Do not assume that potential respondents answer their work phone. And if they work from home, they may have a different email address. Do not do it use the same email opening pitch that you used before the virus. Your email should recognize and recognize the new standard. (ie Hello, my name is xx. I know this must be a crazy time for you. I am a student / PI at xx University. All of our courses are online. I'm trying to find out if [problem x] would be helpful to solve today or when the world returns to normal. Would you be willing to talk to me?)

One advantage is that you can now have access to people who normally have a cloud of administrative controllers around them. If you have a solution adapted to their activity in this uncertain period, contact it.

Find out how their world has changed
In addition to the standard questions of discovering and validating customers (how they did their work, what difficulties they had around current solutions, etc.), you should understand:

  • What were their needs / problems / solutions / industry before Covid 19?
  • How is it now?
  • Have there been any regulatory changes? Are customer behaviors changing?
  • What do they think the recovery will look like?
  • Will their problem / solution be the same or do they think it could change?

Online presentation of your minimally viable product (MVP)
An MVP is an experience. This is what you can show to a potential customer / user / beneficiary / partner that will bring you the most learning at one point. You create MVPs to validate the need / problem, then to validate the product / market or mission / solution adequacy and finally the rest of the outline of the business / mission model. You can use wireframes, PowerPoints slides, simulated screenshots, storyboards, mockups or demos. The rest of the canvas can be validated with price lists, spreadsheets, etc. (Alex Osterwalder and David Bland's new book, Testing Business Ideas is a big help here.)

Since you are now presenting on video, you will try to communicate a lot of information in a small window on a computer screen. Building and delivering MVP online will have to become an art form. Rather than making each demo of your MVP live, consider 1) recording it 2) highlighting the key points.

  • Divide your MVP demo into segments <1 minute. Edit the video to illustrate each of your points. This allows customers / beneficiaries to interrupt and ask questions and allows you to switch to different parts of the demo.
  • If you normally want your potential customer to hold, feel, or use the product, be sure to demonstrate to someone who does. Take the time to zoom in.
  • When you show your MVP, divide the screen to see the customer's reaction as the demo unfolds.
  • Practice, practice, practice MVP delivery. First, it must be built and practiced, then the small parts for delivery must be practiced. Anticipate questions and prepare your answers.
  • Ask if you can save the session. If not, make sure a team member is online to take notes.
  • Remember – at this point you're testing hypotheses – don't sell.

Validate the components of the Rest of Business / Mission model
A common mistake in creating a startup is to test only product / market adjustment (mission / solution). But other components of the business / mission model must also be tested and validated. How can you test the demand creation hypotheses during the shelter up for the Covid-19 virus? Important ideas to consider: are potential beneficiary customers now accessible in new ways? How to test distribution / deployment? Are they the same now? Will they be the same after the resumption? What changes are temporary? What are permanent?

Your business model and the world have changed
If your business model still looks like your original assumptions a month ago, you live under a rock. Every part of your business model – not just the product and the customer – will change now. Recognize that in the post-pandemic world, the map of surviving competitors will change, regulations will be changed, distribution channels may no longer be there, the reimbursement environment will be different, etc.

Ask everyone you interview: "What has changed since the Covid-19 virus?" What will the world look like after? "(Be specific. Ask questions not only about the product, but about all the other parts of your business model.

Some discoveries cannot be made now
The reality is that some discoveries and validations cannot be made at the moment. If you need to speak to people on the front lines fighting Covid-19 (for example, first responders, health care workers, delivery, network, remote work, telemedicine), ask yourself if is your solution relevant to making people healthier and safer, more efficient? If this is the case, then continue.

Otherwise, don't be deaf. In the midst of the crisis, testing ideas for businesses that are closing (travel, hospitality, etc.) or for employees wondering if they will have a job won't work. Even if you have great new ideas for recovery, most of the answers you get will be framed in the moment.

If so, consider stopping your project or finding another problem to resolve. Be careful not to distract people from the important work required on the front lines of this fight.

Lessons learned

  • Customer discovery and validation can be easily done by videoconference
  • Recognize that many potential interviewees work from home
  • Divide your MVP demos into small pieces, giving people time to respond
  • Adjust your questions to understand how the situation of clients has been changed by the pandemic
  • Customer discovery cannot be performed now

Filed Under: Customer Development |