I'm the founder of Encore, which alerts executives to top opportunities and threats via machine learning (500 Startups company, acquired by Meltwater). I'm sharing tactical lessons I've learned about building companies, products, and teams.

008 The Actionable Guide to Customer Development Interviews Pt. 1

008 The Actionable Guide to Customer Development Interviews Pt. 1

So now you've got co-founders and an idea you all think is the best thing since sliced bread. What's next?

Most people will jump right into building a prototype, snatch a domain name for a landing page, or spend hours upon hours trying to come up with the perfect name for their new unicorn startup.

Slow down there, turbo. Don't worry, we'll get to all that fun stuff soon.

Take a step back. One of the most important things you can do right now is to find out if a significant amount of people actually have the problem you're trying to solve.

Imagine how many new startups get launched every single day, around the world. Think about how many new mobile apps get released in the App Store even as you're reading this. There are tons of reasons why most of these startups will fail, but a fundamental one is that many of those startups solve a problem that just doesn't really exist, or at least doesn't hurt enough. They spend months and months building something, only to find out later that nobody really cares. That's a horror story that should be enough to convince you and your team to take a quick pause.

Even if you're scratching your own itch (ie. solving a problem that bothers you a lot), one of the biggest lessons in checking your own ego at the door is realizing that maybe not that many other people share the same pain. You might end up building something you'll love to use, but it's recipe for a bad business.

So how do you find out if you're really solving a problem for others? You do customer development interviews. I'm going to make it really simple for you to get started:


1. Schedule some time with a potential customer.

Let's pretend we want to start a company that helps you stay hydrated during workouts. You probably have a hypothesis of who the target customer purchasing your product or service will be; chances are that you're slightly off-base (if not completely), but it's a good start. In our case, we're targeting gym rats who hit the gym like it's their second home.

Now, think through your personal network for someone who might fit your customer profile, or ask your friends for a referral. Have a person in mind? Good. Tell them you'd love to buy them a coffee and get their advice about a problem you're trying to solve. Schedule 45-60 minutes with them, preferably in person, and get ready to take some really good notes. And if they ask you for some more detail ahead of your meeting, keep it broad--you don't want to accidentally prime or bias them.


2. Start with some background info

When the interview starts and you've gotten the small talk out of the way, it's time to learn more about this person. You may have thought of them as a friend or acquaintance before, but perhaps not as a "customer." Focus in on your problem area.

  • How much time and money do you spend on [gym]?
  • How often do you do [go to the gym]?
  • Who do you [go to the gym] with?
  • Why do you [go to the gym]?

Past just demographics (age, gender, geography, etc.), you want to really understand how deeply this person fits your customer profile.


3. Do some problem discovery

Now, we're really trying to explore what problems this person has. However, the trick here is to start with things pretty broad and open-ended (i.e. talk about going to the gym generally, not just hydration) to see if there are any other problems in this area that you might not even be aware of (and perhaps are more painful than the original problem you're solving).

  • Walk me through the [a typical day at the gym], step-by-step.
  • What’s the hardest part of [going to the gym]?
  • Why is that part so hard? Is it because of time, money, effort, or something else?
  • Have you tried anything to solve that problem yourself? Why or why not? If so, what have you tried?
  • What kind of product/service do you wish you had that would solve that problem?

It might be hard for them to answer these questions right away, so walking them through the whole process in vivid detail (from when they put on their shoes to leave the house to when they come back and shower) will help them jog their memory and uncover issues.

One of the biggest mistakes you can make when you're new to conducting these interviews is asking leading questions. You can be so excited about your hypothesized problem and solution that you can unwittingly ask questions that will lead your interviewee toward the answer you want to hear. Sometimes, if the person begins leading the discussion toward another problem that's bothering them, you'll feel the urge to steer them back -- don't. Hear them out and figure out what really sucks for them. Keep asking why to figure out the root cause of the problem and how painful the problem actually is.


4. Do some problem validation

The difference between product discovery (above) and product validation is that in discovery, you're looking to uncover any problems your interviewee might have. In validation, you're looking to dig deeper about the specific problem you and your co-founders are currently focused on (hydration). Ideally, your interviewee would have raised this problem on their own in the last step--if so, then you can just dig deeper here.

  • Is it hard to [stay hydrated during your workout]?
  • What's a specific time you faced this problem? Can you tell me more about what you thought and felt in that moment?
  • How important is solving this problem to you, especially relative to the other problems you mentioned?
  • How are you solving that problem now?
  • If I could help you [be more hydrated], how would that actually affect you? What would improve?


5. Rinse and repeat.

Load up your Starbucks card and prepare your body for over-caffeination, because it's time to do the above steps over and over again. Try to get your co-founder involved in as many of the interviews as possible, so they can hear the facts directly from the source rather filtered through your perspective.

Caffeine up! 

Caffeine up! 

An important thing to remember for this process is it's really easy for people (especially if they're your friends) to say "yes" when you ask if something is a problem. After all, it's free for them to say yes and humor you a little. There are a handful of ways to combat against this:

a) Before you start your interview, emphasize to your interviewee that they should be as brutally honest as possible. Especially if they're someone you know, it's valuable to remind them that just agreeing with everything you say will actually lead you down the wrong path and be less helpful.

b) Pose everything as tradeoffs. If your interviewee identifies 4-5 problems, chances are they're not all equally painful. Instead of asking "yes/no" questions about each pain point, compare them to each other. You can ask them to rank the pain points in order of how annoying they are, or ask them which of these problems is most pressing.

c) Ask them to pay (even if you're not actually planning on charging them). Nothing clarifies a customer's priorities more than the question, "would you actually pay to solve this problem?" You'll often find that people are friendly enough to say "yes" to trying something out, but they'll balk when you ask them to pay.

So, what are you looking for during these interviews? In short, themes. You're looking for common things that people mention over and over again, especially unprompted. Perhaps the gym rats agree that staying hydrated is an issue, but picking the right supplements to take after a workout is much more confusing and frustrating. Perhaps you notice that hydration is not really an problem for women, but it is a big issue among men. The trick is to put aside what you and your co-founders think you know and let the notes speak to you.

To be honest, there's not a magic number of interviews you need to do before you stop. You'll begin seeing themes from your notes after the first 5-10 interviews that will help you decide whether you should continue to conduct interviews with the same customer profile, or pivot toward another. With that said, as you build your company, you should be constantly doing interviews like these to sharpen your focus.

Finally, notice that none of these interview questions refer to an actual solution to a problem yet. That comes next. What's important now is that as you do more and more of these interviews, you get ever closer to a rock-solid problem definition that you can ideate a solution for.

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