• Women 2.0 HowTo Conference San Francisco, September 30 - October 1, 2014

Customer Development: Where the Startup Rubber Meets the Road

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By Eric Cantor (Participant, Founder Labs)

The brainstorms flow, the sketches come together with a final flourish, and the engineers reason through how the database schema can be perfectly laid out. But the tough news for most potential startups comes when they “get out of the building” and go find out if the product fits the market. Who are you serving exactly? Do they really want it badly enough to engage with it in these crowded times where there are 5 apps for everything? What problem are you solving? These questions and more needed to be answered as we intensify the Customer Development (“CustDev”) process during week 2 of Founder Labs.

Getting Out of the Building

The emerging movement around Lean Startup methodology embraces the agile, nimble, incremental build of a product, starting with a clear focus on customer needs and navigating the way to a business model and an ecosystem. This focus on solutions and customers, rather than technology or product, is one I’ve always followed, and has served well in a variety of sectors and segments including my last few years of work in Uganda, where rapid prototyping was a critical step in everything we attempted.

With the emergence of Lean Startup, we begin to have a taxonomy and a process for what before was simply gut-feel best practice. We fail, fail, and fail again before getting anything right, which means, going too deep into any particular build of technology or product or sales channel before validating it, is a mistake. And one you see way too often even today. When you get out to the field you often get surprises and learn things you didn’t expect. Ugandan customer visits often resulted in the gift of some bananas or even a bag of rice, and always many big smiles. New Yorkers who you approach properly give you the biggest gift they can offer – their attention for five minutes and an amazing level of honesty and engagement.

Startup Art

As regimented as Lean Startup is becoming, at the end of the day, introducing new products to a market is more art than science. The newer the behavior, the more difficult it’s going to be to get those customers to tell you they intend to do it. Sure, a restaurant in 1997 probably was aware and could tell you their registration process was a mess before existed. But could Harvard students in 2001 tell you they wanted a directory of fellow students so they could hook up pre-Facebook?

The trick in this whole business is to ask questions that get at the root desires and behaviors, and explore the motivations behind them, without leading or presuming.

Imagine asking African farmers in 2007 — with mobile penetration below 20% — what kind of mobile services they desired. You’d get a lot of blank looks. If you said “you want an application that will help you grow bananas, right…?’ the answer would be yes, but it really wouldn’t tell you anything. And if you go the other way and are too skeptical, you’re unlikely to get traction with any idea. Big, dumb questions are the way I’ve always gone, with a lot of followup ‘why?’ until you get to something usable.

I believe getting and interpreting CustDev feedback will continue to be the most challenging part of building new products, and the one that separates the fast failers from the people who are destined to burn years finding out a product isn’t a good fit.

Now, back to your regularly scheduled Customer Development.

This post was originally published at Founder Labs blog.

About the guest blogger: Eric Cantor is an entrepreneurial and intrapreneurial leader who has spent the last fifteen years on the cutting edge of technology, business and international development. He is the Principal of Mobile Global. Follow him on Twitter at @mobglob.