Customer Discovery: The First Step to Entrepreneurship

I believe that 3D printing has the ability to change lives. That’s why I started Dimitri at the beginning of the 2016-2017 academic year. Dimitri is a Cornell-born startup in the eLab accelerator program. We have evolved from a belief into a highly productive team creating 3D printed, custom-fit insoles that reduce foot pain and make shoes more comfortable. Instead of waiting for the technology to change lives and solve problems, we are discovering ways in which those changes can happen, and starting from the ground up.

For Dimitri, customer discovery took the form of 50+ emails, 27 interviews, 10 days, 870 minutes of conversation, and 32,000 characters of text (that’s 229 tweets). After spending a week trying to figure out how we could find people to talk to who had foot problems, my team sent an email to a Cornell listserv looking for interview participants. We knew they wouldn’t just go to any shoe store, and we obviously couldn’t ask a podiatrist for a list of their patients. But suddenly, we got tons of email responses and scheduled as many interviews as we could fit in between classes. We were prepared with a list of questions but quickly realized that people have trouble talking about themselves. We found ourselves asking the same question twice and getting different answers. Finally, we got to a point where we had enough data from the interviews to create a customer archetype, and we learned that we hadn’t yet talked to anyone who fit within it! Though that sounds unsuccessful, we were able to effectively identify who our most urgent customer would be and what specific problems they would have. That is the goal of customer discovery.

Lifetime entrepreneurs like Steve Blank, Alexander Cowan, and Brant Cooper will tell you that it is the first step when you have a startup idea. First-time entrepreneurs tend to see it as counterproductive; we think we already know who our customer is, and we think the first step should be building our idea (app, website, product, etc.) as quickly and as best as we can. The truth is you’re probably wrong about who your customer is if you haven’t done customer discovery, and if you don’t truly understand the person who will be using your thing, you won’t be able to make your thing the thing they want to use.

How To Do Customer Discovery:

  1. Think about what your thing does.
  2. Think about who the user of your thing will be.
  3. Go find them.
  4. Ask them open ended questions about their experiences and their problems.
  5. Do not ask any of the following:
    1. “What do you think of my startup idea?”
    2. “Do you like this thing I built?”
    3. “Would you buy my thing?”
    4. “Do you think my thing would help you?”
      Basically just don’t ask them directly about your idea because you are putting bias into your own data. You want genuine answers. More on that by the Nielsen Norman group and Google UX researcher Michael Margolis.
  6. Take notes.
  7. Read through notes.
  8. List their problems. List their differences. List their similarities.
  9. Create an archetype. Steve Blank’s is a good start.

By taking the time to listen to your potential customers, you gain understanding of their habits, their needs, and how your thing, or similar things, could fit into their life. By the end of the process, you will have an archetype that generalizes who your customer is, and you will know why your idea is great and why it’s terrible.

It is really important to keep in mind that there are two ways to approach this process. If you have already decided what problem you want to solve, customer discovery should result in you identifying who exactly has this problem and why. It is very often not the group of people you initially assumed it would be. Finding that out is progress. If you have already decided what group of people you want to create something for, customer discovery should result in you determining what problems those people really have and why. Again, it is very often not the problem that you initially assumed it would be. Finding that out is progress.

You will go back and forth between defining the customer and defining the problem as you validate or invalidate your assumptions about who they are and what they want. So ultimately, no matter where you start, you will end up using both approaches.

Doing customer discovery should feel uncomfortable. Firstly, because you have to physically leave your desk/lab/couch. Talking to strangers is awkward, and you will be wrong a lot. Often the point where customer discovery ends, customer discovery begins. This is progress. Being wrong means you are collecting data and learning from it, so for an entrepreneur it tends to be a good thing. For those of you who need more convincing, if you don’t do customer discovery, you have a high probability of wasting time and resources building something that no one wants.

Want to learn more? Read the book Talking to Humans by Giff Constable.