Do you really read?

Spend five minutes on any social media site and you’ll see hundreds of articles shared and discussed. In our world of infinite knowledge at our fingertips, the challenge now becomes Quality, not Quantity.  As you read any article, book, answer or social media post, it’s important to take the time to digest what you consume.  Did you just waste ten minutes or was it worth the read? What did you learn? Do you really get it?

In our fervor to join the conversation or “catch up” on those thousands of articles you’ve saved in RSS, Pocket, Instapaper, or otherwise, we often miss the point.

We are all Hypocrites.

Too often we read something, share it and talk about it, but fail to retain its meaning. Maybe you retweeted something about taking care of employees, but then you failed to show interest and compassion for an employee that came into work visibly upset. Maybe you just shared an article about the importance of open communication, but then disregarded comments from someone who tried to bring up a problem with you. Regardless of what it is, you’re wasting your time with all your reading if you don’t use it to drive action.

I struggle every day to follow through on the things I passionately read and write about. As a habit, I re-read my own posts to remind myself what I care about so much. It’s easy to forget things like actually giving praise despite knowing how important praise is in motivating and appreciating your employees, remembering to always use the best structure for customer development interviews, or to keep applying the best takeaways from a great book I read.

What do we do about it?

I challenge myself to answer the following questions in everything I read:

  1. Has this taught me anything new and valuable? (If not, move on quickly)
  2. How can I apply insights from this article today? (Wait and I’ll forget)
  3. When have I applied the ideas from this post? Where have I not, but could have? (What was the difference?)

The real key is Self-Awareness with Discipline.

One of the hardest things to do in life is to get outside your ego. This awesome post by the CEO & founder of Redfin captures it well:  

“Most people spend nearly all their energy trying not to change. This is what the philosopher William James meant when he wrote the mind’s main function was to be a fortress for protecting your ego from reality. When the mind has to accommodate a new fact, James argued, it doesn’t settle on the change to its model of reality that is most likely to reflect reality. It protects the fortress, calculating the smallest possible modification to its bulwarks that can account for the new fact.

As I read and observe my daily life, I try to look for opportunities to apply all the great things I’m reading and everyone is sharing. And when I write or give others advice, I challenge myself to make those things not just aspirational or what I do at my best, but what I apply day in and day out. It’s not easy, and I don’t always succeed at this, but it has helped make me and those I interact with a little better every day.

How do you apply what you’re reading?

 

Make things better than you found them

This is my personal mantra. Anything I invest my time in is focused on how I can make things better in a lasting way. This has carried me far both personally and professionally.

I think one thing that always holds people back is the belief that others should have it “just as hard as I had it.” Adversity is good for everyone, but life is too short to make everyone learn only on their own. I’ve always loved this quote that captures this idea well:

“Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.” – Otto von Bismarck

I believe any time you can help people hack a system and level up faster, everyone wins; it means someone can become more productive, faster and devote their energy to taking on new, yet-to-be-conquered challenges. It doesn’t take long for the gains to then become exponential from multiple people in a group buying into this idea.

A few quick examples of how I’ve done it and benefitted greatly:

  1. When I found it difficult to navigate the Boston startup community, I started Greenhorn Connect to be the guide I wish I had. It also turned out to be my living resume of what I could do to build a useful product, market it and jump-started my career in internet tech.
  2. I found moving to San Francisco to be quite the challenge both in finding a place to live and adapting to the culture. To help, I wrote blog posts about what I learned on how to find an apartment in San Francisco as well as the things I wish I knew before moving to San Francisco. Both posts have been widely read and helped me meet interesting people I wouldn’t have otherwise.
  3. I mentor a number of people in the tech communities of SF and Boston. When I do, I focus on helping people avoid rookie mistakes. In turn, these people have leveled up in their careers much faster and are now often teaching me as much as I teach them.
Do you follow a similar mantra? How do you approach your life and those around you?

Great Chefs and Great Entrepreneurs

One of the best rated restaurants in the world serves no cocktails, no appetizers and only has 9 seats. It has no menu and only serves a variety of sushi as laid out by its 85 years old master chef and his team. Jiro Ono, who has been honing the craft of sushi for over 75 years, is the master chef featured in the documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which tells the story of him and his restaurant (#ProTip: it’s free on Amazon Prime Instant).

It is truly amazing and inspiring to hear his story of dedication, attention to detail and passion to work with the best; whether it be his source of rice, the fisherman he buys from or the 10 years of training for his apprentices, Jiro strives for perfection. During the documentary, a Japanese food critic revealed what he felt separates Jiro and other great chefs:

  1. They take their work very seriously and consistently perform at the highest level.
  2. They aspire to improve their skills.
  3. Cleanliness. If the restaurant doesn’t feel clean, the food isn’t going to taste good.
  4. Impatience. They are better leaders than collaborators. They’re stubborn and insist on having it their way.
  5. Passionate.

When I look at the food critic’s list of qualities, I realize that those are the same qualities that can apply to any craftsman. Entrepreneurs that put a high value on design, like most notably Steve Jobs, seem to fit that list as well.

What qualities make a great craftsman?

11 Books Every Entrepreneur Should Read

On Amazon.com there are…

…over 2,000,000 books on “Business”

…over 750,000 books on “Technology”

…over 500,000 books on “Design”

…over 81,000 books on “Leadership”

…over 7,500 books on “Startups”

…and most of them suck. 

So even if you want to commit to reading books to make yourself a better entrepreneur, what are you to do?

Over the last 3 years, I’ve read over 60 books on a variety of subjects to try to better my own entrepreneur knowledge base (see the sidebar on the right for the full list).  Every book came from at least one recommendation from a friend, a tweet from an expert or a blog post explaining why it’s great. Because of this, very few of the books I’ve read would fit in the “waste of time” category most of those 3 million or so books on Amazon fit into. A lot of my friends have asked for what I think are the essential books I’d recommend, so here’s that list.

11 Books Every Entrepreneur Should Read

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie

Category: Leadership

Why You Should Read This: There is no book more successful people I know have read than this one. 

Being a leader is not easy. No matter how natural a great leader makes it look, it takes a lot of work to learn how to build relationships and inspire others on a regular basis. How to Win Friends and Influence People will teach you what you need to succeed.

Most importantly, the book is specific, it’s actionable and filled with solid example stories to help emphasize the rules. I’ve re-read this book at least 5 times and every time I learn something I could improve.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

Category: Inspirational

Why You Should Read This: This book explains all those strange feelings you have that make you want to throw away a cushy life, a nice salary and the life you’re “supposed to follow” and live the uncertainty of the startup life.

It won’t teach you how to incorporate your business or market your product. It will teach you how to make sense the of the journey you’ll go on if you follow your heart.

Founders at Work by Jessica Livingston

Category: Startups

Why You Should Read This: The journey in building a startup is far from glamorous. As many have written before, over night successes are usually years of pain in the making.

Founders at Work captures this essence with stories of entrepreneurs anyone in the web and mobile startup space will recognize. It’s a great primer to understand how dark some of the dark days can get in a startup and how the best persevered.

The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Customer Development by Patrick Vlaskovits & Brant Cooper

Category: Lean Startups

Why You Should Read This: Want to stop guessing and start actually figuring out what your customers/users actually want? Want to not waste your time, money, energy and life on a startup no one cares about? There’s tons of blog posts, books and other content out there on Lean Startups, but nothing distills it down to its core concepts and action items like Patrick & Brant’s book does.

This book will get you 80% of the way there on understanding and taking action on Lean Startup methodology and you can read this book in an afternoon. It’s such an easy and important read, you should have everyone in any role at your startup read it in my opinion.

Switch by Chip and Dan Heath

Category: Culture, Leadership

Why You Should Read This: You can only get people to do things they want to do.  If you force them to do it, they won’t do great work and will quit the first chance they get. Chip and Dan explain how you can inspire your team and get them to accomplish major goals even when things look bleak.

They introduce the concept of the Elephant and the Rider which is an invaluable metaphor for the human pysche in both your employees and your own life.

The Master Switch by Tim Wu

Category: Technology

Why You Should Read This: “Every age thinks it’s the modern age, but this one really is.”  Dating back to the days of Western Union telegrams in the late 1800s, The Master Switch discusses what happens when a new technology emerges and disrupts the status quo. Without fail, it always involves the existing players fighting to hold back the technology until they’re crushed.

You may think that all of this has only happened more recently in the age of computers, but this is a battle that has repeated itself for generations.  In particular, you’ll find that Twitter is surprisingly similar to AT&T when Alexander Graham Belle built his early empire. Instead of APIs and shutting down developers though, AT&T literally cut phone lines and physically attacked rival, small phone companies. This book will help put into perspective what happens during these cycles of disruption.

The Mating Mind by Geoffrey Miller

Category: Psychology

Why You Should Read This: Not that long ago, our world was driven by a purely tribal culture. Lives were simple and our evolutionary habits were driven towards survival. Today, those same instincts still exist, but they’re in a foreign world where many actually do us a disservice at worst or at least make us less predictable than you’d expect.

You should understand your customer better than they understand themselves. This book will help you understand people in ways you wouldn’t expect. You can’t put a price on the insights it can give you as you position your product and design it effectively.

The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A. Norman

Category: Design

Why You Should Read This: Many of my design friends have recommended this as the seminal book on design. Upon reading it, I can see why. The book focuses on explaining what great design really means with a lot of great examples with images.

Everyone today is focused on simplicity, but the real word that matters is intuitive. Norman asserts that the functionality of a product should be obvious based on the design of the product. While all of his examples are physical items like stoves and door handles, it’s easy to see how it should impact the layout of your site.  After reading this book, you will never look at doors the same way again.

Crucial Conversations by Patterson, Grenny, et al

Category: Leadership

Why You Should Read This: Ever have a discussion devolve into a shouting match? Ever have a debate where you realized you and your opponent were actually in agreement? Do you wish you could get someone to open up to you, but they’re being icey cold? Crucial Conversations does exactly what the title suggests: it teaches you how to handle the tough, important conversations.

As entrepreneurs, we’re confronted with difficult conversations every step of the way from investors to cofounders, partners to employees. Then you go home and have to try to maintain a relationship with a spouse, significant other or roommate. This is a skillset you can’t afford not to have…unless you love stress, tension and resentment towards you.

Tribal Leadership by Dave Logan

Category: Leadership, Culture

Why You Should Read This: Making a great culture at your company is one of the hardest things to do at your startup, especially as it grows. Even harder is finding a decent book that actually helps you build that culture.

Tribal Leadership will help you understand how every person is doing in your company and how to raise their game to become a greater contributor and part of a truly great team.

When I joined KISSmetrics, I strongly encouraged Hiten, our CEO to read it and he loved it so much he got copies for the entire team and had us spend significant time discussing it.  Since then, the whole company has had discussions on the stages we’ve all been in and we can see the impact positive actions have had.

What Every Body is Saying by Joe Navarro

Category: Psychology

Why You Should Read This: There is a language every human speaks that most people not only cannot understand, but they don’t even realize they’re speaking: body language.

Being able to read body language is huge for any entrepreneur as it gives them a leg up on negotiations, reading their employees for warning signs (or positive signs) and better detecting when something is shady.  This book is written by an ex-FBI agent who did this for a living and it does not disappoint.

I cannot put a price on what I learned from this book as I’ve seen it show when a CEO has lost their staff, when coworkers aren’t buying into something I’m sharing and reading when a person is truly interested in me and my ideas.  Don’t spend another day missing both the obvious and subtle signals people are sending you. Most are involuntary, which means they’ll be more truthful than the words coming out of their mouths.

I believe these books will give you a well-rounded view of the skills you need as an entrepreneur and in their category, they’re the best.

What books do you recommend most?

How to Plan for Succession in Your Business

Whether you’re building a volunteer organization, a high growth business or a profitable side project, there is likely going to come a day when you no longer will be able to (or want to) run it.  Building something that outlasts your direct efforts is a real accomplishment, but few talk about how to actually do it.

As I just moved to San Francisco, I’ve gone through the process of succession for my role in Boston running Greenhorn Connect, a site that aggregates everything going on in the Boston startup scene.  (You obviously can’t run the day to day of such a site from another city.)

I’ve been fortunate enough to find someone great, Paul Hlatky, to take over and even managed to get my awesome team on board with the idea. This was no mistake. I was fortunate to have been able to solicit advice from some of Boston’s best leaders. I’d like to share what I learned from them and in the process of handling this succession.

Special thanks in particular to Tim Rowe of the Cambridge Innovation Center and Michael Skok of North Bridge Venture Partners for their advice for this post.

How to Handle Succession Planning for Your Organization

1) Start planning before you need a successor.

In October 2011, I talked with my team at our monthly Greenhorn Team meeting about the idea of me not always running the day to day of Greenhorn Connect. After 2 full years, it seemed like it would make sense for someone new to give Greenhorn Connect a fresh injection of energy and vision. At the same time, I was trying to launch a company, so I realized that a founder of a growing business would not have the time for a side project like GHC.

From that meeting forward, I started quietly keeping an eye out for a successor and thinking about what it would take to hand off the business. This led me to ask myself a few key questions:

  • What are the core benefits to the job I can sell someone on?
  • What is the archetype for the person & skills needed for this role?
  • What role would I expect to have after the transition?
  • What don’t I know about succession planning that I should learn about?

At the outset, I had few answers, but it gave me a framework to get started on the process before I needed my successor. It also helped me understand what questions to ask others when I had the opportunity to learn how they’d approach the challenges I felt were coming.

2) Be proactive and seek out your sucessor.

Once I realized the kind of person I was looking for was going to be a hungry student new to our ecosystem and hungry to help others that were new to the ecosystem, I needed to find some leads. By narrowing the definition of who I was looking for I was able to concentrate my search to a few student leaders starting to emerge in the community.  Since I didn’t want succession to be done in the spotlight, I had to seek them out directly and somewhat discretely.

Paul, then a senior at BU, had attended our massive conference the unconference and wrote a passionate blog post about connecting students. It came across my Twitter stream one night and I followed up with him by commenting and then meeting up with him for coffee.

3) Try before you buy.

Successions that fail don’t end well for anyone. Just ask John Sculley (aka- Jobs’s disastrous first successor). To save embarrassment for you and your potential successor, the best thing you can do is try before you buy. This means working with them and spending a lot of time with them to make sure you feel comfortable with them taking over.

For Paul and I, this trial ended up turning into a jointly organized Startup Career Fair. Pulling off a major event like this (500+ students and over 30 companies) requires a great deal of coordination and help. Paul showed incredibly skill as he recruited dozens of students to help, negotiated huge discounts from our venue and otherwise showed great business instincts. Even before the fair occurred I knew I had the right person, so I made the pitch.

4) Sell the Dream.

No matter how ugly, everyone loves their own baby. But if you’re handing it off to someone else, you have to convince them to love your baby, too.  Once you’re certain you’ve found the right person, you need to grab a pair of rose colored glasses and sell the dream of why this person should want to take over for you.

While I knew Paul was a great young hustler, I didn’t know everything about his motivations yet, so when I made the pitch, I laid out all the benefits I knew Greenhorn Connect could provide its leader. I focused on what I knew motivated me to do it as well as some of the things that were cool, ancillary benefits of the role.

If you’re stuck on what to say, just think about how Willy Wonka made it impossible for Charlie to pass on the opportunity to run the chocolate factory…and reveals much of his succession plans:

(Quite possibly the best “Sell the Dream” ever. Skip to 2:29 in the video)

5) Focus on values and key success factors.

When you choose a successor, you have to realize they are not you. You can’t expect them to do everything as you have done it before. Instead, you need to focus on instilling the core values of the role and what matters most to the success of the business or organization. These values and key success factors will act as guide posts for your organization’s new leader to make their own decisions by.

In the case of Greenhorn Connect, I shared a large Google Doc with Paul filled with insights to what I felt had made the site a success to date and things I felt were our core strengths and weaknesses.  I also shared with him many of the processes and productivity hacks I had used to run the site, but I tried to emphasize that he was welcome to come up with new strategies and tactics as long as they didn’t compromise our core values.

With what I’ve seen in Paul’s first 3 months running GHC, I can see that he learned the values and is now bringing some of his own style and ideas to the table, making Greenhorn Connect better than it was before.

5) Put them out in front.

Now that you’ve got your successor excited about the role and are instilling your values in them, it’s time to shine the spotlight on them.  When I asked Tim Rowe for advice on succession he had a lot to say about this in particular. He told me:

Give Paul the spotlight. Make it all about him. When you’re out there, let him be the one up on stage. Meanwhile, you should be in the background telling everyone, “isn’t he great?” Keep pushing him and promoting him from behind the scenes until one day you aren’t back stage and everyone simply knows he’s in charge now.

There’s a lot of pride and ego you have to swallow to do this, but in order to avoid casting a tall shadow on them, you need to let them shine while you’re still around.  It creates an intermediate step where you and your sucessor are together, rather than an instant switch from you to them that would be jarring.

6) Get out of the way.

Of all the steps, this is by far the hardest. You’re handing off your baby you watched grow and develop and now you have to trust someone else to continue caring for it. If you don’t get out of the way, you’ll end up meddling in their work, preventing them from succeeding.

To truly be a successor, they have to be able to put their stamp on it. This only comes with the independence of full control. As Michael Skok told me:

It doesn’t matter if they succeed or fail; either way if you do it right, they’ll be to blame for it, not you.

In some ways it feels heartless; when you’re handing it off, you want to feel like you have some lasting value you can provide. However,  the best thing you can do is tell them you’re there if they need you, but otherwise absent.

I’m still working at this last step. Since I stayed on as CFO at Greenhorn Connect, I still have some duties with the business. These duties are a blessing and a curse; I still get to see how GHC is doing, but it also then tempts me to interject in Paul’s work to make observations and suggestions.

Luckily, Paul is very gracious about them and he’s also strong enough to stick to his guns and do what he thinks is best. I think I’m getting better at this last step of late, but I still catch myself at times trying to prevent Paul from making his own mistakes. I have to let him make his own mistakes or he won’t learn.

Succession is hard.  But to ensure good things continue beyond the lifespan of its creator, it’s an important step in the lifecycle of every organization. I hope these tips will help you keep your great organization living on.

What advice do you have for succession planning?

The Secret to Getting Any Job You Want: Focus

Whether on the subway, at home with family for the holidays or talking with friends, I often hear the same thing:

     “It’s so hard to find a job right now…”

     “I applied to 100 jobs on Monster.com and heard nothing!”

     “I applied to every job I could find and I couldn’t even get a phone interview!”

In the last 4 years, during a recession that crushed our generation in the employment market (over 17% unemployment for Gen Y) I have landed three different, awesome jobs. What makes it particularly interesting are the following facts:

  1. Each job I applied for was a reach based on my existing skills.
  2. Each job was the only job I applied for at the time.
  3. Each company ended up giving me a different job than I initially applied for, but that was an even better fit than what I started out going after.
No matter how hard you focus on getting a job, there are still only 24 hours a day. I have the same constraints as you. The problem is, when you apply for 100 jobs, you’re spreading your energy across 100 companies, while when I apply for one job, I’m focusing all of my energy on one company. That concentrated energy gets you noticed and gets you the job. How is this possible? In simplest terms, it’s all about focus.

Let’s look closer. I’m sharing all my secrets for getting the perfect job:

Step 1: Choosing the right company.

There are thousands of companies out there and especially as our economy finally recovers, many of them are hiring. For those of you who applied to 100 jobs, you know this is true.  What really matters though is picking one company that you really want to work for.

It’s up to you to decide what matters most to you. Is it location? Company size? The market they work in? You want to choose the two or three most important things and use that to filter the companies you see that are hiring. Then you should dig into the company closer and see who gets you excited. Every company has an “About” page full of information about who they are. Keep searching until one of them stands out for you. If you’re going to put a ton of effort into pursuing one job, then you should make sure it’s a job you really want.

Step 2: Plan your attack.

Applying for a job is a lot more than writing a cover letter and submitting a resume. If you are going all in on one job, you need to do some serious prep.

Start by tearing apart their website. Then Google them. Learn everything you can about them. Pretend you have to give a major presentation for a class about them. Next, research the people you may be working with; if you’re a designer, look up other designers at the company, if you’re in HR or marketing, look at those departments specifically.

Step 3: Fire the first shot.

As you do your research on the company, see if you know anyone who works there or if you have a close friend/mentor/family member who knows someone there. If they do, ask for their help in getting an introduction into the company. Ideally, you want it to be someone in the department you’re applying to (if the company is big enough to have departments), but work with whatever you have.

Completing this step means getting an intro to someone in the right department. The real trick to succeeding in an interview is getting past the mess of general applications.  An intro directly to the person hiring is how the pros get it done; they end up at the top of the proverbial resume stack…unlike the “spray and pray” kids from Monster.com that never get past the inbox.

Step 4: Follow up with value.

Now that you’ve submitted a great resume and cover letter tailored to the company and target job along with that intro to someone in your target department, it’s time to take your game to another level.  You’re now going to create content to add value to your (hopefully) future employer.

The goal with the content you create is to show competence in the job you hope to do for them and also show an understanding of their company and their present challenges. If you’re a designer, perhaps it’s feedback on the design of some of their site or a proposed new design for something they have. If you’re a developer, you could make a small app with their API and include feedback on how they could make the API better.

If you’re on the business side, try submitting feedback on their product from a user perspective or even gather some insights from their market that would be valuable to your target supervisor.

Another great trick I’ve used is to literally tell them what I’d do if I had the job.  I once submitted a 7 page document full of ideas of how a startup could engage its community and build buzz. It made for great conversation fodder in the interview and made me stand out against candidates who had more impressive work experience than I did. Startups love do-ers and this showed I was someone who got things done and had my own initiative.

Step 5: Double down and be persistent.

The great thing about submitting all this content to your target employer is that when you’re following up to find out where you are in the interview process, you’re not just bugging them, you’re sending them something of value. Each time you follow up in the process, try to have something of value to give them along with the ping. It will keep you on their radar and impress them with your persistence.

Do you have time to follow up with potential employers when you submit 100 resumes? Obviously not, which is why your new tactic of following up and adding value will stand out so much.

Step 6: Crush the interview and close.

With all the goodwill you’ve built up by getting a good introduction to someone on the team you want to join and submitting valuable content to them, you’re extremely likely to get brought in for a full interview.  When you do, your goal is to show you’re as good in person as you are in all the electronic interactions you’ve now had.

When you come to the interview, come ready for everything. Find out everyone you’re interviewing with and research all of them like you already did the company you want to work for. Have something interesting to talk to each person about that shows you did your homework on them. Refresh yourself on all the research you’ve already done and be prepared to talk about and build upon the ideas you submitted in the content you’ve produced.

The great thing about all this effort is that on top of impressing everyone at the company, you should have a very clear idea of what the company is like and be ready to contribute in a big way from day one.

Step 7: What if I don’t get the job?!?

So there is is always the chance that despite all your efforts, you won’t get the job, it’s rare, but it does happen. What’s great is that very often when someone puts in this kind of effort a person hiring will do one of two things:

1) Try to find another job for you so the company can still hire you.

2) Refer you to someone in their network that could hire you.

I have personally experienced scenario 1) twice in my career and have friends who have ended up very happy in roles that came from referrals in scenario 2).

If all else fails, brush your shoulders off and move on to the next job. This much hustle is guaranteed to pay off sooner rather than later.

How would you recommend standing out in the job applicant crowd? Have you found a job and have advice to offer? Tell us in the comments!

How Do You Get Back on the Customer Development Horse?

Note: This post originally appeared on GreenhornConnect.com on July 27, 2011. I’m organizing all my customer development posts from GHC on here for easy reference (see the Lean Startups tab).

It happens to us all. Your startup is cruising along, or at least you’re really busy running in a million directions. Maybe you’ve also got pulled away with some personal issues like selling your home, caring for children or relationship challenges. No matter what the cause, you get away from the most important thing: Getting outside the building and talking to customers.

So knowing that you have dropped the ball and need to pick it up again, what do you do? How do you get back on the customer development horse?

How Do You Get Back on the Customer Development Horse?

Step 1: Review your previous notes

The first thing you should do is go over all of your past customer development work. Look at how you’ve already progressed and jog your memory on what you have already learned. This should include previous raw interview notes, any summaries of those notes and progress from your Lean Canvas.

This is a good time to find out if you’re taking good enough notes! If you can’t efficiently figure out what you learned, than anyone else using your notes, canvas and summaries can’t either.  A great Lean Startup should be keeping their team and their advisors up to date on customer development progress and most of what they’ll have to go on are these notes.

Step 2: Schedule new customer development interviews

Once your memory is set (this should hopefully only take an hour or two if you’re organized) then go back and see if you had any outstanding interviews to shedule. This is your low hanging fruit to schedule meetings. Reconnect with these people immediately and schedule new meetings with them as soon as possible.

Customer development is a numbers game, so regardless of if you had oustanding interviews, you need to get more feelers out for additional people to talk to; not everyone you reach out to will respond.

Here are a few ways I’ve found work to get more customers to talk to:

1) Your Early Adopters: Ask any of your early adopter users to talk if you haven’t talked to them (also get product feedback if you haven’t connected with them lately).

2) Ask Past Interviewees for Intros: Ask any past customer development interviewees that fit the problem you’re solving if they know anyone they could intro you to. (You should ask this at the end of any interview…it has a 4x success rate of responses compared to cold emailing.) In general, people want to be helpful and if you really are working on solving one of their problems, they’ll be happy to connect you with someone they know that also has the same problem.

3) Cold Email: Cold email, call or walk into the buildings of your potential customers. Unfortunately, this mode has a particularly low success rate (expect a 10-20% response rate on cold emails at best, but 5% isn’t unusual) so be prepared to have to do a lot to get results. I usually email 10-20 people at a time expecting a few responses.

If you know a good blog post on tips for cold emails for customer development, let me know and I’ll link to it here.

4) Use the Reverse Lead Model:  I’ve recently fell in love with the reverse lead model: if your startup serves a group their has their own customers that your tech supports (such as a real estate agent software that helps them interact with homeowners or moving company software for booking moving deals), then pretend to be a lead for your target customer (ie- pretend to be a homeowner or someone about to move).  Then turn the tables when they call you.

The trick I’ve found is when they call play along at first but be chatty. Pretend you’re still selling your house or moving, but then ask them about the software they use as you talk. As this first friendly conversation goes their way…then switch it up to talk about the problems you think they have and see if they confirm. If they do then pitch your product and try to get a face to face meeting (or separate phone call with a decision maker) to talk more.

Trust me, this works. I’ve actually had people complain to me about their software in these conversations…talk about a self-identified problem!

Note: This will take time. I’ve found that it generally takes a week to week and a half to get back into scheduled interviews; if you start emailing on Monday, you’re unlikely to have a full plate of interviews until the middle of the following week.

Step 3: Get your customer development questions updated

Now that you’ve started filling up your schedule with more customer development opportunities, you should determine what your goals are to discover in your current round of customer development.

Go back to your Lean Canvas and look at where you stand in testing assumptions. Remember that the goal is to test the riskiest assumptions you’ve made.  If you’ve already verified some, then you should begin testing new assumptions.

Great customer development starts with a good script of questions. It will make you more confident and comfortable in the interviews and make sure you don’t forget to ask something important.  You can (and should) go off script based on where the discussion takes you, but this is your anchor to bring you back to the key things you want to discover.

Step 4: Set a routine for staying on the horse in the future

In the end, the hope is you won’t fall off the horse again. The best way to do that is to set yourself a plan to keep it in your routine.  This can be as simple as carving out a few hours one day a week to review customer development progress and see how many interviews you have upcoming. If you drop below what you find is an acceptable number of pending interviews, go back to Step 2 and try to get a few more in the pipeline.

You can also give yourself an added boost with some external accountability by setting up to regularly update others on your customer development. At oneforty, I sent out bi-monthly reports to the entire team on key takeaways from customer development and updated the management team every 4-5 interviews. This ensured the whole team was up to date and I had extra motivation to try to keep customer development cranking.

Getting outside the building is never easy, but if you’re committed to being a lean startup, you have to stay on top of it. It’s easy to get distracted by other responsibilities. When that happens, now you know what to do.

What advice do you have for Lean Startups trying to maintain a routine of customer development?

Lessons Learned in Customer Development

Note: This post originally appeared on GreenhornConnect.com on September 9, 2010. I’m organizing all my customer development posts from GHC on here for easy reference (see the Lean Startups tab).

“Customers live outside the building.” Every startup is well served to remember this and make sure they’re reaching out to their customers/users to understand them.  As customer development manager at oneforty, I’m on the front lines of that effort and our overall goal of implementing Lean Startups methodologies.  I’d like to share a few things I’ve learned along the way.

Lessons Learned in Customer Development

1) Ask the right questions the right way.

One of the key tools in customer development is the user interview.  At its heart, you’re trying to understand what problems your users have and how your startup may solve some of them.  The greatest challenge in these interviews is keeping the discussion focused on user problems and frustrations instead of features and their ideas for solutions; users are notoriously bad at suggesting features they need or would actually use, so you absolutely need to focus on what problems are behind those feature requests.

There are some great contributions in the blogosphere to help guide you in preparing your interview questions:

2) You manage what you measure.

In addition to interviews, metrics are the other big piece of customer development. You have to understand what’s happening on your site and decide what aspects you will work to improve and in what order.

The best way we’ve found to track this is to consider everything under Dave McClure’s AARRR model.  There are all kinds of numbers we can measure on oneforty, but by grouping them into categories of Acquisition, Activation, Retention, Referral and Revenue, a clearer picture of the meaning of all the numbers is formed.  We then take those numbers and focus our engineering sprints on improvements in one of those categories at a time.  This helps engineering understand what they’re building while also making it easier for us to measure for improvements based on those efforts.

3) Communication is key…inside and out!

While Jeremy and I dive into the metrics on oneforty each week in great detail and I interview many users to understand their problems, that’s just the beginning of the work for customer development.  It is essential that what is discovered is shared with the team in a concise and clear fashion; they need the information to act on what we’re seeing and understand the reasoning behind development decisions.  At oneforty, we go over key metrics results with the entire team for 5-10 minutes each week and have a monitor on the wall in the office that displays 3 core metrics we’re focused on right now.

In addition to communicating within the team, it’s important to also communicate outside.  First, you always want to be tweaking your interview questions based on how your site or product is changing; if you’re considering adding a new feature it is important to understand if it solves a significant problem or is particularly compelling for users before you devote significant engineering time.  The best way to do this is through full interviews, but with tools like KissInsights and SurveyMonkey available, you have easy ways to ask large groups of people questions as well.

The other form of outward communication that’s important is with others doing customer development.  Often, it is hard to tell what is a good number for a metric and if you don’t know, you may be trying to improve something that’s already well optimized.

Recently, I discovered two key figures from asking others:

  • A 10% response rate on email requests to do a customer development interview is actually good.
  • For email newsletters, a 30% open rate and a 20-30% click through are solid and standard across most industries.

To learn these numbers I didn’t do anything special; I simply talked to one of Laura’s mentors, Tweeted a question, tried AskDart and asked some friends.  It didn’t take very long, but saved me a lot of time in the long run.

4) Pattern recognition is your most important skill

In the end, I think customer development is all about recognizing patterns.  You don’t memorize everything a user says in an interview; you’re merely looking for commonalities across many interviews. You should be asking yourself, “Are similar users mentioning the same frustrations or questions?”   These patterns are how you identify your “earlyvangelists” and identify the most important issues to work on.

You can also look at metrics the same way.  The goal is not to have to measure every single activity on your site. Rather, you should be searching for a few specific activities that can lead to the needle moving on many things on your site.

Customer development is an essential part of an early startup’s life as they search for product market fit. It’s a challenging job, but fortunately there are tons of great resources out there and an open community sharing their knowledge.  If you’re looking to learn more, search for content from Steve Blank and Eric Ries, look for the hashtag #LeanStartups on Twitter and look for Meetups around you on this topic.

What have you learned by doing your startup’s customer development?

5 Lessons Learned in a Lean Startup

Note: This post originally appeared on GreenhornConnect.com on February 23, 2011. I’m organizing all my customer development posts from GHC on here for easy reference (see the Lean Startups tab).

In honor of both the Lean Startup Circle Meetup on Thursday and the Lean Startup Machine coming this weekend, I’d like to share a few lessons I’ve learned in the past year as I’ve served as Customer Development Manager at oneforty and been actively learning the Lean Startups methodology.

5 Lessons Learned in a Lean Startup

1) Don’t ask what people would pay for. They lie.

Yes that’s right. Even Honest Abe wouldn’t have told you what he’d really pay for if you showed him a web app and asked what he’d pay for on top of what you showed.

Customers are terrible at explaining their problems and understanding the root issue. As the saying goes, the one certainty for a patient seeing a psychiatrist is that what the patient says is cause of their problems is never the actual problem.

Even I have lied. I was talking with Chris Keller about his awesome tool Followup.cc, which is an email reminder system, and I said, “I would pay to be able export all of my reminders to my Google calendar.”  Chris wisely also looked at engagement and based much of his pricing system on number of reminders, but he also put the calendar export in his paid version.  I am now a paying customer of Followup.cc but have yet to actually use the Google calendar system.

Did I intend to lie? Of course not. But it just goes to show the mindset you can get in and how far from the truth it can be. Don’t ask people what they’d pay for.

2) Nothing beats getting a customer to actually pay for something.

There is no better validation for your business than getting a user to actually pay for something.  Despite the true value of your time, few people actually account for this. That means they are actually quite likely to be willing to use your free product, while having no intention of ever paying for it.

Paying also moves you beyond the realm of being a favor; friends, acquaintances or just nice guys, no one will pay for your product unless it really solves a pain or strongly interests them.

As an added bonus, once someone pays for something, they have expectations. That means that their feedback will be stronger, because they gave you their money and now expect that you will deliver on what they hoped they were buying. This feedback is priceless, as building something that satisfies them can be built into the repeatable process that goes into a sales funnel.

3) You have to learn the customer’s language.

You may call your product anything you want but if it and the language you use to describe it doesn’t resonate with your customer, you’re unlikely to move forward.  You need to understand your customer’s language and make your product speak that language.

The best way to do this is to look at what words your customer uses to search for the problem you’re solving and, of course, the customer development interview. Remember, your customers should be doing 70-80% of the talking in your interviews.

4) A customer’s stating a problem is more valuable than a customer agreeing with a problem you present.

One of the key tenants of Lean Startups is that you’re solving a customer’s pain.  Often the question is if what you are building is a so called “Vitamin,” which is nice to have, or you’ve created a “Pain Pill,” which they definitely need.

One indicator of which side of the Vitamin/Pain Pill coin your product is on is how the problem that your product solves is surfaced. If in the middle of your interview (before you pitch your solution) the customer talks specifically about the problem you’re trying to solve, you have a much stronger indicator of pain than if you ask them if they are experiencing pain in the area you believe is a problem.

Now, this does not mean that someone who doesn’t come right out and say your problem isn’t a potentially valuable customer. However, when you’re looking for those early adopters (aka- earlyvangelists) you should be thinking about who most desperately needs your solution and that is likely people who have the problem you’re trying to solve on top of mind.

5) Be precise in your Hypotheses.

So you think you have a product solution that is the greatest thing since sliced bread? Great. But who is it for and how does it solve a key pain for them?

One of the risks in creating your lean startup is that you forget to get specific on your hypothesis. Don’t say “this is for doctors”; say “this is for pediatricians in suburban environments that have small, private practices.”

The reason you need to be specific is to avoid false indicators. If you don’t make your hypothesis specific, than you are very likely to talk to a wide range of people. When talking to this wide range, you may not find the interest you would otherwise if you specifically went after a specific group.  You could end up talking to a bunch of chiropractors and surgeons and never realize that the reason there was no interest in your product wasn’t that it’s not a great idea solving a problem; no one was interested because you weren’t talking to the right people.

There’s a seemingly endless amount to learn about Lean Startups, so no matter what stage you’re at just remember: Stick with it, Be patient and Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

There’s a great community on Twitter (look for hashtags #LeanStartups and #CustDev), many awesome blogs (Eric Ries, Ash Maruya, Dan Martell, David Cancel and many others) and of course great events (Lean Startups Circle) to help.

How to Structure (and get the most out of) Customer Development Interviews

Running a startup puts a ton of responsibilities on your plate. From marketing to sales, ghetto-HR to accounting, development to project management, you’re wearing a million hats.  We all know that Lean Startups methodology and customer development are important, but *actually practicing* it can be hard (if you’re not familiar run to CustDev.com *right now* and get Brant and Patrick‘s book The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Customer Development ASAP!).

As you commit yourself to “getting outside the building” to talk to your customers and truly quest for Product-Market Fit, it’s essential you make the most of those discussions. One of the hardest things for newcomers to customer development is structuring their questions for customer development, so I’d like share how I structure interviews to maximize their effectiveness.

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I’m writing a book on Building Customer Driven Products.

You can sign up for updates, early access to chapters and help shape the topics I cover by signing up here.

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How to Structure (and get the most out of) Customer Development Interviews

A few others have written about how they do interviews, so definitely check out Cindy Alvarez and Sachin Aggarwal’s thoughts on the subject. 

I structure my custdev interviews in 3 parts – People, Problems, and Your Solution. Depending on the person, this question flow generally takes me 30-45 minutes to go through. (Note: This structure is best suited to B2B customer development, but with a little creativity, you can definitely adapt this for B2C interviews)

1) People – Aka – Who Are You?

Before you get into anything about problems or your solution, you need to figure out who you’re actually talking to. This both warms up your interviewee with some softball questions and gives you an opportunity to build some rapport with them.

Some example questions you could ask:

  • What is your name and role at your company?
  • How do you fit into your company’s department structure? Overall in the company?
  • What is your budget like? Who has to approve your purchases?
  • How do you discover new products for work? Do you need any approval to try them?
  • Have you tried anything new recently?
  • What is a typical day like on your job?
  • How much time do you spend doing [task X]? (Task X being anything they mentioned in their typical day that stood out)

Do not shortchange this opening section of questions! You don’t need a novel on their daily life, but you *do need* enough to be able to understand their role within their company, who key players are and a general baseline of their sophistication. All of this will help you later pattern match who the user type that is most receptive to the problem you’re solving and the solution you offer.

2) Problems – Aka – What are your greatest pains?

This section is where you try to find out whether the person has the problem you believe you’re solving.  Your goal is to not lead them to your problem. The less you lead them while still hearing your problem being mentioned the more validation you have!

Some sample questions you could ask:

  • What are your top 3 challenges you face in your job?
  • What are your top 3 challenges you face in your job related to [industry X]? (Industry X being the one your startup is in)
  • If you could wave a magic wand and instantly have a solution to any of those problems…what would the solution be?
  • Dig deeper into their typical day on anything that sounds painful or expensive. (You can add some hyperbole here to get them to rant a bit by saying things like “that sounds inefficient…” or “that sounds expensive…”)
  • How have you dealt with or solved [Problem X]? (You’re looking to find out if they’ve hacked a solution together themselves. If they have…ask for a copy of it!)

People love to talk about themselves, so let them go nuts here and really rant about their problems (i.e.- Shut up and listen!).  Generally, people are terrible at proposing solutions, but you want to hear generally what they envision as solutions or see what they’ve cobbled together themselves.

Notice, you haven’t mentioned your solution or problem yet. If they don’t mention your problem specifically, then as you finish this section of questioning, you should directly ask them if what you think is a problem is a problem for them. Whether they agree it’s a problem or not, you want to then probe why it wasn’t one of their top problems.

3) Your Solution – Aka – See if your idea survives customer interaction

If in your discussions in part 2 your problem you think you’re solving comes up naturally from your interviewee you’re on the right track! Bonus points if the way they describe solving it with their “magic wand” remotely resembles what you’re doing.

No matter what happens in part 2 you should discuss with them what you thought the problem was and what your solution is. Getting validation that they wouldn’t be interested in the idea is just as helpful as finding out they love it; either they’re not a customer or you are learning what your customers want instead of it.

Some sample questions you could ask:

  • Walk them through the problems you believe your solution solves. Do they agree?
  • Does [your solution] solve any of their problems?
  • Would you be willing to pay for our solution? How much? (Don’t be afraid to probe for the pricing you know you want…”Would [X] be reasonable?”)
  • If they’re willing to pay your price and like the idea then…”Would you be willing to start right away?”

If all goes well and you really are solving a pain, then your customer should want access to the product right away. More likely, you’re going to learn a ton about what they do and do not want and your idea will begin evolving.

This basic structure can carry you a long way towards some great validated learning about your idea and the market’s desire for it.

A few last things to remember:

1) Take Good Notes or Record Everything!

- Once you’ve interviewed 8-10 people, you should be going back over all of your notes and look for patterns. This includes especially looking for patterns in the Part 1 section to see what all the people that agree you are solving their problem have in common. You should summarize your notes then and share with your team.

2) Have other team members sit in on some interviews

- A good customer development focused company will have everyone involved in the process. Performable, pre-HubSpot acquisition, had their engineers spending 30% of their time on the phone with customers. Nothing helps someone do their job better like understanding who they’re building/selling/marketing for.

3) Be conversational

- It shouldn’t feel like an interview! They should feel like they’re just having a conversation with a friend about their problems at work. The more comfortable they feel with you, the more they will open up.

4) Go off script

- The best stuff comes when you dig a little deeper on something that strikes a chord in the discussion.  The script is there to be your roadmap, but there’s no reason you can’t return to it after a 5 minute digression about a specific pain or discovery about how the company operates.

5) If they’ve made an MVP…ask to see it!

- Nothing gives you more insight to a customer than what they’ve hacked together themselves to solve a problem. The best thing you can do is ask to see it, which will give you an idea of what they’re hoping a solution will provide. These people are also the strongest candidates to be great, helpful early adopters of your product.

6) Always follow up

- It’s just common courtesy to thank people for their time and help, but it also opens the door to follow up with them in the future if your product changes and is a fit for them or to invite them to your beta.

7) End with an ask

- Always end your interviews by thanking them and asking them for something. It may be to get a copy of their MVP or even better, ask for an intro to someone they know that might be interested in what you’re working on. In my experience, these intros have an 80-90% success rate in becoming new customer development interviews, whereas cold emails only have a 10% success rate.

8) Be open to new problems! That’s how great products are born.

- As Steve Blank has said, “No idea survives first interaction with a customer.” Don’t be afraid to shift your focus from your first idea to what you’re actually hearing customers want.  If you probe in part 2 and find a burning problem…find out how they currently solve it and what they’d pay to solve it.

In the end, you want to find a “hair on fire” problem, not a “nice to have problem.”  Think about it this way: If my hair is on fire (literally), and you’re selling buckets of water, I’m definitely going to buy your product. But if I’m cold and wet, I’m not likely to buy your bucket of water right now, but would consider it in the future.

Find customer pain and a solution they desire and will pay for. Rinse. Repeat.

What advice do you have for entrepreneurs doing customer development interviews?

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