How Do You Get Back on the Customer Development Horse?

Note: This post originally appeared on 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?

2 thoughts on “How Do You Get Back on the Customer Development Horse?

  1. My tip for “cold e-mails” for B2B customer development is to avoid them. They are normally a mistake unless it’s highly personalized based on information you have gathered about the business. You lose the chance for a warm introduction and have the illusion of progress that you have sent 100 e-mails–surely five people will respond.

    Your “reverse lead” model is at best deceptive and probably not the best way to build a long term relationship with a business prospect. If you mislead them on who you are and why you are calling them why should they believe anything else you tell them.

    The Lean Canvas often proves very defocusing, suggesting too many questions to explore when the core challenge is initially “for whom[1] do we bring differentiated value[2] on this problem[3]”. Until you know [1] + [2] + [3] (and it’s 3 equations 3 unknowns since each variable interacts with the other two) worrying about the other boxes wastes both the prospect and the startup team’s time. It also encourages premature lock on because you want to fix one of the seven to nine 9 variables–depending upon which business model canvas you are using–just to feel like you are making progress.

    Focusing on the three interacting variables that are fundamental to the value proposition is a better approach initially.

    I think the best way to “stay on the horse” is to have two people from the team on each interview, holding each other accountable for schedule and follow up. This approach also allows one person to take notes while the other asks a question and then trade off, making it more time efficient for the interviewee. And interviewee time–not interviewer time–is the scarce resource in the early market. You normally get just one chance to conduct a succinct and focused interview. If an interviewee feels that you wasted their time they are unlikely to talk to you again.

    I have blogged about B2B customer interviews in more detail at and

    • Sean,

      Great advice. Nothing matters more than the C-P-S aspect of an early business (Customer Problem Solution as Steve Blank Calls it).

      I think everyone is always worried about time sinks and so it’s scary for some to have 2 people devoted to every call. At the same time, understanding your customer and the market is so crucial that I think it’s a great risk to have any cofounder rely on second hand information from his teammate.

      I didn’t find anyone get upset at me in the reverse lead model when I spoke with them, although that may vary market to market and how much tact you have; if you end up talking to a pure sales person that wants to close a deal, you’re likely to have a lot less success than I had when I was speaking directly to people in the business for more than the sales calls.

      I think many people struggle with the whole notetaking vs. interviewing process. I’ve personally found I type well enough that I can actually work on both tracks with limited issues, but your results may vary. That’s why I believe many people use recordings and transcription services for those that can’t do both at the same time.

      Great thoughts and thanks for sharing the posts.


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