Jobs To Be Done (#JTBD) has gotten a lot of attention as a valuable method for product and marketing teams (if you’re not familiar check out the the famous Milkshake video that started it all).
For the product team, they can better understand the motivations and needs of their users. As a marketer, you can understand the journey a future customer goes through to go from considering finding a solution to their problems to actually choosing your product. This is priceless for your marketing site and copywriting as well.
There’s a lot of great posts coming out on why Jobs To Be Done matters, but I haven’t seen much on how to actually do the interviews. Since I’ve done them a bunch myself, taught a number of my friends, and written previously about how to do customer development interviews, I wanted to share the process I’ve learned and evolved:
How to do a Jobs To Be Done Interview
Getting in the right mindset
These interviews are very different than a traditional customer development interview, usability testing, and other common customer interview practices. It’s a lot more free form than other processes that usually just want to uncover a few problems or learn some basic customer demographics.
For JTBD, you need to think of yourself like a detective interviewing a witness at a crime scene, or a documentary filmmaker trying to tell a story. Believe it or not, there’s a significant process a user goes through to become a customer and it’s often measured in weeks or months. Once you finish this process you’ll be able to fill in a timeline that looks like this:
The key is to get users thinking about their purchasing process and filling in the gaps while they remember the various events along the way. Your users won’t think of them with the words of that timeline, but you’ll see where those things happen. Fortunately, the questions I’ll show you will help your interviewee remember the various steps.
Here’s a quick cheat sheet of the terms on the timeline with an example of a friend who bought a new car. Skip down if you already understand the timeline.
1) First Thought:What caused the first thought to think about making the purchase? When was it?
– My friend owned a Prius and it was a few years old. One night when he was driving home from work, he hit a neighbor’s trash can that had rolled onto the road. He looked at the front of the car and saw it was kind of scuffed up, but not enough to take it to the shop. This made him think, “Maybe it’s time I got a new car.”
2) Passively Looking: What did they do while they were passively looking? For how long?
– My friend started thinking about what kind of car he would get next. He knew he wanted a fast car and was focused on luxury brands. He started browsing Audi, BMW and Lexus sites to look at their cars.
3) Event #1:What happened that switched them from passively to actively looking?
– My friend’s wife would need some convincing to agree to a new car. As it turns out, about a month after the trash can incident, her brother mentioned he needed a car. My friend could give his car to his brother in law and kill two birds with one stone. With permission from his wife, he could now actively look for the car.
4) Actively Looking: What did they do while they were actively looking?
– My friend started looking up reviews of the various cars he was interested in and asked friends that owned the cars for their opinions. He has a long time mentor that he in particular appreciates their taste, and so he asked their opinion. My friend is an Apple fanboy, so craftsmanship is really important to him as well. Both his mentor and his own research pointed to Audi being the brand best committed to those ideals.
5) Event #2:What was the event that made him decide to make a purchase at a specific day/time?
– My friend had two events that combined to push him to finally make the purchase. He was scheduled to have surgery soon and he wouldn’t be able to drive for awhile after surgery. Christmas was coming soon too. He wanted to get the car before his surgery so he could enjoy it a bit first and not put off the purchase that much longer and knew he could claim it as a Christmas present to justify the purchase then. (Now those luxury ads about buying cars as gifts make more sense, right?)
6) Deciding:What helped him make the purchase?
– Now that my friend was ready to buy, he went to the dealerships and test drove the cars that were finalists (a BMW and an Audi). He had a great time speeding down the highway in the Audi, so combined with his friends recommendations and his own research, he was finally ready to buy the car.
Unfortunately, the answers don’t come out that cleanly. You will get bits and pieces of the various steps during the discussion, which is why these interviews have to be more exploratory. You should be able to assemble the timeline afterwards though and start to see how you can market to future customers like your interviewee and alter your product to better fit them (like helping them see the most important value sooner).
The Jobs To Be Done Interview Script
Ok. We’re finally here to the script. Remember, the goal of the conversation is to help the person you’re interviewing remember the steps and key moments in the process that led to the switch.
A few rules for the interviews:
Find people who recently purchased. Most people won’t remember well anything more than 60 days ago. The more recently the event happened, the more likely they are to remember all the details you’ll hope to capture in the interview.
Don’t interrogate. You want your conversation to feel like they’re just talking to a friend.
Pauses are ok. The interviewee is likely going to have to think hard to remember details. Give them time and they’ll often remember things so don’t be afraid of 10-20 seconds or more of silence.
Bounce around the topics. Being non-linear in your questions often leads to new discoveries. Circle back to different things you talked about throughout the interview.
The best stuff comes around 20-25 minutes in. Keep digging and listen carefully. You’ll have a real *woah* moment right around then. For above timeline example, my friend didn’t initially realize the trash cans started his car buying process.
Take notes & record the interviews. There’s lots of gold in these interviews. You don’t want to forget anything, and be able to review and share them with others later.
Work in teams. A pair often can do better at examining all areas of the moments you’re trying to understand and help with taking good notes. While one person is writing a key point, the other can be asking a question.
Talk to more users until they all sound the same. It generally takes 7-10 interviews to get the patterns of everyone. I found out the root cause of churn for a company by interviewing a bunch of their recently canceled customers and it was very different than what people said it was in an exit survey.
Organize your findings with the Timeline and Four Forces. That’s what they’re there for. You can learn about the Four Forces here. And an image is below showing them.
Don’t lead the interviewee. Try very hard not to ask Yes/No questions. Instead leave room for explanation and listen. Ask lots of “why” and “tell me more” questions.
Timing Matters. Try to find out the day/week/month/hour something happened. There’s often patterns to be found in that timing and it can also help them recall other details as they concentrate to remember.
Jobs To Be Done Questions to Ask:
Unlike other kinds of interviews, you don’t need to always ask every question in the exact same order. These are all just ways to explore the process of their purchase and help them remember their story.
When did you first start thinking about your purchase?
Was it in the morning or evening? What time was it?
Where were you when you made that decision?
Was anyone else involved in the purchasing decision?
Visualize the environment you were in when you made the decision to purchase…where were you? What was around you?
Tell me more about that…(When you hear something interesting/intriguing)
Did you consider any competitors? Which ones? Why?
Why didn’t you choose them?
How did you decide between what you bought and the other options?
Why specifically did you buy that day versus any other? Why then? What was unique about that day?
What else were you doing that day?
Did anyone contribute to sparking the decision that day? Why?
What were you using before you had X?
Why did you use that? What did you like about it?
When did you start using that?
What were its shortcomings?
What does the new product do that your old solution couldn’t?
How do you normally approach choosing a new product?
What was your process for this product?
Why was it the same/different this time?
How do you use the product you’ve purchased?
Are there features you use all the time? How?
Are there features you never use? Why not?
If in doubt, ask them to tell you more about whatever tangential thing they bring up in the discussion.
You’ll notice as you do the interview, certain moments on the timeline will fit what they’re describing. I wouldn’t try to fill in the timeline perfectly until after the interview, but while you’re interviewing you can mark in your notes when it seems like it fits with some part. If a certain area isn’t seeming to be filled in, probe more around that part in their process.
To help make this more real for you, here’s a live interview from my Practical Product podcast showing the example of someone choosing to buy a mattress:
But will this work in my situation? It’s special/hard/unique.
If you can get the interviewee on the phone or to meet in person, then this will work in your situation. I have seen this work for all of the following cases:
Buying a car
Buying a scanner
Buying steaks online
Upgrading to Evernote Premium
Buying analytics for their business
Getting a gym membership for the first time in their life
Understanding why customers churned a SaaS product
Buying a 2nd iPad for a family with children
Buying a milkshake from a fast food chain
Even if multiple people are involved in the decision making process, any one person in the process is likely able to recall most of the key moments.
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You can have the best idea in the world, but until you find someone besides yourself that wants it, it’s not really a business. To find those people, as Paul Graham wrote in a recent essay, you have to “Do Things That Don’t Scale.” The problem is, it is often unclear what those “Things” are.
Understand you’re going to have a low success rate.
There is no silver bullet for finding users for your startup, just tactics like the ones below that work to varying degrees depending on your idea and market. Even for good channels, a 10-20% response rate is normal, so don’t get discouraged.
Don’t worry about scaling! None of the ideas below are really scalable when taken literally. However, like Paul Graham said in his essay: don’t worry about scaling right now. Just do whatever it takes to find people and the scalable methods will emerge later. If you have a cofounder worried about scaling early, have them read the Paul Graham essay.
Remember your manners and personalize. You’re likely asking people to talk to you when you have nothing but an idea and maybe a prototype of some sort. Be respectful in communicating with them. Also realize that no one likes a form note, so the more you personalize it and make it feel like they’re special, the better chance you have of a response. Elizabeth Yin of Launchbit has an awesome slideshare with advice on reaching out to customers effectively.
Don’t get banned.
If you abuse any of the tactics below, many of the sites and groups will ban or block you. Pay attention to restrictions to how often you can do certain things (like Meetup.com allows you to message 12 users per day). Realize the more times you break a terms of service, the more likely you are to get noticed and banned. On the flip side, it is easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. Just don’t be egregious.
A special thanks to these people that helped edit & provide ideas for this post:
You can sign up for updates and early access to chapters that will help you build product customers will love by signing up here.
95 Ways to Find Your First Customers for Customer Development and Sales
1) Use Linkedin Answers: Look for people asking questions around your problem and market or ask your own.
2) JoinLinkedin Groups: Join Linkedin Groups for your target market. Engage in discussions there, reach out to people that post relevant ideas or questions, or post looking for help.
3) UseSearch + InMail: If you know the kind of person you want to talk to, try searching for them (like VP Marketing at companies between 25-200 employees) and using InMail to message them.
4) Check your existing connections: People change careers a lot more than you may expect. You may have also lost touch with an old classmate that is now in just the right market. Either way, your existing connects are very likely to respond and you’ll have access to their email address, which is better than their LinkedIn inbox.
5) Ask your connections for intros: It’s quite possible the perfect people to talk to aren’t already a connection, but they may be one degree away. Don’t be afraid to ask connections you have a good relationship with for an intro.
6) Post to the Linkedin Social Network: Linkedin now has status updates you can post. It’s a lot less active than other networks, but it can’t hurt to see if anyone notices.
7) Run Linkedin Ads: Linkedin is the network for professionals and their careers. If your startup idea has them as the target customer (say marketers or executives), then an alternative to the high maintenance of Linkedin Groups can be to run ads. Linkedin also has a partner network for a lot of business content sites which can further the reach. There’s a great guide on KISSmetrics for Linkedin Ads here.
8) Look up your friends: For most people, their closest people in their life now and in the past are on Facebook. If you haven’t already exhausted your existing network on Linkedin, definitely look to see if any of your friends are in the market and worth talking to.
9) Ask your friends: There’s also a lot of random people you met in college and other times. You never know who knows who so you have to ask. I just got introduced to another person in tech through someone I was in a beirut league with in college.
10) Look for Fan Pages: There’s fan pages for just about anything you can think of. People that run those pages in your market are great people to talk to both as potential customers and to see if they’ll post something on your behalf on their page. Friends who have leveraged this have found it cheaper than Facebook ads, even when they pay the Fan Page owner. Just click the “message” button on the fan page.
11) RunTargeted Facebook Ads: If you think you really know your audience demographics, then running a small set of Facebook ads to a landing page, can be a great way to garner interest.
12) Try the new Graph Search: I haven’t had a lot of success using it, but it’s worth searching for things related to your market to see if anything else turns up, especially now that you can message people you aren’t friends with. In particular, Facebook has a great geographic filtering ability you won’t find on Twitter or otherwise.
Twitter: (My personal favorite)
13) Ask your followers: If you have any kind of follower base at all, you should definitely tweet about who you want to talk to. If you don’t have a big follower base, ask the people with bigger followings you’re friends with to ReTweet you. As you develop your idea, you may want to tweet different requests, which may be seen by different people since no one sees every tweet of their followers.
14) Ask your followers for referrals: It’s not just about who you know. The bigger benefit is who your network knows so be sure to not just ask people you follow or follow you if they’re a fit, but ask others for referrals.
16) Ask Twitter Accounts to tweet on your behalf: Just like you can ask Fan Pages on Facebook to talk about you, you can reach out to Twitter accounts in your target market to see if they’ll tweet something for you or ReTweet you. If it makes sense for your business, you can also ask some celebrities via tools like BuySellAds and Sponsored Tweets.
17) Search for relevant Hashtags: Hashtags are a big part of Twitter for many markets. For example, in the analytics market, there’s #Measure. Find accounts using the hashtag and reach out to them and join the conversations happening. Find relevant hashtags by asking others or checking out sites like Hashtags.org
18) Join a Twitter Chat: Many groups have regular chats that can be found based on the group’s hashtag they use. A great example is the Community Manager chat, #cmgrchat. This is a great way to ask questions and engage your target audience if they’re holding Twitter chats.
19) Search Twitter for People Talking about your Problem: Remember that time you were really annoyed at a company? What did you probably do? You tweeted about it. Try searching different ways for people talking about frustrations and you’re bound to find people happy to talk because they’re excited someone is going to make things better. I’ve successfully used this to talk to people about, of all things, email migration.
20) Email relevant friends/contacts: There’s a right way and wrong way to do this. Yes, you can spam all your contacts in one big dump asking for help. What will yield a better result is if you invest the time to be more targeted in who you reach out to. Close friends and family won’t mind and those actually related to your target industry.
21) Start a personal newsletter: I’ve known some people to start a personal newsletter to have their contacts *opt into* that then regularly updates them on your startup journey and can ask for specific help then repeatedly in the newsletter. This works great for getting mentors and early supporters engage in a small ask (just opt in) and later help more as you have different needs.
22) Use Rapportive to find emails & cold email: Somehow you may have stumbled upon someone you’d *love* to talk to, but you don’t know them. You can use tools like Rapportive to guess the email address and send them a personal note asking to speak with them about what you’re working on. You can find more advice on this tactic here and here.
23) Make your GChat status a call for help/intros: This may seem simple and passive, but you’d be surprised who reads your GChat statuses. Adding a note of what you’re looking for and leave it up for a few days and you might just get a few people to help you out. This works for other chat tools as well, of course.
24) Make your signature a call for help/intros: Just like your GChat status is a long tail way to get people’s attention, you can use your email signature the same way. Below your name in your signature is the perfect place to let people know. Don’t forget to update your mobile app’s signature as well as your computer’s.
25) Join & Attend Meetups in your category: Meetup has become an amazing hub of groups around just about any topic you can think of. Whether you’re making an app for LARPers or a hardware startup, there’s a meetup group likely in your area you should join to meet and talk with group members in your target market.
26) Ask organizers to message the group: Organizers have unique privileges to send messages to their groups. You don’t get what you don’t ask for, so don’t be afraid to reach out to group organizers to talk to them (they may be a great target user) and see if they’ll message the group. They often make no money in running their groups, so you can think of them like the Facebook Fan Page owners previously mentioned.
27) Ask the organizer to allow you to address the audience at a Meetup: Potentially even better than getting into everyone’s cluttered inbox is the opportunity to address the whole group at one of their events. This allows people most interested to immediately approach you. This can be a great consolation ask if they don’t want to message their whole group since this requires no work on their part.
28) Mention in your Meetup profile what you’re looking for: Like the GChat status, this is a passive move that alone won’t get you everyone to talk to, but you’d be surprised how often people read the profiles of other new members in a group. Be sure to include your desired contact method if you want Meetup members to reach out to you.
29) Message users on Meetup.com: Not every member of a Meetup group attends every event and if there’s no upcoming meetups or it’s a group outside your area, you can still reach users by sending them individual messages. Per a great write up by Melissa Tsang, Meetup has a limit of 12 messages per day, which is still enough to get some quality responses as she writes in detail about.
30) Create a Meetup group: Just because a group doesn’t exist, does not mean there would not be interest. Countless people have launched successful businesses based on the idea of organizing a high value group. Just remember that if you do this, not only will you build trust and relationships with all the attendees, you’ll be the organizer who can send all those messages, decide who addresses the audience, etc.
31) Write a blog post about the problem you’re solving: If you feel you know some of the key problems that users are facing in your target market, write about it! If it resonates with them, they will share, upvote, tweet, etc it and some will even sign up as long as you remember to have a call to action to sign up at the end. You can see an example here, where 1,000 reads turned into 10 sign ups and a look at some famous companies that started with a blog here.
32) Post your blog to discussion sites in appropriate categories: Sites like Reddit and HackerNews are awesome to access established audiences for your market. Before posting, do your homework so you actually post it somewhere it’s welcome; a baker would not be well served to post their baking innovation on HackerNews, but a marketing startup would do very well posting to Inbound.org. By posting it to these sites you’ll significantly increase the reach of #31 and might also get some interesting commenters there you can reach out to like this example from Vero.
33) Update your About Page for what you’re looking for: Just like #23 and #28, it is always beneficial to list what your looking for on your About page. The most engaged people on your blog are likely to click to your about page to see who you are and if they see this, they can help even if they don’t read your specific blog post about your idea.
34) Make a page on your blog just about your market: Depending on your blogging platform, this could be easy or hard, but it can never hurt to organize your information in a way that people can easily navigate it. If you’re writing a whole series of items or have already created a lot of related content, this can be a great way to assert your expertise and act as a honeypot to draw in interested potential customers.
35) Start a blog just to talk about your industry: Don’t already have a blog or don’t want to talk about your startup on your existing blog? Then start a new one. It helps to have more content than just one post, so if you go this route, try to have a few posts you can post over a few weeks. If you know your startup’s domain, you can make this the start of your company’s blog. Especially for blogs like this, try to get users to either sign up for an email list or to explicitly sign up for customer interviews.
36) Reach out to other bloggers for interviews: Chances are, there are other people writing about the market and potentially even the problem you’re interested in solving. These people are generally very knowledgable on the market and so they make great customer interview candidates and can also shed a light on more places to look for people in your market.
37) Ask other bloggers to run an ad for you: Many bloggers, like those fan page owners, don’t make a lot of money, so they may be willing to run an ad for you for very cheap or mention you in a relevant post just because they’re nice or like you.
38) Ask other bloggers to write about you: Going beyond an ad (which may be seen on multiple posts) you can see if a blogger is willing to write a whole post about you. If you’ve already interviewed them and they’re excited about your idea, this may be an easier ask than you think (and thus do it for free).
39) Ask to write a guest blog post: If your own blog has no audience, the best thing you can do is get a post you’d write on your market/problem on a blog that does have your desired audience. Bloggers love having more content to share, so if it’s a good post, they’re very likely to be willing to publish it. Look for guidelines and advice on guest blogging on sites you want to write for like on KISSmetrics’s blog.
41) Reach out to commenters: If you see passionate comments on someone else’s blog, follow the link and the profile/name from the comment to find out who they are and reach out to them. People usually will include a link back to their own blog, About.me profile or Twitter account from such a comment. This will give you a more direct, personal way to reach them, and avoid writing a bunch of comments, which the blog owner may then mark as spam and never be seen.
42) Reach out to people that ask relevant questions: If you can see who asked a good question related to the problem you’re solving, reach out to them using any methods the site allows to see if they’ll do an interview.
43) Answer questions about your problem/market: If you’re already knowledgable on your market, don’t be afraid to jump in and answer open questions. The people that ask can become great people to talk to and are more likely to be responsive if you already helped them with your answer. Don’t be afraid to drop a mention of what you’re working on right in the answers. Thomas Schranz at Blossom.io has done a great job of doing this in a helpful, non-spammy way.
44) Reach out to great answers: If you see someone who has given some great answers, they are likely very knowledgeable in your market and the problem you’re solving. Reach out to them to do an interview. Obviously, you’ll want to be careful it’s not a competitor. ;)
45) Ask questions to see who answers: There’s no reason not to join the conversation by asking questions as well. Reach out to the authors of any answers you find satisfactory or interesting. The best part of asking your own questions is that virtually every Q&A site will send you alerts when your question gets answered so you can easily keep track of them even if you ask a few.
46) Put Calls to Action in your Profile and Answer Subheadings: Sites like Quora allow you to put whatever subheading you want below an answer, so don’t be afraid to mention something about your startup there. Also, like the other sections, always put in your profile what you’re up to so anyone that checks you out (even for answers you may have written in other areas) can find you and potentially reach out.
47) Approach people in native environments: Would your target customer be found in a coffee shop, grocery store or mall? Then go there and try talking to people. Like anything this is a skill. This can come off as harassing or creepy (and the store may ask you to leave) or it can work great. The founders of Sincerely have been know to walk over to a nearby mall and offer strangers money and app credits so they can see how a user uses their app.
48) Look for people unhappy with a service: Are you trying to make a real world activity (like finding a locksmith or a good mechanic) better? Then looking for disappointed people near that service may be just the unhappy customers you could delight with your service. After taking a bad cab ride, you’d be the perfect person to explain all the reasons you’d likely prefer to take an Uber next time.
49) Go to conferences for your target audience: Just about every industry has a few conferences related to it. Established businesses get booths, thought leaders speak and many deals get done. You should be there too as you’ll never find such a concentration of people in your industry. Take advantage of attendee lists to figure out who you want to meet with. Offer to volunteer or just ask for a discount ticket because you’re a startup and you’ll be surprised what you may get.
50) Go to trade organization events: Depending on the business you’re in there may be regularly “Chamber of Commerce” style events where your target customers may be. This would work especially well if you’re targeting people who own brick and mortar stores or provide contract services.
51) Go to places you know they’ll congregate: Have an idea for people that own boats? Then going to your local marina is a *great* place to find boaters to talk to. Golfers might just be at the golf course or driving range, frequent fliers at an airport and teachers at a school. Timing is obviously everything, so be cognizant of when someone looks like they’re approachable and have time to kill versus trying to hurry somewhere else.
52) Ask people on long train rides or airplanes: I’m always amazed by the kinds of people I meet when riding Amtrak or flying. Sometimes serendipity can work in crazy ways, so don’t be afraid to tell random people you meet what you’re working on. They might just be helpful or someone nearby will overhear and jump in.
Your existing user base (even if small)
53) Offer a user Referral Program: You need a great product before you should be trying to aggressively hack your growth, but that shouldn’t stop you from offering an incentive to your existing users to help you get more users. They likely know where to find more of them (their social graph, emailing friends, etc) so a little incentive will get them to help you out. There’s a great Quora thread on the subject here.
54) Ask your users via email: Especially in the early days, you should regularly talk to your users and be updating your whole user base regularly. As part of those updates for new features, major bug fixes and outreach, don’t be afraid to ask them for referrals to more users or people to talk to.
55) Always ask your users when you talk: Whether you’re doing a customer development interview, usability testing or just talking to a user about a support case, remember that you don’t get what you don’t ask for. Ask them both if they know anyone specific who might also be interested in your startup as well as places they generally find other people. The latter may turn out to be a meetup, a Twitter chat or something else that is very target rich for you, but you would never have known.
56) Look for relevant postings: Does your startup idea do anything that is relevant to one of the many Craigslist categories? Quite a few companies have had great success building a massive business off just 1 category (see below). Try reaching out to posters to talk to them and later you can potentially scale this. AirBnb is the most famous recent example, which Andrew Chen highlights well here.
57) Make your own post: Just like you can respond to posters, you can also make your own posting in the appropriate category and filter the ensuing responses to find the right people to talk to. A friend working on a startup recently used this to success by making a basic post and then sending all respondents a qualifying survey to make sure they were a match. A small cash incentive in the posting will generally drive a solid response rate.
Forums, Micro Networks & Communities on the web
58) Join in the conversations on the sites: Just about any community exists on the web today. Many of them are in places you would have no idea exists until you dig in. If you can’t find them initially, ask some of the early users you meet using some of the other tactics listed in this post. Once there, look around for people already talking about your problem you’re solving and join that conversation to learn more. You can also post new discussions specifically on your target subject to see who is interested.
59) Message individual users of interest: If you see someone talking a lot about the problems or opportunities you’re working on, see if you can send a private message to them on the forum or at worst just reply to one of their comments asking to speak with them. Anyone sufficiently passionate will be excited to share their thoughts.
60) Reach out to moderators: If this is truly a community site (and not another company’s forums) then the moderators are often the most passionate people of all. Reach out to them as great people to talk to and learn from. As a moderator, they’ll be spending as much time as anyone following all the conversations there so they could provide valuable insight beyond their own experiences. If it is a company’s forum, then tread a bit more carefully depending on if your idea is competitive or complimentary.
61) Ask Moderators to post on your behalf or run an ad: Many forums on the web are run with very little revenue and more as a passion project. Therefore, much like some of the previously mentioned Fan Pages, etc, they may be open to posting on your behalf or running an ad for a very small fee. They’ll know the ins and outs of the site, which will give you a better chance of reaching the maximum audience.
Google Adwords & other ad networks
62) Run Adwords with a landing page: An efficient (though at times costly) way to build an early user list is to run a quick, targeted Adwords campaign linking to a sign up landing page. You can learn how to set that up here. There’s also good advice on evaluating the success or failure of such a campaign here and here. Realize that paying to get a bunch of people on a list doesn’t validate much on its own. It’s then using that list to reach out to users and talk to them and ask them to pay for something that does.
63) Run ads on lesser known networks: Google may have the largest audience, but not the cheapest or best targeted. Consider your market and think about if other ad networks would work better. There’s everything to consider from Yahoo and Bing to mobile ad networks or blogger ad networks. You can find a list of alternatives here.
64) Have your SEO basics in order: What’s better than the perfect Adwords campaign? Showing up organically for searches on your problem. Great SEO takes time, but you can make sure to have the basics right from day 1 so that you can at least get a trickle of interested users to your blog or site. There are a lot of great tips on the KISSmetrics blog including this great SEO Guide for Beginners.
65) Talk to newsletter owners: Just like passionate people often run forums simply for the love of it, others will run newsletters. If you already subscribe to them, don’t be afraid to just reply to the newsletter and ask for a few minutes to talk to them. Most people are excited to hear from people who read their work!
66) Buy Ads using a newsletter ad tool: There’s a great newsletter ad network called Launchbit. It can be a great help in both finding out what newsletters exist in a category and allowing you to quickly set up an ad campaign across multiple such newsletters.
67) Ask for mentions in a newsletter: In addition to talking to newsletter owners as potential early adopters, you can also ask them for exposure. Many newsletters have no formal advertising system like Launchbit, so often you can just go direct to them to ask for a mention for little or no cost. The more excited they are for what you’re doing, the less likely it will cost you anything.
68) Start your own industry newsletter: If you don’t find any newsletters in your category or are think there’s room for another one, then don’t be afraid to start your own! It will take time to build up an audience, but it’s a great way to put to work all those signups you’ve been driving to your landing page. Often times, it’s easier to first get people on a newsletter and then later convert them to a paying customer.
69) Reach out to complimentary startups: No matter your industry or idea, there will be others in the market you compliment. At KISSmetrics, there were many other SaaS tools we were happy to integrate with and swap customer/mailing lists. In most cases, our analytics was something their users needed and many of our customers could use a support tool, call tracking metrics or track a MailChimp email campaign. The best case for success with this method is to target companies of similar size (ie- mailing lists and user bases are of similar size) as that assures an equally mutually beneficial relationship.
70) Ask to guest post on their blog: Just like there are industry blogs run by volunteers and people just generally passionate about the space, there are also companies with prominent blogs. One of the biggest challenges they often have is having enough content. Reach out to someone on the marketing team or any contact info you see on the blog and propose topics that allow you to naturally link to what you’re doing.
71) Find their users and reach out to them directly: If you think your idea would be helpful to that company’s audience, look for people actively engaging and discussing the company on all the platforms I’ve been writing about throughout this post. While it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission, remember again to use tact so as to not be spammy or offend the company.
72) Watch what they do: As the saying goes, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Chances are your competition has figured out at least a couple of spots where your customers exist and you can enter the conversation there as well. In more modern terms, if something they do works, then consider Jobs’s favorite quote, “Great artists steal.” Like their Facebook page, and follow the company and key employees on Twitter for some inspiration based on what they link to.
73) Look for social mentions: Especially if you’re trying to disrupt a large incumbent, there’s likely many people talking about your competition. Look for especially people complaining about the product or experience. These are perfect people to reach out to learn from and hopefully convert to giving you a try. This also works for other startups you’re competing with.
74) Use research tools: Tools like MixRank, which shows the ads a site has been running, and Spyfu, which shows you the expected ad spend and keywords purchased for competition. If you’re looking for inspiration on the kinds of ads to try, those tools will help you get there.
Data Research Tools
75) Use Datanyze: This tool will tell you what apps any of the top 1,000,000+ websites are using as well as what they’ve recently quit. It’s transformed more than one sales team I know and provides priceless information on the state of just about any web SaaS market. Their free demo can help you understand market share, while the pricey version has alerts for specific tools and lets you see what any site is currently using.
76) Leverage tools that tell you contact info for key roles: If you know the persona of your target customer, then a list like Hoover’s or Jigsaw can help you find some of those types of users at especially bigger companies. Note that this lists they have aren’t 100% accurate, nor are they cheap. Try to hustle access via a friend or advisor.
Your College, University or School
77) Ask your professors: Many professors live vicariously through their students, and are happy to help out current students as well as alumni. If you had a professor that you had a particularly strong relationship with that is relevant to your startup, definitely reconnect with them. Also realize that many professors will talk to alumni who they never taught. Most professors have industry contacts they can help you with introductions as well as be a great channel to their students as potential customers or hires whether via emailing them or letting you address the class.
78) Leverage your alumni network: Whether it’s old clubs you belonged to, a fraternity or sorority or simply the alumni group for the city you’re in, you’d be amazed what people may be doing after school regardless of major or study habits. Don’t be afraid to both reach out to old classmates and club members as well as reach out to the clubs themselves for help from current members. Every student group I was in loved to hear from alumni.
79) Use your alumni directory: Many schools have searchable alumni directories that can allow you to track down contacts at some of the most powerful positions in the world. The shared experience of going to the same school is often all you need to mention to get someone who normally would be unreachable to suddenly be accessible to you for a meeting, mentorship or the right introduction.
80) Reach out to student groups: Even if you weren’t a member of the group, student groups are usually excited to hear from alumni. If any student group fits as a target customer for your startup, you should reach out to them. Playing the alumni card often gets you a great response and can often lead to offers to help you in many ways. They can email their list, let you address the group at a meeting or assist in recruiting help.
Leveraging the Physical World
81) Post an offer in public places: Bulletin boards still physically exist in many places and people still put up physical signs for all kinds of things. The stereotype are things like meetings and guitar lessons, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get attention being creative. If you know there are places your target audience will go to or pass by, consider posting something to get their attention. If you’re doing a Concierge MVP for your idea, this is a great way to start.
82) Use handouts, fliers or mailers: If hanging something up and hoping people will read it and respond doesn’t work for you, consider a more 1 to 1 communication through handouts you can give out or mail. One person I met that had a parking ticket app would carry fliers with him and put their flier under the wiper of a car that already had a parking ticket on it as well. It had a massive conversion rate. Get creative!
83) Buy someone’s service: So you want to start a business serving artists, or maybe housecleaners or some other service? Try buying their service and take a few minutes before or after their service to talk to them. If they care about customer service, they’ll be happy to discuss their problems with you. A friend of mine started his mobile invoicing startup based on the problems his cleaning lady had tracking payments.
Kickstarter & other funding sites
84) Look for products getting funded in your industry: Funding sites are booming which means all kinds of companies and ideas are getting funded. Others in your industry can be incredible sources of knowledge not just on how to run a campaign, but what they’ve learned from interacting with their new customers.
85) Ask complimentary funded projects for help: A fellow crowd-funded project that has finished their funding will be very busy trying to deliver their product to their supporters, but they might just be willing to send a message, tweet or post on your behalf. If their funding is still open, you may be able to swap promotion to your audience and theirs. Remember: You don’t get what you don’t ask for!
86) Reach out to users that backed the project: Every Kickstarter has a tab for Backers which includes their profiles, which you can click to see what else they’ve backed. While they have no messaging system (Indiegogo does), with their full names on Kickstarter, you can likely Google or search Twitter or Linkedin for them and message them there.
87) Put your idea on a funding site: If you feel you’ve validated your idea enough, then running your own crowd-funding campaign is a great way to validate interest for your idea. There is tons of information on the web about making the most of a campaign, just search on Google or Quora.
88) Talk to Youtube Channel owners: Youtube is filled with creators making content on all kinds of markets. If you go to Youtube’s channel search, you can search for your category and see who has channels and how many subscribers they reach. Just like you can talk to bloggers as experts in a market, you can learn a lot by interviewing channel owners.
89) Ask channel owners for promotion: If your idea resonates with the channel owner, there’s a good chance you can get them to talk about you on one of their episodes or maybe even have you as a guest. They may charge you a fee, but if it’s your exact target audience, it might just be worth it.
90) Start your own channel: If you think video is a great medium to communicate with your audience then creating a channel to connect with them may be a great option. Just like starting your own Meetup group, it can initially be hard, but once you’ve built an audience it will have a great, long-term payoff.
91) Run ads on Youtube: Youtube leverages Google’s ad powers to run targeted ads. You only pay for the ads people fully watch (not skip) so if video seems a powerful way to communicate with your audience, it’s worth experimenting. Remember, Dropbox started with nothing but a video and got over 75,000 signups (although they did not run it as a video ad).
Your own Product:
92) Put your name on it: If any part of your product can be seen by a non-customer, make sure your name is on it. This is easy, free marketing that your customers can provide for you simply in using your product. KISSinsights (now Qualaroo) had incredible growth without doing any paid advertising because of a simple link in each of their pop up surveys.
93) Make sharing an option for more access: If your product has metered usage, then you will always have customers who are uncomfortable moving up to a new, costlier tier. MixPanel has a free 50,000 events plan that can become a free 175,000 plan if you put their logo on your homepage.I’ve seen countless startups with that logo in their footer for just this reason, so don’t think your users won’t do it until you try.
95) Run ads in your side project apps: A number of my friends have built apps as side projects that end up having a few thousand users that never really monetized or amounted to anything. As a free user base you can always insert your own ads into your app. I met one of the founders at QBix that built the Groups App for the iPhone (helping you organize your contacts) and they used this tactic to drive people to their other apps. You can also send them to mobile landing pages to avoid building anything.
Woah…that was a lot. Thank you for making it to the end.
I hope a few of these have inspired you and point you in the right direction to find those difficult first few users. While some of them are paid options, I hope you see how many alternatives there are to paid acquisition on Day 1.
For the past couple of months I’ve been working on ideas in the lean startup space. As explained in previousposts, it seemed logical: I have a solid background in it from my days at oneforty as well as consulting before and after and the subject is hot now with Eric Ries’s book out, Steve Blank’s book coming soon and a seeming never-ending discussion about the principles in our community.
After initially exploring the opportunity to provide tools for performing customer development, I pivoted to the broader idea of providing a tool to help with Lean Product Management. Initially, the response was great; I wrote a blog post on the concept of Lean Product Management and it was universally loved. It’s the most read blog post on my blog ever and it generated significant inbound interest. At the same time, I talked to quite a few people that had interesting feedback on the process and where they were coming up short. I also met a number of people and companies that needed help in the areas I was looking for the product to work. However, in the end, a few major issues are leading me to place this idea on the scrap heap with the other previous 8 ideas I’ve evaluated over the past year.
The Concept – Product Chasm
The biggest problem in developing this idea was a major gap between the buy-in to the concept I wrote about and the actual execution of the concept.
In the product management world, it seems everyone has a different way of implementing it. Some people are absolutely hardcore and have impeccable wikis and project management tools (like a 1-2 punch of Jira and Confluence). Others keep it loose with simply a Google Spreadsheet and a Kanban board (both real and virtual). Finally others have utter chaos and have absolutely destroyed their project management tool by jamming everything in there (usually Pivotal Tracker or BaseCamp). It seems individuality is greatly valued in the world of product management…
This presents a series of problems:
1) There is no silver bullet
The difference between a Kanban board and a wiki based product management tool is significant. This would mean any tool that was valuable for one is unlikely to be interesting to the other.
2) Marketing is a nightmare
With everyone having their own ideas on how to implement product management principles, targeting and acquiring a customer would be extremely difficult. Even those that I confidently believed had problems in their process often either A) did not perceive there was a problem or B) even if they knew they had a problem, they weren’t actively seeking a solution.
3) There was no MVP
As I talked to over 40 people who owned product at their company, I found no consensus on what part of the process was broken for them; without this consensus, there was no way to build an MVP. More importantly, the lack of consensus showed no agreement on a core problem which could be used as the tip of the spear towards acquiring customers and building out a platform over time; building a Lean Product Management tool would take significant time to become a complete, full life cycle solution, but there was no clear path for doing so.
A Greater Problem – Passion?
One of the most fascinating things about my trip to Silicon Valley in December was seeing how entrepreneurs interact with one another there versus here in Boston. Specifically, I’m talking about the first questions an entrepreneur is asked about their startup/idea. There is no right or wrong here, just different.
In Boston, common questions are:
What stage are you at?
How will you make money?
Do you have any customers?
In the Valley, common questions are:
Why are you passionate about this idea?
How will you acquire customers?
What is the big vision for your idea?
Of all the questions, the one I found most jarring was, “Why are you passionate about this idea?”
Over the past 9 months of questing for an idea, I’ve been attacking ideas with laser focus and rigid customer development methodology. While this has likely saved me a lot of time on any of the ideas, it also was devoid of the thought of passion; was I ever really passionate about an idea in the moving industry or restaurant services? Being completely honest with myself, I don’t believe I was.
Jason Baptiste wrote a blog post back before Cloudomatic (which came right before he and his cofounder discovered the OnSwipe opportunity) which covered a series of ideas he was thinking about. He got a great response from people showing who also cared about the ideas. I may do the same soon.
I had a great conversation with Eric Paley after a Dart Dinner early this past fall about my struggles to find an idea. He told me, “I think founders have to believe in a little fate; the right idea will find you at the right time.”
Those words have stuck with me and ring true with my first real venture: Greenhorn Connect. I could not have had that idea come to me at a better time both personally (it was the only way for me to build credibility in the Boston startup ecosystem and land a job 4 months later at oneforty) and for the ecosystem (October 2009 was the very beginning of our ecosystem’s awesome resurgence…the perfect time for a uniting site).
More importantly, I wasn’t even looking to start something when Greenhorn Connect happened. It just grabbed me and I couldn’t not do it. As many of you who knew me then may remember, I was a man possessed to make it work. Despite all the obvious reasons not to do it, I still did it (Lean Startups principles would have definitely it shot down). I will never forget my first Mass Innovation Night after launch and Adam Marchick and Michael Cohen both giving me the proverbial “You’re crazy. Why are you doing this?” speech. Both are great converts now, but it was only the passion and a touch of fate/destiny/luck that really possessed me to so blindingly go after the idea.
After 9 months of trying to force ideas, I’m trying to get back to basics. I need to find my passions and try to let the right idea find me instead of desperately grasping in the dark for ideas or trying to force an idea through the grinder. A quote from Drew Huston has stuck with me in this process. He said that of all the 5 or 6 companies he’s started, only Dropbox felt like, “the wind was at our back.” That feels telling and reminds me of the commonly discussed need of Skill, Luck and Timing to build a truly great company.
It’s been 9 very long months since I left oneforty. While even today I have a runway left that most young entrepreneurs would envy, I’m realistic about my endeavor to start something; how long should you stick with it before you realize the timing isn’t right?
The great entrepreneurs say it takes Skill, Luck and Timing to build a great company. I believe I have the skill to build a great company, which is why I left oneforty. I was also inspired by this oft-tweeted blog post encouraging you to quit your job and start a company even if you don’t have an idea. However, as time continues to slip by, I ask myself if I’m making the most of my time.
That’s why I’m beginning to evaluate working opportunities for the first time since I started this process.
I’ve thought a lot about the framework of what I’m looking for; not needing the money gives me the luxury of weighting all my other priorities over compensation. I’ve realized the most important things to me are:
Working on a really big idea
Working with a truly great leader I can learn from
Having the opportunity to further develop skills that are assets to a business founder
I have ZERO regrets of how I’ve spent my time since leaving oneforty. I’ve learned a tremendous amount about myself, what I need in a technical cofounder and thanks to this most recent idea, how to manage product. I’ve also continued to build my network which is filled with mentors I know I can count on for help when I need it and people I can’t wait to invite to join me in working on that great ideaI know I’m going to find.
Like Steve Jobs said in his Stanford Graduation speech, “you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.” If you found me 3 years ago and told me I’d have done the things I’ve accomplished thus far, I wouldn’t believe you. However, looking back I can see how critical each step was in this crazy journey. Frankly, the less logical the next step, the more it seems to have worked out for the best.
I can’t wait to see what’s next and hope you’ll stay tuned; my beliefs are unshaken: I will build a great anchor company one day.
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.
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?
This post originally appeared on Greenhorn Connect here; I’m housing posts on my blog here as well for easy reference.
Whether you interview customers regularly, watch support requests on HelpScout or use a GetSatisfaction or UserVoice – like tool, your startup is inundated with feature requests from your customers. It’s great to have them engaging, but can lead to the dreaded “feature creep” that leads to a bloated, unusable product. What’s a startup to do? The answer may surprise you in its simplicity: use the 5 Why’s.
Don’t build that feature! How to use the 5 Why’s to learn what your customer really is saying
In case you’re not familiar, the concept of 5 Why’s is that by asking a person a series of “why” questions, you can get to the real root cause of an issue. Commonly, the issue can be used to do analysis of technical failures as outlined in a great post by Eric Ries found here. However, this can be just as powerful when you apply it to discussions with customers about features. The power comes from saving you from building things customers actually don’t want or need and surfacing what is really important.
This concept really crystallized for me when I had an experience talking to Chris Keller, the founder of email reminder tool, Followup.cc. I was an active user, but Chris hadn’t decided how to monetize yet. I told him I’d pay for Followup if he provided a calendar to see all my Followup reminders.
There’s just one problem – despite the fact that Chris built that feature not long after our discussion, I’ve never used the calendar even though I am a paying customer because of the core product.
Chris could have avoided building the feature if he had used the 5 Why’s. Here’s how it may have gone.
Me: I’d pay for Followup if you provided a calendar to see all my Followup reminders.
WHY #1:Chris: Why would that make you pay for it?
Me: Because I could then see all the Reminders I’ve set up.
WHY #2:Chris: Why do you want to see all the reminders you’ve set up?
Me: So that I know when I have reminders coming up.
WHY #3:Chris: Why do you want to know when you have reminders coming up?
Me: So I’m sure I know when I should expect a bunch of reminders.
WHY #4:Chris: Why do you need to know when you should expect reminders?
Me: (long pause) …So I’m sure I get all my reminders.
WHY #5: Chris: Why wouldn’t you get all your reminders?
Me: Good question. I guess I’m worried about it not always working.
Chris: Don’t worry. I’ve built Followup to be robust and reliable. Are you sure you need that calendar?
Me: Maybe not.
Your results may vary, but the point is, customers are terrible at coming up with solutions. What they are good at is sharing their problems, which you can solve. The key is to interact with them in a methodical way to get to the heart of what they really need. Next time you hear from a customer that you need to build a new feature…ask them the 5 Why’s first!
See my previous post to understand how I got here. The hypothesis is that product development is messy except for the most disciplined. After talking to a number of great product people, I have a theory for how great product can be developed while being customer centric (aka lean).
The Virtuous Cycle of Lean Product Development
The Product Management Funnel
I think of product management as a funnel. At the top are all of the ideas your team generates. If you’re a lean startup, that’s hopefully driven by customer interviews, website and landing page behaviors and support interactions and of course the occasional green space wild idea.
As product manager, this is the most dangerous step. Once you have more than a few employees, it’s easy to have these ideas overflowing and interfering with the whole product process. Multiple teams I spoke with have been using their project management tools to capture these ideas which leads to a huge mess (one such company had over 4,000 stories in their icebox!) and a major time suck (one vp of engineering is spending an hour + each day managing these ideas).
The problem is project management != product management. The only thing that should be in your project management tool are key bugs to fix and what you’re building now or in the very near future (ie next sprint). Everything should be clearly defined and in a language and structure preferred by your engineers. All the evolution of the product from idea to customer validation to final prioritization should be done outside the project management tool.
The Rest of the Funnel
The Full Product Funnel
Going back to the beginning, you need discipline at the top of the funnel; the best product people I spoke with are requiring a shred of data tied to an idea to make it into their coveted ideas list. They also often expect a disciplined approach to what goes in by having people state, “Feature X will move Metric Y by Amount Z” so it’s clear why the feature needs added. In earlier stages that may be in a “Hypothesis vs. Metric to Invalidate” format instead.
The key of this step is effectively managing the signal to noise ratio; for every 5-10 ideas that come in, you may only make 1 or 2. Even the less disciplined product managers I spoke with have some type of hot-lukewarm-cold system for trying to rank ideas. To avoid the 4,000 stories in your icebox (or anywhere else) you have to be disciplined on dropping stale ideas and focusing on what matters now. When you’re a growing startup, where you were 3 months ago is dramatically different from where you are now so why keep those stories cluttering your system now?
After wrangling the initial feeder of ideas under control, you need to effectively refine the ideas that make it into your system and allow the most important ones to rise to the top of your list. As planning for your next sprint begins, you need to prioritize these ideas and balance with other existing projects, bugs and other demands.
Once you’ve settled on what you’re going to have engineering build next, you need to engage your team on the ideas you want to implement; you may need copy from marketing, stories from support to describe customer complaints, links or screenshots from analytics to show present activity and relevant customer development notes. All of this feeds into the project management tool you have, but now it’s uncluttered and your engineers are much happier and efficient. Unless you’re github or heroku, chances are your engineers don’t understand the customer they’re building for perfectly so all this structure makes it easier for them to see what’s going on and then adapt it to fit the project management tool they’re using to track building.
As an added bonus, there’s transparency for your other employees as they engage in more than just the initial ideation process. It also means sprint planning no longer needs to have all hands at it as they’re already well aware of what’s going on and have had opportunities to contribute as needed to the stories now being generated in the project management tool.
Completing the Virtuous Cycle
We all know this image so well as the core of what lean startups is all about, but how often is this cycle cleanly implemented? The project management tools out today all do a great job on the build aspect, but what about measure and learn?
The funnel process I described above captures the learn aspect as you engage your team for ideas and validation. All that’s left now is to measure.
After you build something new in your project management tool, your engineers will submit it for some form of approval. Once approved, it universally ends up disappearing into the ether, because the project management tool is built to track what you are building or about to build. After building isn’t part of their process.
To close the lean loop, you need to look back and see if that feature actually moved the needle. This needs to happen within 2-4 weeks of building it; sooner wouldn’t be enough data and longer would be distorted due to other things you’ve likely built by then. This last step of learning should help you refine your instincts and feed back into what you build. This is one of the biggest challenges as Eric discusses his principle of Innovation Accounting in his book.
The amazing thing I discovered in so many of my interviews was how rare it was to do this measure step; how can you improve your accuracy without seeing if you hit the target?
The Product – Lean Opportunity
What started as an investigation of lean startup opportunities has broadened to helping teams close the loop in managing a product lifecycle. I believe there is tremendous opportunity to build a platform to aide on both sides of the project management tool and much wider than those adopting lean concepts officially (as we all know, being customer centric is not a new concept).
Earlier in November, I started out on a journey to see if there was an opportunity to build a product that would help companies in being a lean startup. The thought was that with Eric Ries’s book flying off the shelves and the lean startup community exploding, there would be new problems to be solved. Thanks to a nudge from Sim Simeonov and a few consulting opportunities brought my way, I felt like there was definitely something there. Like any startup, once I got outside the building, I learned some harsh realities:
1) Most people only pay lip service to lean.
Painful, but true. In both casual conversations in our community and full blown custdev interviews I found the full spectrum from strict implementers like John Prendergast and Matt Mamet (coincidentally co organizers of the local Lean Startup Circle Boston) to people who claim to be lean and think it has anything to do with how little money they spend (names withheld to protect the innocent).
2) Lean is a hands on activity.
The key to lean really is the human interaction; knowing when to ask an interviewee “tell me more” or deciding what analytics to deep dive to match up against your anecdotal discussions can’t be productized directly. It’s also risky to outsource since it’s so core to the future of your business; no amount of meetings, notes and summaries can compare to being there and doing it yourself. There’s huge opportunities to teach companies how to become lean, but I’m passionate about building a product, not a services business and I’m not sure most companies are ready to invest in lean (see 1).
3) Small startups are more likely to be lean and less likely to need process.
Part of the challenge of the adoption curve of lean is that it has most strongly permeated the zero stage entrepreneurs; they’re the ones with time and motivation to watch the videos, read the books and stay up on all the blogs (which has come a long way in the last year or two since all we had was the Four Steps to the Epiphany to go on).
Unfortunately, those people have little to no budget and because of only having a few people on their team, there isn’t much of a need for tools. Everything can be done ad hoc when you’re that small. The most common behavior when you have 5 or less people is to remove your headphones during the work day and share your findings immediately with everyone on your team. This is effective until you grow to the point that everyone doesn’t know everything that everyone is doing (usually around 8-15 people).
So all that meant to me wastime to pivot:
I’ve known all along that customer development feeds into product management. Fittingly, this is where I did find pain:
Managing product while being a growing, lean startup requires significant discipline. Not all companies have product leaders with this strength.
Many companies build up product management debt as they grow and fail to adapt to the demands of a team that passes the “take off your headphones and talk” phase.
Multiple challenges arise in engaging all members of a company at the right times in the right way.