A Serious Conversation Can Change Your Life

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, 2 Open for Business Stage, 3 Early Customer Stage, 4 Finding your Niche, Books, Customer Development, skmurphy

Theodore Zeldin gave a series of six lectures on conversation that were collected in slim book called “Conversation: How Talk Can Change Our Lives.” I found it offered a number of insights on what is needed for a serious conversation. And since serious conversation is one of the primary tools for early market exploration and customer development; I have curated a list of nine excerpts I think entrepreneurs will find useful.

Nature, Technology and Magic

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, 2 Open for Business Stage, Design of Experiments, skmurphy, Startups

What seems natural, artificial, or supernatural is a function of familiarity. Nature is the background or context for innovation. The challenge is that we live in a world and culture formed by millennia of innovation so that some incredibly advanced technologies seem natural. The difference between technology and magic is not that one works more reliably than the other but that technology is part of the adjacent possible–seemingly impossible but comprehensible. Magic breaks our existing paradigm and is initially incomprehensible. As entrepreneurs we need to present our innovations as technology not magic.

The Next Best Thing But Not Yet

Written by Max Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, 2 Open for Business Stage, 3 Early Customer Stage, Customer Development

It will be twenty plus years before there is a 3D printer in most homes due to limitations of the cost of the machine, material, obtaining software and learning how to use the software. Other fundamentally problem that prevent 3D printers being adapted by the public are to understanding of design, physics, and material science and a change of behavior of making things at home.

Your Startup Never Gets Any Easier

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 2 Open for Business Stage, Rules of Thumb, skmurphy

When I first went to work for Monolithic Memories my boss, Ivan Pesic, told me, “It will be rough for the next two months and then it will get easier.” He was still telling the team that a year later when someone else offered that advice during a problem solving session and we all broke out laughing because we realized it was never going to get easier. We kept working on harder problems. Ivan went on to found Silvaco and despite a few legal setbacks built a company that has endured more than three decades.

The Uncanny Valley of Email Automation

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 2 Open for Business Stage, 3 Early Customer Stage, 4 Finding your Niche, Consulting Business, Customer Development, Sales, skmurphy

Trust is built over repeated interactions between people. If your business requires long term relationships then you have to make sure that investments in automation are not deployed in a way that undercut your ability to have real conversations. Unfortunately, some uses of email automation tools are pushing sales conversations into the “Uncanny Valley” because they strive to simulate–but miss–a genuine personalized touch.

Q: How Do I Interest People In My Product?

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, 2 Open for Business Stage, 3 Early Customer Stage, checklist, skmurphy

Q: We have a product for bloggers but I am having a lot of trouble getting leads. I have met bloggers from popular media companies at events, I have cold called them, e-mailed them, and e-mailed to on-line groups that I am a member of. None of this has worked. How do I interest people in my product?

I have a couple of suggestions:

5 Ways To Start Customer Discovery Interviews

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, 2 Open for Business Stage, 3 Early Customer Stage, Customer Development, skmurphy, Workshop

Customer discovery interviews are essential to testing key B2B product hypotheses and understanding your target customers’ needs. Broadly there are five ways that you can reach out to potential customers to have a discovery conversation. All of them assume that you have a clear picture of who your target is and a few key questions that they will be willing and able to answer that will indicate they have a problem or need your solution may address.

Few–If Any–Silicon Valley Secrets

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 2 Open for Business Stage, Consulting Business, Customer Development

I signed up for a mailing list a while ago from a reasonably famous entrepreneur and he sent me this mass email in late November promising to share “Silicon Valley Secrets.” I don’t know if it’s because I have worked in Silicon Valley for more than three decades but I found the whole thing kind of sad (of course, he’s probably laughing all the way to the bank).

Crafting a Value Proposition

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 2 Open for Business Stage, 3 Early Customer Stage, Rules of Thumb, Sales

Q: I struggle with the value proposition for our product. Either I am too abstract “we offer a positive return on time invested” or too vague “help increase your ability to manage critical challenges.” Do you have any suggestions for how to frame or formulate a value proposition?

Here a few questions that a value proposition normally addresses

Entrepreneurial Passion: Good Servant, Poor Master

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, 2 Open for Business Stage, Rules of Thumb, skmurphy

Entrepreneurial passion has to be based on a desire to create value, to be of service to a set of target customers. There may be many things you are interested in learning and room enough in your life for several hobbies, but pursuing a passion without regard to your ability to provide value in a way that is competitively differentiated is to pursue a hobby.

Why You Need A Logo

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, 2 Open for Business Stage, skmurphy

Q: What are logos good for?

An image is processed by a different part of the brain than a word or phrase, making it both memorable and evocative in ways that are distinct from the name of your company. Having a logo for your company or product makes it more memorable and allows you to suggest connotations that can be put into words.

I have put together a table of a couple of icons or logos that we used and the word or phrase that the replaced. The first version of the SKMurphy logo was just a text treatment as was the first version of the Bootstrapper Breakfast. You can judge for yourself if adding some simple artwork changed your opinion of what each represents.

Tristan Kromer on Testing Customer and Value Hypotheses

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, 2 Open for Business Stage, 3 Early Customer Stage, Customer Development, skmurphy

These are excerpts from  Episode 9 of Outlier on Air: Tristan Kromer, A Lean Approach to Business.  They are in the same sequence the took place in the interview but a number of stories and asides have been omitted to focus on what I felt were some extremely valuable insights from Tristan Kromer on clarifying and testing customer and value hypotheses.

Entrepreneurs Blend Passion and Prudent Risk Taking

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, 2 Open for Business Stage, Design of Experiments, skmurphy

Successful entrepreneurs are fueled by a passion to change the world tempered by prudent risk taking. Many risks have to be managed on an ongoing basis cannot be eliminated once and for by careful planning or the achievement of a particular milestone:

  • managing cash flow and the risk of a downturn,
  • meeting your obligations to your family as well as your business,
  • continually developing new skills and connections to cope with evolving customer needs and new competitive threats.

Noam Wasserman had an article yesterday’s Wall Street Journal on “How an Entrepreneur’s Passion Can Destroy a Startup” that focused on entrepreneurial passion and prudent risk taking. He has some excellent advice with regards to a shared risk analysis with your spouse (and a plan how to decided when to quit before you are in the middle of the roller coaster ride) and identifying potential risks and problems with you plan (what Gary Klein has called a “pre-mortem” in other contexts is incredibly useful for a startup team to do periodically, not as a way of hanging crepe but of anticipating and preventing or mitigating foreseeable problems).

Here is a list of risks he identified

Wasserman Tests: Excess Entrepreneurial Passion

Wasserman Test: Do You … SKMurphy Commentary
Feel like you are on mission to change the world? This is a good thing.
I think this is probably a good thing. Doesn’t mean you should prepare to run your business. But if align your business with a higher purpose I think you are more likely to persevere.
Get insulted when someone points out legitimate flaws in your idea or product? This is a red flag, but it  may be as much about personal maturity as anything else.
Find it hard to come up with pitfalls you might face or to detail a worst case scenario for your venture? This is a red flag, but it may be less about passion and more a lack of knowledge about business or your industry. You need to do premortem’s periodically to prepare for problems and mitigate those you can.
Raise money from professional investors when your #1 goal is to “work for myself” or “to control my own destiny”? I think this is a low probability situation.
This can happen but normally entrepreneurs motivated by a desire for autonomy don’t seek professional investment and those that do are typically screened out as part of due diligence.
Hire friends and family whom you may not be able to fire if they underperform or circumstances change, because you are confident you won’t face those issues? I think this is a low probability situation.
If the business is not doing well typically friends and family want out, if it’s doing well you can often find people role that fits their talents if they worked with you in the beginning.
Neglect to run careful tests to assess consumer demand? This is an ongoing challenge not something you can ever fix or satisfy.
Large business fail at new product launches quite frequently as well, I think this is less a passion problem and more something that is very hard to do.
Assume you won’t need a financial cushion in case the venture takes longer than anticipated to generate income? This is an ongoing challenge not something you can ever fix or satisfy.
Sometimes it’s the fact that a team is almost broke that forces them to make the necessary changes to succeed.
Resist talking honestly with your significant other about the money and the time you expect to commit to your venture, and about the potential pitfalls you face? This is a real risk. This is a hard conversation but one that has to happen frequently. You have to treat you spouse or significant other as a member of the board of directors. I don’t think this is a passion problem per se, but failure to make a joint decision and keep them informed is a real risk.
Figure you don’t need to address the holes in your skills or networks in advance of founding? This is an ongoing challenge not something you can ever fix or satisfy.
There are always holes in your skills, consumer demand changes require new skills, competitors attack you in unanticipated ways that require new expertise, your network is never broad enough. I don’t think you are ever prepared enough and you have to be learning and connecting on an ongoing basis

I was struck by one paragraph:

For instance, almost 800 founders took a predictive test that evaluated their startup ideas, and then received recommendations about the next steps they ought to take. Thomas Astebro and his colleagues found that a sizable percentage of founders who received a recommendation to halt progress on their startups because the idea wasn’t commercially viable kept going anyway—29% of this group kept spending money, and 51% kept spending time, developing their idea. On average, they doubled their losses before giving up on pursuing their idea.

It Does Not Help To Tell An Entrepreneur Their Idea is Not Viable

It’s not helpful to tell entrepreneurs that their idea is not commercially viable. All new ideas are not commercially viable when judged by “conventional wisdom” until conventional wisdom changes.  Entrepreneurs are probably even less inclined to take advice from college professors who have never started a company. If you could reliably predict the economic viability of new idea you would not be selling analytics you would be making  investments.  Here is Thomas Astebro’s bio from Genesis Analytics

Tom Astebro is currently Associate Professor in Management Sciences at the University of Waterloo. He has seven years of experience in scorecard development. Tom developed the Genesis algorithms and technology as part of research at the University of Waterloo that was sponsored by CIBC and Nortel and earned the distinction as the creator of one of the three “Most Promising Technologies” in a recent Canadian competition.

Tom has published 29 articles, made 49 presentations at conferences, obtained research funding from NSERC, SSHRC, MMO, Carnegie Mellon, Telia, Volvo, Handelsbanken, and the Sweden-America Foundation and won ten international/national research awards. His research has been mentioned in Business Week, the Financial Post, the Globe and Mail and the Ottawa Citizen. He has worked as a management consultant for banks, insurance and manufacturing companies in Canada, Sweden and the Netherlands and has taught at Universities in Canada, the U.S., Sweden and Australia. Tom holds a Ph.D. in Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University and an M.B.A and a M.Sc. from Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden.

Encourage Prudent Risk Taking But Don’t Try To Blunt Passion

What is very helpful is to get entrepreneurs to test their key assumptions–“what else would have to be true for your business to work”–and get them to start testing critical aspects of a plan. When a peer entrepreneur is working on a idea that you don’t think is viable, it doesn’t help to tell them “I don’t think it will work” or even “Here is why I don’t think it would work.”

Instead,  think about framing it as

  • What risks are you worried about?
  • Here are three challenges I think you business has to overcome to be viable. Do you have evidence or results that indicate that this won’t be a problem?
  • What could you do to test or explore how to work around these problems before investing time and money in other activities that don’t attack the riskiest areas first.”

What Would Have To Be True For For Startup to Thrive?

This approach to helping an entrepreneur think  through their risks and challenges is something we try and do at a Bootstrapper Breakfast when someone says what they are working on and another attendees says something like “that’s a crappy idea or that will never work.”

We try and get them to think through “what would have to be true for it to work? What are the key challenges they have to manage to make it work?” Because entrepreneurs can always tell their friends with “real jobs” about what they are working on and either be told, “that’s not viable” or “that’s great” (meaning please stop talking about this) and not get useful feedback or critique.

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Customer Interviews: Spend an Hour to Save a Minute

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, 2 Open for Business Stage, 3 Early Customer Stage, Customer Development, Lean Startup, Rules of Thumb

For customer interviews we have a rule of thumb that if an hour or research saves a minute early in the conversation it’s a good investment.  When you look at the list of questions you have prepared to learn about the prospect’s business and their needs, it’s easy to say to yourself, “I am really busy I can just ask these at the start to ‘set the table.'” But there are significant risks with this approach.

Preparations Cuts Risk Of Customer Interviews Ending Prematurely

While the interview may be nominally scheduled for 15 minutes or a half-hour and may run an hour if it goes well the first six minute or so  are critical to communicating that you have done your homework on their situation and their needs. If you start to ask questions that are already published on-line you can appear lazy or unprepared. If you can do research on a prospect in advance, it’s worth spending an hour to save a minute in the conversation. You can even start the conversation by saying “when I prepared for this conversation here is what I learned about your firm” and give a brief summary of what you know about their situation.

It’s OK to say “I see on your website that you have hired four people in the last three months, how has that impacted …” or “I read a profile of your firm in the San Jose Business Journal Book of Lists, have you grown beyond the 12 people listed in February?” This shows that you have done your homework and don’t want to waste their time but need to confirm some of the key facts that may bear on their needs.

Information Sources To Consult Prior To Customer Interviews

  • Do a thorough review of the prospect’s website.
  • Search for any articles in the last two years at least to see what kind of press coverage they have received.
  • Review the Linkedin profiles for the firm, the person you are talking to, and anyone with similar titles or in the same department.
  • Review on-line postings in relevant forums for the industry.
  • See if they have a blog, a twitter account, a YouTube account, and similar social media sits that are often used for business purposes.

Six Questions That You Normally Have to Ask In The Conversation

  1. Prospect’s description of the problem in their own words. This is rarely more than a sentence or two and capturing the essence in their own words is key.
  2. High level description of current work process or work flow in their own words. This forms the basis for any delta comparison or differentiation of your solution.
  3. Any constraints they mention: if you hear the same ones multiple times you will more than likely have to satisfy them.
  4. How they will tell that a new solution will leave them better off: this is different from asking them to specify the solution, it’s asking for “future state” or the end result they would like to achieve.
  5. What else they have tried to do to solve the problem: probe for why they were not satisfactory.
  6. Key metrics or figures of merit they would use to evaluate a new outcome.

Closing Thoughts

“A month in the laboratory can often save an hour in the library.”
F. H. Westheimer

Entrepreneurs seem to divide into two camps:

  • those who want to have a conversation immediately, and
  • those who are quite content to research for months as long as they don’t have to talk to strangers.

Striking a balance is the key to maximizing your learning from a customer interview. Effective research prior to the customer interview allows you to

  • Ask better questions
  • Provide evidence of your commitment to developing a mutually satisfactory business relationship
  • Detect when your prospect is leaving something out or perhaps coloring the situation too much. You are not a stenographer there to capture whatever they say without reflection, but if your only source of information is what they tell you then you risk “garbage in, garbage out” in your product plans and MVP.

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Minimum Viable Product: Enthusiastically Proceed Skeptically

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, 2 Open for Business Stage, 3 Early Customer Stage, Customer Development, skmurphy

In a candid discussion about the challenges of managing your own expectations for a minimum viable product (MVP), Tristan Kromer observed, “It’s psychologically hard to enthusiastically proceed with skepticism.” And that is the challenge, we have to be enthusiastic about our product ideas to persevere to complete them and tell others about them, but we have to be skeptical enough to accept criticism and open to prospect perspectives on needs and constraints on solutions.

Strong Opinions Weakly Held

Bob Sutton blogged about this in 2006 as “Strong Opinions Weakly Held” as one of the differentiators between smart people and wise people. Both have strong opinions, but the wise can more easily allow revisions to theirs:

Perhaps the best description I’ve ever seen of how wise people act comes from the amazing folks at the Institute for the Future. A couple years ago, I was talking the Institute’s Bob Johansen about wisdom, and he explained that – to deal with an uncertain future and still move forward – they advise people to have “strong opinions, which are weakly held.”  They’ve been giving this advice for years, and I understand that it was first developed by Institute Director Paul Saffo.  Bob explained that weak opinions are problematic because people aren’t inspired to develop the best arguments possible for them, or to put forth the energy required to test them. Bob explained that it was just as important, however, to not be too attached to what you believe because, otherwise, it undermines your ability to “see” and “hear” evidence that clashes with your opinions. This is what psychologists sometimes call the problem of “confirmation bias.”

Early Adopters For Your MVP Are Often Very Normal

I think too many entrepreneurs conflate “early adopter” with “technically sophisticated’ or ‘geek hipster.’ Normal people are early adopters when they have a strong need for your product. The first two people to tell me about E-Bay, and who were genuinely excited about it, were two mothers who didn’t know each other but were collectors of different specialty handicraft items (teddy bears and glass angels) and they were shopping regularly there because they were not available in stores.

They were early adopters. I ignored their advice, of course, when I should have realized that neither used a computer for any other purpose than visiting E-Bay. They were early adopters. I should have realized that if E-Bay could create markets for these highly specialized products they could create and serve a lot of niche/specialty markets in a way that was winner take all.

Another example:  I think Pinterest looks a lot like the way that someone who creates scrapbooks or manages a physical bulletin board would want to author a website.

Q: How Do I Calculate Business Model Parameters For A Novel Product

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, 2 Open for Business Stage, 3 Early Customer Stage, skmurphy

Q: How can I go about calculating  Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC),  Customer Lifetime Value (LTV), and other business model parameters for a technology that I will use to attack an entirely new market with no historical data?

While there may be “new markets with no historical data” there are no new markets that cannot be benchmarked against existing markets by asking these two questions:

  • What do people stop paying for to pay for you offering?
  • What do people stop spending time on to spend time on your offering?

What do the Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC) Customer Lifetime Value (LTV) look like for these substitutes?

Elicit Symptoms From Prospects

Alternatively what symptoms will prospects admit to having? They won’t read articles or click on adwords or watch videos about problems that they don’t know they have or believe they may be affected by.  An effective approach in the early market  is to interview prospects to find unmet needs, persistent problems, and goals at risk.

We Measure the New By the Familiar

The reason why light bulbs were measured in candlepower and steam engines (and later internal combustion engines and then electric motors) were expressed as horsepower. Henry Ford observed in “My Life and Work“ that, “A horseless carriage was a common idea…ever since the steam engine was invented…” We call a horseless carriage a car.

Things that are genuinely new are mysteries and don’t become news until they can be expressed as part of a familiar context or by analogy to a familiar example. Alan Kay gave a great talk on this last point that was recently highlighted by Jim McGee, “Alan Kay on Invention vs. Innovation.

What Job Will Your Prospect Hire Your Product For?

What is the job that prospects will hire your app to do? The phonograph was probably one of the most discontinuous innovations of the last few centuries. Here are some examples that Thomas Edison offered for the phonograph to North American Review in June 1878:
  1. Letter writing and all kinds of dictation without the aid of a stenographer.
  2. Phonographic books, which will speak to blind people without effort on their part.
  3. The teaching of elocution.
  4. Reproduction of music.
  5. The “Family Record”–a registry of sayings, reminiscences, etc., by members of a family in their own voices, and of the last words of dying persons.
  6. Music-boxes and toys.
  7. Clocks that should announce in articulate speech the time for going home, going to meals, etc.
  8. The preservation of languages by exact reproduction of the manner of pronouncing.
  9. Educational purposes; such as preserving the explanations made by a teacher, so that the pupil can refer to them at any moment, and spelling or other lessons placed upon the phonograph for convenience in committing to memory.
  10. Connection with the telephone, so as to make that instrument an auxiliary in the transmission of permanent and invaluable records, instead of being the recipient of momentary and fleeting communication.

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