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 for 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.
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).
Q: Should I ask prospects if they would use my product? How do I interpret “yes”, “no”, and “maybe.”
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 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.
Creating value for others is the core of the entrepreneurial mindset. It enables the exchange of value that fuels entrepreneur’s efforts to bring new ideas and products to market.
Dan Sullivan: Entrepreneurs Make Two Decisions
Successful entrepreneurs differ from other people–not in their abilities but in their mindset. They have internalized two fundamental commitments, by making these two decisions:
- Decision 1: To depend entirely on their own abilities for their financial security, because they realize that the only security is the security they create themselves.
- Decision 2: To expect opportunity only by creating value for others, because they understand that this is the only unlimited source of economic opportunity.
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.
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.
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.
Related Blog Posts
- Entrepreneurial Motivation
Tim O’Reilly offers three guidelines on how to work on stuff that matters: work on something that matters to you more than money, create more value than you capture, and take the long view.
- Ben Kaufman on “What Raising Money Means”
- David Foster Wallace: The Only Choice We Get is What to Worship
- Drucker on Profit and Business Purpose
A selection of quotes from Chapter 6 “What is a Business” in “Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, and Practices” by Peter Drucker.
- The Startup Mythology of Silicon Valley
“We are experiencing a generation of entrepreneurs who prioritize the phenomenon of entrepreneurship over its justification; we ought to be concerning ourselves as a community with teaching folks not only how to get into the entrepreneurship game but how to find their purpose as well.” Matt Hendrickson
- Build on Your Passion With a Basic Model and Numbers
- Ben Yoskovitz: Start With a Passion For Solving a Problem
- What’s Your Passion?
- Entrepreneurial Passion and the Science of Startups
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
- 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.
- 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.
- Any constraints they mention: if you hear the same ones multiple times you will more than likely have to satisfy them.
- 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.
- What else they have tried to do to solve the problem: probe for why they were not satisfactory.
- Key metrics or figures of merit they would use to evaluate a new outcome.
“A month in the laboratory can often save an hour in the library.”
Frank 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.
- Tips for B2B Customer Interviews
- A Conversation With A Bootstrapper On Customer Interviews
- Six Elements to Extract In Customer Discovery Interview
- We Use a Wiki to Organize Customer Interviews
- 5 Ways To Start Customer Discovery Interviews
- Early Customer Conversations: Use Appreciative Inquiry and Amplify Positive Deviance
- Customer Interviews: Allow Yourself to Be Surprised
- How To Organize Findings
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.
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.
Related Blog Posts
- Office Hours: Schedule Time to Review Your MVP Readiness
- W. J. King’s “Unwritten Laws of Business”
- Steve Blank on Leaving the Batcave to Learn from Customers
- Customer Development Proceeds in Parallel with Product Development
- Moving from Vision to Engagement with Prospects
- Customer Development and Its Discontents
- Three Equations, Three Unknowns: Customers, Message, Features
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?
- Letter writing and all kinds of dictation without the aid of a stenographer.
- Phonographic books, which will speak to blind people without effort on their part.
- The teaching of elocution.
- Reproduction of music.
- 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.
- Music-boxes and toys.
- Clocks that should announce in articulate speech the time for going home, going to meals, etc.
- The preservation of languages by exact reproduction of the manner of pronouncing.
- 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.
- 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.
Related Blog Posts
I like this 2009 video by Grasshopper “Entrepreneurs Can Change The World” that portrays the entrepreneur as a change agent and celebrates the freedom and economic opportunities that America has traditionally offered immigrants.
Here is the transcript from the Grasshopper site with some observations interspersed
Do you remember when you were a kid and you thought you could do anything? You still can. Because a lot of what we consider impossible is easy to overcome. Because in case you haven’t noticed, we live in a place where one individual can make a difference.
Want proof? Just look at the people who built our country: our parents, grandparents, our aunts, uncles. They were immigrants, newcomers ready to make their mark. Maybe they came with very little, or perhaps they didn’t own anything except for a single brilliant idea.
These people were thinkers, doers, innovators until they came up with the name entrepreneurs. They change the way we think about what is possible. They have a clear vision of how life can be better for all of us, even when times are tough.
The ability to look at a situation with “newcomer’s eyes” is a key element to unlocking creativity. So is time pressure and limited resources.
Right now, it’s hard to see when our view is cluttered with obstacles, but turbulence creates opportunities for success, achievement and pushes us to discover new ways of doing things.
So what opportunities will you go after and why?
If you’re an entrepreneur, you know that risk isn’t the reward. No. The rewards are driving innovation, changing people’s lives, creating jobs, fueling growth, and making a better world.
Entrepreneurs are everywhere. They run small businesses that support our economy, design tools to help you stay connected with friends, family, and colleagues around the world, and they’re finding new ways of helping to solve society’s oldest problems.
Successful innovation results when entrepreneurs manage their own shortcomings, find a problem they care about, and approach it from different angles with small safe-to-fail experiments.
Do you know an entrepreneur?
Entrepreneurs can be anyone, even you. So seize the opportunity to create the job you always wanted. Help heal the economy. Make a difference. Take your business to new heights.
But most importantly, remember when you were a kid, when everything was within your reach, and then say to yourself quietly, but with determination: It still is.
I have come to the conclusion that most entrepreneurial careers are involuntary, undertaken by “mavericks, iconoclasts, dropouts, and misfits” to quote Sramana Mitra. The trick is to minimize the amount of wasted effort by doing less with less in a way that builds on existing relationships, knowledge, and successes.
- Innovation Needs Starvation, Pressure, and a New Perspective
- “Highlighting Matt Maroon’s Why Not To Do A Startup“
- “We Don’t Encourage Individuals to Form a Startup“
- “Overnight Success“
- “Entrepreneurs Need Gumption to Succeed“
- “Saras Sarasvathy’s Effectual Reasoning Model for Expert Entrepreneurs“
- “Paul Graham’s Six Principles for Making New Things“
The soundtrack to the video is “Chain Reaction” by Carly Comando; she also composed “Everyday” for Noah Kalina’s “Noah takes a photo of himself every day for 6 years.“
We Happy Few
A college kid in a dorm room starts assembling and selling person computers.. Two college dropouts–or recent graduates–start building hardware in a garage. A woman starts a software consulting business in her second bedroom, then creates a software product. Four men in a pie shop sketch a design for a personal computer. All startups by definition start small and attract founders who welcome the independence. Perhaps they have failed in a larger firm or they have become disillusioned working in one, perhaps they have never worked a large company and have no idea what’s really involved.
These startups often face competition from established incumbents who have more people, better financial resources, and relationships with customers. Their success in a niche can attract the attention of larger players either intentionally through their messaging or when prospects they have approached turn to existing vendors to provide similar functionality.
Marathon Not a Sprint
First time entrepreneurs often romanticize the speed and power of working in a small team, but experienced entrepreneurs understand that established firms often fight back very effectively: no market of with any value is uncontested and it’s going to be a marathon not a sprint.
“History seems to indicate that breakthroughs are usually the result of a small group of capable people fending off a larger group of equally capable people with a stake in the status quo.”
George Heilmeier in “A Moveable Feast” [PDF] 2005 Kyoto Prize Lecture
The team has to set a sustainable pace from the beginning. This often means not only work/life balance–keeping all of the critical commitments you have made to friends and family in addition to your co-founders–but work/work balance: finding a way to generate revenue, to bootstrap, while you are exploring the market and building the first and sometimes subsequent version of your product. Not every new product is an immediate success.
Startups are incredibly hard work. They require that you maintain good relationships with your family and friends and continue to participate in the communities you are a member of so that you can get support and useful perspective when you need it. Very few real products are built in a (long) weekend or a week or even a month or two. Plan for at least nine to 18 months of hard work where there are a number of “sprints” that are a few days to a week of concentrated work. But the team has to be able to sustain creative problem solving for a period of probably two years before it’s clear you have traction, at which point the game gets much harder as your competitors start to go to school on your success.
Cameron Moll explores the challenges of a team of two or three competing with a team of twenty in “Things Take Time”
The team of twenty has quantity on its side — more hands and specialists to execute the work. With that, of course, comes all the red tape, political baggage, and countless meetings that accompany such teams and the organizations that employ them. Quantity suffers at the hand of seemingly endless structure.
The team of two or three has independence on its side — they call the shots, whenever and however they choose. With that, of course, comes all the requisite components for supporting and maintaining the thing they’re creating. Customer support, billing, advertising, blogging, tweeting, client and customer acquisition, and the like. Time suffers at the hand of a seemingly endless to-do list.
The independent team soon realizes that speed isn’t a luxury; its currency is late nights and long weekends. For those who prefer to keep a semi-regular schedule and who have other things to care for outside of work, we eventually learn to accept that things just take longer than we hope they’d take. Problem solving takes time. Details take time. […]
I’m learning, rather forcibly I suppose, to be okay with things taking time. I’m also learning that often you end up with a better product when you take your time to get all the big and small details just right. It’s time well-spent.
It’s OK to take this time if you are in direct communication with customers who are willing to pay for the product. It’s a mistake to spend all of your time in the workshop if you have not had a number of conversations with prospects and closed some opportunities.
Avoid The Strong Points Of Established Firms
A larger company can work a startup into the ground unless you are careful in your choice of product and niche market: a frontal assault is typically beaten back. Startups have to choose how they will compete very carefully. In the “Bootstrapper Manifesto” Seth Godin lists five key leverage points that many established companies enjoy: distribution, access to capital, brand equity, customer relationships, and great employees. Here is a brief explanation of each and some approaches that a startup can use to counter these advantages.
- Distribution: they are able to get the product in front of the customer.
Counter: Sell directly, or find partners unwilling to work with larger firms
- Access to Capital: they can borrow a lot of money.
Counter: Frugality, be smart about which problems you tackle, leverage existing team expertise.
- Brand Equity: if the prospect already knows about the company and the product it substantially reduces their perception of risk in making a purchase.
Counter: go to firms who are unattractive to larger firms or not well served by them.
- Customer Relationships: especially in B2B with approved vendor lists and existing contracts.
Counter: chase smaller deals, chase deals where you bring enough advantage someone will fight to put you on the list.
- Great Employees: talented people with low tolerance for risk are delighted to work in established firms. Entrepreneurs greatly overestimate most people’s appetite for risk, especially as passengers in their race car.
Counter: provide opportunities for folks with appropriate experience who may be less desirable to larger firms. Examples of this might be older engineers, women who want to work part time because they have small children, people with less experience but more enthusiasm for learning.
More generally you need to configure your business model so that you are either pursuing opportunities that are less attractive to larger firms or your product violates one or more key requirements for their business. This may mean:
- Chasing smaller deals to get traction and establish your brand.
- Not implementing some functionality that your competitors have that your current prospects don’t find valuable, enabling you to get to market faster and at a lower price.
- Providing additional services that a larger firm either doe not have the expertise for.
- Providing additional services that won’t necessarily work at scale but allows you to further differentiate your offering for your target nice.
- Configuring or customizing a version of your product more rapidly or more completely than your competition.
Focus and Perseverance Means Saying No
Fast Company called work/life balance “bunk” a decade ago because “hungry” labor was going to work us into the ground. If you are able to substitute working smarter or working more intimately with customers for working more cheaply you can likely avoid this fate. Successful bootstrappers remain open to possibilities–especially the possibility that they are mistaken in one or more of their business hypotheses–but maintain focus: they explore many options but say yes to only a few.
One of the reasons I am excited about Discovery Kanban as a model for not only larger firms but startups is that entrepreneurs, especially bootstrapping entrepreneurs, have to husband their resources but find a way to explore the market. This means being explicit about the amount of effort that will be invested in developing and exploring options, and being very crisp on commitments. Discovery Kanban offers a framework for managing risks, options, probes, and committed projects from a consistent perspective: we can only focus on a few things at a time, what are they?
- Getting the Band Together to Overthrow the Current Order I see J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring as the story of a small multi-disciplinary team (“The Fellowship”) coming together to challenge and ultimately change the status quo. A status quo supported by a much larger and more powerful set of armies and magic.
- Seth Godin’s Bootstrapper Manifesto
- Ten Mistakes Early Stage Bootstrappers Often Make
- Discovery Kanban Allows You To Balance Delivery and Discovery
- Discovery Kanban Helps You Manage Risks and Options In Your Product Roadmap
I make a distinction between wanting to move beyond running a services business where you bill by the hour to either selling results or selling a product and entrepreneurs attracted to the passive income fantasies of the “Four Hour Work Week.” When an entrepreneur tells me that the “Four Hour Work Week” has been a strong influence on their thinking I worry that they are unfamiliar with what’s required to build a successful business.
You Can’t Stay Ahead of Competition Passively
I found Michael Ellsberg‘s critique “Four Reasons Why Passive Income is a Dangerous Fantasy” to be on point.
1. You Can’t Stay Ahead of Competition Passively: If your research really does determine that there is some amazing market niche that until now has miraculously gone unnoticed and unserved—dog owners who wish to help their dogs lose weight naturally, for example—sooner or later, word is going to get out that there’s money to be made there, and someone is going to create a better ebook or info course or product that serves that market’s needs better than yours does, and who markets it better to them than you do. You can’t manage this competition while sipping margaritas all day from your paradise restaurant on Fiji. You’ll soon see your market share go down the drain—just like all those Açai cleanses…
I had a conversation with an entrepreneur who had been bootstrapping for three years successfully who said, “I keep waiting for it to get easier. When in your experience does it get easier?” I said that I don’t think it ever does. We brainstormed two lists:
- Why it stays hard
- Why it gets easier (at least in some ways)
Why It Stays Hard
- Established technical expertise has to be renewed, this takes time away from sales/marketing, product development,
- Competitors react to your success, either copying it or acting to nullify it if you have been winning business from them.
- Customer needs change over time, in response to changes in environment and earlier success in satisfying them.
- Growth requires you to place larger bets; not growing or staying small for the sake of staying small risks stagnation in other ways.
- The business environment can change rapidly and unpredictably
- New technologies can obsolete existing products and services, and put categories of expertise at risk
- New competitors and new business models emerge
- Markets you operate in become commoditized, sometimes without warning.
Why It Gets Easier (At Least In Some Ways)
- Soft skills accumulate
- Paying customers come back and buy again — assuming you have happy customers
- There is also an opportunity or referrals from happy customers.
- Partner relationships that are well established allow you take action more quickly
- Reputation accumulates (this can also work against you).
You Cannot Maintain Customer Relationships Passively
2. You Can’t Maintain a Loyal Tribe of Customers Passively: As soon as your customers realize that you don’t care about them (which you don’t, if you’re trying to get away from them as fast as possible), they will eventually go elsewhere, to someone else who actually does care about them and their needs.
If you don’t engage with your customers, if you want to little to no contact with them, then it’s unlikely you are gong to be able to detect and anticipate emerging requirements, rectify shortcomings with your current offering, or respond to what competitors are telling them.
You Cannot Lead a Great Team Passively
3. You Can’t Lead Great Teams Passively: If you’re going to be building a large, scalable business, sooner or later you’re going to need employees and/or freelancers. You’re not going to attract great talent for the long run by indicating to them that you have no interest in being involved in the business whatsoever. Some people obsessed with “passive income” say, in response, “No problem, I’ll just hire a leader to do all that managing, motivating, and creating stuff!” What you’re essentially saying, then, is that you’re adding zero value to the equation. You’re not coming up with the ideas, you’re not implementing/executing the ideas, and your not leading anyone to implement or execute them.
Buying stock in a company is a great way to create passive income, but that cannot be confused with entrepreneurship. If you are not going to be able to contribute to one or more of technical insights, product leadership, customer intimacy, operational excellence, or revenue generation then you are not really adding value to the business. You should be a passive investor.
You Cannot Discover or Pursue Your Life Purpose Passively
4. You Can’t Create Meaning, Passion, or Purpose in Your Life Passively: I’ve had several conversations recently with people in their twenties who have built up some semblance of moderate passive income. These people are (for now) living the dream–they get to travel to Fiji or some other exotic location on a shoestring and hang out on the beach, funded by their little niche ebook or whatever. Yet none of these people I’ve talked to who have this temporarily successful lifestyle seem very happy. They actually seem kind of restless and lost. I’ve had conversations with several of them to help them determine “what the purpose of their life is” now that they have some amount of money coming in from some little passive venture they don’t even care about that much. It all feels empty to them.
This lines up with Arthur Brooks’ “A Formula for Happiness” where he recounts research that identifies the key drivers for happiness
- Big life events
The bad news is that first two account for about 88% of baseline happiness and are not under your control. So, what choices can you make that influence the remaining 12%? Brooks suggests:
- Faith: thinking about the transcendental, the things that are not of this world, and incorporating them into your life.
- Family: having solid family relationships; the things that cannot and should not go away.
- Community: cultivating important friendships and being charitable toward others in your community.
- Work: marrying our passions to our skills, empowering us to create value in our lives and in the lives of others.
Rewarding Work is Essential
Brooks’ key take-away is that rewarding work is essential:
“I learned that rewarding work is unbelievably important, and this is emphatically not about money. That’s what research suggests as well. Economists find that money makes truly poor people happier insofar as it relieves pressure from everyday life — getting enough to eat, having a place to live, taking your kid to the doctor. But scholars like the Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman have found that once people reach a little beyond the average middle-class income level, even big financial gains don’t yield much, if any, increases in happiness.
So relieving poverty brings big happiness, but income, per se, does not. Even after accounting for government transfers that support personal finances, unemployment proves catastrophic for happiness. Abstracted from money, joblessness seems to increase the rates of divorce and suicide, and the severity of disease.”
Arthur Brooks in “A Formula for Happiness“
Ellsberg concludes with an interview with Bryan Franklin who recommends a focus on leverage in a business you care about:
“Every time I’ve seen someone create a business, with the ultimate intention of getting away from that business and its customers as quickly as possible, instead of moving towards that business and its customers, it fails.”
“What makes business work is creating value. If you’re going into the business with the intention of not creating value, but of having it magically provide money for you, then you often make really bad choices. The business that you’re investing in or creating doesn’t tend to be creating value for its customers or for anyone. So it doesn’t tend to spit off the cash you’re hoping it will.
“If you make your choices based on, not ‘how can I get money for free?’ but on, ‘What challenge can I put in front of my face that’s going to have me step up to be the kind of person I’d rather be?’ you’re going to start to forget about wanting passive income, and you’re going to start to focus on what purpose you truly want to create the world.”
- The Intelligent Pursuit of Happiness
- Christopher Moore’s “Coyote Blue”
- The Heart that Holds On
- Your Prospects and Your Customers Are Real People
- David Foster Wallace: The Only Choice We Get is What to Worship
Update Aug 2-2-14: When I selected my “Ten Quotes for Bootstrappers from July 2014” I added this postscript to the Bryan Franklin quote that I thought I would append here as well:
I think the Four Hour Work Week has offered a mirage that has lured more bootstrappers onto the rocks than “build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.” The belief that you don’t need to care about your customers and manage your business to succeed is at least as productive as “my product is so good I don’t need to learn how to market and sell it.”
In the last eight years I have moderated several hundred Bootstrappers Breakfasts. After doing a hundred or so and working with many clients who were bootstrapping I came up with a checklist for common mistakes bootstrappers and bootstrapping teams make in their first year or so.
- Be compatible with the status quo if at all possible
- Collaboration or workflow applications that require at least two people to adopt in order to realize productivity benefits are very challenging to introduce.
- It’s certainly been done: fax, email, CRM systems. But the list of failures is much longer.
- Find a way to provide a single individual with a productivity bonus that is backward compatible with existing workflow (e.g. email, CRM, wiki, website, …).
Use your team as a case study
- Is your startup using the tool for collaboration? If not, why not?
- What no longer happens that used to happen before you started relying on the application?
- What can you now do using your application that you could not do (or only do with great difficulty) before?
Have conversations before putting up a landing page
- What have you learned from your conversations with prospects?
- What problems or needs do you probe for?
Use your team as an earlyvangelist
- What problems or need or recurring situation led your team to develop your application?
- What alternatives did you try to do before you developed your application?
- Why were they unsatisfactory? What was missing or still too difficult?
Listen carefully to your early adopters
- What do your early adopters tell you that they like about using the service?
- What benefits does it provide them?
- What do they still see as missing?
- Ask what three features they would demo either to other similar teams or to others in their company.
Understand why some teams failed to adopt your application
- Teams that don’t try it may give you reasons, and these are worth listening to.
- Pay close attention to teams that gave it a fair trial and decided not to go forward. Their rationale is absolutely worth addressing.
If you are working on a collaboration application for business and are having difficulty getting traction, please free to schedule office hours and we can design some experiments to explore your situation, see “We help you design experiments that move your business forward.”
If you want to be a succeed as a bootstrapper, start with what you’ve got: you have an insight into an opportunity, a marketing edge, a particular problem where you’re going to bring distinctive value.
A Bootstrapper Doesn’t Wait For Investor Approval
Don’t wait to get started until an investor tells you there is a market and they will invest. An investor cannot validate whether there’s a market or not. Worse, the process of seeking investment rarely teaches you more about customer needs.
The converse is even more important: don’t be dissuaded if an investor does not believe that there is a market.
Or Their Friends’ Approval
It’s OK to ask your friends if it’s a good idea. But sometimes they will tell you they like the idea just so that you will stop talking about it and get out of their living room or office.
And again, if they don’t think it’s a good idea you should weight their perspective by whether they are a prospect or not.
You Have To Start Selling
Which ultimately means that you have to build a minimum viable product and start selling.
When a prospect tells you that they have problem that you want to solve for them, that’s good. When they write a check or give you their credit card, that’s validation. Now you are a bootstrapper.
But just because they have quantified their love for your idea it doesn’t mean that you are done. You need to follow through and see that you delivered the benefits that you promised to them.
More bootstrappers go wrong by not conserving trust than not conserving cash. Cash is important, but if you don’t keep your promises you cannot bootstrap successfully.
It’s primarily about selling and customer satisfaction. There may be challenges in building the product or getting it to work reliably when it leaves your hands. But the primary challenge is building something that people will pay for and order again (or extend their subscription) because it delivered the value that you promised.
Many of the people who are attracted to startups are drawn to a technology or a craft or the idea of being their own boss. Those are great reasons to become a bootstrapper. But success requires developing an empathy and rapport for your customers and delivering value.
The key differentiators are your ability to sell and ensure customer satisfaction.
Related Blog Posts
Conor Neil has a great quote in “If You Can’t Explain what You do in a Paragraph, You’ve Got a Problem” (great title but he admits he cribbed it from Brad Feld)
“I believe the major risk of early stage startups is getting customers to buy, and showing that you can sell.”
Shared trust and integrity form the basis for the key resource in a bootstrapping startup: morale. Founders must foster actions and behaviors that build trust in the early days if they hope to create a startup with a culture that will enable it to prosper.
Don’t do a big launch before you have completed customer discovery or you are running a very expensive test of your key customer and market hypotheses.