Custdev: Starting with First Principles

On Friday morning, I popped over to Frank Rimalovski and Lindsay Gray’s always-impressive startup class at NYU‘s Entrepreneurial Institute┬áto talk about vetting new ideas.

Afterwards, one team asked the classic question, “if I shouldn’t ask speculative questions, and yet my product isn’t ready to test, how can I do customer development?”

In their case, they had an interesting scientific breakthrough that would enable tattoos to no longer be permanent. (by the way, this kind of question is exactly why the first chapter of Talking to Humans focuses on a pillow).

As always, they needed to go back to first principles, and not think about how other people should do customer development.

This team was trying to solve how to do custdev on their consumers. But was that really their biggest risk? Yes, they could certainly talk to people about how and why they got tattoos, and interview some folks who tried to get tattoos removed. They would get insights there, no doubt.

However, it is no mystery that a lot of people do not get tattoos because they are permanent. It’s not really a cultural taboo anymore. That statement could certainly be custdev-ed, but I feel like there are plenty of data points on this around. If I was looking at this business, I wouldn’t view validating the consumer problem as a priority risk.

That could be wrong, and I wouldn’t ignore consumer custdev completely here, but you do not have time to test everything. You need to take some bets with your time, and focus on the priority risks.

In this case, I would think a much bigger risk is on how their product gets discovered, distributed, purchased and delivered.

Is their hypothesis to create their own chain of stores, or did they want to distribute through tattoo parlors? If the latter, they should focus their customer development not on consumers but on tattoo parlor owners.

I would *think* that tattoo parlors would find this technology exciting. After all, if tattoos were more temporary, they become a fashion accessory and people would get more tattoos, more often.

But that could be totally wrong. There is a stack of assumptions underneath even that assumption. I haven’t spoken to a single tattoo parlor owner, and have zero data points on what could be a rather critical risk for this business. I’d be burning to go find out.

When it comes to customer development, there is a reason why we start with the assumptions exercise. You need to think through *your* business. What are your risks? What are your big unknowns?

Don’t follow someone else’s playbook. Don’t test things that are not a high priority. Always start from first principles and your own context.

  • Thanks for the interesting article (cool example too!) I love when students get into testing and then always ask, “is this [one thing] worth testing?” The next question is always “how do we prioritize our list of things to test?” Any thoughts/posts you’ve already written on that? How would you define a ‘big unknown’ or create a process that teams can use to discover their own big unknowns?