A Customer Development Teaching Exercise

Giff Constable startups

Trevor Owens, the young dynamo in the NY startup scene who organized NYC’s lean startup machine weekend, asked my help in discussing “Idea Validation and Opportunity Assessment” at an all-day NYU event. We have been emailing back and forth about an audience participation exercise and I would love your thoughts on what could make it better.

New entrepreneurs hit three common challenges when it comes to customer development:

  1. people worry about their idea being stolen
  2. people spend too much time explaining/pitching their idea rather than listening
  3. people are uncomfortable approaching strangers, and fear rejection

We are thinking about focusing on the latter two, and creating a practice exercise where participants can role play without the emotional baggage associated with their own idea.  We are thinking about the following 30-minute exercise (still evolving):

LOGISTICS: ahead of time, you randomly pair everyone up twice so that everyone gets to role-play both interviewer and interviewee. To keep things moving, the organizer will start with a roll-call, where he/she says an interviewers name, has them stand up, and then tells the interviewee to walk over to that person. Once people are paired up, they have 10 minutes to engage in an interview (with the interviewer taking notes).  At the 10 minute mark, everyone stops and the organizer runs the second roll call in the same fashion (with the new pairings and reverse roles), and they again have 10 minutes.

CONTENT: You assign a single topic to everyone.  It needs to be a problem that most people have. It doesn’t have to be original, but it should be something not properly solved yet. For college students, it could be getting a date or a job/internship. My thinking is that we actually want to take away the “product idea”, so the interviewer has nothing to pitch and can focus on learning.

We could do a little coaching to everyone before they start, sharing possible questions and explaining the “5 whys” (which one has to be careful not to overuse in an unnatural way). To toss out some examples:

– do you need to do this task?
– how do feel about the task?
– how do you currently handle this task?
– have you tried to find ways to make this task better? Why / why not?
– would you pay to have something or someone improve this task?

And if those start to dry up, there are also interesting general questions to suggest, which help one find commonalities among the people you are talking to, such as:
– what web products do you regularly use?
– what web products do you really love?
– what web products do you really hate?
– how do you typically find out about new web products to try

Extra: have everyone email their custdev interview notes to the organizer. Depending on the topic, it could be really useful data for a real startup out there!
What do you think? How could it be improved?