I’ve been on a customer discovery journey over the last couple weeks. I haven’t dug deep on Mom Test-esque questions. Instead, I’m setting a baseline on the e-commerce space for myself.
Below are highlights from my discussions so far –
  • Initial round of 7 folks from the e-commerce space representing directors and managers of marketing with a couple in sales. Companies were each in the $1B+ category largely in consumer, but also having B2B opportunities.
  • Primary levers for growing e-commerce businesses:
    • Customer acquisition
    • Fulfillment
    • These two levers have the greatest effect on net revenue
  • To achieve higher sales, too, companies are evaluating:
    • Shortest path to revenue — “click-to-checkout”
    • Building an “optimal” customer experience
  • Customer experience for companies range from custom, and temporary, showrooms to shortening the path to revenue with engaging design elements (e.g. imagery, product information consistency)
  • The Amazon Effect has affected some of the longest-standing fundamentals of web. That is, time on site used to be a valuable metric. Amazon has proven that a winning strategy can be the opposite — get in, find what you want, check out and get out. Fast. Come back again
  • Combating the big players in customer acquisition can be difficult as they spend millions upon millions in advertising, especially, on Google and Facebook. Smaller players have to focus on niches and aiming for the repeat buy
  • There are big opportunities, still
    • Most folks still believe less than 30% of the market value (10%, more likely) is still uncovered in e-commerce (“Everyone’s gathering data, but how do you use it?”)
    • There is a lot of data being collected; however, most companies still don’t know how best to utilize the data to deliver good value
    • Dynamic pricing is highly sought after with most folks seeing this as a prime opportunity for customer acquisition and revenue growth (new and recurring)
    • Exceptional customer support and returns processes are vital to keeping customers. When you consider the difficulty of acquiring customers, keeping customers should be an ongoing strategy top-of-mind

I’m still digging into the space as it’s largely unfamiliar outside of my personal shopping. Any take-aways standing out for you that surprises you? Anything contrary to what you thought?

I know a few folks who are diving into new ideas. One way of starting up has been fleshing out the Lean Canvas — a simple one-pager in lieu of a business plan. 
Like a business plan, the Lean Canvas helps folks capture the key elements of a business without building out a detailed, largely never-to-be-used-again business plan. It’s certainly a good way to get started while thinking holistically. 
Another method I’ve been thinking about after reviewing “landing page how-to’s“(see Julian’s Landing Pages handbook) is what I’ll refer to as the Alternatives-Value-Personas (AVP) framework. This is a stripped-down version of a Lean Canvas. In fact, this may be a preceding model before the Canvas. 
(Source: https://www.julian.com/guide/growth/landing-pages) 
In this framework, the idea is to dig into the pain today — what exists — and describe the value of a proposed solution as well as the people involved. Why I bring this up as another option is to understand the problem and the people greater while having a hypothesis of the value of the solution. The most important facet of starting out a business is the market and the pain. Is there a pain at all? What exists solving the pain, or even contributing to the pain? 
Another option for folks is building on a Simplified One-Page Strategic Plan as David Cummings calls it. This is an outline layout of the key aspects of the business. You’ll recognize here, too, the template has specific sections for values, purpose, promise — cultural elements.   
(Source: https://davidcummings.org/2016/11/29/2017-simplified-one-page-strategic-plan/)  
There are a lot of different options to get started. However, the most important piece is understanding the audience and addressing real pain, or as one VC describes “hair on fire“. 
We’re doing a lot of customer discovery work right now at SalesWise. We’ve built a great platform with strong enthusiasts, but we need to keep evolving to help our customers do what they do best. Helpful, then, when a colleague recommended I check out The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick. Rob describes the book simply:

“How to talk to customer and learn if your business is a good idea when everybody is lying to you”

You may have a notion of what the book is about, but it’s likely not that – not just about target audiences in customer discovery. It’s both more general in its approach and more specific in asking the right questions to get the most useful input.
What I liked most about this book was its focus on tactics. Many books like the Lean Startup, the Challenger Sale, etc. are great at shaping your conceptual thinking. They’re great frameworks. However, they aren’t as tactical as what I found in Fitzpatrick’s book – a welcome change of pace. Plus, I can always ask better questions.
  • The gist of The Mom Test is to get beyond compliments and to facts. Most people provide what you want to hear – spare your feelings. They’ll tell you how great your idea is. They’ll tell you to keep them in the loop for when you launch. When it comes time to launch or buy, they don’t. Instead, ask for specific examples of how they accomplish tasks today. Ask for real problems – examples. Ask how problems affect them. Ask for facts.
  • “Why do you bother?” An interesting question here. It’s a question to get at the effects/ impacts folks run into. Get to the “why” and “how is that important”. “It’s important for me to know how productive my team is”, “I have to run reports daily on employee overtime”, etc. Impact sheds light on value.
  • Don’t talk about the idea. When gathering feedback, it’s important to not lead the audience. Ask questions about the current situation that your product/ service (idea) may solve for. Ask for impacts. Ask how they currently solve the problem you hope to solve. How has the audience tried to solve the problem – have they found other solutions? If they haven’t, why? Maybe it’s not a big problem after all…
  • Bad is good. That is, if the multiple folks in your market reiterates they have a fine solution, and they say their problem happens only so often, that’s good. If they says they don’t bother to look for a new solution, that’s good. Yes, you may want to show off your idea and try to convince them why your idea will save their lives. However, if the signs are not looking good, this is good feedback. Maybe you shouldn’t actually pursue this idea after all. Pursue another opportunity with better traction and viability.
  • Have conversations. Fitzpatrick highlighted the importance of having “conversations” rather than interviews or meetings. Approaching casually enables the dialogue to flow with honesty and buy-in.
  • Meetings are only productive when there is learning and/ or clear next steps. This is already highlighted in countless sales books. Even if the next step is not to move forward – again, moving on is a good thing. Get commitments and advances – time, money, or reputation (e.g. introductions).
  • Democratize feedback to get alignment and provoke thought leadership. Withholding input from conversations challenges creativity, problem-solving, etc. Share feedback across leadership, teams, etc. – transparency or democratization of insights.
  • Segmentation is critical to success – addressing a target audience to ensure a product/ service has a market. If there are too many different responses, take a sub-segment till you have cohesive feedback. Too many responses could mean too wide of a market which could lead to too many solutions. Then, no segment actually gets satisfied.

The book could use a professional editor. There are quite a few typos and misspellings. Normally, this stuff distracts the heck out of me losing a lot of credibility. However, the book’s points and lessons were great. Thus, I highly recommend this book. 

A friend recently spoke to me about an idea from helping clients work out tedious real estate issues. He worked with several clients who had poor management of a particular aspect of the business. Most of the work was done painstakingly in Excel, if any process was instilled. 
Like any idea, there are several risks. However, we talked about early mitigations:
  • Risk: As a standalone tool for a single “client”, usage would be infrequent. For one client, the problem occurs every several weeks. Mitigation: The target customer is an entity that manages several clients. This enables more frequency of the problem and exponentially increasing the pain. Thus, the benefit, too, exponentially increases.
  • Risk: Explicit pain could be felt with management of several spreadsheets. However, quantifying the impact of pain could be difficult. Mitigation: Benefits start with both monetary and legal exposure. As added bonus, there was a time-saving component. Stick to benefits that get closer to the wallet.
  • Risk: Is this a big enough opportunity? Are there competitors/ monetized solutions today? Mitigation: My friend had a colleague who left his company to start his own – similar services for clients. Meanwhile, my friend’s clients are large institutions and just a few of the large firms in Atlanta. Additionally, macro-economic environment points to a growing trend.
  • Risk: Introduction of a new solution to companies/ employees – adoption. Mitigation: the pain seems explicit and with good benefit potential. Many of my friend’s current clients are using incumbent solutions (i.e. spreadsheets). This also could enable an “import” process addressing empty-state issues.

A good early step is doing customer discovery. While doing so, ask prospects to agree to pilots of an MVP.

I received a question in response to last week’s post on Customer Discovery Surveys.

@TheDLu What’s your thought on split of digital vs verbal? There’s a LOT of value in in-person, but difficult to scale
— David Vandegrift (@DavidVandegrift) July 3, 2015

Fantastic question. My response:

@DavidVandegrift Great question! One I should tackle the next post, but in short, I’d say, “It depends”. #consultantAnswer. It’s about…

— Daryl Lu (@TheDLu) July 3, 2015

Digital surveys (SurveyMonkey, Google Apps, etc.) can be easily scaled and sent to a wide-range of audiences. Whereas, verbal surveys can be time intensive and expensive to scale – scheduling, logistics, etc.

As Don Pottinger, CTO of Kevy, points out, however: “[actual] conversations tend to go unexpected places and reap unexpected insights…something that is harder to do [with] digital.”

Assuming you get in front of the audience, thoughts on digital vs. verbal:

  • Depends on Phase of Customer Discovery. At the beginning, verbal is the quickest way to test and modify an initial hypothesis. As the pain-point and solutions become clearer, you may switch to digital for scale. Then, switching back to heavier verbal during solution build.
  • Consider who you are asking and your relationship. Do you know the audience or have the clout to motivate someone to take a digital survey? Or would verbal develop the relationship to get results? 
  • What’s the value of your offering? The higher the price of your offering, the more critical and appropriate it is for verbal communication. This is simply as sales cycles can be lengthy; thus, more involvement is required to foster trust and development.
Surveys are great direction tools, but not the end-all be-all. Mike Bivone (currently of Juice Analytics) recalls from his startups, “people often tell you one thing but behave completely differently.” At Body Boss, we built features given input from coaches that they would buy if said features were built. However, when we did build those features, coaches didn’t buy. Instead, we should have built lightweight versions and tested with prospects before full development.

Customer Surveys are another directional tool in your arsenal, but you never know till you make moves.

How do you mix verbal and digital customer discovery surveys? What are some tools and methods you’ve used to do customer discovery? How much do you trust survey results?

When I do customer discovery with surveys, I cover a wide range of topics. Oftentimes, I don’t have the luxury of going back to survey respondents. However, even with many objectives, I must be concise lest respondents abandon the survey.
Some objectives and flow of a survey:
  1. #1 objective: test hypotheses/ idea. Be focused on the idea and how ancillary questions are related. Don’t bake into the survey multiple ideas.
  2. Know the customer or find out who they are. If I don’t have background info of the respondents available, I ask about their backgrounds (occupation, responsibilities, etc.).
  3. Understand the customer –> plan the product roadmap.At the beginning, I don’t say anything about the idea. Instead, I broadly ask for the respondent’s processes and pain points. If the initial hypothesis is false, then the user may share the real problem (first pivot!). I progressively get more specific to the pain point.
  4. Any existing solutions today? That is, are respondents using a known competitor? Consider including an open-ended option in case it’s not listed. Test for likes/ dislikes.
  5. Introduce the idea and test for responses. Introduce the idea in a short description, then ask whether the respondent would use the product or service. Also, consider asking how much she would pay for a service as described to gauge price tolerance/ value opportunity.
  6. Understand the marketing logistics. How can I reach my audience? Are there key mediums they absorb information (blogs, magazines, etc.). The toughest part of startups is acquiring customers, so understanding ways to reach them effectively can be gold. I also ask about device usage to understand the technology stack (i.e. prioritization of builds).
  7. Thanks! Can we keep in touch? I always thank the respondent, and ask for contact info to keep in-the-know.
What are some questions that have been gold for your surveys? How would you build a strong customer discovery survey?
A couple posts ago, I wrote about advice I had given to a wantrepreneur when she asked how to start a business after incepting the idea. My answer was simple: “Do your customer discovery. Consider doing a survey.” However, she didn’t know how to start.
The word “survey” is generic and broad. Every time you ask someone a question, you’re performing a mini-survey. In a true customer discovery survey, you use a structured approach and many respondents.
A few simple survey tools at your disposal (my favorites):
  • Verbal/ Manual. Not always the most appreciated or scalable, but soliciting feedback verbally is a form of direct survey. That is, going door-to-door (figuratively or literally) can be an effective way of getting in front of your prospects.
  • Simple survey apps. Lots of tools here including popular SurveyMonkey, Qualitrics, and, my favorite, Google Docs (Apps). A Google Form can easily be used as a survey with multiple choice, true/ false, free text, etc. It integrates with Google Sheets for analysis, or exported for more. If you have a Google account, it can be free, too.
  • Survey tools on steroids… That is, there are tools that help you distribute surveys to grander audiences and near real-time like 1Q– a direct-response advertising and market research startup in ATL. These services have member pools already where you can choose demographic, geographic, etc. options and send questions with near immediate feedback. Of course, this can be costly – price of a powerful real-time solution.
  • (Note: there are many more beyond these.)

There are a ton of survey tools available, but the tools above have been especially useful for me and what I recommend to others. But the goal is the same: to validate if your idea can be a viable business and get traction at the start.
What tools and methods do you use for customer discovery surveys? How would you perform customer discovery aside from surveys?
I was recently approached by a wantrepreneur asking how to start a company. She was paying developers to build an app around her idea, but otherwise, she was secretive about the whole business.
I ended up giving her my general first step in any idea – find out if the idea is even a good one. Translated: Do your customer discovery. Consider doing a survey.

I’m a fan of surveys for a number of reasons (assuming your survey is well organized):
  • Who is your market, really? Is this a market of 1? She was convinced EVERYONE in the world would use her app. Yet, she mentioned she needed to get approvals to work with the government, DMV, etc. Well, the DMV requirement just excluded 95% of the world.
  • Is this a real problem? Asking your friends and family questions about your idea is a good start, but can be biased with people of similar backgrounds (education, geography, income, etc.) who may not be as critical as you need them to be.
  • What’s the product development roadmap look like? Speed is key in startups to not only get traction, but to get the right traction. To do so, it’s important to build products quickly, learn, and iterate. Surveys allow you to consider what pain-points (àfeatures) are highest priority.
  • How do you market to your audience? Survey questions about social media usage, device usage, etc. help paint the picture of what consumers interact with; thus, helping you most effectively market later.
  • Now, you have marketing ammunition. As K.P. Reddy cites, “great CEOs know the numbers of their businesses. Surveys give you stats you can cite in pitches, marketing collateral, etc.

When starting a business or thinking about an idea, customer discovery should be one of the first things you do.

How would you agree or disagree with customer discovery being the first step of building a business or an idea? What ways have you done customer discovery?
First foray into iOS and LEGIT programming, and it goes swimmingly well… even if it wasn’t as “simple” of a start as I could’ve made it.

Since August of this year, I’ve been expanding my horizons and challenging an area that terrifies me – learning how to program. Okay, well, I’ve got some experience in programming including JAVA (long, long ago), Ruby on Rails, etc., but nothing really spectacular and for “mass consumption” except for maybe some SQL and VBA from consulting work. My experience in Ruby on Rails goes just a little farther than the One Month Rails course I took back in January. However, it never really stuck with me.

I found that I needed to root myself with three foundational questions that would give me a reason for learning (my WHY), a vision to focus my learning and achieve sustainability (my WHAT), and a way to begin (my HOW). That’s where the following three questions guided me.

Question 1: Why am I learning to program?
Like many idea-people, I have a long, long list of ideas of things to try/ build in terms of potential startup ideas. My list has started to get long in the tooth. Some of the ideas are similar to what some startups are now doing very well and/ or raising quite a bit of capital. As they say, ideas are worth nothing… it’s all about execution. However, with the market where it is being a highly developer world, it’s sometimes hard getting/ inspiring/ motivating developers to help build ideas without money, and I’m not a developer by trade. I’ve talked to a few other entrepreneurs and they share the same sentiment – good developers are highly valuable resources with no shortage of demand. 
I remember talking to one of the co-founders of Hired.com a few months ago, and he mentioned how he and a couple other great developers met one day to talk about possibly working together. After a couple meets they moved into a house near the Valley. They churned out projects weekly. They weren’t bottlenecks in their aspirations, but I was in mine. I don’t want to be limited in achieving what I want to. If I believe in myself and what I’m doing, then investing in some learning should be well worth it.
So, that’s what motivated me to really learn and become a developer — a reason for doing. I’m never going to be an extraordinary developer like the Body Boss guys (or designer), but I’ll know enough to be dangerous and launch ideas. If any of them stick, then great. I’ll then hopefully raise some capital to then find a more technically adept partner. Of course, there’s got to be some time to develop the ideas before churning out the next one. Anyways…
As an ancillary (but big) benefit, I’m hoping more experience with programming will make me a more adept entrepreneur and team member. I’m still figuring out my best skills and roles (product management, sales, marketing, general business development, PROGRAMMING?!, etc.). Right now, I like to be a generalist and my breadth of skills allows me to adapt quickly and effectively; however, I think strengthening my technical shortcomings will be valuable in an age of growing technology either by understanding customers’ needs, communicating with technical resources, or exploring new entrepreneurial opportunities.
Question 2: What am I starting?
Now with a purpose, I wasn’t sure what to begin or even what would keep my learning going. I needed to build something that resonated with me to give me short and long-term visions and goals.

After a brainstorming session in July, there was an interesting idea to help parents better buy and sell used kids goods. This was the inception of Dee Duper, the idea I’ve been building out since August. Though, to start, I wasn’t sure which way or where to start. Kick in some of my experience from the past, and I did customer discovery vis-à-vis a survey (using Google Docs) to answer some questions and test out some hypotheses.

Okay, you’re about to see some questions, responses, and charts from the survey – 48 parent respondents. Let me preface the results with this: I know, in retrospect, that the survey can be better structured, worded, and more MECE. I’m comfortable showing the results, however, knowing full well the responses are not “scientific”. The answers provide a good vane for the direction I should head, and as an entrepreneur, I don’t need exact measurements to get started. These examples should also serve as food-for-thought about how to make your own surveys more robust. Again, every iteration you do something, look to improve. I’ll write a post in the near future (Jan 2015?) on how I would improve my survey in retrospect.

Focused my survey on parents with 48 respondents.
Aside from “None; N/A” and “Other”, major problems of existing resale channels include Search and Trust.
One of my major hypotheses was that payment of goods between parents was a big headache. However, I learned that overwhelmingly, the major pain points revolved around search and trust. Okay, that changes my potential development roadmap, but where to start programming? A few more questions were needed via the survey…
The computer is still dominant for users followed by the iPhone. Though not focused on which device is used for online shopping, this still motivates me to build on iOS as the mobile app first.
Survey respondents were overwhelmingly users of the iPhone. So that’s where I was going to dig in for my first technical entrepreneurial foray – iOS! Yes, ‘Computer’ was actually the top device, but I knew/ wanted Dee Duper to reside mobile (native) first as an MVP (phase 0) especially given other outside research from Black Friday shopping, UPS datapoints, and my observations of target consumers on channels like the many “Mommy Exchanges” on Facebook. Phase 1 would include a web app, likely built on Ruby on Rails.
I have such limited experience in Apple’s Objective-C language, and with Apple’s announcement of its evolution in programming language, Swift, I decided to start with Swift. The syntax looks cleaner and if I went far back in my memory, it’s more similar to JAVA, I think.
User sentiments to the apps I was most interested in. In retrospect, I could have included other popular apps such as Pinterest
Through the customer discovery survey, I also learned what apps and platforms users used on a daily basis and their thoughts on the quality of the popular apps today. All this allowed me to go beyond just building on Swift but also help me think about design and usability as well as potential integrations. In my case, I’ve learned that removing barriers to sign up and get into an app is critical, so leveraging Facebook’s login was going to be my way forward.
Question 3: How did I start?

With limited experience in programming for the masses and a plethora of options and courses to learn programming, choosing where to begin and with who can be daunting. Luckily, when I started in August, Swift wasn’t talked about too much, yet, so I had limited options. I decided to get started with Treehouse.com. I ended up shelling out $99 for a Swift course. Treehouse did a good job of showing me the basics, and getting me used to the syntax. However, the course I took wasn’t a great one to learn how to build what I wanted to build.
Instead of spending more $$, I decided to explore free tutorials, and found some videos on YouTube by Brian Advent. This was actually really great because Brian also talked about not only Swift, but integrating a mobile back-end (with Facebook’s Parse). I hadn’t thought about what, where, and how to host the database to run Dee Duper, yet. He had some videos that explained how to build a Twitter-like app, so that’s where I would work alongside him through several videos, and then go off adapting what he taught to Dee Duper.

Starting from there was a lot of trial and error. I won’t hash this out because there’s quite a bit, but I’ll write posts in the very near future about my lessons. It’ll be on-going so stay tuned!

As a take-away for you, there are a TON of courses all over the internet including physical classes you can take if you so have the time and money to pursue. If you’re like me bootstrapping everything, there are plenty of free tutorials that will get you off and running quick.

Where I am and where I’m going…

Last Monday, December 1st, I actually received word that Dee Duper was approved for the Appstore! First time submission, first time approval. Pretty stellar stuff, I think. It took a while, but it’s come together pretty nicely.
Funny enough, while building Dee Duper, I’ve also picked up some part-time consulting to fill the coffers and get some mental stability, I’ve been thrust into building all sorts of models in VBA and even asked to do some SQL to build data cubes and algorithms. All of a sudden, I’m finding myself mixing up programming languages having taken on all sorts of technical roles. To the point above about why I wanted to pick up programming, I’ve definitely found myself much more marketable and able to swing into all sorts of different projects where others couldn’t. Plus, the added analytical side of programming has given me some creative ways of approaching other more strategic consulting projects.
Back to Dee Duper and my programming… Dee Duper just launched in the Appstore, but honestly, I haven’t marketed it at all. This is where a lot of work and effort will come into play. What I need to do now is find initial traction, and gather their input. I did my beta testing with some users throughout development, but now that the app is more widely available, learning will be critical.
You can now find Dee Duper in the Apple Appstore!
From the feedback, I hope to find what works, what doesn’t, and the missing elements of Dee Duper to achieve product-market fit. I’ve got a roadmap of what I want to integrate next with Dee Duper including geo-location, saved searches (alerting you if something is posted that you’re looking for), favorites, etc. For now, I’m eager to gather feedback of the MVP of Dee Duper before I go building a bunch of features nobody wants.
I’ll post some quick lessons since I started programming in the next month. I’ll also start sharing some technical posts including how I’ve implemented different features, headaches I’ve come across, etc. The Swift developer community is still very young, so the help library is sparse. Hopefully, I can help build that up.
What questions do you have about how I got started either with Dee Duper or programming? Are you someone who wants to code, but hasn’t stepped into it, yet? What’s holding you back? Or, if you did start coding but not a coder as a full-time gig, why/ what are you coding?

John Wooden, legendary UCLA coach who won 10 NCAA championships in a 12-year period including seven in a row once, said one of the most resounding things I’ve ever heard:

“If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?”

I think I’ve heard a variation of this from somewhere that goes on, “If you don’t have time to do it right the first time, you must have time to do it a second time.”

I looked up local entrepreneur-turned Atlanta hero, celebrity, and savior (for startups and entrepreneurs, at least) David Cummings on his blog for any tidbits of sage advice.  I searched for “features” and found a few, and really appreciated one particular post — “Consider Future Manual Labor When Adding New Features“.

In essence, Cummings talked about realizing the ramifications of building new features, especially when considering the manual labor downstream.  Pushing for features to go out the door quickly for testing is part and parcel to the Lean Startup process, but there must also be a careful consideration about the effects downstream as well.

As we build Body Boss, we’ve come to realize there were a few features that were just wholly cumbersome to use, especially speaking with coaches.  Each time we considered new features, or even existing ones, we have to take a careful look at whether or not we’re really addressing the problem in addition to if we’re just putting a bandaid.  Because in the end, our customer-partners will tell us if they don’t like the new bandaid vis-a-vis complaints or low adoption.

However, if our customer-partners continue to clamor for the better, simpler design or robust feature, it signals that it’s not that the feature is poor, it’s that the implementation is poor.  Much like Cummings blogged about, as we build out features (you, too), careful consideration should be done to understand whether or not the actual implementation is just a bandaid or if it goes to actually building a better feature, and in these days especially, is the feature SIMPLE???  Simple not just for the users, but also for you the Company — the builders.  Simplification leads to higher adoption.

So going back to Coach Wooden, if you don’t build your features and your product right the first time (and you’ll know it), when will you have time?  If you hear your customers clamoring for it, but they aren’t using it, chances are, you haven’t implemented it the right way.  Look at it from your customers’ perspectives, and if you start struggling with the feature, chances are, too, that your customers have the same hang-ups.  Let’s just hope that when opportunity comes knocking that you have the chance to still fix it the right way; else, your customers may just look for someone else that IS willing to do it the right way.

What are your thoughts on building out a product or a new feature?  Have you had trouble where you’ve built features, and haven’t seen it adopted despite customers wanting it?  If so, how, and how did you remedy it?