The Shy Founder’s Guide to Customer Discovery

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I am a very shy person. I once told my husband that I liked going to yoga class because it was a “social activity.” He then asked if I talked to anyone. The answer? No way. Sitting in a quiet room full of strangers, not interacting with any of them – that was sufficiently social for me.

So the idea of actually getting out there and talking to customers was terrifying. All of the books I read about startups drove home the importance of these “customer discovery” conversations, but I convinced myself that creating an online survey, sending a bunch of emails, and talking to my inner circle about my idea was validation enough.

Newsflash: it wasn’t. I learned this the hard (read: expensive) way. Armed with my survey data and a small handful of conversations, I found a team of developers, hired them, and promptly built the wrong thing.

My hope was that I’d get people using the product and then learn by observing them – see, no need to talk to customers… I just need to watch them! – but if you’ve built the wrong thing in the first place because you didn’t bother learning what people need, that plan doesn’t work so well.

By the time I entered the incubator, I had a hunch that I might have missed the boat with my first attempt at an MVP, but I still didn’t want to talk to “strangers.” Then every. single. mentor. AND every. single. presenter. (and everyone else, for that matter) encouraged me to “talk to customers.” I longed for an outgoing co-founder to do the dirty work for me, but there was no such person. Time to put on my big girl pants.

I’m here to tell you that I’ve survived to tell the tale, and it wasn’t that bad. That’s the good news. The bad news: I’ve learned that this isn’t just a phase. If you’re going to build a product, you’re going to need to talk to people. Like, forever. It’s one of those things that you’d better learn to appreciate, even if you can’t genuinely love it. I think I’ve finally gotten to this magical place (you know, where Unicorns are born!), but it didn’t happen overnight.

The turning point for me was one particular conversation with a group of women I’d ambushed at a local Zoe’s Kitchen. They were minding their own business when I sidled up to them, asked if they’d be willing to entertain a few questions, and nervously launched into my spiel. They were very nice, and also very helpful. At the conclusion of the interview, as I backed away while thanking them profusely for their time, one of the women said, “I was just glad you didn’t want to talk about religion.” Those words were exactly what I needed to hear. I realized that I wasn’t really asking people to do anything super painful, and from then on, customer discovery conversations came more easily.

That was the mushy, cheerleader-y part of my hard-earned “customer discovery wisdom.”

Here are the two biggest mistakes I made along the way:

  • Not getting e-mail addresses or other contact information to be able to follow up with people… because you WILL have more questions, and you’ll also probably want to try to get these people to be some of your first users. I know it feels awkward to ask these people for MORE after you’ve just asked them so many questions, but trust me, you’ll regret it if you don’t.
  • Not starting off with a defined “interview guide” that outlines questions related not just to product development and “building the right thing,” but also gets at information that will be valuable for future marketing strategies or modeling user acquisition channels.

And a final bit of advice: this is all a LOT easier if you’ve built and nurtured a network. If, like me, you think “being social” is kind of uncomfortable and therefore basically stopped doing it once you got married and found a job, you’ll find that it’s a little MORE uncomfortable when you’re reaching out to people you haven’t spoken to in a decade, hoping that they’ll remember you and be willing to talk. If I could go back and tell my younger self one thing, it would be to stop thinking of networking as a dirty word, and instead think of it as an opportunity to keep learning: from others, and about yourself.

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