Killing Your Startup By Listening to Customers

The art of entrepreneurship and the science of Customer Development is not just getting out of the building and listening to prospective customers. It’s understanding who to listen to and why.

Five Cups of Coffee
I got a call from Satish, one of my ex-students last week. He got my attention when he said, “following your customer development stuff is making my company fail.” The rest of the conversation sounded too confusing for me to figure out over the phone, so I invited him out to the ranch to chat.

When he arrived, Satish sounded like he had 5 cups of coffee. Normally when I have students over, we’d sit in the house and we’d look at the fields trying to catch a glimpse of a bobcat hunting.  But in this case, I suggested we take a hike out to Potato Patch pond.

Potato Patch Pond
We took the trail behind the house down the hill, through the forest, and emerged into the bright sun in the lower valley. (Like many parts of the ranch this valley has its own micro-climate and today was one of those days when it was ten degrees warmer than up at the house.)

As we walked up the valley Satish kept up a running dialog catching me up on six years of family, classmates and how he started his consumer web company. It had recently rained and about every 50 feet we’d see another 3″ salamander ambling across the trail. When the valley dead-ended in the canyon, we climbed 30-foot up a set of stairs and emerged looking at the water. A “hanging pond” is always a surprise to visitors. All of a sudden Satish’s stream of words slowed to a trickle and just stopped. He stood at the end of the small dock for a while taking it all in. I dragged him away and we followed the trail through the woods, around the pond, through the shadows of the trees.

As we circled the pond I tried to both keep my eyes on the dirt trail while glancing sideways for pond turtles and red-legged frogs. When I’m out here alone it’s quiet enough to hear the wind through the trees, and after awhile the sound of your own heartbeat. We sat on the bench staring across the water, with the only noise coming from ducks tracing patterns on the flat water. Sitting there Satish described his experience.

We Did Everything Customers Asked For
“We did every thing you said, we got out of the building and talked to potential customers. We surveyed a ton of them online, ran A/B tests, brought a segment of those who used the product in-house for face-to-face meetings. ” Yep, sound good.

“Next, we built a minimum viable product.”  Ok, still sounds good.

“And then we built everything our prospective customers asked for.”  That took me aback. Everything?  I asked?  “Yes, we added all their feature requests and we priced the product just like they requested.  We had a ton of people come to our website and a healthy number actually activated.”  That’s great I said, “but what’s your pricing model?’  “Freemium,” came the reply.

Oh, oh. I bet I knew the answer to the next question, but I asked it anyway.  “So, what’s the problem?”

“Well everyone uses the product for awhile, but no one is upgrading to our paid product. We spent all this time building what customers asked for. And now most of the early users have stopped coming back.”

I looked at hard at Satish trying to remember where he had sat in my class.  Then I asked, “Satish, what’s your business model?

What’s your business model?
“Business model?  I guess I was just trying to get as many people to my site as I could and make them happy. Then I thought I could charge them for something later and sell advertising based on the users I had.”

I pushed a bit harder.

“Your strategy counted on a freemium-to-paid upgrade path. What experiments did you run that convinced you that this was the right pricing tactic? Your attrition numbers mean users weren’t engaged with the product. What did you do about it?”

“Did you think you were trying to get large networks of engaged users that can disrupt big markets? Large” is usually measured in millions of users. What experiments did you run that convinced you could get to that scale?”

I realized by the look in his eyes that none of this was making sense. “Well I got out of the building and listened to customers.”

The wind was picking up over the pond so I suggested we start walking.

We stopped at the overlook a top of the waterfall, after the recent rain I had to shout over the noise of the rushing water. I offered that it sounded like he had done a great job listening to customers. And better, he had translated what he had heard into experiments and tests to acquire more users and get a higher percentage of those to activate.

But he was missing the bigger picture. The idea of the tests he ran wasn’t just to get data – it was to get insight.  All of those activities – talking to customers, A/B testing, etc. needed to fit into his business model – how his company will find a repeatable and scalable business model and ultimately make money.  And this is the step he had missed.

Customer Development = The pursuit of customer understanding
Part of Customer Development is understanding which customers make sense for your business.  The goal of listening to customers is not please every one of them.  It’s to figure out which customer segment served his needs – both short and long term. And giving your product away, as he was discovering, is often a going out of business strategy.

The work he had done acquiring and activating customers were just one part of the entire buisness model.

As we started the long climb up the driveway, I suggested his fix might be simpler than he thought.  He needed to start thinking about what a repeatable and scalable business model looked like.

I offered that getting acquiring users and then making money by finding payers assumed a multi-sided market (users/payers). But a freemium model assumed a single-sided market – one where the users became the payers.

He really needed to think through his Revenue Model (the strategy his company uses to generate cash from each customer segment). And how was he going to use Pricing, (the tactics of what he charged in each customer segment) to achieve that Revenue Model.  Freemium was just one of many tactics. Single or multi-sided market? And which customers did he want to help him get there?

My guess was that he was going to end up firing a bunch of his customers – and that was OK.

As we sat back in the living room, I gave him a copy of The Startup Owners Manual and we watched a bobcat catch a gopher.

Lessons Learned

  • Getting out of the building is a great first step
  • Listening to potential customers is even better
  • Getting users to visit your site and try your product feels great
  • Your job is not to make every possible customer happy
  • Pick the customer segments and pricing tactics that drive your business model

Listen to the post here: Download the Podcast here

Who Dares Wins – The 2nd Annual International Business Model Competition

Alexander Osterwalder and I spent last week in Salt Lake City, Utah as judges at the 2nd Annual International Business Model Competition, hosted by Professor Nathan Furr, and his team at the BYU Center for Entrepreneurship.

The idea of a Business Model competition first emerged when I realized that Business Plan writing ought to be taught in English Departments – as they’re the best example of creative writing entrepreneurs will ever do.

The Business Plan 
- a roadmap for execution
When venture capital teamed up with technology entrepreneurs in the 1960’s they brought with them the canonical MBA planning tool – the business plan.

The business plan is a wonderful document for organizing and planning for existing companies to launch follow-on products. In an existing corporation, the business plan is the execution document for sustaining innovation.

The problem is that once a plan is written it’s static and assumes minimal new learning. This makes sense in a company where your customers, channel and competition are known. And your revenue plan is something more than a hallucination.  But for startups, business plans fail to match the chaotic reality they encounter in the real world. Yet year after year, decade after decade, VC’s would watch as no startup business plan survived first contact with customers. So what did the venture industry do? They kept insisting startups write business plans as the price of entry to venture funding.

Why?

VC’s thought of startups as smaller versions of large companies.  Large companies wrote business plans, so VC’s made startups write business plans.  Large companies had VP’s of Sales and Marketing, so VC’s made startups organize that way as well. Large companies executed plans well and when they didn’t work, they fired the executives who screwed up.  So VC’s assumed that startups should equally unfold per the plan – firing executives when reality intruded.

The reality is that startups needed a new class of management tools. Tools to help them manage the search for a repeatable and scalable business model. Startups needed tools to help them organize their hypotheses, and then needed a process to rapidly test those hypotheses. And they needed tools that recognized that most startups go from failure to failure as they searched for, and discovered, product/market fit. And that instead of firing executives to match a plan, it was the plan itself that needed to rapidly iterate.

Business Plan vs. Business Model + Customer Development
The term business model first appeared ~50 years ago, but the concept didn’t catch on until the 1990’s. It wasn’t until 2010 when Alexander Osterwalder published his book Business Model Generation that it became clear that this was the tool to organize startup hypotheses.

It wasn’t long before Alexander and I realized that organizing hypotheses with his canvas was just the first step in building a business. The next step was getting out of the building and testing the business model in a formal process – and that process is Customer Development.

We’ve blogged about the combined methodologies here and here.  Our Lean LaunchPad class at Stanford, Berkeley, Columbia and the National Science Foundation teach the combined Business Model Canvas + Customer Development tools.  My new book, The Startup Owners Manual integrates the two.

Three years ago, after watching my nth business plan competition I realized this was simply wrong.  Rather than having students invest months writing a 100-page tome and polishing slides that taught them almost nothing about what it was really like to build a company, I thought there had to be a better way.

I suggested that we hold competitions that actually emulated the real world (rather than what’s easy to grade) and hold competitions that emulate what entrepreneurs actually encounter – chaos, uncertainty and unknowns. A business model competition would emulate the “out of the building” experience of real entrepreneurs executing the customer development / business model / agile development stack.

You can write a business plan slide deck in your dorm or library.  But you can’t fake a business model/customer development presentation. It takes a ton of face-face customer interactions.

The International Business Model Competition
From the seed of this initial idea Professor Nathan Furr at BYU did the hard work and created a global business model competition, this year receiving over 100 submissions. The finals were held in the packed 1,000 seat BYU auditorium with lines of students outside unable to get in.

(I love walking around the BYU campus. It feels like being at a giant Eagle Scout convention.)

It was an eye-opener to see each of the teams take the stage to describe their journey in trying to validate each of the 9 parts of a business model, rather than the static theory of a business plan.

Each team used the business model canvas and customer development stack to go from initial hypotheses, getting outside the building to validate their ideas with customers, and going through multiple pivots to find a validated business model.

All of the Business Model finalists were pretty amazing.   Each one of these presentations moved the teams closer to building a real company.

This years winner were:

1. XoomPark, BYU

The XoomPark team spoke to over 300 people (customers and channel partners,) ended up with 2 partners, 30 parking lot customers, a working website and a validated revenue model.
If you can’t see the slide deck above, click here.
.

3. AutoBid, BYU

AutoBid’s pivots were pure artistry.

If you can’t see the slide deck above, click here.

4. FlexLeg, BYU 

FlexLeg got to experience first-hand the complexity of a multi-sided market – something the Business Model Canvas illustrates with startling clarity.

If you can’t see the slide deck above, click here.

Business Plan competitions are for those want to write PowerPoint slides. Business Model competitions are for entrepreneurs who want to learn how to build companies. Harvard will be hosting the 2013 International Business Model Competition and Stanford in 2014.

Come join us.

Lessons Learned

  • Business Plan competitions offer VC’s a PowerPoint beauty contest.
  • They teach entrepreneurs little about how to build a company.
  • You can’t fake a Business Model/Customer Development presentation.
  • It tough, grueling and relentless, requiring a ton of face-face customer interactions.
  • It what winners do.

Listen to the post here: Download the Podcast here

Two Giant Steps Forward For Entrepreneurs

While entrepreneurship is in the news fairly regularly, I seldom make news myself.  Today, however there are two important updates for entrepreneurs everywhere.  Let me be brief…

The “Startup Owner’s Manual” goes On Press Tuesday 2/14
Two years in the making and literally ten years in development, I’m proud to announce that my new book, The Startup Owners Manual, goes onto the printing press next Tuesday.  This 608-page work is, as its subtitle says, “the step-by-step guide for building a great company.”  It’s the result of a decade of me learning from 1,000’s of entrepreneurs, corporate partners, students and scientists the best practices of what wins in startups. I’ve spent the last two years cramming knowledge into this new book.

In brief, the The Startup Owners Manual is far more detailed and more readable than Four Steps to the Epiphany, (most of the sentences are even finished!).  In fact, you could say that all that remains from my last book are the four steps of Customer Development.  Briefly, the new book:

  • Integrates Alexander Osterwalders “Business Model Canvas” as the front-end and “scorecard” for the customer discovery process.
  • Provides separate paths and advice for web/mobile products versus physical products
  • Offers a ton of detail and great tips on how to get, keep, and grow customers, recognizing that this happens very differently between web and physical channels.
  • and finally it teaches a “new math” for startups: “metrics that matter.”
While MBA’s have had a stack of texts to help them “execute” a business model, this book joins the growing library of books for practitioners for the “search” for the business model.

The Lean LaunchPad Online Class
My online Lean LaunchPad class has created a lot of buzz this week. As you may have heard, I was deep into the production of the lectures when I realized I was producing the wrong class.  The online class was originally based on my book The Four Steps to the Epiphany.

Only when I held the draft of my latest book, The Startup Owners Manual, in my hands, did it dawn on me that my online students deserved all the latest best practices of entrepreneurship and Customer Development. Not the stuff I taught a decade ago, but all that I’ve learned teaching the Lean LaunchPad in front of students at Stanford, Berkeley, Columbia and the National Science Foundation in the last year.  And I particularly wanted to incorporate everything I’ve spent two years integrating into The Startup Owners Manual into the class.

So apologies to all of you who were expecting the class this month.  I hope to get the updated version online in the next 60 days.  I’ll keep you updated on this blog as we record our lectures.

In the meantime, if you want to prepare for the class…or get a jump on your startup competition, you can start reading the “recommended text” for the online class right now by ordering my new book.  It is recommended—not required—reading for the free online course, and I believe it will be immensely helpful to the startup community at large.

Lessons Learned

  • Startups search for business models, exisitng companies execute them
  • There are tons of texts about execution, but a paucity of practical ones for founders on how to search
  • The Startup Owners Manual is the definitive reference book for founders, investors and everyone interested in startups
  • The Lean Launchpad on-line class will be based on the new book
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