Well They “Should” be Our Customers

When scientists and engineers who’ve been working in the lab for years try to commercialize their technology they often get trapped by their own beliefs  – including who the customers are, what features are important, pricing etc.



One the key tenets of the Lean LaunchPad class is that every week each team gets out of the building and talks to 10+ customers/partners to validate a new part of their business model.  Back in class they present their findings to their peers and teaching team in a 10 minute Lessons Learned presentation. One of the benefits of the class is that the teams get immediate unvarnished feedback on their strategy.

For researchers and clinicians who’ve been working on a project in the lab for years, getting out of the building and talking to customers at times creates cognitive dissonance.  While they’ve been in the lab they had a target customer in mind. However when they leave the building and start talking to these  supposed customers there’s almost always a surprise when the customer is not interested in the product.

Often when they consistently hear that their expected customers aren’t interested the first reaction is “the customers just don’t get it yet.”  Rather than testing a new customer segment they keep on calling on the same group – somehow thinking that “we just need to explain it better.”

Some times it takes a nudge from the teaching team to suggest that perhaps looking at another customer segment might be in order.

They Should be Our Customers
The Mira Medicine Team is trying to accelerate the path to the right treatment for each patient in complex Central Nervous System diseases. They spent years building their first tool MS Bioscreen, which was developed for the physicians at the UCSF Dept of Neurology. So they naturally believed that their first customers would be neurologists.

This was a very smart team who ran into the same problem almost every smart researcher attempting to commercialize science faces.  Here’s what happened.

If you can’t see the video click here.

Listen for:

0:35 “Our primary customer we built this app for was neurologists…

1:00 “(but neurologists have told us) your prototype is interesting… and probably some features are nice to haves…

2:26 “What’s special about neurology?  Doesn’t cardiology and oncology have problems like this?

3:00 “Is neurology a key component of what you’re trying to do?

3:15 “I’ve worked on this for two years…”

3:24 “You’ve already done too much prototyping work. You’re hung up on the prototype.”

3:29 “You have a square peg you’er trying to jam in a round hole…”

3:43 “Don’t be afraid to think laterally”

Postscript: 70 customers later they no longer talking to neurologists.

Lessons Learned

  • Don’t get trapped by your own beliefs
  • When reality outside the building doesn’t match your hypotheses – test alternate hypotheses
  • Most of the time your vision is just a hallucination

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8 Responses

  1. As a technologist, this concept has been the hardest wall to overcome (and most uncomfortable), yet the most enlightening.

    On Wed, Nov 13, 2013 at 10:01 AM, Steve Blank

  2. This is a classic example of the Lean concepts of ‘real demand’ versus ‘created demand.’ Real demand is customers plunking down money to buy your product or service. Created demand is you forecasting that customers will buy your product or service based on the features and benefits. Activities based on created demand are wasteful. I love the fact that the Lean Start-Up process focuses on uncovering, and responding to, real demand. Bravo!

  3. It great seeing this process in practice. Great illustration of the opportunities real customer discovery presents.

  4. Love this post and its application to the non-profit sector as well!

  5. Great post. Disconnecting founders from their original product idea is a difficult tasks — done with tough love in this video. Kudos.

  6. Old Guy comment:It's not just the commercial world where it happens.  In a day before digital test equipment, the Eletronics Defense Lab in Mountain View designed and built a compact all-in-one test unit to be used at covert listening sites.  The engineers & scientists made it "simple" for field engineers – all knobs/adjustment items were on the front panel: daily use knobs/adjustments protruded; less frequent adjustment controls were flush with the panel; occasional adjustment controls were recessed.  Everything was painted innocuous grey with white lettering.These boxes cost in excess of $500K each (in 1970 dollars).  Then they started coming back from the field.  Nobody had asked the field engineers what were their needs.  Coupled with poor documentation, they were a disaster .  The U.S. designers thought the controls would be intuitive.  They weren't.  An engineer who reported to the what was later called the DCI, chastised the EDL builders.  In reality, both organizations didn't really define either the initial problem or the solution. Roty MizeMountain View, CA  

  7. Here is a TED talk entitled “What doctors can learn from each other”.


    Sounds like the speaker is recommending the lean startup technique of continuous learning and the continuous feedback loop to keep current on best practices in treating their patients.

  8. As an entrepreneur, I would add that this issue can be a real source of value-add for outside advisers, mentors, etc. Like the folks in the video, many entrepreneurs are so head’s down and singled minded in their pursuit (you have to be!) that they will continue to pound their head against a brick wall. Good to have some one push you to think about a different wall.

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