Customer Discovery In the Time Of the Covid-19 Virus

A version of this article appeared in TechCrunch.

With in-person classes canceled, we’re about to start our online versions of Hacking for Defense and Hacking for Oceans (and here). The classes are built on the Lean Startup methodology: Customer Discovery, Agile Engineering and the Business/Mission Model Canvas. So how do our students get out of the building to talk to customers to do Customer Discovery when they can’t get out of the building?  How do should startups do it?


Reminder: What’s the Point of Talking to Customers?
Talking to customers seems like a simple idea, but most founders find it’s one of the hardest things they have to do. Founders innately believe they understand a customers problem and just need to spend their time building a solution. We now have a half a century of data to say that belief is wrong. To build products that people want and will really use, founders first need to validate the problem/need, then understand whether their solution solves that problem (i.e. finding product/market fit). Finally to have a better chance of a viable enterprise, they need to test all the other hypotheses in their business/mission model (pricing, demand creation, revenue, costs, etc.)

The key principles of customer development are:

  1. There are no facts inside the building so get the heck outside
  2. All you have are a series of untested hypotheses
  3. You can test your hypotheses with a series of experiments with potential customers

Now with sheltering-in-place the new normal, we’ll add a fourth principle:

  1. In-person interviews are not the only way to test your hypotheses

Reminder: What’s the Point of Physically Getting Out of The Building?
One of the reasons for interviewing people in person is to engage in a dialog that lets you be sure you understand the problem you are solving and measure customers’ reactions to the minimal viable products you put in front of them.

There’s a rule of thumb that says, “If you can see their pupils dilate and can tell they’re checking not their watch,” it’s a valuable interview.  The gold standard are in-person interviews where you can not only do all of that, and get to see what’s on their desks, the awards on their walls, the books on their shelves, and other ephemera that may give you clues about their interests and behavior. But today, with the Covid-19 pandemic that’s no longer possible. So the next best thing is a Video Teleconference.

Video Teleconferencing is Your Virtual Friend
Video (via Zoom, Skype, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, etc.) with enough resolution to see someone’s facial expressions –  is more than an adequate substitute, and in some cases better – as it allows you to connect to more people in a shorter period of time. When we first taught the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps 11 years ago, the first 75 teams did Customer Discovery this way. (More advanced tools for remote user testing like ValidatelyUsertesting, Lookback, etc. are worth checking out.)

Our classes require students to talk to 100 Customers/Beneficiaries in 10 weeks. Before the pandemic, customers were found where they worked or played. Today, while some may still be at work, most will be sheltering at home, and almost all have more time on their hands than before. (You certainly do! Given you’re not traveling to customer interviews, you ought to be able to do more than 100 interviews.)

Getting a Meeting in the Midst of Chaos
Don’t assume potential interviewees are answering their work phones. And if they’re working at home, they may have a different email address. Don’t use the same opening email pitch you did before the virus. Your email should recognize and acknowledge the new normal. (i.e. Hello, my name is xx. I know this must be a crazy time for you. I’m a student/PI at xx University. All our classes have gone online. I’m investigating whether [problem x] would be valuable to solve today or when the world returns to normal. Would you be willing to speak to me?)

One upside is that you may now be able to get access to people who normally have a cloud of administrative gatekeepers around them. If you have a solution that is relevant to their business in this uncertain time, reach out to them.

Find Out How Their World Has Changed
In addition to the standard customer discovery and validation questions (how they did their job, what pains they had around current solutions, etc.) you need to understand:

  • What were their needs/problem/solution/industry pre-Covid 19?
  • What is it like now?
  • Have there been regulatory changes? Customer behavior changes?
  • What do they think it will be like when the recovery comes?
  • Will their problem/solution be the same or do they think it may change?

Presenting Your Minimal Viable Product (MVP) Online
An MVP is an experiment. It’s what you can show a potential customer/ user/ beneficiary/partner that will get you the most learning at a point in time. You build MVP’s to validate the need/problem, then to validate product/market or mission/solution fit and finally the rest of the business/mission model canvas. You can use wireframes, PowerPoints slides, simulated screenshots, storyboards, mockups or demo’s. The rest of the canvas might be validated with pricelists, spreadsheets, etc. (Alex Osterwalder and David Bland’s new book, Testing Business Ideas is a great help here.)

Given that you are now presenting over video, you are going to be trying to communicate a lot of information in a small window on a computer screen. On-line MVP building and delivery will need to become an art form. Rather than doing every demo of your MVP live, consider 1) recording it 2) highlighting the key points.

  • Break your MVP demo into <1 minute segments. Edit the video to illustrate each of your points, This allows customers/beneficiaries to interrupt and ask questions and allows you to jump to different parts of the demo.
  • If you would normally have your potential customer hold, feel or use the product, make sure you demo someone doing that. Take the time to zoom in.
  • As you show your MVP, split the screen so you can see the customer’s reaction as the demo unfolds.
  • Practice, practice, practice the delivery of MVP’s. First it needs to be built and practiced, then the smaller parts for delivery need to be practiced. Anticipate questions and prepare your answers to them.
  • Ask if you can record the session. If not, make sure a team member is online to take notes.
  • Remember – at this point you’re testing hypotheses – not selling.

Validate the Rest of Business/Mission Model Components
A common mistake in building a startup is testing only product/market (mission/solution) fit. But other business/mission model components must be tested and validated, too. How can you test demand creation hypotheses during shelter in place for the Covid-19 virus? Important ideas you’ll want to consider:  Are potential customers beneficiaries now reachable in new ways? How can you test distribution/deployment? Are they the same now? Will they be the same after the recovery? Which changes are temporary? Which are permanent?

Your Business Model and the World Have Changed
If you’re business model still looks like your original assumptions a month ago, you’ve been living under a rock. Every part of your business model – not just product and customer – will change now. Recognize that in the post pandemic world, the map of surviving competitors will change, regulations will be changed, distribution channels may no longer be there, the reimbursement environment will be different, etc.

Ask everyone you interview, “What’s changed since the Covid-19 virus? What will the world look like after?” (Be specific. Ask questions not just about product, but about every other part of your business model.

Some Discovery Can’t Be Done Now
The reality is that some discovery and validation can’t be done right now. If you need to talk to people on the front-line of the Covid-19 fight (e.g. first responders, health care workers, delivery, network, remote work, telemedicine), ask yourself if your solution is relevant to making people healthier, safer, more effective?  If it is, then keep at it.

If not, don’t be tone deaf. In the midst of the crisis, testing ideas for businesses that are shutting down (travel, hospitality, etc.,) or from employees who are worried whether they’ll have a job will not work. Even if you have great new ideas for when recovery comes, most responses you’re going to get will be framed in the moment.

If so, consider putting your project on hold or find another problem to solve. Be conscientious about not taking people away from the important work required on the front line of this fight.

Lessons Learned

  • Customer Discovery and Validation can be easily done via video teleconferencing
  • Recognize that many potential interviewees are working from home
  • Break your MVP demos into small pieces, leaving time for people to respond
  • Adjust your questions to understand how customers’ situations have been changed by the pandemic
  • Some Customer Discovery can’t be done now

21 Responses

  1. Thank you for an amazing article.


  2. Solid advice Steve. For those that are interested I found “Running Lean” by Ash Maurya, an excellent book which really breaks down at a tactical level including understanding the problem you’re looking to solve by conducting “problem” interviews with potential customers with a goal of seeking to understand and test 1st if the assumptions you’ve made around your understanding of the problem were correct (or not). Next, before you spend much time building anything, a follow up “solution” interview to confirm if the solution you’ve come up with really meets (or not) the defined problem. Only then does Ash recommend creating a MVP and conducting interviews to confirm if you’re still on the right path. Before lastly, verifying quantitatively on your product / market fit.

  3. Thanks so much, Steve. I teach e’ship to graduating undergrad seniors in the Music Business program at NYU and we were knocked sideways by the virus and moving classes online. We’ve elected to press on with our projects and customer interviewing, but it’s challenging to say the least. This article couldn’t have come at a better time!

    • Hey Erica, best of luck with your class. If it’s at all helpful we just published a free lesson plan for online classes on customer discovery interviews during COVID-19. It includes topics like where to find people to interview now and what questions are best to ask/avoid.

      It’s designed for entrepreneurship classes and the lesson plan is here:

      • Thanks, Justin – will take a look at that. Love your lesson for the 60 Minute MVP – any thoughts on how to adapt that for remote online teaching?? You can reach me at

      • Thanks, Steve, and Hi Justin!

        Quick question for either (or both of you) re: customer discovery during Covid-19.

        What about when the problem you’re trying to solve is so glaringly obvious – like, many sectors of the population simply cannot work right now – is it still important in crisis mode to take the time to go through discovery with the customer to determine the problem(s), or can you shortcut to solution mode, since it seems pretty obvious what the problem is (i.e. loss of income and everything that comes along with that) and customers seem to be in solution mode, before it’s too late?

        Thanks again for all the great learning!

        – Daniel

        • I think it’s advisable, Daniel. It would at least validate assumptions and contribute to relationship building. And if a customer’s world is about to change substantially, it’ll be the first in what could become a series of effective discovery discussions to retool value propositions to meet their changed needs.

        • I’d also love to hear Steve’s perspective.

          Fwiw, my take is that “problem validation” isn’t just about confirming there’s a problem – there are so many more business model assumptions you’ll ideally test during your customer discovery interviews.

          For example:

          – Customers: Who are the subset of your customers that are Early Adopters (i.e. people who are struggling with a problem so much they are seeking a solution to it – and are desperate enough to try a solution as unknown/untested as yours). Without finding people who are actively seeking a solution, you run the risk of making assumptions like “anyone who has lost income due to COVID-19” is your customer when that’s probably not true (e.g. a large number of people are making more money on unemployment than they do normally, some folks are probably too busy homeschooling to even think about replacing their income, etc.). Interviews will help you narrow down the subset of people who are eager for your solution, even if it’s still an MVP.

          – Channels: How/where will you find your Early Adopters? It’s one thing to confirm there’s a problem, it’s another thing to develop a strategy to find enough people who want to solve it in a financially sustainable way. Interviewing Early Adopters will tell you where they are currently looking for solutions, which are great places to start your marketing channel tests.

          – Value Proposition: Once you know your marketing channels, you’ll need to know the most effective message to communicate via those channels (e.g. your marketing copy) that compels potential Early Adopters to investigate your solution. How do you know what copy will be most effective? Your Early Adopters will tell you, during your interviews (i.e. the words. phrases and emotions *they* associate with the problem will likely make for the most compelling copy).

          – Competitive Differentiation: You’ll want to understand what alternative solutions your early adopters are utilizing now so you can contrast your solution. The best way to validate your real competition, is to talk to customers about the things they are trying to solve their problem now that aren’t working.

          I’m a big fan of “problem validation” even if the problem seems clear cut. There’s so much more that can be discovered through these conversations and, compared to the alternatives, interviews are the fastest way we know to start validating these critical business models hypotheses.

          Some more thoughts on early adopters and what we learn from interviewing them are here:

          – Early Adopters Part 1: Who They Are –

          – Early Adopters Part 2: Where to Find Yours –

          • Thanks, Justin. That was really super informative. Thanks for your helpful response. Really getting a lot of value out of your information on Customer Dev Labs. Best kept secret on the web!

      • It seems many pre covid-19 problems (buyers were paying money to solve) in the SMB solutions sectors for example are no longer viable when many lost their entire customer base and source of income.

        So… is it game over for now?
        the only problem one can solve right now is the customer problem… ?

  4. Gracias Steve, tus aporten son muy valiosos en este contexto y nos dan una guía para seguir trabajando en el desarrollo de clientes durante Covid-19 y poniendo el foco en la fase de recuperación. Un abrazo desde Barcelona.

  5. Gracias Steve por tus consejos, son muy valiosos para que podamos seguir trabajando en Customer Discovery durante el Covid-19. Estoy tratando de aportar valor a las personas y los negocios con foco en el periodo post Covid-19.

  6. Hello Mara –

    I hope this finds everyone healthy and safe.

    The recordings for the April 7 episode of the Steve Blank podcast have been uploaded.

    Kindest Regards,


  7. We are entering our final week of NIH I-Corps, and we learned all this the hard way at week 3. This post should be required reading for future cohorts.

    There has been an upside: many people are home, where you can reach them!

  8. Hi Steve,
    What a joy tho be here today.
    I am here via your podcast interview with Nathan Chan of foundr. That was indeed an amazing and inspiring one 💗
    Thanks for sharing yet another timely post for the season.
    A lot of things to pick and follow in this crisis time.
    Thanks for the in-depth piece with a good number of connected links
    I am bookmarking it for my further read.
    Keep sharing.
    Wish you and your team a healthy time ahead.
    Best Regards
    ~ Philip

  9. Climbing out of the pandemic presents an opportunity to think like a start-up, again. Regardless of a business’ maturity (or other type of organization), the mindset and conversations are timely and useful.

  10. Great, actionable advice from Steve and discussion form the community.

    One comment I’d like to share, and perhaps it’s already obvious: It’s important to validate customer needs with as many customers as possible in order to identify a broader trend. Where you don’t want to end up is with the “one hit wonder” that is exactly right for one or two customers but cannot be easily scaled.

    Also, the product or service must be difficult to replicate, otherwise your competition will be at your customer’s door in no time.

  11. If you want to watch a movie about times similar to now, watch “Cinderella Man”.. Look at it from the view of a startup Entrepreneur. He had a couple of good businesses then the market totally disappears… What Now? He still has his “entrepreneur startup consciousness”, & you see his pain of going through the Bootstrap period to keep going. How Key partners play a key role.. how key resources kicks in with the help of “key partner”..
    This is one of the best (unintended) Start up journey movies I ever saw. Be inspired.

  12. hi Steve, do you have a video example of how to run customer discovery interviews? I am able to do get multiple customers interested enough to give me time for an interview but often find myself not clear of what to ask. The best video I have seen so far is this one: But it seems to be incomplete. Is there a video example that demonstrates what is a good customer discovery interview.

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