Module 7: Get Out of the Office!
🎯 Our goal in this module is to validate your idea with Potential Customers and Industry Insiders.
Okay, now you should be ready to begin finding and interviewing Potential Customers and Industry Insiders (maybe even a couple of Competitors).
The results from your Secondary Research will help you to formulate the initial questions for your Primary Research, so keep these notes nearby as you prepare for the next step—talking with people.
About Primary Research
Interviewing Potential Customers and Industry Insiders is the “Gold Standard” for preparing to launch a successful business for a number of reasons.
One obvious reason, of course, is that these people are dealing firsthand, day in and day out, with all the challenges in your industry—they can provide insight that you won’t find anywhere else.
And, if they are not happy with the product/service/business that they are currently dealing with, they will be able to tell you exactly what their struggles are and help you design a better solution for them.
Too many startups fail because they make products or provide services that not enough people want (or are willing to pay for).
What better way to determine if people will want what you have to offer, than to get feedback directly from your Potential Customers?
And since the quality of the design of your product/service/business model will be key to building a successful business, the best time to get this as right as possible is before you launch and "open your doors".
What about Industry Insiders? Who are they and why talk with them?
These are people who are knowledgeable about the industry in which you will be working. They can be...
- Businesspeople who own or work for companies that operate in your industry in some capacity
- People who work for trade or professional associations that operate in your industry
- Professionals—accountants, lawyers, doctors, engineers, scientists
- University professors or researchers
- Government agency employees who work within your industry—possibly in the area of regulations
- Business or technical consultants
Industry Insiders are people who can provide industry perspective from their experience and involvement in your industry, which can augment what you learn from your potential customers. They can usually offer a somewhat broader viewpoint and understanding of the industry.
Okay, but what about talking with Competitors?
Well, if interviewing Potential Customers and Industry Insiders is the Gold Standard of Primary Research, then adding Potential Competitors to the list would be the Double Gold Standard.
Talking to Competitors can be tricky. There are friendly competitors and unfriendly competitors out there (maybe even some “hostile” ones), so you’ll have to be selective.
But Competitors can tell you stuff about operating in your industry that you will not discover anywhere else. And, from my experience, there are plenty of friendly competitors out there who would be glad to help you.
You may even find yourself partnering with a competitor at some point in the future—it happens.
That being said, we will approach competitors a little differently, probably share and reveal fewer details to them, and ask them some different questions. Don’t worry, I’ll help you sort this out before you talk with your first Competitor.
Reality Check & The Elephant in the Room At this point, chances are that you might be thinking “Geez, this looks like a whole lot of work,” and “Really, do you expect me to go out there and talk with strangers about my business idea???” Answer: Business really is a whole lot of work, every day—it’s a career choice. And doing things that others don’t or won’t do (like “talking with strangers”) separates those who succeed in business from those who just struggle until they become a statistic. 🪦
Note of Encouragement: I use this process myself, and I have many years of experience with my clients and MBA Capstone students going through this exact same process of Primary Research—finding and interviewing Potential Customers and Industry Insiders (and even Competitors).
The first couple of calls and conversations can be a little awkward and may be a little stressful, but it quickly becomes easier, more comfortable, enjoyable, and very productive.
It is not unusual to develop excellent, long term professional relationships with some of the people that you talk with during your Primary Research.
Most people actually enjoy helping others. Think about asking for directions. Stop anybody on the street and ask them to help you find your way. It’s an uplifting experience. They will go out of their way to help you find yours.
For the most part, you will find that people are even more responsive and helpful when you ask for advice rather than for directions.
If you sincerely ask Potential Customers and Industry Insiders (and even Competitors) for their help or advice, you will be pleased, if not overwhelmed, by the quantity and quality of incredibly valuable information and insight that they will share with you.
Okay, so the point is that if you make the effort to find and interview Potential Customers and Industry Insiders, and even a Competitor or two, you will most likely learn more than you could imagine about all kinds of stuff that will help you to refine your Value Proposition and to build a successful business.
This really is a gold mine of information.
So, I strongly encourage you to do this Primary Research, and I will guide you through the process.
Where do you find Potential Customers and Industry Insiders?
Potential Customers—you already have a pretty good idea of where they are from the initial Secondary Research that you have done.
Industry Insiders—there are many places to look. Here are several to start out with:
- Directories of Business & Trade Associations
- Directories of Government Regulations Agencies for Business
- U.S. Small Business Development Centers (SBDC)
- Directories of Consultants, Accountants, Attorneys, Engineers
- Universities (and alumni databases)
- Chambers of Commerce
Question: What are the venue options for these interviews? Answer: Face-to-face, in person, is best, but may not always be practical. Zoom, Skype, Google Hangout, or any other communication service through which you can see each other while having a conversation is the next best choice.
Phone conversations are also quite good, although you will miss out on the visual nuances.
Live, interactive conversations will allow you to probe and ask follow-on questions for more detail, and you can add questions that may come to mind in the moment that maybe were not part of your preparation.
Other Options: Sometimes written chats (online messaging or email) can work pretty well. Surveys are yet another option—they are especially productive if you can follow-up with a percentage of respondents and have interactive dialog with follow-on questions.
When you initially contact your Potential Customers and Industry Insiders to request an interview, you can offer them multiple options from all those above (and any others that you prefer).
[name of potential customer/industry insider]
I have been researching
[a particular problem] in the
[name of industry] and I am developing an initial prototype of
[your product/service] that I believe can significantly improve
I would like to ask you a few questions about your experience and to get your thoughts about the challenges related to
[the problem]. I would also like to hear your ideas regarding the solution that I am working on.
If you have any availability for a brief interview to discuss industry problems and potential solutions, I would really appreciate the opportunity to talk with you.
If it is convenient, I can set up a Zoom meeting or a phone call on a day when you would have a few minutes. Or, we could communicate through email. Just let me know what would work best for you.
Thank you very much for your consideration,
Question: What kinds of questions should you ask in your interviews with Potential Customers and Industry Insiders? Answer: In your first round of interviews, you can ask any questions that you may need to clarify what you have learned in your Secondary Research, and then focus on the “problem(s)” that you believe exists and that your product/service/business will solve.
Try to get as much detail about the problem and associated frustrations as you can, and then introduce your solution—your business idea and your Value Proposition.
For example, you might open a conversation with something like this:
[name of the person you are interviewing]. This is
I’m following up on our earlier communication to ask you a few questions about
[the problem you are addressing in your industry].”
Pause and confirm: “Is now still a good time for you to talk with me for a few minutes?”
Wait for response, and then continue:
“Here’s the problem as I understand it...
[describe your idea of the problem]. Do you feel that this is an accurate assessment?”
Pause for response after each question:
“Do you agree that this is a problem?”
“Have you (or has your company) been struggling with this problem?”
“What are you doing right now to solve this problem?”
“Here’s the solution that I have been working on...
[describe your proposed product/service/business idea].”
“I want to make sure that the product/service/business that I am developing will be the best solution for the problem.”
You can adapt this approach to an individual customer or a business/company customer. And, of course, you will need to modify some of your questions when talking with Industry Insiders.
For example, instead of asking, “Have you (or has your company) been struggling with this problem?” you might ask something like, “From your perspective, do you agree that customers (or companies) are struggling with this problem?”
Basically, you want to confirm what you think that you already know (from your Secondary Research so far) and to learn much more.
Review your notes from your initial Secondary Research and write a few sentences describing what you think you know about the problem that your potential customers want/need to solve.
And then, describe your proposed solution—your idea for a product/service/business—in a few sentences.
Writing these out before the interview will help you communicate more clearly and concisely during the interview and will reduce the chances that you accidentally leave out an important point.
Practical Suggestions for Interviews
Create a set of questions for your interviews. Here are some examples:
About the Problem
After describing the problem as you see it, ask your Core Question... “Have you experienced, or are you currently experiencing the problem that I have described?”
If the answer to your Core Question is Yes, then ask: “Can you tell me more about the problem?”
If the answer to your Core Question is No, then ask: “Can you describe the problem(s) that you have experienced or are currently experiencing?”
Regardless of whether the answer to your Core Question is Yes or No, proceed with the following questions: “How important is this problem to you on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being Very Important?” “What are you currently doing to solve this problem?” “Are there multiple steps involved?” “How “painful” (or frustrating) is this on a scale of 1-10 (with 10 being Very Painful)?” “Can you tell me more?”
About Your Solution
After describing your idea for a product/service/business and your Value Proposition according to your current thinking, then ask another Core Question... “Do you believe that my product/service/business would solve or help solve the problem that you are experiencing?”
If the answer is No or Not sure, then you can ask: “Can you tell me what it is about my proposed solution that doesn’t seem to work well enough?”
Keep probing to get as much detail as possible. Try to get an understanding of their specific frustrations and struggles that your solution does not currently address—what parts of the problem are not being solved by your product/service/business.
If the answer to your Core Question is Yes, then ask: “What specifically do you like about my proposed product/service/business?” “Do you have recommendations on what might improve my proposed solution?” “Are you experiencing any additional struggles or frustrations that I have overlooked?” “Does it contain features that you don’t need?” “Are there additional features that you feel would be important to add?” “Can you tell me more?”
Note: For all your interviews, be ready to ask follow-on questions throughout your conversation, such as Why, Why not, or Can you tell me more?
Your original list of questions will be good to get you started and provide you with a reference, but you need to listen carefully, stay fully engaged throughout these conversations, and encourage and allow the customer/insider/competitor to talk as much as they would like about their struggles and frustrations related to the problem.
The more specific details you can get from these discussions, the better able you will be to design your product/service/business to be an excellent solution that is well-attuned to the problem.
Important: This is not a chess match or debate.
Your purpose here is to learn as much as possible. Don’t try to impress the people that you interview with how much you already know about the problem. Just let them know that you have been studying the problem and describe briefly how it appears to you.
Don’t try to “sell” your idea/solution here—just present your Value Proposition as clearly and concisely as you can. Then ask questions, listen carefully, ask more questions, and take lots of notes.
The primary purpose of these interviews is to get as much direct, candid, useful information/thoughts/opinions as possible from the people who you are interviewing.
Important: At the end of each interview, if it was a positive experience, then ask if it will be okay if you contact them again to discuss additional questions that may arise.
And, ask if they know of anyone else who might be interested/willing to talk with you.
Alright, take a deep breath and let’s get started with your Primary Research.
⚡Action Step 1
Conduct first batch of interviews.
Question: How many interviews should you conduct? Answer: Let’s start with one Potential Customer and one Industry Insider.
This will allow you to get some practice, make some mistakes, and develop your technique. You will get some useful feedback from this first round of interviews, but equally important is that you will learn how to do much better with the next batch.
After these first two interviews, you will be scheduling more.
The goal is to eventually speak to a total of 20-30 people: 10-13 Potential Customers, 10-13 Industry Insiders, and 2-4 Competitors.
Even if you are not an outgoing person, odds are that you will enjoy these interviews and probably won’t want to stop at 30. But 20-30 interviews should be plenty (to get started).
This is where many of us begin to get hooked on entrepreneurship.
Having serious discussions with potential customers and industry insiders in the marketplace about your product/service/business (what’s great about it, what might make it better, etc.) can be extremely rewarding, especially when they get excited about what you’re proposing to create.
Talking with people is the easy part. Scheduling appointments is the real challenge.
So, it’s a good idea to just keep emailing requests for interviews and scheduling appointments until you fill your calendar with all 20-30 slots.
Follow These General Steps:
(Click each triangle toggle to view step)
⚡Action Step 2
Analyze feedback from first batch of interviews.
Congratulations on successfully conducting your first two interviews with a Potential Customer and an Industry Insider!
So, what should you do with all the new information that you have collected?
First, let’s organize it, and then we’ll think about what to do with the feedback that you have just received.
Again, if you have your own system or if you find a better system, then use what works best for you.
The important thing is to organize well enough so that you can find and use your notes to analyze, evaluate, and decide on important or critical matters as you go through the startup process.
Here’s My Recommendation: Create a new Folder on your computer called Primary Research Results.
Inside, save your notes from each individual interview with the name and contact information for that person (and company) at the top of the page—these could be text documents in Microsoft Word, Google Docs, etc. or they could be pictures of your handwritten notes taken with a smartphone.
Identify each interviewee as either Potential Customer or Industry Insider.
Add the date of the interview. You could even create three additional folders inside your Primary Research Results folder to organize your notes by type of interviewee (see below).
Next, let’s analyze the feedback that you have received.
Warning: It’s easy to find yourself doing more agonizing than analyzing here.
My Recommendation: If you have a co-founder or a friend who can help you through the analysis stage, that will help a lot.
Just being able to bounce your thoughts off someone will help you to clarify your thinking and will lead to better analysis and decision-making.
The process of reviewing your interview notes and trying to figure out what to do with this information—what decisions to make—is basically the same as what you do in your everyday life when making many decisions.
You do some research, talk with people, compare the feedback from all your research and conversations, and then you decide how to move forward. Same here.
Step 1: Dust off the sketch you created earlier of your business idea including your Value Proposition and have it available for reference.
Step 2: Put your Potential Customer and Industry Insider notes side by side and go through them question by question.
You are looking for points where they agree and points where they differ.
Points of agreement are pretty easy to work with. Compare the feedback for these questions to your Value Proposition.
If the points of agreement appear to confirm some elements of your Value Proposition, then leave those parts intact, as they are.
If the points of agreement appear to challenge or refute any part of your Value Proposition, you need to look closely at this feedback and consider making changes that will address these concerns.
Points where your Potential Customers and Industry Insiders differ are a little more challenging.
The hardest part will be for you to try and detach yourself emotionally from any negative feedback, so that you can better evaluate the positions of each side.
Consider what changes you need to make to your Value Proposition based on this feedback. Ultimately, it will be a judgement call on your part.
Note: It’s common to discover things during these interviews that will need more Secondary Research on your part. Could be something about the industry—maybe regulations that you were unaware of.
You may discover a new competitor with a product/service that you had not yet heard of. Or maybe you get referred to someone who specializes in developing prototypes for products like yours in the industry.
Be sure to take the time to check these things out as you move through the process.
Step 3: Summarize in a couple sentences your takeaways from the Potential Customer and Industry Insider feedback that you have analyzed.
Based on your evaluation, decide what to change (if anything) regarding your Value Proposition.
Make any changes to your Value Proposition that you believe are justified and create a new sketch of your idea that incorporates all of your modifications.
Make sure to label your newly revised sketch as Value Proposition Revision 1 (or something that differentiates it from your original version).
Now is a good time to create another Folder entitled
Save your original sketch with your Value Proposition plus all revised versions in this folder as you move forward (if you created your sketches by hand, you can use pictures taken with your smartphone).
You may want to refer back to these from time to time.
Since you have already created several new folders, you might as well create one more entitled Marketing.
You may not have much to put in this folder yet, but soon you will be adding questions to your interviews and gathering notes about where you will find Potential Customers, how you will introduce your product/service to them, how they will take delivery of your product/service, how much you think you will charge for your product/service—all things related to sales and marketing.
⚡Action Step 3
Conduct remaining batches of interviews.
Let’s recap where you are in the process.
- So far, you have interviewed one Potential Customer and one Industry Insider.
- You have analyzed feedback from these two interviews and modified your business idea sketch—tweaking your Value Proposition as needed, based on your analysis.
- You have a basic understanding of the industry/marketplace where you will be operating, and you have an idea of who your competitors will likely be.
- You have added to your understanding of the problem that your product/service/business will be solving.
- You have learned more about you target customers and the kinds of struggles and frustrations they are experiencing (as a result of the problem).
- You have created the following Folders on your computer where you are keeping your notes:
You're on a roll! OK, time to get ready for more interviews.
As you may recall, our goal with Primary Research is to talk with 20-30 people, but we recommend conducting these interviews and analyzing the feedback you receive in small “batches” for a several reasons:
(Click each triangle toggle to view more)
So you might thinking, “OMG, this will take forever!” Actually, this whole process could be done in a week—if you can schedule the appointments.
Each interview should take no more than 30 minutes. If you are doing 7 interviews per batch, that’s 210 minutes or 3.5 hours—less than half of an easy workday.
If you devote the other half of your workday to analyzing the feedback and making any modifications to your idea and Value Proposition, you could be ready for another batch of interviews the very next day.
The determining factor is scheduling appointments for interviews.
Realistically, it can take a few weeks to complete this step because of scheduling challenges with the people that you want to interview.
But however long it takes, the time investment will be insignificant when compared to the immeasurable benefits gained from doing this work.
Keep in mind that you are trying to “fit” your Value Proposition to your Customer Segment(s).
You are matching what you have to offer with people who want what you have to offer and are willing and motivated to pay you for it. If you can do this successfully, then you will have a high potential opportunity worth pursuing.
So, as you move forward with your Primary Research, you will continue to ask questions about the Problem, and about your Value Proposition.
And you should begin adding questions that will help you to create a business model and plan for launching and growing your business.
Here are some additional questions that you should be finding answers to in your remaining batches of interviews (click each triangle toggle to view more):
Ideally, you will want to include 3 new Potential Customers and 3 new Industry Insiders in each batch of interviews, so that you can get more perspectives to compare and evaluate.
⚡Action Step 4
Analyze feedback from remaining batches of interviews.
When analyzing the feedback from your remaining interviews, you can follow the same process that you used with your first two interviews.
Ideally, you will want to compare responses from your Potential Customers to one another—find points of agreement and points where they differ. And then compare responses from your Industry Insiders in the same way.
Potential Customers will usually provide more reliable feedback for questions about their individual experiences and opinions.
Industry Insiders, on the other hand, will generally see the larger picture of the industry better.
Take this into consideration when evaluating responses.
Anything that both Potential Customers and Industry Insiders agree on should be pretty reliable feedback.
However, if they have opposing positions on any question, be sure to consider the viewpoint of the respondents when you are evaluating the feedback.
Again, you will be making judgement calls on any points of difference, but that’s what you will be doing throughout your career as an entrepreneur and business owner—making judgement calls—so this will be excellent training for you.
Take refuge in the fact that this is not an exact science. Just stay focused and engaged, follow this process, and make the tough decisions when needed.
⚡Action Step 5
Now go talk to 2-4 of your main Competitors.
Use the feedback you are getting from your interviews with Potential Customers and Industry Insiders to develop a list of questions for Competitors.
But when you talk with Competitors, try to make this a conversation, rather than an interview.
Be upfront. Let them know that you have been working on developing a product/service/business that could be used in their industry and you are trying to learn more about the industry before going any further.
You just want to get some candid insights and advice from people who are actually working in your industry.
Warning: Be cautious about how much detail you share with Competitors—not recommended to show them your prototype/sketch.
These interviews should be centered around them and should lead to a candid conversation about what it’s really like “out there” doing business in this industry.
You are trying to get them to tell you their stories.
What you learn from conversations with Competitors may help you with your Value Proposition, but your notes from these interviews will be most useful for planning, operating, and managing your business after you launch.
Note on Competitor Interviews: Competitors can give you insights into the industry that you will be working in that you will not find anywhere else.
- They can be goldmines of very important “trade secrets” that can help you to understand more than just the rules of the game—they can share with you how the game is actually played to win.
- Almost always there is “the story” of how things are, which you can read about in industry reports and on competitor websites.
- And then there’s “the rest of the story”, which people who are actually working in the marketplace can tell you about.
When interviewing potential Competitors, first do some research to learn as much as you can about their business, and if possible, about the person that you will be talking with—usually you can find what you need on their website, and maybe a little more on LinkedIn.
- If it’s a relatively small business, you might be able to talk with the owner or manager.
- For medium or larger sized businesses, you might find a department manager to speak with: technical, production, sales, marketing, distribution, acquisition, and so on.
- Just about anyone in a management position will know enough about the overall operations of the company to be able to help you.
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