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
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".
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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,
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
[your name]. I’m following up on our earlier communication to ask you a few questions about
[the problem you are addressing in your industry].”
[describe your idea of the problem]. Do you feel that this is an accurate assessment?”
[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?”
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
About Your Solution
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
You may have to send out 10 or more emails to get one interview scheduled. You can use my example above as a guide or create your own from scratch.
Just remember to keep it short and to the point, ask for availability, and be respectful of their time.
Clearly state in the opening of your email what your request is. You can refer to your request in the Subject Line as well.
You want to be prepared, but also remain flexible and able to adjust to however the conversation flows.
You probably won’t ask all of the questions that you have listed—at least not in the order that you have them listed.
You may add new, relevant questions that you think of during the interview.
Include the selected venue or communication service (Zoom, Skype, Google Hangouts, etc.)
For example, if an interview will take place through a Zoom call, when you confirm the appointment, make sure to remind your interviewee that you will set up the Zoom call and invite them to join on Wednesday, May 18th at 2:00 pm (give the specific day, date, and time).
Note: If you have a co-founder or partner, you should be together on the calls, if possible.
Also, recording your interviews (using a voice recording mobile app or your communication service’s built-in recording feature)—as long as you have the permission of the person that you are interviewing—is a great idea and will allow you to focus more on the conversation that you are having, rather than on trying to take copious notes.
Thank the person that you are interviewing and confirm that now is still a good time to talk.
If you have the ability to record the interview, you should ask permission to do so before starting the interview.
Remember to take notes with pen and paper or inside a text document.
If you are unclear on any answer, then politely ask for clarification or re-phrase the answer in your own words and ask if that is what was meant.
Ask follow-on questions to get even more clarity and understanding using “What, where, when, why, who, which, and how” questions.
For example, you might ask, “Why do you think that is,” or “Can you tell me more about how that would work.”
Thank them again for their time and help.
If it was a positive experience, then ask if it will be OK if you contact them again to discuss additional questions that may arise.
And ask if they know of anyone else who might be interested or willing to talk with you.
⚡Action Step 2
Analyze feedback from first batch of interviews.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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)
Unless you’re an outgoing person without fear of rejection, it can be pretty intimidating just thinking about trying to get 30 people that you don’t know to give you 15-30 minutes of their time to help you out.
But almost anybody can muster up the courage and confidence to go out and find a few people to talk with.
Unless you’re trained and experienced in quantitative and qualitative analysis methods, it can be a bit overwhelming to try to analyze 30 sets of interview results in one sitting.
However, as you have just experienced, it’s pretty easy to do this with just a couple sets of interview results.
Using multiple small batches of interviews will enable you to make changes to your idea and your Value Proposition between interviews and then test these revisions with more Potential Customers and Industry Insiders.
There is a learning curve for this process, and you will get better with each batch of interviews.
You will become more comfortable and efficient at interviewing. Your sense of how to use follow-on questions to get more detailed and useful information from each interviewee will significantly improve.
You will become better at analyzing feedback and more adept at identifying opportunities to re-design or tweak your Value Proposition.
By the time you reach your last batch of interviews, you will be doing your best work (when it counts the most).
You will be adding a few questions with each subsequent batch, on topics that will help you with your business model.
You will be able to handle these additional questions more easily, as you acquire experience, skill, and confidence with each round.
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.
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):
If they normally do online research, then what kinds of key words and questions do they use?
Do they use email marketing, social media ads, personal contact?
Is there a better way that should be considered?
Are they happy with the level of service currently being provided?
Do they prefer to order online from the company website, or to interact with a representative?
What are expectations for length of time from ordering to delivery?
How and when do they pay for products and services like yours?
Are there any barriers or costs related to switching from their current solution to yours?
What is the most important consideration when purchasing a product or service like yours (or for choosing a business like yours over another option)?
Who will be the final decision-maker?
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.
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.
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.
- 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.