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Customer Discovery - Lessons Learned

If you have worked in the entrepreneurial world for any length of time, you have undoubtedly heard of the term “Customer Discovery”. Customer Discovery is a methodical approach that uses conversations with potential customers to validate or refute every aspect of your proposed business model. Done well, you can “discover” your product-market fit, value proposition, target market etc. It can also go a long way in helping you to raise funding, whether from government grants or VC’s. Done poorly, you will not only waste a lot of time and effort, but your start-up will be much less likely to be successful.

I have performed Customer Discovery for companies I was helping to launch as well as for mentored companies participating in the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps and similar programs. Often companies fail to do customer discovery well. The most common error I’ve seen made, and that I have made, is not truly discovering a pain point that can be addressed. Sometimes new solutions are adopted because of some gain they deliver. Typically, though, people adopt a new solution because it addresses one of their significant pain points.

I worked with a company that was developing an educational APP to help non-native speakers learn proper English grammar. Customer Discovery interviews with instructors and program administrators pointed to this being a need. We built a prototype and tested it in classrooms. The instructors were happy. The APP improved student outcomes. The students were engaged and loved using the APP…. Everything seemed great, but we struggled to achieve broad adoption. What did we miss?

We loved our technology and had heard what we wanted to hear – the proposed APP solved a problem that we knew existed. We failed, however, to really explore how important it was to potential customers to solve the problem. It turned out that improving the teaching of grammar was just one of many issues faced by these instructors. And, it was not their most pressing concern, or even a close second. Given that adopting the APP required that instructors to change how they were teaching, the benefits produced by improving what we eventually learned was only a secondary issue for them, teaching grammar, was not enough to secure broad adoption.

We had discovered an issue, not a true pain point. We had let our confirmation bias lead us astray.

That experience taught me to always ask potential customers “what keeps you up at night” or some equivalent. If the contemplated solution doesn’t address one of the potential customer’s top two issues, we are not addressing a true a pain point. In future posts I’ll talk about other mistakes I’ve encountered while working with customers doing Customer Discovery.

Rob Meissner, Co-Founder

TCV Partners


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