Being Helpful – Interview with Kevin Dewalt

Kevin Dewalt (Founder of SoHelpful) is constantly helping startups 1-to-1. When he’s not angel investing, playing golf or (allegedly) mangling the Chinese language in Beijing, he’s always available to help out someone just getting started with lean startup. So I reached out to him to chat about his approach to early stage customer discovery…being helpful. You can find him on Twitter, LinkedIn, or his blog)

minimum products are different from minimum viable products - be helpful

Q:  Your SoHelpful approach to early stage startup marketing is essentially, “stop marketing and start helping people 1-on-1.” What makes you favor this route when every budding entrepreneur wants to put together a DropBox type demo video, post to HackerNews, and watch the signups?

These approaches are not working for the entrepreneurs I help, mentor, and invest in.

What I teach is based on what I do and what I see working for other startups. I wasn’t working with Drew when he did the DropBox “viral video MVP”, so I don’t actually know what is myth vs. truth. Drew himself probably doesn’t remember.

I do know that there are now (at least) 1,000x more products being launched worldwide than in 2007 when Drew started – all screaming for attention.  If you don’t believe me, check out Product Hunt.  Or your email inbox.

Unfortunately the “viral video MVP” is still held up as a means of validating an opportunity. So an entrepreneur creates a video and nobody watches it. She then works like crazy getting people to watch it – and doesn’t learn anything because the feedback is so shallow.

Turns out she *doesn’t* need thousands of people to watch the video and for it to “go viral”.  She needs 10 people – potential customers – to watch it and give her in-depth feedback over hours of conversations.  But how do you find those 10 people? Earn their trust? Get them to give up their time and attention to helping you?

The answer is pretty obvious – first prove you’re worth their time by helping them.

Q: You mention on your blog that being helpful is a good starting point for entrepreneurs who can’t find their customers. Does that beg the question, “How do I find customers to be helpful to?”

Ah. Well this question begs a snide retort: “If you can’t find them to help them, how are you going to find them to sell to them?”  But since this also isn’t helpful, here’s what we teach.

The overwhelming majority of entrepreneurs are starting with “customers” that are waaay too broad. “Small businesses” isn’t a customer.” You can’t find places where “small businesses” organize. “Flower shop owners in San Francisco” are customers.

(Startup mentors’ note: all entrepreneurs resist focus because it feels like they’re giving up something. Remind them this is just about getting started the fastest, they can expand to other segments later)

So it starts with a more specific definition of the customer. We teach entrepreneurs to start by creating a persona – we call it a Target Persona to make it clear that these are the people we’re trying to target by being helpful. It contains the usual information you see in personas, like name, problems, etc. Continuing our example, let’s call her “Sally, the flower shop owner in San Francisco”.

Once we have a more specific definition it’s time to go and look for them.  Where does Sally hang out?  What questions does she read on Quora? What Facebook groups does she belong to? Does she go to a meetup? The annual flower shop owners convention?

It takes trial and error. We teach people to just start with 2-3 places, test them, and move on if they don’t work.

Q: That sounds very similar to Empathy maps or UX personas (e.g. Luxr or Cooper). Do you have a preferred format?

Same idea. For the purposes of this strategy, any of them work fine.

Q: I’m glad you said that, I can’t stand the dogma battles. Do you ever have issues where a startup believes that using a particular canvas makes them immediately lean?

Usually they ask, “which one is *best*”.  So I tell them a story…

When Steve Blank came to Beijing last year to promote his book someone asked him if Lean Canvas or Business model canvas is better. His response was classic:

Don’t fall in love with my approach or any tool. Fall in love with the idea.

I think this is good advice generally.  The most critical part of getting Lean Startup “right”, is an entrepreneur’s attitude: If she’s just looking for confirmation that her idea is right she’ll always find it. If she’s trying to test assumptions and get to the truth it doesn’t matter what tool she uses – she’ll get to the truth.

Q: A lot of what you’re saying is familiar but the frame is very different. Is it fair to say that one of the big challenges you seem to be addressing is how to get the entrepreneur in the right mindset? Do you find that framing the challenge as “go help your customers” instead of “go find a marketing channel” help get entrepreneurs focused on learning and generating feedback?

Mindset is right. The challenge we’re seeing is that entrepreneurs are getting great advice, but not the advice they need now. Most “marketing channel” strategies are about getting OTHERS to pay attention to US – direct email, PR, direct sales, content marketing, etc. All of these strategies work, but when we’re just starting out …

  • Our ideas are at best 50% correct.
  • Our “products” are not very good at solving the real problems.
  • We haven’t figured out the right customers.
  • Our messaging is a mess.

Until we know who our customers are and have a validated solution, trying to get others to pay attention to us just doesn’t work very well. But what does work is making an investment in relationships, helping others.

The response to our course is similar to what I saw in the early days of Lean Startup 5 years ago – the experienced entrepreneurs “get it” because they’ve had to figure this out themselves the hard way.

Q: Everyone is uncomfortable when they first get out of the building, but do you have any advice for entrepreneurs that are genuinely uncomfortable or just outright dislike talking to their customers?

Yes. I tell them to do something else. If you can’t really empathize with the people you’re serving you’re going to be miserable and quit – I’ve tried it myself. When you’re serving people you care about, the 2am support calls are a chance to help out a friend in need – not a life disruption.

I actually think the best way to start a company today is….

  1. First pick the market – the people you want to serve for the next 10+ years.
  2. Begin helping them through the approaches we teach.
  3. Look for problems they have and solutions to solve them.

Why? Because the hardest part of getting started is RELATIONSHIPS.  You can pivot ideas instantly.  Pivoting markets takes months or longer.

We’re now getting the data to backup this strategy.  After taking 200+ entrepreneurs through our course we’re seeing that entrepreneurs who can create opportunities to help customers 1-on-1 are able to sell.  It is a great early-success signal and one that I’ll be using to vet Angel investment opportunities.

If you’re interested in learning how to get early customers using Kevin’s approach you can sign up for his (currently free) course Get your first 100 customers by being helpful.

Discussion (4 comments)

  1. Chiara says:
    03.09.2014.

    Hey Tristan, great interview. Good questions.

    Re: discomfort getting out of the building: I’ve had a few entrepreneurs describe the “being helpful” approach as “talking to people on the phone without fear”

    Makes sense because instead of thinking of sales or interview questions, you’re focusing on just listening and helping the customer solve problems.

    Much enjoyable and productive in my experience 😀

    1. Tristan says:
      04.09.2014.

      Couldn’t agree more!

      Not selling something means no fear of rejection.

  2. greg kramer says:
    15.09.2014.

    I’m sure that Kevin\Chiara have thought about this but one of interesting benefits of this approach, it seems to me, is the psychic benefit one gets from truly helping someone out vs. doing something that is expected/required to avoid being fired.

    1. Tristan says:
      15.09.2014.

      I’d agree with that as well. The hardest part of doing lean startup is the psychology of it.

      So many people screw up customer interviews by jumping into selling. It comes off like an awkward used car salesman with a lemon.

      By trying to help people…we actually help people!

  3. Pingback: The Pitfalls Of Being Helpful | Over Shyness

Got something to say?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.