How do you validate your startup idea with customers?

My favorite question to ask is usually the simplest one to verify. Ask a simple pain point question such as, “Do your feet hurt?”

If the customer doesn’t start complaining for the next fifteen minutes, they don’t have a pain point. The length of time a person will complain uninterrupted is a pretty good proxy for the amount of pain they’re feeling.

Aside from that, I don’t think there are any great one size fits all questions, but I would also tend to:

  • Ask how they solve the problem now
  • Ask how much they’d pay you to manually solve the problem (concierge style)
  • Ask if they can recommend someone else who has the problem

If they don’t solve the problem now with some sort of workaround, probably not a big problem. If they wouldn’t pay a thing, probably not a big problem. If they don’t know someone else with that problem…well…you get the idea.

Practice Makes Perfect

Practice. There’s really no other way to improve.

I’ve done two to three hundred customer interviews at this point and I still have a lot to learn. Every time I do an interview, I realize I could have done it better, lead the customer less, and learned more.

Talk Less, Listen More

One easy thing to measure is how many questions you ask vs. statements you make. If you find yourself making statements, you’re probably doing it wrong.

Constant Practice

To improve as much as possible, try to find more opportunities to practice. I unintentionally found a exercise was listening to sales pitches. (Consultants work great, so do lawyers.) There’s no one that will talk uninterrupted at you like a newbie salesman trying to get a new customer.

If you can sit through a pitch for 45 minutes and talk as little as possible, only asking questions when the salesman starts petering out, then you’ve got great skills. I want to start screaming after about 25 minutes.

Being mistaken as an investor also works wonders. Entrepreneurs can talk at you for hours blissfully ignorant that you don’t have a dime to invest in their startup.

Lastly, you can also practice by talking to your significant other about something you’d generally avoid discussing (like curtains and upholstery for me.) Not only will you get good practice listening, but you’re relationship will probably improve.

Work with a Partner

It’s very helpful to do this with someone else. Just like proofreading your own writing, you’re bound to miss things. Having someone else there who is focused on taking notes and monitoring your performance can provide you with the one thing that’s necessary to improve…feedback.

No feedback, no improvement.

Set Goals and Debrief

I suggest setting goals for yourself prior to each interview. What do you hope to learn? What hypotheses are you trying to verify? If you don’t have a goal, you won’t achieve it.

Also take five minutes at the end of each interview, review your notes, and think about what you should have asked. Did you reach your goal? What would have improved the outcome? What lessons learned can you take to your next interview?

Again… No feedback, no improvement.

Separate the Problem from the Solution

I find that if I start talking about the solution then I invariably shift to sales pitch mode. Although I think many people can avoid this, I cannot.

So I don’t like to talk about my potential solution at all during the first interviews when I’m trying to verify the problem. I won’t even bring a napkin sketch if I can avoid it.

That said, if you’ve exhausted all possible pain point questions, then you might as well move on to solution questions.

Get Help

As with working with a partner, if you don’t have a lot of expertise in this area, I’d highly recommend working with a consultant a few times to get some expert performance in this area.

You wouldn’t try out for the major leagues without getting a good coach, so why are you going to invest a year of your life based on customer development without getting some expert mentoring?

I will shamelessly plug Sean Murphy of http://www.skmurphy.com/ for this sort of thing. He has given me some very good advice in this area.

Others I would consider in this area (but have not worked with directly) are Patrick Vlaskovits and Brant Cooper. Cindy Alvarez is aso reputedly good in this area, but I have not worked with her and I don’t know if she is consulting right now.

Any other suggestions of how to improve this answer would be appreciated.

[Originally posted on Quora at How do you validate your startup idea with customers?]

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