Can You Handle the Truth About Your New Product?

Optimism always runs high in startups and in product development teams. The entrepreneurial spirit keeps everyone focused and working hard to get to product launch. No one has time to consider failure.

Yet despite the stakes, I regularly talk with entrepreneurs who are developing (or have already launched!) a product without first talking to potential customers.

Last month I talked with someone who had launched a mobile app and wasn’t getting any downloads. He didn’t know why his product was failing. Yet he hadn’t talked with a single person who would be a potential user of his product. Not one.

Why is this?

I believe entrepreneurs have a dogged determination to win despite all odds. This is a great quality, but it can blind us and get in the way of knowing the truth. Perhaps it’s possible that some avoid interviews for fear of discovering that their idea, the darling they have been nurturing for months, wasn’t such a good idea to begin with.

The most successful founders and product leaders discover the truth early by getting out of the building to talk with customers. They know they need to validate their assumptions first. If they fail, they choose to fail fast and early.

Here are a few concepts I’ve learned that will make it easier to start talking with future customers today.

People love to help and they want you to succeed. This is my overarching belief, and one that holds true 98 percent of the time. I’m not an extrovert by nature nor do I have the boldness of a salesperson, so this philosophy makes it possible for me to pick up the phone, send that cold email, or talk with a complete stranger about products that don’t yet exist.

Keep in mind that this is a double-edge sword. Because people want to help, they may give you a false sense of the viability of your idea. In a future post I’ll outline a few techniques that can help you uncover what people really think about your concept.

As soon as you have something to test, get it in front of a potential customer. And by something, I mean anything. Whether you have a prototype or simply a bulleted list of questions in a presentation, show it. Don’t wait – it doesn’t need to be pretty. You don’t need to know all the answers. If you don’t have your act together, or your prototype looks like crap, that’s OK. You will learn something new with every interaction.

Think of it as a conversation. An “interview” brings to mind an uncomfortable, tense interaction. Meet for coffee or at some casual location. In advance of your conversation, learn a little bit about the customer (and their business if you are validating a B2B product) and ask them a few light questions. In fact, the first few minutes of your conversation should have nothing to do with your product-related questions. You want to learn about their life and business, and ask open-ended questions to uncover potential problems.

Start with friendlies. Your first discussions can be nerve-wracking, especially if you are not an extrovert. Get your feet wet by talking with a few people you know or who are second-degree contacts.

Ask your friends and LinkedIn connections if they know anyone that fits the description of your proposed customer. A warm introduction is also ideal for getting a call scheduled. If you are validating a B2B product for a niche market, this may be tougher, but you will be surprised at how large your network is.

Expect your first interviews to be tough. You will likely fumble through your questions. If you are validating a B2B product you may not speak the industry-lingo. Or your product pitch might be a mess. Don’t worry – people are forgiving. If you are an introvert, get a partner or advisor to tag along with you. They can help bridge awkward gaps and make the whole process more fun.

Trust me, after you’ve talked with 10 people about your concept it gets easier. And your learning will be exponential. You will hear the truth early, get the right product developed faster, and possibly find your first real customers.