Adventures in Customer Development


I like lunch.  About once each week a startup founder, aspiring entrepreneur, product manager, or other software professional asks me to lunch to share my advice about how to test whether an idea will become a successful product.

For the last 10 years, I have been a practitioner, advocate, and coach for using a structured process to discover great new software products that customers will actually buy. The process takes the best of customer development, lean startup, business model canvas, market validation, and other methods to discover that elusive product/market fit.

Conceptually the process is easy to grasp, but is one that many startups and product teams don’t do well. It’s based on the premise that most of what you have in your head or business plan is an assumption. That assumption may (or in most cases may not) survive once it has its first interaction with a real customer.

But there is a way to validate your product hypothesis scientifically to determine a business model and product that gets it right the first time. Through the process you can discover products that solve real problems. I’m fanatical about the process and honestly will talk about it with anyone who will listen, especially if there’s food involved.

The reason I’m such a rabid fan is that I have seen the dark side. The side of “build it and they will come.” Early in my career I worked for Expertcity, a dot-com era company with a fantastic team but a failed business model. Millions were spent building and promoting the product. But the customers never came.

It was there I learned the skills to validate the product and business model before building the product. And I was lucky to learn from people far smarter than me. From the ashes of that failure I validated and helped launch several successful products now generating several hundred million dollars in revenue, including GoToMyPC and GoToMeeting.

Since that time I have used the process in subsequent ventures and with clients’ ventures with great success. By my rough estimate, I have cold-called and cold-emailed thousands of prospects, and conducted well over 1,000 in-depth interviews with businesses for B2B products that did not yet exist.

Although I validated and defined products that entered the market with great success, some product concepts never saw the light of day, having been shelved after the first dozen validation interviews. I consider those early “failures” to be successes, having saved investors and founders millions.

Through the pain of shredded business model sketches, cold calling, uncomfortable interviews, lengthy MVP meetings, hasty AdWords campaigns, untold pivots, drop-in prospect visits, and dozens of dreary conferences, I have learned several key lessons about how to do it right.

I’ve also continued to learn lessons from mentors, projects with clients, and my own entrepreneurial adventures, and other practitioners of customer development. This blog is to share those lessons.

Jim