July 31, 2013 / BE THE DUMB ONE IN THE ROOM
July 31, 2013
Envision a room full of college students at a top university who have won a competition. Add to that image the prize they’ve earned: highly-coveted slots in an experimental immersion course designed to transform their entrepreneurial ideas into enterprises.
Then picture all of their startup businesses—from an energy drink to a new 3D printing technology to a green motorcycle to a fire damage mitigation software system—facing the ultimate challenge as declared by the teaching team: prove that there is a market for your concept within the next 10 weeks.
Steve Blank is the guru behind this methodology and thought leader behind the curriculum these startups used as their instruction manual this summer. According to Steve, uncovering a customer need will not come from within the halls of most MBA programs where spreadsheets, marketing textbooks, theoretical competitive analyses, and traditional customer research rule. Instead, as the principles of the Lean Startup course suggest, the answers can only come from learning to hear what customers really value. Real customers. Live customers. Outside of the classroom. Beyond the four walls of an office. Far from the world of online surveys. Actual, in-the-flesh encounters and cold calls with people who you expect to rally to support your business.
I was lucky enough to witness the gradual evolution of nine student teams from doubters to devotees as they experienced the two Cardinal Rules of entrepreneurial success as part of the eLab at Princeton University this summer. Cardinal Rule #1: Get out of the building. Cardinal Rule #2: Being smart begins with being dumb.
It used to be that we’d guess what our customers would buy using one of three methods:
1. Build it and hope they come (like the Model-T Fords rolling off assembly lines or Steve Jobs bringing us “disruptive technology” that we didn’t crave until it appeared).
2. Forecast what might happen when we go to market. (Like a guess with more numbers attached.)
It actually turns out that a lot of technology and techniques that were supposed to refine our thinking about what customers wanted were simply fancier ways of doing one or all of the above. In the old days, we’d focus a lot on trying to predict our customers’ behavior before we went to market.
But, the real genius in uncovering customer demand comes from approaching the potential customer with a good dose of naïveté combined with expert skills in keeping our preconceptions out of the picture. Being smart comes from being a little dumb. Instead of predicting or praying, we can apply the science of being naïve to listen closely for evidence that customers care about what we have to offer.
Consider the smart approach versus the dumb approach in these customer scenarios that are all designed to uncover customer demand for a new product:
Interviewer (“smart”): Don’t you love the antioxidants in our bottled tea?
Interviewer (“dumb”): Tell me about all of the drinks you’ve had this week.
Interviewer (“smart”): If you could have a motorcycle that had great gas mileage and was better for the environment than traditional motorcycles, how much would you be willing to pay?
Interviewer (“dumb”): Tell me about your commute to and from work and where you drive on the weekends.
Interviewer (“smart”): When you create patterns at your foundry, would you prefer to use the newer technology like 3D printing?
Interviewer (“dumb”): What are some of the things your foundry’s customers care about when you’re bidding a job for them?
There’s a lot we can learn from training ourselves to be dumb (and humble and observant)…
-We can learn that firemen might not be able to pay for fire safety software but that the insurance companies who protect buildings can.
-We can learn that it’s not the 3D printer that customers care about (how the sausage is made) but the speed and accuracy of the parts that come off the assembly line (the sausage) that wows them.
-We can learn that putting an electric motorcycle into the trunk of a Tesla might be a great way to get people to try a new commuting option.
One of the eLab students described his “Eureka!” moment about the value of being dumb: “I thought that having a great answer was the way to solve the entrepreneurial puzzle, but the magic comes from having a great question. And, being very quiet when the customer starts to talk.”
How many times have we stepped on a customer’s punch line just when he’s about to reveal the solution to our entrepreneurial struggle? How many times have we been dumb for the long run by acting smart in the short run? What are our customers dying to tell us? What can we do to find out?