So, you want to start a company?

I know, I know. Your idea is innovative, unique and must exist in the world. Your target market is huge, your customers are ready and your growth projections, well they are conservative.

Maybe you have even talked to potential customers, asking “if you had it, would you buy it” and pitched your idea over and over again with a “very positive response”.

A lot of entrepreneurs have done the same. Unfortunately, a large majority of startups fail, some before they really even get started.

The word “customer discovery” gets thrown around a lot in the startup community. You know this is something you are supposed to do, but have you done it to effectively validate your assumptions? Through these discussions, have you developed an intimate understanding of your customer’s pain, how that pain is experienced and how they are addressing this pain?

There are a lot of methods for customer discovery. Often, an aspiring company may send a survey out to the world, collect responses and analyze results. Though surveys can provide some insight into specific elements of market behavior, they often fail to reveal the core emotions experienced by the consumer.

At NC IDEA LABS, we focus on eliciting these insights as a means to inform what product you should build, or if it should be built in the first place. Though the entrepreneur’s journey can be long and tough, no engineering skills are needed to conduct effective customer interviews and validate assumptions.

How to crush your customer interviews:

Let’s set some ground rules.

  • NO PITCHING. As soon as you tell your potential customer your idea, you have tainted the entire conversation. So once again, no pitching.
  • Do your absolute best to conduct these interviews in person. By doing so, you will get much more insight into the person’s emotions and pains, and can connect on a deeper level. When this isn’t possible, opt for video chatting. Though phone interviews can be helpful, this should be your last option.
  • Avoid asking future-oriented questions. What people say, what people do and what people think are all very different. Focus on what they have done in the past, and avoid asking your customer to speculate.

Build a Game Plan

Analyze your potential customer segments. You can’t talk to everyone, so determine which segments, based upon what you know today, have the largest pain, ability to pay, etc.? Which customers do you have access to speak with most readily? Segment your market, and start based on how companies rank on these aspects.

  • Build your assumptions. Every startup starts with a series of assumptions. What are the elements of your business you need to prove true? For example, if I was a founder of AirBnB, I would need to prove that travelers are unsatisfied with current accommodations. I would also need to prove that homeowners are interested in short-term rentals.
  • Develop a script. Before starting, it’s important to analyze how you are going to conduct the interview to maximize its impact. There is a script we often use at NC IDEA LABS that can be a great starting point (credit to
    • Set context. “Tell me about a time when…” your user was experiencing a situation that you believe may be a pain point. Ask them to reflect on this.
    • Understand their pain. “What was hard about that experience?” “Why was it hard.”
    • Ask about existing alternatives. “What did you do to solve this problem?” and “Why was that solution not great?”

And repeat

The goal of these interviews is to understand the person’s emotions and motivations IN THEIR OWN WORDS.

I recommend conducting interviews in sets of 5, analyze what you have learned and iterate accordingly. After, and only after, you have objectively validated there is a key pain in your market should you start to build a minimal product that can be tested amongst your target market.

Need some extra support? Consider applying to NC IDEA LABS. Click here for more details and current application deadlines.

Written by Lauren McCullough, Director
December 11, 2018