To recruit customers for customer development interviews may be one of the most difficult and time consuming things to do in a customer-centric new product development process.

One of the mantras of Steve Blank, the serial entrepreneur and academician who started the entire Lean Startup movement by developing the Customer Development methodology, is to “get out of the building“. What Steve says is to get out of the office and speak with real people. I believe his claim is provocative on purpose in opposition to the corporate habit of spending hours in crowded meeting rooms to review hundreds of boring slides while trying not to be noticed when glancing at our Twitter feed. In fact there are a number of reasons why getting out on the street to stop people passing by is not really a good idea:

  • Stopping people on the street is incredibly awkward. I tried a few times, not really nice.
  • Selecting a specific area — like a neighbourhood — might help me find relevant people, but I’d be essentially picking up at random. It will take ages until I have enough sample to validate my assumptions.
  • It’s very unlikely that I will find anyone willing to spend more than a couple of minutes talking with me. People on the streets are always in a rush, and I need engaged customer to provide me with meaningful information..

So instead of running around like headless chickens, a little bit of homework might help to get the customer insights we need.

First thing first: define which are the problems the new business idea or new product is going to solve, and who are the target customers that we expect to be affected the most by those problems.
These will be our early adopters (more about how to recognise them here).
Depending on your knowledge of the industry, it might require a bit of a guess work. In any case, creativity plus some online research will come handy.
I personally find that compiling a Lean Canvas helps structuring my thoughts, so I really recommend using one. Here are some tips on how to compile it.

Once the assumptions about target customers are defined, recruiting customers to interview is easier if we ask ourselves: where do these people aggregate? What do they have in common?
This is what I call Network Hubs. A Network Hub is a location, either online or physical, where target customers get together.
This might need some research to understand more about what these customers do and where they meet. It might take some time, but it’s not going to be wasted. In fact, it will be a very useful first step to get closer to the target segment and to start a journey for a customer-centric product design.

For example, one of the startups I work with asked me to define the product strategy for aWordPress plugin. After a little bit of thinking, we reasoned that WordPress developers with a certain seniority and background and could have been our potential profile of early adopters.
Cool, where do WordPress developers with a certain seniority and background aggregate? What do they have in common? We identified locations (either online or proper places) where they might meet or get together: online forums, communities, meet ups, LinkedIn groups, etc, and we contacted them right there.

In case network hubs are online, I recruit customers either with posts on communities or contacted them directly. If network hubs are physical places, it’s time to go meet these people at networking events.
Either cases, the objective is to ask them to have an in depth chat whenever and anywhere they like.

In certain situations, customer recruitment is so difficult that network hubs might not work as expected. Rob Fitzpatrick listed a few additional options to recruit customers to interview in his book “The mom test“:

  • Ask for intros. This is my favourite. Any customer development interview should always finish with “is there anyone else you think I should talk to?“. This will create a snowball effect boosting the recruitment results. But if you start from scratch, ask for intro to advisors, University Professors, investors, or ask friends in the industry for a personal favour.
  • Make cold calls/emails. This is tough, and may require hundreds of calls and email to get a yes. But you only need one yes to start.
  • Put serendipity at work. At any random social situation, you may find out that there is a lot to learn from people if you just ask them about their life.
  • Find a good excuse. Once you have identified a potential customers to interview, get in touch asking to have a coffee with a good excuse. Student researches/dissertations work really well!
  • Launch a landing page. As part of the lean canvas, you would have drafted a solution and a value proposition already. Even if it’s very early stage, launch a landing page and run some online ads targeting the customer segment, with a call to action to leave their email address to get updates when the product is ready. The objective in this case is not to measure the conversion rate or score some actual sales, but to use that email address to engage in a conversation with them.
  • Organise meetups. You might me surprised by how many customers in your target segment will show up, and by how many insights you will get by chatting with them, not to count the potential in depth follow up interviews. Moreover, this will boost your industry credibility as well.
  • Speaking and teaching. See if you manage to get invited to conferences where your target customers go, or try to organise free workshops, post online videos, webinars, offer free consultancy or office hours. Anything that might attract the people you want to meet and talk with will work.
  • Start a blog about the industry you are targeting. This is also a good exercise to get your thoughts in shape. However, be careful as it might require exceptional writing skills and some time to get proper traffic.

The last thing is about rewarding. Should customers be rewarded for the time they spend talking about their problems?
In theory, not. The thing is: if the pain is big enough and the segment is right, people should be just happy to contribute solving the problem.
However, a bit of reality check will help here. If time constraint is a problem, and if you are struggling to convince people to be interviewed, an Amazon voucher might be the way to go.

Originally published on on February 25, 2017.

Lean Startup Ambassador in London, helping individuals and organizations to develop entrepreneurial skills @StudioZao

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Davide Turi

Davide Turi

Lean Startup Ambassador in London, helping individuals and organizations to develop entrepreneurial skills @StudioZao

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