Photo by The Lean Startup Conference/Jakub Mosur and Erin Lubin
Photo by The Lean Startup Conference/Jakub Mosur and Erin Lubin

Customer development is one of the cornerstones of Lean Startup. It teaches that instead of assuming your beliefs about your business to be true, you should apply an engineering, or scientific method, in order to validate the ideas.

Though customer development is one of the toughest aspects to execute in the build, measure, learn framework–and is often seen as an “extra”–it’s a critical part of the process that helps us avoid mistakes early and identify new market opportunities.

In this post, we’ll share how our team at The Lean Startup Conference uses customer development to shape our product design.

1. Talk to your target customers first before you build anything

Every January, a good 10 months before our next conference, our core team holds 45-minute calls with alumni to learn whether or not they’ve gained the knowledge they’d hoped to get at our previous conference. Additionally, we talk to potential customers all year round to discover what struggles new community members are facing.

The benefits to conducting feedback early are two-fold: We make sure that the conference–our product–aligns and evolves with the needs of our audience. We build what brings most value to our customers.

If you’re looking for an additional application of this idea, check out this talk from Daina Burnes Linton, co-founder at Fashion Metric. She learned that her assumptions about her target market were wrong, switched gears, and built technology that was more in line with her customers’ needs.

2. Create low-touch, high-impact feedback loops with customers

We practice a continuous and ongoing learning process. To maximize the time of the core team, we divide and conquer. We segment our customer base into four key groups: young startups, established businesses, enterprise, and government/education/nonprofit. This process allows us to streamline the analysis portion of our efforts, which in turn allows us to see themes and share findings within the team, on an ongoing basis.

Next up, each team member interviews 1-2 customers each week, and take notes in an analysis-ready, living, breathing Google spreadsheet. When a customer conversation really inspires us, we share our notes, news feed style, in Slack.

Once we begin to see themes, our co-founder, Heather McGough, does a full analysis across segments, allowing us to later be ready for synthesis; in other words, decide which content, tools and services we should test based on the needs of our community. It’s a low-touch process that keeps our customers close to our day-to-day operations. Think: It’s a lot like your check-in meetings with your boss, coupled with a semi-annual performance review. Only this time, your boss is your customer.

Our biggest takeaway is that customer development should integrate with your own processes. There’s no right or wrong approach. When we first started building out our systems, we studied multiple methodologies for interviewing, qualitative research, etc… the list goes on. But we realized that the best thing to do first was simply get started. And that’s what we encourage fellow Lean Startup practitioners to do, too.

Conference speaker Charlie Scheinost, an engineering manager at Adobe, spoke about how his team takes turns answering questions through their product’s live chat software. The process takes very little time out of each engineer’s week while providing direct and relevant insight into customers’ key needs.

Extras: we recommend this book by Steve Portigal as a guide for interviewing users.

3. Build MVPs and test ideas in increments

The Lean Startup Conference takes a full year to build out its annual program, but we test editorial concepts iteratively. By the time November hits, we’ll have published more than 50 blog posts, podcasts, and webcasts. The significance? These are all MVPs that lead up to our flagship conference.

Through these content experiments, we look at feedback between the lines: what’s getting shared, and what’s generating sign-ups. We take these lessons learned, adapt, and iterate as much as we can–with more content. For example, one of our most popular webcast, Speed as a Competitive Advantage with GE, helped us see that we have a huge number of enterprise folks who want to see more stories about enterprise innovation in highly-regulated environments. In turn, we created a ‘corporate innovators track’ for the 2015 event and actively pursued speakers like the VP of Product Delivery at American Express and the Head of Digital at Wells Fargo to meet this demand come November.

For another application of this idea, check out this talk from Anita Newton, marketing advisor to CPG startup Mighty Handle.

In 2014, the company faced one of the biggest opportunities in its existence: a pilot with Walmart. Mighty Handle had one shot to perfect its packaging, and couldn’t afford to take any chances. So what did Newton do? She ran a series of Facebook and YouTube ads to test concepts with Mighty Handle’s target audiences. This iterative approach helped her identify the right packaging for her target audience. Today, Mighty Handle is sold in 3,500 Walmart locations nationwide.

Validation Between The Lines

In addition to the steps referenced above, we use multiple channels to sanity-check our assumptions. We run a post-registration survey to give every attendee the opportunity to express what they’re looking to learn, we engage with audiences on Twitter to find popular topics, and we host a live chat on our registration page. The bottom line is that we’re engaging with customers year-round, so that we can come up with a conference program that addresses their current struggles. It’s an iterative process that ensures we’re hitting the mark each new year.

Get Started

What is one way you can implement these strategies into your own customer development process? Get even more hacks, tips, and case studies from companies that are using Lean Startup in our Explore Lean Startup Bundle. You will get free, instant access to 9 HD video case studies packed full of strategies you can implement now.

This post was written by @ritika puri, resident storyteller and Heather McGough, co-founder of Lean Startup Co.