DESCA - Delaware Sustainable Chemistry Alliance - invited me to present and discuss "Lean Startup Principles" at their December Lunch 'n Learn session last week. It was a well-attended event and it prompted me to think about a follow-up to the "Lean" post I wrote three months ago. This post is the 1st of a two-part series. Today we'll tackle the Problem Interview, and next post we'll discuss the Solution Interview.
The backdrop ..... "Lean" has gotten serious traction as the standard start-up practice/ framework/ methodology, particularly now that NSF iCorps and Steve Blank have trained over 300 scientific teams. I feel that any remaining pushback is due to what I believe to be the hardest part of "Lean" - Validating the Problem. So I want to write about that. I have to give credit to a similar post by Ash Maurya, another of the top Lean evangelists, who describes "the Achilles Heel of Lean" here: http://practicetrumpstheory.com/2011/08/customer-development-getting-started/.
Lean's premise -"Get Out of the Bulding" is obvious. But many scientists don't know what to say, and aren't comfortable or skilled at leading communications. And many who are comfortable in leading communications were trained in outdated or corporate sales tactics and fall back on what they know best. Following the discipline of the "Lean" framework that a 2-step process [Problem 1st, THEN Solution] is counter-intuitive, and truly works faster. We need to dig deeper into how to execute this critical 1st step of How to Validate the Problem.
The Problem Interview is the tool we use, coupled with the small task of executing 10 to 50 of them. (YES 50!) The process is evidence-based, all tied to data. You've got to capture enough data about the Problem so you can assess the different parts of the elephant. Only then should you design your Solution (Step 2). So let's break the Problem Interview process down into 4 distinct steps so you can execute 10 of them this month.
First comes Preparation. You need to prepare your script, handout, and "approach". Some people prefer open-ended interview questions, Like, "What is the single-most pain point you struggle with?" I prefer a handout method, because it gives you the credibility that you know about the space, and you get to stack the deck towards certain pain points. This task requires some real thought, because you may not know all the pain points, and you have to think hard about how narrow or broad you design the pain points. Why I like the handout method is the forced rank-ordering of pain, and the ability to have a follow-on conversation about the order. The handout sheet is really just a tactic to have a conversation about "Why is ____ #1?"
2nd comes "Approach" - Getting the Interview. This is a difficult task, because we are all busy people. So you really have to think hard about what you are offering targets, in return for spending 30 minutes of their valuable time. Most start with friends and people in their immediate network. They are great for practice, and stress to them to be brutally honest. Your real test will come from attracting strangers and key prospects who don't know you. Here's a simple phone or email script that works for me with high conversion rates: "Our venture is innovating in <space> and we have a great team of scientists. Before we go too far down the development path, we need to insure that we are tackling the right problem. Since you are personally a recognized leader in the space, I'm hoping you will grant us 30 minutes to discuss innovation in this space." Simple, quick. to the point. It's really in their best interest to know what is going on, and if your team has the right technical chops, they should be motivated to REALLY understand what you are doing.
Next is Conduct the Interview. A script needs to be developed, refined, and practiced - unless it's your 10th interview and you have become very comfortable executing them. All interviews follow the same outline, and it's important to stick to this discipline! The opener is al about relating, perhpas picking out something in common or who you both know. If the person is all business, get right down to business. Your opening statement is the same statement that got you the meeting (above). Give them the handout and ask them to rank-order the list. Most will do this very quickly. Some may push-back and criticize your list. That's OK - run with it, ask them how they would structure the list of pain points - they are helping you with serious learning about the space. Then - ask them to rank order THEIR list! Once you have the ranking, it's a matter of getting 5 important questions answered for each challenge:
Next month – we’ll discuss How to Conduct Solution Interviews. Now get out of the building!