A founder wants to make better music education app. With so many potential instruments to teach, the founder decides to start with just one (this is right) and then decides to talk to customers to figure out exactly which to pick first (this is wrong).
Talking to customers about this sort of question is a huge waste of time and is yet another customer development antipattern (see also novelty, big-name, and meetings).
Say you talk to people to learn that lots want to learn guitar and a few, the flute. Great… You spent days on what would have taken 10 minutes of googling music education industry reports. This sort of customer conversation doesn’t add extra rigor, but just wastes extra time. It’s using a process as an excuse to avoid the scary work of putting your dreams on the line.
In the mom test I talk about scary questions, which are the ones whose answer can destroy your whole business. Asking a scary question is the point of customer conversations. It’s like going down on one knee and asking someone to marry you; the answer matters, might hurt, and is going to affect how you spend the next few years. If someone prefers to learn drums over bass, is that really going to rock (hah) your world? Hardly. If the answer doesn’t matter, then the question probably doesn’t either.
But without asking customers to tell you, how will you know which instrument to teach first? Just pick either the easiest, the most popular, or the most fun (for you to work on), and start there. Your starting point doesn’t have to be optimal, it just has to be good enough to get you going. If you can’t make it work, then that’s something to pause and consider. And if/when you do get some traction, then you’ll expand into other verticals later anyway.
So what are the scary questions here? When you’re selling to businesses, it’s usually stuff like,”Does the budget exist” and “If this is so important, why haven’t you done anything about it already?”
For this consumer app, I’d probably press them about why they haven’t already done it. After all, there are approximately a bazillion youtube videos teaching you how to play anything you want.
“Have you ever thought about learning a musical instrument?” (not a question that’s going to give us any useful insight, it’s just to figure out whether we’re talking to someone in our customer segment or not)
“Have you tried learning already?”
If yes, “What did you try? How did you choose to do it that way? Why didn’t it work? Why did you stop? Why weren’t the youtube videos helpful for you? Why didn’t you hire a coach or go to a class? What did you look for that didn’t exist?”
If no, “Why not? Have you ever googled for free guides? Have you checked out all the youtube videos?”
And in either case: “Did you check the app store for any phone apps to help out? If not, why not? If so, what did you find? Why didn’t you use them? If you did use them, why did you stop?”
What are all these questions getting at? They’re getting at the fact that consumers are lazy. They’ll talk a big game about how much they hate their email or hate travel planning, but then they’ll never even do a quick search to see if there’s a way to solve that daily frustration. And if there’s already a million solutions out there, and they aren’t motivated enough to use any of those, are they really going to magically get motivated as soon as yours hits the market?
I don’t say this to be discouraging, because every successful app obviously overcomes this somehow. Maybe you’ve got a big product or marketing or business model insight that will change things. There are a million ways to have a breakthrough and make it work, but doing the same stuff that’s already out there and then hoping is not one of them. And going through the motions of asking people a bunch of unimportant questions doesn’t improve your chances.
Daniel Tenner’s one-sentence summary of my book was, “So you want to figure out what they’re already doing (or not doing) and why.” Looking at past behaviour (what they’re already doing) eliminates most of the optimistic biases that lead to so many broken new year’s resolutions (“I’m definitely going to learn to play guitar this year!”). And the “why” part is how you figure out their decision-making process. There’s some reason they are (or aren’t) already learning how to play music. If you want your app to become a part of their daily habits, you’d do well to understand that.
Talking to customers is a hugely powerful tool, but you have to wield it correctly. Its value is in getting at the scary questions and helping you climb inside your customers’ heads. If you’re using it to ask stuff you could have gotten from google, you’re just wasting everyone’s time.
[PS] My issue with surveys is that because of their nature, they can pretty much only give you information that you could have googled. They give a false sense of security since you’re hearing from lots of people, but in almost every case the data is worthless, and lots of bad data isn’t an improvement.
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