by • October 12, 2011 • ListeningComments (1)40

Customer development antipattern: the meeting

This is the third entry in my very slow series on customer development anti-patterns. Previous ones were on the novelty anti-pattern and the big name anti-pattern.

The meeting anti-pattern is the tendency to relegate every opportunity for customer discovery into a calendar block.

The narrative goes like this:

Enthusiastic founder (EF) meets a potential customer (PC) at an event

EF wants to adhere to customer development and sets up a discovery meeting

PC is happy to meet, but a bit busy, so let’s do it in 2 weeks

At the meeting, EF gets nervous that he is under-delivering by only asking questions

EF also realises it took 2 weeks to book this meeting and he probably won’t get another shot

EF switches into premature sales mode and botches everything

The problem here is twofold:

First, you missed a perfectly good opportunity to do discovery while talking to the potential customer *at the event* because you were stuck on the idea of getting a meeting. This is like finding yourself sat at a cafe table with a pretty lady and chasing her away by trying to set up a date. It may not have been scheduled, but you were already on a date, dummy! In the customer case, as soon as you shake hands, customer development is go. Worst case, you’ll come off as a guy who asks really interesting and/or penetrating questions rather than yet anonymous business card. Best case, you’ll get a data point from a real customer without having to commute through London traffic and sit in a lobby for 20 minutes.

Second, scheduled meetings set a certain expectation. Steve’s book suggests having 3 meetings — the first to explore their problem, the second to bounce your solution off of them, and the third to pitch an actual product. For me, in practice, it’s been very difficult to have a formal meeting about only the first. However, it’s still an important topic, and it’s fortunately a pretty quick one to get through. You can get through everything you need to know with a beer or coffee in your hand.

You need to know what you want to know

Before you go networkin’ (aka: anywhere with people), write down the 1-3 questions you’d like to ask customers or experts about if you got your meeting with them. If you run into someone unexpected who could be quite helpful, think real quick about what you need to know. If you shake their hand and simply tell them what you’re doing, it’s as if you scheduled a meeting and then didn’t bother to show up. You’ve received no learning while simultaneously burning your bridge by rattling off a pointless (and probably annoying) pitch.

An example

I once had an startup idea for office managers. I thought about it on Friday, stayed up all weekend ideating my brains out, and then went to a beer-centric startup event on Monday. A handful of office managers were there and without any of them realising we’d “had a meeting”, I had completely invalidated my problem & revenue hypotheses. How? By knowing what I needed to know and then being interested in their work. “X seems really annoying, how do you deal with it?” “Is Y as bad as it seems?” “You guys did a great job with Z, do you think it would work for this other case?”

Learning from customers doesn’t mean you have to be wearing a suit, drinking boardroom coffee, or exchanging smalltalk with a secretary. It’s very fast to ask to right questions, and they usually touch on topics people find quite interesting to talk about. You can do it anywhere and save yourself the formal meetings until you have something worthwhile to show.

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