Founders frequently come to AppThink with an idea that’s been percolating in their heads for a while. Our Foundations course is designed to help first-time founders grow an idea and move it into the real world, test it, iterate on it, and refine it into something that might be the kernel of a viable business.
But what is most interesting to me about this process is that a large portion of our founders’ most significant takeaways from the course is the very first technique we teach.
It’s not a Minimum Viable Product.
It’s not prototyping.
It’s not demand testing.
It’s not competitor analysis.
No, it’s the humble, powerful customer interview.
Many founders have an ‘aha’ moment around customer interviews because they often don’t have answers to the questions we ask to battle-test their ideas. Customer interviewing holds the key to those answers.
Suppose you’re a founder or someone who doesn’t feel like they can take that title yet! But if you have an idea – and you’re wondering how to get started and grow an idea, then this should help. So, in this article, we’ll dive into why ideas grow and develop in conversation.
Theft is a Myth (and why you should talk to people about your ideas)
First, let’s dispel the notion that your idea is a precious good you must keep safely under lock and key. Ideas are necessary to create a great product! But the idea is the first step of an ultramarathon. Being worried that someone will steal your idea is like being concerned that someone else will claim the glory of finishing your race for you after the first step. They will have to do a lot of work for a very dubious payoff.
Why? Because any prospective thief has to answer the same questions you do. Is this idea any good? What are the answers to the thousands of little questions that you’ll have to find to bring the idea to life? If you work on your idea and start to see real traction, that’s when you need to be on the lookout for thieves. You’ve shown the path is viable, and at that point, others might try to come down the path you’ve forged and sprint past you.
Far from keeping your idea safe and secure, you must cast it out into the world. Think of it like sending your kid off to college. It’s all about learning. If you shelter your idea, it won’t grow. Maybe your idea won’t survive being thrown into the real world – perhaps it will flunk out. But forcing it to confront reality is the only way to grow an idea into its adult form.
So start talking to people about your ideas. It has a few benefits:
- You’ll quickly refine it as you digest what you’re hearing from people.
- Counterintuitively, it assuages any fear you have – imposter syndrome or just is-this-crazy-itis – as people don’t laugh you out of the room.
- You’ll start to build the interviewing muscle – which you’ll need continuously throughout your journey.
The Right Conversation with the Right Person (and why you’re probably missing both)
Finding the Right People
Many of our founders have talked to people about their ideas. Often, the problem is that they have either been talking to the wrong people or having unproductive conversations.
Let me be clear: in most cases, “bad” conversations are almost always better than no conversations. But thankfully, the techniques here are pretty simple (even if they are hard to master). Don’t wait to talk with people for fear of getting this wrong.
First: finding the right people. The right people are the people you think would benefit from your idea. They are not the people you can access most efficiently or who you think will be the friendliest audience. These folks tend to be friends or family and want you to succeed. So they’ll tell you what they think you want to hear. Tread carefully.
Instead, think about where you might be able to find people who experience the problem you’re trying to solve. If it comes into being, you’ll need to do this to market your product anyway, so this is not an unnecessary hardship. This is a core question you must be able to answer – where can I find these people?!
Once you’ve found them, reach out. In my experience, most people are more than willing to talk – frequently, they are thrilled to be asked. Remember, you’re not selling anything at this point, so feel free.
Having the Right Conversation
Next, you need to have productive conversations with these people. Constructive discussions at the early stage have a few characteristics:
- They are focused on problems, not solutions
- They are centered on the interviewee’s personal stories
Because the most common reason ideas and startups fail is there is no market need for them. Either not enough people experience the problem a product is trying to solve, or it’s solved perfectly adequately by existing solutions. In this case, there’s not enough reason for the person to switch.
If you go into conversations talking about your solution, you may get nods of the head, but you’re unlikely to learn much more about the direction you need to head. In contrast, by focusing on an interviewee’s problems in the space you want to occupy, you can start to spot patterns: which issues keep cropping up time and again? Which are most painful? What are the attributes of people who experience this pain viscerally compared to those who don’t? How do people think about, discuss, and attempt to solve this problem?
Because people are great storytellers and poor economists. Most people do a poor job of accurately explaining their past behavior or their theoretical preferences. We rationalize; we have a mental image of ourselves divorced from reality. Stories help us separate these fictions from the facts of what people have done in the past. Just ask your interviewees questions like this:
“Tell me about the last time you did [activity X].”
“Walk me through the last time you purchased [good or service]. Start by painting the picture for me… where were you…?”
You never know when a passing comment will turn into a critical insight. As people tell their stories, they stay curious and probe for more information when they gloss over details. Help them recreate the moment. And gently nudge them back to their story if they start generalizing. We’re asking for the last time: we want that image to be fresh in their minds, free from the baggage of longer-term memory.
Interviewing prospective customers and hearing their stories is always a good use of your time. As you do this, you should feel your juices flowing – you’ll have more ideas about your idea (because an idea is never just one thing). To harness these juices, do two things:
1. Have conversations with others who have walked this road before
Reach out to founders who can understand what it’s like to start something and hear their stories. Your situation won’t match theirs, as every founder’s journey and every idea is different, but their experiences can help guide you.
2. Have conversations with yourself
Ha! Not literally. You want to set aside multiple hours of uninterrupted time for deep work to move your idea forward. But do schedule dedicated time to think about and work on your idea. The critical point is that this “conversation” comes after your prospective customer conversations. Because the truth is that ideas and inspiration come primarily from interacting with others.
So that’s it! If you’re struggling to make headway on your idea, or something has been holding you back from even getting started, use the oldest tool in the book: go and have a conversation.