Ask an Entrepreneur: Building Solutions that Real Customers Want to Buy
Welcome to Rev1 Ventures’ blog series, Ask an Entrepreneur. Central Ohio’s entrepreneurs have a wealth of information and learned experience.
Lots of companies talk about involving end users in the product development process. EduSourced really walks the talk.
We asked EduSourced Founder David Comisford to talk about the why it is so important to get customer feedback early and often.
R1: You started a textbook rental business, Frewg Inc., from your dorm room when you were an undergraduate. You were a student and understood your market. Your idea matched the market and met a need.
DC: Frewg was my first business and a great learning experience. It was also dangerous. I was a college student with a profitable small business but I was not learning to build a scalable business. At the time I didn’t know the difference.
With Frewg I had an idea, went out and executed on it, and made some money. It worked. That made it hard for me to understand my shortcomings and where I should be developing as an entrepreneur. Like many first time entrepreneurs, I was pretty sure I knew everything.
When I got into the 10x Startup Accelerator, I was overconfident in my new idea. I was too busy talking to listen and did not spend nearly enough time learning from the market what it needed.
But, when you get your fingertips burned by doing the wrong thing, you learn fast to bite bullet and become a great listener or your startup dies.
R1: Ouch. ..and you learned what?
DC: I learned to recognize what I didn’t know. The textbook company worked as a small business, but it wasn’t going to scale. I wanted to work on something that could impact higher education and could scale. This eventually led me to EduSourced. I learned that it’s not the idea that is important; it’s the value you can provide to the customer. If I had stuck to my original concept that I was trying to build when we started EduSourced, I would have failed. Instead we let customer feedback guide our product development and the vision for EduSourced evolved over time with a deeper understanding of the market need.
I also learned just how important it is to have the right people in my orbit, as part of the team and advisors offering advice and insight to help fill in the gaps of our experience.
R1: How did you meet these people?
Through 10x and general networking I connected with people who had been there before, entrepreneurs who went through the struggles and eventually had successful exits. I learned to listen to them.
You don’t always agree with your advisors, and that’s okay. But if you can recognize the difference between what you know and don’t know you can begin accepting and rejecting feedback accordingly and make better decisions.
R1: Sometimes the excitement and the buzz around being an entrepreneur can be a little too stimulating.
DC: Absolutely. An entrepreneur gets an idea in his or her head and that excitement can be explosive—especially for a first-time entrepreneur. Enthusiasm is great, but an idea without any validation is generally worth very little. It is just the start. Don’t quit your day job without validation and a clear path to market!
Often first-time entrepreneurs form an idea in a bubble with lots of late nights white boarding and planning but not enough investigation of the customer and market opportunity.
As entrepreneurs, we have to be stubborn. It’s easy to go too far with this and shut out any negative feedback on our concept. A lot of people fall into this trap, me included.
Let’s face it: it’s hard to take your concept, your “baby” and expose it to criticism. There is a distinct possibility that your idea will not work or needs to change drastically and that is scary.
The missing component is too often customer interaction and validation. You have to go and talk to people in the market, and let them tell you what they need. That’s what I learned (the hard way) to do with EduSourced. We changed our entire concept because of it.
If you don’t have a customer you are servicing and a problem you are solving, the rest of the idea just isn’t relevant. You have to move forward from customer validation. The customer is your starting point.
R1: Why is it such a challenge for entrepreneurs to reach out to get customer input to validate their concept?
DC: I think there are two reasons. We all have egos. We all have these concepts we want to see take off and change the world. The truth is that our concepts get wrapped up in our egos and identity a little bit.
Exposing our ego-wrapped ideas to the outside world for criticism can be uncomfortable and so we naturally shy away from it. When you’re a first time entrepreneur with a brand-new idea, which, maybe you quit your job to work on, dealing with criticism like “this will never work” is painful.
There is a slim margin for error early on that exacerbates all of this. Big companies with big R&D budgets make products that flop all the time, but if an entrepreneur raises $200,000 and invests it in a product that no one wants to buy, the startup can’t recover.
R1: And the second reason?
DC: Fear. As an entrepreneur you are excited about your idea, but the odds of having it exactly right are so super slim. When you begin to check your idea or prototype against the market, the probability of failing is so high, that scares people.
There is a lot of built in insecurity to any entrepreneur’s proposition. This isn’t some product handed down by your boss for you to promote or sell; it’s something you came up with yourself.
As an entrepreneur, you are building from scratch. Early on there is this gnawing fear. I came up with this, no one else did. But why didn’t they? Should this idea, this product, this company even exist?
When I went through 10X, working alongside other entrepreneurs, we did a lot of great brainstorming, prototyping, and white boarding. We did very little customer interaction, yet that’s what is most important. Customers are the ones who are going to pay our bills, and yet they become second, third, or fourth on the priority list.
R1: How did you get past the fear of seeking market validation?
DC: The answer was to remove my ego from the concept and product. Our product is a tool for our customers: it’s not about us; it’s about the customers and their needs. When we frame it that way it becomes natural to seek out customer feedback. After all, since we’re building it for them, we should let them tell us what they need.
Repetition helps too. I was nervous early on; there’s that whole fear of rejection that goes with presenting any new product. After a few times, it got easier. Now it’s my favorite part of the day, talking to existing customers or potential customers and learning about their needs and insights.
R1: That’s a good point. Learning to talk with customers to validate your concept makes it easier to talk with customers when you are ready to sell your solution.
DC: It creates a foundation. Entrepreneurs spend a lot of time networking with investors and other startup folks. That’s important, but networking with customers is even more important. Reach out to people who could potentially use your product early and often.
When you start building that product, identify early adopters. These are the people or organizations that have an immediate need and want a voice in your product development.
Shape your product around their needs and input, all the while with an ear to the larger market to ensure you’re building something that can scale to a wider audience.
Prospects who aren’t early adopters may be interested twelve months later when you have clients and a more robust product, and that’s okay. It’s how you network and serve your market.
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EduSourced is a software solution to support and coordinate experiential learning programs. EduSourced helps colleges and universities get more real-world projects into their curricula and makes it easier for faculty and students to participate. www.edusourced.com
Great interview! I particularly enjoyed David Comisford’s comments on scalability of a new business.