How Shotguns and Politics Prepared me for Startups.

“What’s the worst that could happen?” I asked. We’d spent the day coaching recent college graduates on customer interviews and were finally sending them out on their own. They were nervous, as most people are when confronted with the task of talking to strangers.

“Wind up with a gun in your face,” one of them responded, joking.

In June of 2012 I was talking to strangers in Seattle. I’d found myself in a rare part of the city where the sidewalks ends. Each house had a lawn to play on and trees to hide in, the forest having crept up from Puget Sound, eerily engulfing this little neighborhood in a shade unusual for the Seattle summer. I was doorbelling, walking door-to-door talking to voters about a political candidate. Despite having talked to thousands of strangers before, I was scared.

I approached a slate blue house with white trim. It had a small side porch accessible by a disorderly gravel path that looked as if it’d been strewn together. I hastened my step as I marched toward the door, excited and scared and determined to win these strangers over.

I knocked once. Nothing. I knocked again. Nothing. Finally, I tried the bell, in case the owners were downstairs or out back and couldn’t hear me knocking.

I heard stomping, huffing, and a deadbolt shift. My heart hastened, beating quickly, nervously.

The door creaked open. I smiled, ready to launch into my pitch.

I was staring down the barrel of a shotgun.

The weathered face behind the gun screamed at me, louder and louder, demanding why I was on her doorstep, why I hadn’t responded to her earlier asks of who was there and what they wanted. She screamed and screamed as I stood there motionless, sweating, awed and silenced by the angry women holding a gun at me.

Finally I spoke. Apologizing, profusely. Eyes at the ground. I was so sorry I’d bothered. I hadn’t heard her ask who was there and what they wanted. I was so, so sorry.

I had tears in my eyes and was shaking, shaken by the very first gun in my face.

I hated my life. I hated my life so much right now all I could think about was crying and quitting my job and never ringing a doorbell ever again. I hated strangers. I hated talking. I hated politics and I hated selling candidates to people on their doorstep. I wanted to go home.

Eyes down, I quickly sputtered out an explanation. I was working for a candidate I thought she might be interested in. He was a Democrat, just like her. We were spending the afternoon talking to voters about the upcoming primary.

As I spoke, explaining what I was doing on her doorstep, the weathered face softened and the shotgun lowered, resting nose-down on the floor.

The women, a frequent-voter, a democrat, confessed she was a marine biologist who rarely found a candidate worthy of a vote. None of them ever seemed to give a “rats ass” about the environment. She was an avid bird-watcher who loved spending afternoons in Carkeek Park. Blue Herons were her favorite, and their recent troubles in the park had left her disgruntled with our notoriously “environmentally-friendly” city.

Timidly, I launched into a more calculated version of my candidate’s environmental feats.

She smiled.

We continued talking for 20 minutes. At the end she asked for a yard sign and where she could find out more. She was excited to see him speak at some of the upcoming events in the community.

“Someone will pull a gun on you,” I told the teams as they filed out of the building.  They laughed and exhaled, amused by my seeming sarcasm. I laughed too, because I knew it to be true.

Talking to customers always starts off a little scary. Sometimes people yell at you, sometimes they reject you, sometimes they ignore you. At some point, you may even end up staring down the barrel of a gun. Whatever happens, hold steady. You can turn it around. Remember, you are not selling anything, you are here to learn. Tell them what you’re doing and why, then shut up and listen.

Whiteboard Wednesday: When to Stop Conducting Customer Interviews

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Do you ever worry that your product won’t succeed?

Talking to your customers is great, but you’ve got to ship something eventually. Right?

After months of customer interviews, you might wonder if you’re ready roll up your sleeves and start building.

Have you found the right solution to the right problem? Is it too soon to start development? What if you build the wrong product?

What if that next interview provides pivotal information?

We’ve all been there.

While you should never stop talking to your customers entirely, there are a few signs that you’re done with the “discovery” phase of customer interviews and it’s time to start building.

What are they? When should you stop conducting customer interviews? Kav answers these questions (and a few more) in this week’s Whiteboard Wednesday. Enjoy!

When to stop conducting customer interviews:

  1. Top 3 problem
  2. Same problems
  3. Be psychic
  4. Shut up and take my money

See you next Wednesday,

Lily and the LIFFFT Crew

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Whiteboard Wednesday: The Importance of Customer Interviews

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Don’t Buy Your Boss a Gym Membership for Christmas.

Ever totally missed the mark on a Christmas present for someone special?

Last year I bought my boss a gym membership.

…That went about as well as you’d think. The indignation that crept across her face as she opened my gift is now permanently burned into my memory.

My coworker bought her a cookbook. It turns out what she really wanted was to cook more healthily, not have her newest employee imply she needed to spend more time on a treadmill.

You really don’t want dissatisfy your customers like I did my boss.

So what’s the best way to win your boss’ approval? The best way to keep your customers happy? The best way to build the right product?

Have a conversation with them. Better yet, have a lot of the right conversations with them. Sit down with them for lunch and ask about their hobbies, like my coworker did when he learned about my boss’ culinary creations. Coming up with an acceptable solution to a problem you perceive is not enough, it doesn’t generate a product that people will need or want to use. You have to take the time to get to know their problem if you want to build the right solution.

In this week’s Whiteboard Wednesday video, Zac dives a little deeper into the importance of customer interviews, and the tricks to ensuring you make the most of them. Watch the video – in 8 minutes you’ll learn all the reasons why these customer interviews are so critical to the success of your product and business.

No offended boss, no disappointed customers.

Why are customer interviews so important?

  1. Validate assumptions
  2. Build the “rightest thing”
  3. Build customer empathy
  4. Understand pricing

See you next Wednesday,

Lily and the LIFFFT Crew

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What the Hell Am I Going to Do With 50 Clay Pots?

And why do I have 50 pots? Because sometimes that’s what it takes to get one perfect pot.

It’s important to remember that there’s a process in reaching perfection. Behind every great, be it a pot or nanobot, Babe’s perfect swing, or Hendrix’s greatest riffs, are the ghosts of iterations past. Even the most impressive tools started out slower, bulkier, and far less beautiful.

So what’s the process for getting to the perfect pot?

There are many answers to this question, but my favorite comes from a ceramics professor referenced in Fear and Art:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups.
All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.

His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on.

Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot -albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

When developing your product, it’s unlikely you’ll hit perfection your first, second, or third try. Be aware of this, and push forward. The more times you’re able to complete a prototype cycle, the more you’ll learn and the better off you’ll be.

Babe wasn’t crowned King of America’s favorite pastime by spending hours reading and no time practicing. Hendrix didn’t spend years studying technique before finally picking up a guitar. Don’t spend your time planning and plotting out perfection. Just build the damn pot. Measure your successes and failures. Learn from them. And build another pot.

So what the hell am I going to do with 50 clay pots?

End up with at least one kickass pot. That’s what.

Perfection comes with time, patience, and practice. Push out your 50 pots.