The importance of conversations; What hanging out at truck stops taught me about customer development.
The first week of the Amcom Upstart technology accelerator was rather intensive. It has involved meetings and/or workshops every day of the week. I have often started before 8am and then haven’t got home until well after 8pm. During the first mentor workshop of the program, Sam Birmingham of Pollenizer undertook a workshop on Lean Startup methods. Although many start-up people have read Eric Reis’ classic book it was really useful to undertake a couple of activities, led by Sam, which required us to go back and re-evaluate the basic tenets of our business in a group scenario. This enabled us to challenge each other’s ideas and come up with some interesting new solutions. Sam encouraged us to use a lean canvas, to design some experiments to test our riskiest assumptions.
Circadyn requires the use of wearable technology to monitor fatigue in the transport industry. The riskiest proposition for Circadyn was ‘Will truck drivers be willing to use wearable technology’? It became clear I needed to speak to more truck drivers who were not enrolled in a pilot trial. So, off I headed to spend a morning hanging out at truck stops talking to drivers.
Being a 5’1 female, hanging around truck stops walking up to random strangers to convince them to have a chat hadn’t initially been on my ‘to do’ list at the start of the week. However, it ended up being a very fruitful exercise. The truck drivers I spoke to were quite a unique and lovely bunch of people. I don’t think I have ever been called ‘darling’ or ‘sweetie’ so many times in a single day in my life before (fortunately both were used as a term of endearment). As much as the process seemed quite foreign and a little daunting, the drivers all seemed quite happy just to have a chat and share their opinions.
Interestingly, it became clear that the value proposition for the drivers (end user) was somewhat different to the value proposition for the organisational customer (buyer). The drivers seemed very interested in the health aspects of the system whilst the organisations appeared interested in the safety aspect of the system. Fortunately they are not mutually exclusive! However, it did highlight that the material and explanations I provide need to be very clearly targeted to the audience, as the truck drivers (end users) and their employing organisation (the buyers) understand the value proposition of Circadyn very differently
Lesson One: Have conversations with your customers AND your end users (they aren’t always the same people). Talk to people who have absolutely no familiarity with what you are doing and see if they understand it, how they understand it and if they would use it. If they don’t understand what you are doing, you need to learn to explain yourself better. Every conversation is a little lesson. Make sure you keep notes of what you learn from each as the culmination of all the little lesson can provide you with huge insights into your own product and market.
Following on from the fun of hanging out at truck stops and pitching to drivers, Amcom organised for each start-up to undertake back-to-back mentoring with 8 different mentors. It was undertaken in a format not too dissimilar to an intensive 3 hours speed-dating session. I pitched my company to, and had it pulled apart by, the likes of Greg Reibe (Entrepreneurs in Residence), Charlie Gunningham (Business News), Tony Grist and Brett Looney (both from Amcom), Sheryl Frame (Accelerating Commercialisation), Rob Newman (Stoneridge Ventures), Tim Brewer (Evolve Leadership Group), Matt Macfarlane (Yuuwa Capital).
To prepare for the process I did a little LinkedIn investigation on all the mentors I was to meet. I prepared a couple of questions applicable to each individual mentors skill set and one final question I asked every mentor. I asked each mentor if they knew anyone in the target industry who might be interested in trialling the system who they could introduce me to. Throughout the process I received invaluable suggestions on how to improve what I was doing as well as some amazing introductions.
Lesson Two: When meeting with new people make the best use of your time and theirs. Research them and find out what they are knowledgeable in and ask deliberate questions regarding areas they may provide you insights into and also ask for further contacts. You never know who knows someone who might be willing and able to help you.
As part of the program, all companies involved have been provided desk space at Spacecubed. This means we are surrounded by other enthusiastic and motivated entrepreneurs who are focused on growth and performance. We are all working in very different business areas. They include Snaptch which is a mobile portfolio app designed to digitize a models portfolio while simultaneously displaying the size of their influence on social media designed by Tori Bowman and Hydralert which is a real-time, non-invasive, automated self-testing device for minimisation and control of heat stress created by Ryan Wynch. Upstart has also recognized the value of creating a culture of collisions by requiring us to have Friday Founder Lunches. During these lunches we discuss our developments from the past week in a semi-structured setting. This format enables us to rebound our ideas with entrepreneurs and mentors from very different backgrounds, who can often provide us with ideas or perspectives which we wouldn’t ordinarily access which facilitates both problem solving and accountability.
Lesson Three: If you get a chance try working in your local co-working space and make the effort to regularly talk to people about what you are doing. You might be surprised how simple little conversations with others can improve your business and your motivation.
Happy start-uping and I will be back next week.