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How do I find initial customers to interview for determining product-market fit?

My startup is in the customer discovery phase. As part of my latest venture, I've assembled a team that was selected through a competitive contest to study entrepreneurship under Steve Blank as part of an intense multi-school collaborative course in the customer development process. As part of that course, we're conducting interviews of people within our target market (small business owners generally, ideally small business owners running companies with 5-25 employees) to test product-market fit before we start building out the product at all. We're trying to see if the thing we're looking to build is a product worth building - if it solves a real problem that small business owners actually need solving.

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Ideally, I'd like to interview between 60-100 small business owners during the two week period spanning August 17th - 24th... and have setup a simple website for that purpose at digitalCOO.com. But I haven't been able to get past 20 business owners I know through my own network that aren't already immediately biased into (1) knowing too much about the product I'm trying to build, and (2) thinking it's a genius idea. I'm looking for more removed and unbiased small business owners (ideally with between 5-25 employees... industry isn't terribly relevant) to interview.

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Any thoughts on how to find 50-80 more small business owners with between 5-24 employees that would be willing to schedule an appointment to be interviewed about how they manage the "business end" of their company for 30 minutes between August 17th - 24th? We will not be asking about any sensitive company information or anything like that, and our objective is merely to learn from these small business owners - not to sell or pitch them anything.

17 Replies

Patrina Mack
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Patrina Mack Advisor
Experts in global commercialization
Getting to small business owners isn't easy but there are some other online tools that you could direct people to or embed screen shots into to get feedback on your product. They do have costs associated with them. Given that you have a specific timeframe for getting your research done it may be worth the investment. The first is feedback army - for $75 you can get 150 folks to react to your business idea - they will not necessarily be business owners however. The more expensive solution is AYTM - a cost effective way to get to business owners vs. other online survey tools.

Another approach is to research folks in your target segment through LinkedIn and invited them to participate in your survey. If you have a positive LI rating for Inmails you'll be surprised with how much interest you can received. Alternatively think about an ad on Facebook to not just build likes for your business but invite them to participate in the survey. Again a cost is involved but FB can be a good survey tool onto itself based on who clicks on your targeted ad.

Karen Leventhal
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Karen Leventhal Entrepreneur
Founder & CEO at SE Rising
I guess the question is how deep do you want your exploration to go. We've done surveys and we've done interviews. There is no substitute for interviews, when it comes to deeply understanding how people do business and the problems they face. In terms of interviews, I always seek to just listen and get a good a sense of what their days, problems etc look like. Then you can figure out ways to maximize their pleasure and minimize their pain.

Surveys are good for getting more shallow feedback. Once we did our in depth interviews, we used surveys to ask our clients to rate desired features etc, to really help us hone down an MVP.

It's hard to find people who will talk to you. I tried to get referrals from friends, family and business colleagues. Be prepared that this is a process...
Justin E. Crawford
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Justin E. Crawford Entrepreneur
Bestselling Author ✯ Serial Entrepreneur ✯ Operations & Growth Hacking Expert
Thank you! To your point Karen, my goal is to do as many interviews as possible... to truly hear from them what problems they face and how they see them in a way a survey just can't capture. My default is to just wander around NYC and ask to speak to the owners of small local businesses if I can't find a better approach in the next couple weeks... but I'm hoping to find a better approach. My goal is to get 50+ people to go to digitalCOO.com to schedule a 30 minute appointment with me to interview them over the phone... as opposed to just complete a survey.

But with that said, thank you for the survey tactical advice Patrina! I was not aware of AYTM... and that may be a great resource for me to take advantage of to supplement my interviews. And, maybe you're right, begging on LinkedIn probably isn't a bad thing to try in terms of securing actual interviews as well.
Eoin Matthews
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Eoin Matthews Entrepreneur
Cofounder at Point
what's your budget per interview?
Karen Leventhal
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Karen Leventhal Entrepreneur
Founder & CEO at SE Rising
I wish I had easy answers. Is there a certain type of small business you are seeking to understand? There may be trade associations, etc that you could partner with to get more interview referrals....
Justin E. Crawford
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Justin E. Crawford Entrepreneur
Bestselling Author ✯ Serial Entrepreneur ✯ Operations & Growth Hacking Expert
Thanks Karen. Given our time frame for this, I don't think trade association partnerships would pay off quick enough... plus it would artificially segment the market. We're looking to conduct interviews, in part, to see if certain industries are more attracted to our product than others. At first glance, we don't see any reason why a local pizza shop owner can't benefit from our services every bit as much as a law firm.

Eoin. I haven't though through one to be honest. If we paid for interviews, we would presumably be the only team in this startup course/competition doing so. With that said, I would probably be willing to pay $20 per interview as a show of respect for very busy small business owners being generous with 30 minutes of their valuable time. I already have a number of interviews lined up for free... but if I'm having a hard time getting past 20, I could maybe pay for the rest. Why do you ask?
Rob Gropper
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Rob Gropper Entrepreneur
Director at PetHero, SPC - Member at Eastside Incubator - Principal at Tuxedo Technologies Group
Justin; as Steve Blank is fond of saying "GET OUT OF THE OFFICE". Literally. with no more definition than 'small business" and "industry isn't terribly relevant" i would literally walk down the street and walk in and ask for the owner/manager and set appointments. Email, phone calls, survey monkey, 'go to my website and fill out this form', etc. are too impersonal. Use a rifle not a shotgun. You can't gauge body language, you can't clarify questions, you can't address objections (or document them) unless you are face to face. just get out and knock on doors/walk in. Real-life example: for a subset/feature of our product we intended to have the support of local small businesses. The idea was that our customers would go out and 'recruit' these SMBs. We were getting close to launch with our first few customers and realized we weren't exactly sure how our customers would pitch these SMBs to get their support. We stopped our meeting and 2 of us walked around a local business district. we spent about 3 hours and talked to 25 SMBs. 23 signed up on the spot. The reception was better than expected and we quickly learned some important things we hadn't considered. We could have spent weeks searching for lists and preparing surveys and analyzing data. 3 hours and we had the data we needed. Also,ALWAYS ASK FOR REFERRALS to more SMBs - whether you have a great meeting or the prospect brushes you off always ask them if they know of 1 or 2 other small business owners whom they think you should speak to.
Justin E. Crawford
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0
Justin E. Crawford Entrepreneur
Bestselling Author ✯ Serial Entrepreneur ✯ Operations & Growth Hacking Expert
Rob. So my fallback plan, to the extent I can't get 10+ interviews in the bank, with 50+ interviews already scheduled and lined up by the the 24th, was to just spend much of the week of the 24th - 28th doing exactly what you just said. Barging into various small businesses around NYC and asking for 30 minutes of the time of the owner. Is your general sense that my "Plan B" fallback plan is actually not a bad primary plan after all... that such a strategy might not be as hard as I fear to get 10+ people a day to actually say yes and be interviewed? Do you recommend giving them any sort of incentive for their time... or just ask as a favor to a fellow entrepreneur?
Eoin Matthews
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Eoin Matthews Entrepreneur
Cofounder at Point
Similar to user testing and everything else requiring people's time on short notice, compensation works (and very little else does when you don't have the network).

$20 may not be enough. A $50 amazon gc may do the trick but don't be surprised if folks don't react till there's $75 or $100 in it for them.
Rob Gropper
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Rob Gropper Entrepreneur
Director at PetHero, SPC - Member at Eastside Incubator - Principal at Tuxedo Technologies Group
@ Justin; yes, i think your plan 'B' should be your plan 'A'. Also, 30 minutes is a big initial ask especially for a 'walk in'. I'd find a way to whittle that own to 5-10 minutes. If they are truly interested they will spend more time and/or schedule a followup call/meeting. If you can't get them salivating within 5 minutes then that either means (typically) your pitch is wrong or your value prop is lacking. 1) you need a very clear and concise introductory pitch - 10 seconds. prospects will usually want to clarify so be prepared to follow that with an equally concise 30 second pitch. 2) be personable. 3) SMB owners understand the plight of fellow entrepreneurs - i would try to avoid offering compensation. if you have to pay someone to listen to you then something is wrong. If your solution solves a pain you think they have then their willingness to listen is a sign you are on track and visa-versa. SMB is hard to reach because often the value (LTV and/or NPV) of a typical sale doesn't justify one-on-one sales attention thus almost everyone sells to SMBs by advertising and driving them to a self-serve website where they have refined every minute detail to maximize 'conversion'. If you can't set the hook in 10-40 seconds in person then you can't expect to sell them electronically. Put in the time to really refine the presentation/articulation of your value proposition.
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