Customer Discovery is arguably the most important aspect in a startup’s life. It can make or break an idea, a product, and even the startup. No one understands that relationship more than Dr. Michael Chambers, J.D. Along with his impressive professional career, Dr. Chambers is committed to both educating the next generation of young entrepreneurs and helping them navigate the world of startups. In this brief interview, Dr. Chambers will answer some of the most common questions early stage startups have and provide resources to help navigate the complexities one might be facing in getting their startup off the ground.

Q: Please introduce yourself and tell us about your professional career.

I have had the privilege of working in several different careers. I started life as an attorney, then became involved in biotech later in life. Today, I serve as Associate Vice President of Research at the University of South Alabama. Working with other team members and great collaborators in our area, we offer programs like I-Corps and RAMP. 

[Michael Chambers full bio can be found at this link].

Q: What experience do you have specifically dealing with startups?

My first business started in college when I somehow finagled a letter of credit to secure the purchase of about 100 small refrigerators to be drop shipped from Osaka, Japan. (There was no Wal-Mart or Costco at the time). I rented these out throughout my college and law school career to help pay the bills. My next business was in law school when a friend and I contracted with an artist to paint the old law school at the University of Alabama. We were able to get a list of graduates and proceeded to sell limited edition prints of the old building. I learned a good bit from these experiences.

Along the way, I developed a healthy respect for people who start businesses. Over the years, I became involved in other start-ups of my own, serving on the board of numerous companies, public and private. I know what it is like to not get paid and to wonder whether you will make it. 

Q: What made you jump into supporting startups in the mobile area?

 I wanted folks to have an easier experience than I did. I also think it is vital to help start-ups to increase economic development in our region.  When I served as Chairman in 2015, the Mobile Chamber of Commerce leadership was interested in supporting start-ups with programs like 1702, the Gulf Coast Angel Network and what eventually became the Innovation Portal. These became a reality because of excellent collaboration and leadership from other talented leaders in our area. Those laid the groundwork for additional programs like I-Corps and RAMP (the Real Advice Mentoring Program whose framework was licensed from MIT). Becoming involved in start-ups was an effort to make a difference and hopefully help others avoid common mistakes.

Q: How important is knowing your product/service when focusing on customer discovery and what is the biggest challenge startups face when dealing with customer discovery and how do they overcome that challenge?

Certainly, knowing your product or service helps frame your customer discovery effort. Knowing what your current product or service will or will not do in its current iteration is critical. But customer discovery is learning about your customer, not pitching or selling your product. Others have said it better than I could:

Steve Blank: Forward in Talking to Humans:

“The Lean Startup turns the decades-old formula of writing a business plan, pitching it to investors, assembling a team, and launching and selling a product on its head. While terms like “pivot” and “minimum viable product” have become widely used, they are not understood by many. The same can be said of “getting out of the building”. Many entrepreneurs “get out” and get in front of customers, but take a simplistic view and ask their customers what they want, or if they would buy their startup’s (half-baked) product. The “getting out” part is easy. It is the application of the customer development methodology and the testing of their hypotheses with users, customers and partners that is both critical and often difficult for entrepreneurs to grasp in the search for a scalable and repeatable business model.”

Giff Constable author of  Talking to Humans:

“[M]ost [entrepreneurs] do not know how to effectively conduct the kinds of interviews and experiments that will lead to the insights they seek (and need). It is amazing to watch even the most introverted engineers, scientists and MBAs all become shameless salespeople as they misinterpret “getting out of the building” with asking customers if they like, or worse, would buy their product. This rarely yields useful insights. In the early stages of customer development the goal is not to validate if someone wants your product, but rather to search for who your initial target customer is, and to gain a deeper understanding of the problems you are solving for these customers.”

“Here’s what customer discovery is not: It is not asking people to design your product for you. It is not about abdicating your vision. It is also not about pitching. A natural tendency is to try to sell other people on your idea, but your job in customer discovery is to learn. You are a detective. You are looking for clues that help confirm or deny your assumptions. Whether you are a tiny startup or an intrapreneurial team within a big company, your goal is not to compile statistically significant answers. Instead you want to look for patterns that will help you make better decisions. Those decisions should lead to action, and smart action is what you need for success.”

I couldn’t agree more. For a free download of Talking to Humans, go to this link.

Determine what your current fundamental assumptions are about your product or service. Then, go test them. Get answers. Find trends.

Q: How long should a startup spend on customer discovery?

That varies with the start-up, depends on the fundamental assumption that you are testing. But, the goal is to do enough testing to identify a clear trend that either validates or invalidates your assumption.

 Q: During the interview process, how would you coach a startup to ask the right questions to get the information they need?

Identify first the assumption that you are going to test. A good place to start is with the assumptions, that if proven wrong, would cause your business to fail. Then, knowing what you are going to test, you need to determine how you are going to test the assumptions. Giff Constable also has a short book called Testing with Humans that provides a great framework. It is available at the same link (see above) as Talking to Humans.

In conclusion, Dr. Chambers explained the importance of testing the right assumptions and the order in which to do so, the appropriate amount of time to spend in this phase, and how to overcome one of the most common errors startups make. He also provided two great resources -free of charge to most- for startups to further research. Overall, product market fit is vital to launching a successful startup. Without the right product going to the right market, a business – let alone the idea you are trying to sell – is going to fail.