Before I moved into leadership roles and went on to start a company I was an outdoor educator, leading groups of students on educational adventures in Yosemite National Park. Among participants, the night hike is a favorite evening activity. This involves taking a group of about 30 participants out into Yosemite Valley after dark, usually walking with just the stars and moon for light after your eyes adjust to the night.

The first time I took a group out for a night hike, I led my group as confidently as I could, marching further away from their cabins, eventually stopping in a clearing for some teaching activities. Afterward it was time to head back toward the cabins and I looked around, confused. I started off in one direction and then frantically realized that I wasn’t right and started looking around again, anxious to find the answer in the trees surrounding me.

Luckily at that moment, I came across another group being led by a more veteran educator. I quietly snuck up to him and asked for help, for him to point me in the right direction. To my surprise, he didn’t point through the woods, he pointed up. Then it all seemed so obvious, the iconic valley could easily guide my way back. I had been so overwhelmed in the moment, immersed in my environment, I had lost the perspective I needed to successfully get to where I needed to go.

As entrepreneurs, as leaders, as business executives we can often get caught up in the day to day. Anxiously moving from task to task while losing sight of our overall vision and path forward. We can become lost without really realizing it. Only through taking the time to step out of the hectic zone of the day to day can we regain our perspective and realize our best path forward.

To regain your perspective, perhaps you regularly meet with a mentor like the more experienced educator who guided my eyes up, maybe you schedule some time out of the day to reflect and strategize. For me, it is a weekly hike in the Bay Area that provides me with the solitude and reflection time that keeps me on course. Find whatever strategy works best for you, but find it, so that you can keep the perspective you need to succeed and not get lost in the woods.

So you have a great idea, now what?  You have probably heard plenty about the Lean Startup Movement and maybe have read Eric Reis’ book The Lean Startup but putting lean into practice is really hard.  You need more information before you build but the problem is that building product is fun and customer interviewing isn’t always so fun.  Steve Blank’s  book The Four Steps to the Epiphany gives tons of great info on customer development but is a lot of info at once.  The goal of this post is to provide a basic overview of the early step of customer interviews and some practical ideas to get it done.

I have spent the last several months making  and launching MVPs for a few different ideas that I have had.  The  first one, I just did a survey,  convincing myself that it would be good enough…it wasn’t.

Surveys fail because they don’t give you the nuance of people’s reactions and they don’t allow you to ask follow up questions.  Our first MVP was for a website that aimed to provide an informative, gamified platform for people interested in living more sustainably.  By using surveys we were stuck with limited data that encouraged us to invest the time to build a website that wasn’t worth building.  The data confirmed our idea, and we humans love nothing more than validation, however it hid major flaws.

The first tricky part is finding customers to actually interview.  Here are some of the strategies that I think work for this, though I would love to hear from others if they have additional ideas.

B to C Strategies:

  • Community groups to find individuals willing to talk
  • Mechanical Turk – there is a great tutorial on Customer Development Labs on getting interviews set up this way
  • Cold approach – ie standing outside of relevant places of business (with permission) and walking up to people, while not very fun, can be effective

B to B Strategies:

  • Introductions through your network
  • Cold calling

Crafting your customer interview questions is the next tricky step.  The problem is that people are generally nice and don’t want to tell you bad things about your idea.  They also don’t really know what they want.  Check out this talk by Rob Fitzpatrick on Getting Customer Development Right.

Some of the major questions you want to answer in customer interviews include:

  1. Do people actually have the problem I think they have?
  2. How big of a pain point is it for them and will they actually pay to solve this problem?
  3. How are they solving this problem currently?
  4. How easily can your solution integrate into your customer’s life or will there be major roadblocks to adoption?
  5. Any other assumptions that you are making that determine the success of your business? The business model canvas is a great tool for identifying the assumptions your business idea depends on.

When I did interviews for my next product, FitCycle, I found myself falling into pitch mode really easily… just don’t do it.  FitCycle is an app that provides indoor cycling workouts, including motivational music and instruction, via the convenience of your phone.  Here are some examples of better questions I eventually got to:

Key assumptions

  • People can’t always make it to an actual class
  • People are bored and looking for solutions to their regular cardio routine
  • There aren’t great solutions out there currently
  • People have access to a spin bike


  • How happy are you with your current cardio routine?
  • Do you attend spin classes regularly?  If not, why not?
  • Do you belong to a gym with spin bikes you can use or do you have a spin bike at home?
  • Do you try to do spin workouts on your own?  If not why not?

Armed with all the great information you get out of customer interviews, your original vision of an MVP will likely change, and that’s a good thing… because now it is based on something more concrete than an idea you think is cool.

Thanks to the guys at Lean Startup Peer-to-Peer Circle for helping me figure a lot of this out.