One of the most important things I do for my company, uGurus, is to invent and validate products. Our core offering has started to take shape (and it only took 3 years!) around multi-week, Mentor-led business accelerator programs. My ultimate goal is to build an online business school that challenges the MBA status quo for entrepreneurs that MBA’s don’t make sense for (or add any real value).
For the last year and a half, I have managed to stay focused on the first of these programs, it’s called the $10K Bootcamp. The program helps web professionals sell and deliver their first $10,000+ web project. There’s more to it than that, but that’s the gist. I say “managed” because, in the past, I have launched products and before I even get to see how the product scales, I’ve gone right back into creating the next big product. Thankfully I resisted the urge this time around.
A few months ago we decided it was time to launch our second program of this format. Prior to launching, I did my usual surveying, customer development, and internal clarity work to figure out what problem we would solve in our market next. The one that jumped out most to us was the concept of “recurring revenue.” Thus, the Recurring Revenue Masterclass was born.
One of the key decisions we made for this second program was that we wanted the effort to be led by one of our star Mentors – Jon Hinshaw – instead of myself. This decision was to test a key hypothesis of whether our brand and programs relied on my expertise and status in our community or if we could, in fact, deliver a successful program with another Mentor acting as Guru. This has been a long time vision for uGurus: to build a network of Gurus – and empower them to empower entrepreneurs.
Avoiding Wasted Energy
One of the big problems when launching new products, is you aren’t quite sure exactly what you need to deliver in order to satisfy the promise you’ve made. Most features go unused. Which means most effort put into a product or service is actually waste.
This is particularly troubling when creating education programs. Because the programs we build not only take effort for our team, but also take an immense effort on our customers part to be successful. Our goal with the Recurring Revenue Masterclass was to help web professionals add at least $1,000 in additional recurring revenues to their ledger in five weeks. In order to do so, we needed to:
- teach our students a bunch of new concepts
- figure out how to get them to apply those concepts into their business
- hold them accountable to implement and take action
This requires a plethora of activities. Watching videos to learn new concepts. Spending time working on the business. Attending group meetings. Working one-on-one with a Mentor. All of which take up a lot of time.
An unavoidable fact is in our early MVP (minimum viable product) versions, we’ll probably build some waste. If I want my programs to scale and be even more impactful for my customers, I need to find this waste. I also need to know what to build next. And prioritize all of that based on the most impact to my customers while not forgetting our profitability. Probably more art than science, but solving this problem with more of a scientific method approach has worked well for me.
I’m a big fan of Running Lean. I like to conduct interviews continuously with customers – before I launch a product while I’m launching, and of course, after I’ve completed delivery.
This concept of getting in the head of my customers to learn about their experience with my business was something that I completely ignored for the first thirteen years as an entrepreneur. Early on I figured that what I did was great and if someone wanted to let me know how to improve it they would.
But these days I want products that change lives. I want to create things that make a dent. And in so doing, I can’t ever be satisfied with the first version. I can’t just be open to constructive criticism, I need to demand it.
So I interview.
One of the tenants of the Lean Movement is to make sure you aren’t operating under untested assumptions for too long. It’s easy to sit in a room and make broad generalizations about your customers. It’s safe. But in doing so, you might invest far too much in an idea that forces you to do work that will be unrewarded. Assumptions can quickly lead to waste (and all sorts of other negative obstacles).
Steve Blank says “get out of the building,” which in my case means getting on Skype video chat to talk about the experience my customers just went through. The first cohort of this new Masterclass was about thirty people. This is a great MVP class size for a first go as it is manageable to speak with just about every person for at least a half hour within a week.
My goal would be to speak with each and every customer. This definitely adds some overhead to product delivery, but the value for future versions of the program will be far worth the investment. I did this for the first three versions of $10K Bootcamp (we’re now going into version 7) and the results yielded an even more incredible experience for each cohort.
Here is a quick rundown of how I set up and run these interviews:
- Email customers to request the debrief meeting
- Send them to an online scheduler tool to book a spot on your calendar (I use BookFresh, but others like Calender.ly would also work); this makes it possible to block out a couple of days to dedicate to this
- In person would be ideal, but my customers are all over the globe, video Skype or Zoom works great; Zoom has built-in recording, whereas Skype would require you to use Snagit or Camtasia to record (I prefer video so I can see body language)
- Have a consistent set of questions as a starting point; consider a mix of qualitative and quantitative questions
- When the interview starts, make sure to start by setting expectations and agenda: “The reason for this meeting is for me to get feedback on your experience through our program – please be as open and honest as you can, the good, the bad, and the ugly is what I’m after.”
- Let them know you plan to record the session
- Get on interviewing!
- Take notes; I use Evernote – create a new note for each person and copy/paste my questions list to the note for guidance
I typically block out thirty minutes per interview. On occasion, I have gone over this time block, but most of the time, I find it’s enough room as long as you get right down to business.
My list of questions is usually a starting point. If all I wanted was the answers to a specific list of questions, then a survey would be much more efficient. Here is what I started with this time around:
- What were your expectations of the program?
- Were your expectations met?
- What went well for you in the program?
- What part of the program would you keep?
- What did not go well for you in the program?
- What part of the program would you change?
- What could have gone differently for you?
- What would you add new to the program?
- Rate your experience out of a ten?
- What would have made it a ten? (and if they say “10,” ask what would have made it an “11”)
- [Dig into program features one by one]
The beauty of getting an opportunity to interview customers one on one is that I can dive deep into “ah-ha” moments when they appear. For this to work best, you’ll want to avoid using your questions as a list to fire off one after another. Remember, they are a starting point.
I Seek Insights
Ultimately I want insights. Not accolades, compliments, or success stories (although those are nice too).
Insights are not only things that I didn’t know before, but they are pieces of information that connect dots. Allow patterns to emerge that I did not see before. Sometimes these turn into tweaks or changes to the product. Or new things to build. And in some cases, turn out to be little idea seedlings for future products.
This round of validation debriefs has served me incredibly well. We tried a few new things with this Masterclass, and it was really important for me to learn if those things were worthwhile.
But customers will only provide you feedback and information. It is rare that a customer says something as direct as, “You should add XYZ to the product.” Usually, they speak more in stories, frustrations, or compliments. This is where your skill as an entrepreneur comes into play. You have to actively listen to catch little details that you will need to dig deeper on.
Use follow-up questions like:
- Tell me more about that…
- How did that help you?
- What problem did that solve for you?
- Why didn’t that work for you?
And when you can focus on the problems, you will gain knowledge about their worldview, and then if you are lucky, this spark will lead to an insight.
Examples of things that emerged:
- Need more pre-made blueprint documents to help accelerate time to first sale
- Example recordings of real-life sales calls
- Time for mock sales role play scenarios
I have about three dozen other ideas that will have to be prioritized, but this gives me a great place to start when thinking about the types of improvements I will make for version two.
The real bonus for customers that participate in this is that they actually will receive most of the value that we end up adding to the program since each of our courses comes with lifetime access to the product. Win-win for sure.
Debriefs Make Better Businesses
Whether you are selling a product to hundreds of customers or delivering a service to a single customer, I would make an effort to add debriefs to your workflow. While our customers can’t tell us everything we need to do next, they provide the ingredients.
There is the famous (supposed) quote from Henry Ford:
“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
And this is precisely what you want. You want to ask your customers about their problems, what they think the solutions can be, and then you get the (fun) pleasure of figuring out how to jump the chasm of innovation.
From “faster horses” you can deduce “get from point A to point B faster,” and then come to the conclusion that creating a faster mode of transportation that can be owned and operated by an individual is ultimately what I’m after. Then you can look at the available technologies, trends, and competitive landscape to figure out how to get there.
So if you are doing debreifs, and you are lucky enough to get such a statement as “faster horses,” you are right in the money. Let the innovations and product improvements flourish.
Until next time.