Which Customers Should Students Interview?

Which Customers Should Students Interview?

Click play above for the video version of this post.

Helping Your Students With Customer Interviews

In our last article, we used the business model canvas to describe why students should interview their customers. We also talked about how to motivate your students to actually conduct those interviews.

If you haven’t read that article yet, please do that now.

If you have, let’s talk about some of the common problems your students will experience when they get out of the building to talk to customers.

  • customer interviewingThey’ll have trouble getting people to agree to interviews
  • They won’t find a pattern among the problems they’re hearing from people they interview
  • They won’t hear anything about the problems they want to solve

All of these problems are common and are…

The consequence of simply interviewing the wrong customers.

Which Customers To Interview?

Effective entrepreneurs interview their early adopters, so we need to teach our students who early adopters are and how they can find theirs.

To define early adopters, we’ll leverage definitions by Rogers, Moore, and Steve Blank, but with a twist to make the definition more actionable. You can start by reminding your students that…

Customers don’t buy products. Customers buy solutions to problems.

Your students shouldn’t think about early adopters in terms of their relationship to a product. We want them to think about Early Adopters in relationship to a problem.

early adopter problemsEarly adopters are people who have the problem that your students want to try and solve, know they have that problem, and. . .

Early Adopters are actively seeking a solution to their problem.

These customers, who are seeking a solution to their problem, are the ones you want your students to interviews.

Focus Customer Interviews on Early Adopters

If your students can find, and interview, their early adopters, they will have accomplished the single-most important aspect of finding Product-Market Fit.

Customer interviews validate almost half of a business model canvasThat’s because during their interviews with early adopters, your students are going to validate their:

  1. Customer segments
  2. Value proposition
  3. Customer relationships and
  4. Channels

All told, interviewing early adopters will validate almost half of your students’ business models.

Plus, these interviews will form the basis of their experiments for the rest of the business model canvas.

On the other hand, if your students can’t find early adopters, they won’t have anyone to provide social proof to the early majority. That means they’re not going to find anyone who’s going to bring on the late majority or the laggards.

If they can’t find early adopters, it is very unlikely your students are going to find Product-Market Fit.

Can't find Early Adopters? Can't find Product-Market Fit.If your students can’t find people seeking a solution to a problem, it doesn’t mean the problem doesn’t need solving. It doesn’t mean that the business idea is bad. It means the time isn’t right to solve the problem.

If your students can’t find anyone seeking a solution to this problem, now is not the opportune time to try solving that problem. Your students could be too early to solve this problem, or they could be too late. We know that now is not the right time.

Early Adopters are the Product-Market Fit litmus test

By trying to interview early adopters, your students can form the basis of their business model if they find them. If your students don’t find them, that’s helpful news as well, because they can pivot with confidence. If your students can’t find people seeking a solution to the problem, it’s better to know now than later, so they can another problem to solve that’s more likely to lead to their success.

Finding Early Adopters

When you teach your students how to find early adopters, you may find it easiest to contrast early adopters with the early majority, late majority, and laggards, especially if you can a case study to do it, like Airbnb.

Laggards don't have the problem you're trying to solveStart by describing the problem your case study company solves. In this case, the problem Airbnb was trying to solve when it got started was that it was too hard to find cheap hotel rooms during a conference.

Next, describe the concept of laggards, people who literally don’t have the problem the entrepreneurs are trying to solve. Because they don’t have the problem, they don’t know they have the problem, and they’re not seeking a solution for that problem.

An example laggard for Airbnb’s early days might be someone attending a conference but their company pays for their room. Or someone who can expense any hotel costs they have, so they don’t worry about the cost.

Late Majority don't know they have the problem you want to solveContrast that to the late majority. This is someone who has the problem the entrepreneurs want to solve, but doesn’t know it; they are not aware they have the problem. If your students are ever trying to convince someone they have a problem, they are likely talking to someone in the late majority. These are some of the worst people sell to, because they are not aware they have the problem. Someone who doesn’t know they have a problem is rarely willing to talk about solving that problem, and if someone won’t talk about solving a problem, they certainly won’t pay to solve it. It’s important that you educate your students about the late majority, otherwise they’ll try to “educate” all their customers to convince them they have a problem, and won’t make any traction.

In AirBnb’s example, a member of the late majority might be someone who charges the hotel room to a credit card, even though it’s too expensive for their budget. They may simply think this is the cost of doing business and not even realize they’re getting charged exorbitant fees for a room in high-demand.

Early Majority aren't actively seeking a solution to the problem you want to solveCompare the late majority to the early majority. These are customers who know they have the problem, but are not seeking a solution to it. Maybe they have experienced the problem, and acknowledged it’s an annoyance, but they haven’t been so disturbed by it that they sought a solution. Or maybe they did seek a solution, and either found one that was good enough, or they didn’t, and assumed the problem wasn’t solvable. No matter what, a member of the early majority isn’t actively seeking a solution now (but will jump on one if they hear about it from an early adopter).

In the Airbnb example, a member of the early majority might be someone who skips the conference because they can’t find a cheap hotel room. They know rooms are too expensive. They searched for cheaper rooms online, but they couldn’t find something to fit their budget. They had other problems to solve so maybe they gave up and simply decided not to attend the conference.

Early adopters are actively seeking a solution to the problem you want to solveThe last, and most important, group is our early adopters. These customers not only know they have the problem the entrepreneurs want to solve, but are seeking a solution to that problem.

In the Airbnb example, an early adopter might be someone posting on the conference discussion group asking to share a room to lower their costs. Or maybe they’re searching the hostels in the area to find an affordable room.

To find these all-important early adopters, your students should brainstorm behaviors that indicate someone is seeking a solution to the problem. In the Airbnb example, the behavior would be “posting on a forum for a room share”, so to find those early adopters, the founders would simply look on the design forum.

Only Interview Early Adopters

Interviewing non-early adopters is worse than a waste of timeYour students should avoid interviewing anyone who is not an early adopter for the problem they want to solve.

That’s because if your students interview non-early adopters, they will discover problems entirely unrelated to the problem they are trying to solve – and problems few people actively seeking solutions for.

Imagine your students asking a late majority, laggard, or early majority the hardest part about going to a conference in the Airbnb example. Because these non-early adopters customers are not aware of, or seeking a solution to the problem the founders want to solve, the customers will describe completely unrelated problems like…

  • The food isn’t very good
  • The presentations are boring
  • The tickets to the conference are too expensive

We don’t want your students getting distracted by these other problems – we want them to validate, or invalidate their current problem hypothesis.

To do that, your students’ best bet is to focus their attention on their early adopters. Your students can use their customers’ solution-seeking behavior to tell them where their early adopters are.

In the Class

finding early adopter customersAnother case study that’s fun to use is Uber. Have your students think about the early days of Uber. The problem they were solving was the difficulty finding a cab in a big city like San Francisco.

Ask your students to describe a laggard in the Uber example. Maybe it’s someone who doesn’t take cabs at all – maybe they ride their bike everywhere.

Next, ask your students to describe an member of Uber’s original late majority. An example example could be someone who takes cabs but is often late. This segment, the late majority, take it for granted and don’t think cabs could be faster. To them, it’s part of their daily routine and they don’t think it’s a problem.

Now ask your students to identify behaviors exhibited by an early majority customer. Remind them this is someone who knows they have the problem. Maybe they have a black cab service on speed dial. They don’t want to use regular cabs because they’re too slow, so they’ll pay the extra price for a black cab service. The early majority is someone who has a solution that’s good enough for now.

Finally ask your students to identify behaviors exhibited by an early adopter. Remind them that early adopters are seeking a solution. They could be reading reviews on Yelp to find the fastest cab service in San Francisco, or they could be leaving reviews complaining about the slow response time for certain cab companies.

Remember: students should use early adopters’ solution-seeking behavior to find them for interviews.

For more details, take a look at the complete lesson plan we’ve provided below.

Get the Who are Early Adopters Lesson Plan

We’ve created an experiential, 45-minute, Who are Early Adopters Lesson Plan to help you teach your students who to interview. It encapsulates everything we’ve talked about above.

Get the lesson plan


It’s free for any/all entrepreneurship teachers. Please feel free to share it.

All we ask is that you leave us some feedback on it the comments below so we can improve it!


Better Customer Interviews

better customer interviewsIn this article we described who early adopters are and how to find them. That will help your students conduct better interviews.

  • They will get more interviews.
  • Your students will find consistent problem patterns because they’re talking to people who are trying to solve that problem.
  • And Your students will find problems they want to solve because they’re not talking to late majority or laggards.

If they interview their early adopters, your students will form the basis of their business model. If they can’t find early adopters to interview, they’ll know isn’t the right time to solve the problem they hypothesized and they will have the confidence to pivot (to a backup idea they generated through their problem generation process).

What’s Next?

In future articles, we’ll talk about who your students should target for interviews, and what to ask during them. If you’d like those lesson plans, subscribe here to get them in your inbox.

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Entrepreneurship Syllabus 101: Start a Conversation

Entrepreneurship Syllabus 101: Start a Conversation

Our students are not engaged. Disengaged students drag down the energy in any class, which makes learning is harder to create. In any class, engagement starts with the syllabus. Students are trained to expect spoon feeding, and professors have been trained to deliver. Look at almost any syllabus – it is filled with boundaries, limitations and administrative legalese.

Imagine your syllabus as a promise; what if your syllabus invited students on a journey to discover their passions and path in life? What if your students believed this promise and were excited for every class session?

Many professors spend the majority of the first class reading through the syllabus. This is a student’s first impression of you and your course (other than maybe a perusal through www.ratemyprofessor.com). Think about teaching entrepreneurship – what first impression do you want to give?

Do you want to spoon-feed your students, or do you want to wake them up to the universe-altering, career-accelerating and impact-creating power of entrepreneurship?

Look at your syllabus. Seriously – print a copy and lay out the pages on your desk.

What message does that document send your students? Are you inviting them into a conversation? Does the language encourage students to be curious, to explore, to take risks? Would you be excited to take your course?

Is it really all that shocking that students are not engaged?

Imagine inspiring your students with your syllabus. What if you gave your students permission to leap through the language and tone of your syllabus?

Start With Your Syllabus

My goal is to challenge and enable faculty to create engaging classroom environments. It begins with our syllabus, but can also happen in many other ways (I highlight some of my crazy thoughts in my TEDx talk).

We need to trust our students and invite them to co-create their learning experiences. It begins with our syllabus.  We as professors need to relax our iron-clad grip on our classrooms. Our insecurity, manifested in our need for control, is our students’ greatest enemy. It begins with our syllabus.

As my brilliant colleague Julie-Ann McFann points out:

“Parker Palmer, in his classic book, Courage to Teach, describes a workshop where the faculty were complaining about their unenergetic students. Just then, classes got out and these supposedly lethargic students were full of life, talking and laughing with each other. Michael Wesch, a professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State, has a terrific TED talk where he compares a photo of students in a very large lecture class looking bored out of their minds with these same students at an American Idol audition (looking anything but bored). The solution is easy:

Stop spoon feeding them and get out of their way so that they can take ownership of their learning.”

Overhaul Your Syllabus

Don’t read your syllabus to your students. As Woody Allen points out, they’ve been doing their own reading since the first grade. While research outstanding professors, Ken Bain discovered an approach to creating a more engaging syllabus. He presented this approach, which he calls a “promising syllabus”, in his phenomenal book “What the Best College Teachers Do”. A promising syllabus

“fundamentally recognizes that people will learn best and most deeply when they have a strong sense of control over their own education rather than feeling manipulated by someone else’s demands.”

The key to engaging entrepreneurship students is to not treat them like students. Instead, engaging entrepreneurship teachers see their students as their customers

If you want to unlock your students’ energy and enthusiasm, realize what you want to teach is irrelevant. The problems your customers can solve with what you’re teaching them is the only thing that matters.

Just like we tell our students, customers don’t buy products, they buy solutions to problems. Your students don’t care about the skills you want to teach them. Those are the products that you shouldn’t be selling them. When you focus solely on selling products, your business (i.e. your class) will fail. 

What your students care about are the problems those skills will solve for them. Just like any business, if you want to engage your customers/students, focus on their problems, not your products.

Imagine your students feeling a sense of control over their own experience in your class. What if your students trusted you? As you are building a syllabus, keep one question in mind. It is the only question that matters in our interactions with students:

What will help them learn?

Make a promise

Tell students what you hope they will discover, gain, and take away from your time together. Present your students with opportunities your course offers them. What questions will your course help them answer? What goals will your course help them achieve? Students want to know what problems they will wrestle with during the quarter or semester, so tell them what those problems are.

The template I use has the following headings:

  • My Promise To You
  • Your Opportunities
  • Our Conversation

Explain how students can fulfill that promise

Invite students to engage with opportunities to discover, learn and grow (otherwise called activities). Help them believe that learning happens once they commit and engage. Share your expectations about thinking, reading, writing, and doing. Ask for their expectations.

The template I use has a section titled The Nitty Gritty. Here I share my perspective of the overall goal, deliverables, learning objectives and questions to answer for the course.

I also include a schedule for the entire semester, including General Topics, Suggested Deliverables, and Suggested Worksheets from the FOCUS Framework tool that I suggest they use.

Begin a conversation about students’ learning

One reason many students are not engaged is because the class is not a two-way conversation; faculty do not ask about and students do not feel comfortable sharing their expectations, their skills, and what and how they want to learn.

If you want a more engaged classroom, your students need to believe that you want to hear them, and that you’re willing to adjust to what you hear.

I include the following language in my template:

This is your journey – I encourage you to create it, own it, and execute it.

Your Conversations Starts With Your Syllabus

Your class is a conversation, with each and every student. With a promising syllabus as an introduction, you create a learning paradigm in your classroom. Your role is a facilitator, not an actor. You design and play games with your students instead of delivering information.

Students create their own learning.

You participate by creating a game plan. It all begins with your syllabus.

Students construct knowledge, they don’t receive it. They learn by asking questions and seeking answers through active exploration. Students fail, quickly, and you help them regroup, process, and take aim again.

You become a supporter, a mentor, and a learning partner.

You can give students a new perspective on learning by inviting them into an entrepreneurial experience. It all begins with your syllabus.

Get the Teaching Entrepreneurship Syllabus Template

We’ve created a syllabus template to help you engage your students. It encapsulates everything we’ve talked about above.

syllabus template
Get the syllabus template

Use it as a basis to begin and guide your own conversation with your students.

 

It’s free for any/all entrepreneurship teachers. Please feel free to share it.

All we ask is that you leave us some feedback on it the comments below so we can improve it!


What’s Next?

In an upcoming post, we talk how to create a living, breathing syllabus with your students that solves their real problems!

Subscribe here to get our next classroom resource in your inbox.

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Teaching Creative Solution Generation

Teaching Creative Solution Generation

It’s disheartening when students don’t leave their creative comfort zones.  When brainstorming solutions to problems, we want your students to explore a huge range of ideas so they can identify the most innovative, and disruptive, business models possible.

In this post we’ll share two exercises that will push students beyond their comfort zone to generate solutions that hold tremendous potential for solving customer problems. The first is less structured. The second is more structured.

Exercise 1: Solution Overload

Using the lesson plan from our Idea Generation article, students generate a quick list of problem ideas with the Problem List and Observation techniques described.

Now ask them to review their list of ideas and choose the problem they are most excited about solving. This should be a problem that resonates with them.

  • Does serving the customer who experiences that problem excite them?
  • Does envisioning a solution make them smile?

Once they’ve choose the problem they’re most motivated to solve, your students should list 100 solutions to that problem (thank you to the amazing Tina Seelig for the 100-solutions-approach-to-brainstorming from her Crash Course in Creativity!).

Encourage your students to keep going, even when they think they are done, to come up with more interesting and surprising solutions. They should consider the worst ideas they can think of, the most expensive and least expensive solutions, as well as ideas that would have worked 100 years ago or 100 years in the future. Push them to suspend their judgement and find 100 solutions.

100 solutions seems unrealistic because students generally want to stay in their comfort zone. In terms of ideas, that means they want to stick with the safety of top-of-mind solutions that anyone could identify. You want your students to shed these easy solutions and dig deep to create more innovative solutions. You want them to sweat a bit, to push beyond their comfort zone, to be a bit scared thinking about the types of solutions they envision.

Most entrepreneurship students quickly formulate ideas around either shallow or impossible solutions. They ignore the problem customers experience, they ignore the feelings that problem stirs up in customers, and they look for something shiny. Completing this exercise will help students feel safe exploring their creative potential, pushing past their comfort zone.

Sometimes our students prefer having more structure, especially when it comes to brainstorming and accessing the more creative parts of their  minds. If that’s the case in your class, consider the following exercise instead…

Exercise 2: Solution Ideation

Exercise 2 is adapted from The FOCUS Framework, a workbook series that provides entrepreneurs an action-oriented approach to achieving product-market fit (and is authored by, Justin Wilcox, one of the contributors to this blog).

This brainstorming exercise provides a bit more structure to help students break out of their comfort zone. As with Exercise 1, the outcome is a large quantity of ideas that are not top-of-mind. This exercise has an additional purpose – to break the patterns and restrictions that hold people back from truly innovative thinking.

Before beginning, share these two rules for the exercise with your students:

solution idea generation

For Rule #1, remind them that brainstorming is most effective when they just focus on coming up with ideas…not coming up with good ideas. There will be plenty of time to winnow them down later so any idea that comes up, is a good idea.

Re Rule #2, encourage your students to embrace any issues they have with authority figures during this process. This will be their opportunity to discuss illegal ideas, physically impossible ideas, outlandishly expensive ideas. While other teachers force their students to color within the lies…

You want your students lighting the coloring book on fire, so they can melt the crayons into rainbow candles, and sell them at the farmer’s market.

Step 1:

Your students should create a question in the following format, customizing everything in brackets to align with their new business:

How can we help [customer] not feel [emotions] when they [encounter the problem]?

We want your students to develop solutions that eliminate the negative emotions customers feel, thereby solving a real problem. We consider a real problem to be one that causes customers to feel something uncomfortable. For example, receiving an F on a test is not a problem for a student. It becomes a problem when the student feels ashamed about repeating the class, or feels afraid of his parents’ reaction.

Great solutions don’t just solve problems. They replace the uncomfortable emotion created by the problem.

The question they write using the template above will serve as their motivation throughout their solution ideation process. They should return back to this question whenever they get stuck or need some inspiration.

Step 2:

Your students should quickly list the first 5 solutions they can think of to answer the question from step 1. We want them to clear their mind of the easy solutions that anyone can think of and allow themselves to dig deeper into innovative thinking.

Step 3:

Your students should now think of two solutions that are physically impossible. Put some image of science fiction on the screen to encourage them to think beyond what is known. Encourage them to let their mind go to the absurd:

  • Can they solve the problem with time travel?
  • How can teleportation help?
  • If humans and animals could all speak the same language…

Next, have them write down three more realistic ideas that were not part of their thinking in Step 2.

Now that they have let their mind go to the physically impossible, their subsequent set of realistic ideas should benefit having stretched their innovation neurons.

Step 4:

Your students should think of two solutions that are illegal. Encourage them to let their minds wander and have fun with this process:

  • Does kidnapping the smartest person in the world to help co-found this company help solve this problem help?
  • If they blatantly copied an existing product, could that inform a better solution?
  • If they stole a giant pile of money from a ruthless drug lord, how can that help solve this problem?

As in Step 3, follow up the absurd solutions with having them then write down three more new realistic ideas. Now that they have let their mind go to the physically impossible and the illegal, their disruptive muscles will be much stronger.

Step 5:

Your students should think of two solutions if money were no object:

  • They have infinite resources or
  • Their customers have infinite resources

Encourage them to let the absurdity flow. Then do the opposite, they have to come up with two solutions to the problem that require no money at all – for them, or their customers.

As before, after providing limitations on their ideas, lift the restrictions and ask them to use those as inspiration for three more realistic ideas.

Each student/team will now have 20 realistic ideas of how they can solve their customer’s’ problem.

Step 6:

If your students have conducted customer interviews prior to this exercise, which we highly recommend, they should write down the main deficiencies their customers are experiencing with their current solutions to their problems.

If they haven’t conducted customer interviews, ask them to hypothesize two or three deficiencies with their customers’ current solutions to the problem.

Step 7:

Ask your students to draw four solutions. This will engage a different part of their brain for their creative brainstorming than the one they’ve been using in the previous steps.

Tell your students that the quality of their drawing is not relevant. What’s important is that they are expanding the way they think about solutions.

Thinking about the deficiencies from Step 6, ask your students to review the 20 solution ideas they’ve come up with so far, and draw the four that are most:

  1. Logical – which makes the most logical sense to them?
  2. Delightful – which would make their customers ecstatic?
  3. Inexpensive – which would be least expensive for them to build (thinking about both time and money)?
  4. Disruptive – which would be the biggest game changer for their industry/the world?

In their drawings, they are not allowed to use words, numbers, letters, or characters. Only images. Drawing complements the writing they have been doing, to tap deeper into their creative potential.

Step 8:

Each student should now choose two of the fours solutions they’ve drawn to test via experimentation.

Once they’ve chosen their ideas, they should explain them to another student or team.

Teaching Brainstorming Techniques

Each exercise outlined above helps students feel safe exploring their creative potential and pushing past their comfort zone. They also provide your students with a large list of potential solutions. If you work with groups in your course, we encourage you to have your students complete the exercise individually, then aggregate their lists. Instead of 100 or 20 solution ideas, a group of four could potentially have 400 or 80 solutions to have fun exploring!

Imagine your students able to quickly develop lists of creative, but impactful, solutions to problems they hear potential customers describe.

Just as entrepreneurship students need to stretch beyond their comfort zone to generate quality solutions …

We need to leave our comfort zone to create an engaging learning environment.

For more details, take a look at the complete lesson plan we’ve provided below.

Get the Teaching Creative Solution Generation Lesson Plan

We’ve created an experiential, 45-minute, Teaching Creative Solution Generation Lesson Plan to help your students generate more impactful solutions. It touches on everything we’ve talked about above.

Get the lesson plan

Use it as a basis to motivate your students to discover solutions beyond their comfort zone.

 

It’s free for any/all entrepreneurship teachers. Please feel free to share it.

All we ask is that you leave us some feedback on it the comments below so we can improve it!


What’s Next?

In an upcoming post, we talk about how to build a syllabus that engages students in a powerful conversation about their ideas, their fears, and their path toward entrepreneurship!

Subscribe here to get our next lesson plan in your inbox.

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Motivating Your Students to Interview Customers

Motivating Your Students to Interview Customers

Click play above for the video version of this post.

The Power of Customer Interviews

Most entrepreneurship teachers are familiar with how powerful customer interviews are in validating a business model. But how do we motivate our students to leverage that power?

So often our students resist conducting customer interviews.

motivating students to interview customer

Their push back makes sense:

  • They’re nervous about talking to strangers.
  • No one’s shown them how to do this interviewing thing.
  • They don’t learn this technique somewhere else.
  • They’ve never seen or heard sample interviews.
  • They are overwhelmed; it feels like too much work.
  • Students have to find people to interview, ask them for the interview, and conduct and analyze the interview.
  • All the while, they’re worried about looking and feeling stupid.

In the article below, we’re going to offer you a two-step approach to motivate your students to take advantage of…

The most powerful business model validation tool we have at our disposal: customer interviews.

The first step of this approach is to provide the underlying business model theory so they understand why customer interviews are a critical step in their validation journey. We’ll show you how to use the business model canvas to help you do that. But that’s not enough to get your students talking to customers.

You’ll also need the second step, which is to invite them to experience the transformative power of customer interviews by observing a real interview during an experiential exercise.

Be sure to download the Lesson Plan below for full-details.

Customer Interviews and the Canvas

Customer interviews validate almost half of a business model canvasHow do you communicate to your students that customer interviews are the critical component of business model validation? If you use the Business Model Canvas or the Lean Canvas, use them to illustrate this point.

Show a canvas to your students and pose this question:

“Which business model components will customer interviews help you validate?”

Most students point to the Customer Segments or Value Proposition components. Those are both correct, customer interviews will help them directly validate those components.

Customer interviews will also help them validate the Customer Relationships and Channels assumptions. It turns out, when done effectively…

Customer interviews will help your students validate assumptions for almost half of their business models.

The business model assumptions that interviews don’t validate directly will be validated indirectly because everything is derived from the top right corner of the business model canvas.

For this reason, customer interviews are not just a powerful tool,

Customer interviews are the most powerful tool we have for validating business models.

Well-executed customer interviews are far more useful than surveys, focus groups, market research or observations. Every hypothesis your students make can be validated with them, or as a direct result of what they learn during them.

Experiencing Customer Interviews

Once you’ve described why these interviews are so important, it’s time to let your students experience the power of customer interviews first hand. To do that, we invite you to run an exercise with them.

First, ask your students to create a product for parents of children with ADHD. You can do this individually or in teams, whatever fits your class best. The assignment is to design a product for this customer segment.

Note: many of of your students will have no clue how to serve this customer segment and will find this step of the exercise challenging…which is exactly what you want.

customer interview

Next, ask them to design a Facebook ad to market their new product. The Facebook ad should include several components, including:

  1. A compelling headline
  2. An image and
  3. A description that motivates their customer to take an action (e.g. Click here to learn more, Buy now, etc.).

Once your students have completed both steps, discuss how confident they are they’ve got a product customers will buy, and a compelling ad for that product. During this discussion, highlight the difficulties they encountered coming up with a product in a vacuum, and how difficult it is to come up with a compelling marketing strategy (or even one ad) without speaking to customers.

Make Customer Interviews Real

Next is the really fun part. In the lesson plan below, we’ve included a recording of a sample customer interview with the parent of a child who has ADHD. Play that interview for your students.

During the recording, your students will hear:

  1. Two very real problems this mother has encountered,
  2. The emotions the mother feels associated with those problems,
  3. The solutions the mother has tried to solve those problems.

These three things – the problems, the emotions invoked by those problems, and the attempted solutions to the problems – are customer interviewing gold. Those are aspects on which we build all the components of a business model going forward.

Have your students listen to the interview so they can hear how informative these conversations can be. The first seven minutes of the recording is the interview itself. It’s worth noting that although this was an interview with a real potential customer, it was conducted as a demonstration. Most interviews your students will conduct will be 30-60 minutes long.

The following ten minutes of the recording are a group of students and I discussing what they heard during the interview. Consider listening to this section of the recording if you think it will help prepare you to answer questions your students may have.

Iterate

After listening to the interview, invite your students to redesign their product.

This time they get to leverage the fact that at least one mother of a child with ADHD has a problem getting that child to sleep. They also know that mother is worried about what sort of coping mechanisms her child will need once she’s an adult.

Your students should use the problem they heard during the interview as inspiration for their new products.

Customer Interview Exercise

For any company they start, your students can leverage the conversations they have with their potential customers to design their company and the product.

Once they’ve designed their product, have them redesign their Facebook ad. During this phase, make sure your students leverage the guilt and frustration they heard from the mother.

Entrepreneurs use emotional language to connect with their customers and demonstrate they understand the customers’ problems. When a customer sees or hears language that resonates with them on an emotional level, they know “this person understands me.”

When your students create an ad that addresses the guilt of being a mother of a child with ADHD that has been undiagnosed, their potential customer perceives that ad more positively because “finally, someone understands my experience.”

Your students can also reference the competitive solutions the mother has tried to solve her problems. Using the problems, emotions, and solutions the mother evoked during the interview is a way for your students to tell customers like her,

“We understand your problem. And because we understand it, we are uniquely suited to solve your problem.”

After they’ve built their new ad, open a second discussion comparing and contrasting what it was like building a product in a vacuum without speaking to customers versus building a product and ad inspired by customer interviews.

Talk about the benefits of collaborating with customers to create a product, and how doing so can help them market that product as well. Talk about how willing the customer was to talk about her problems, and how she seemed to enjoy the experience (i.e. people enjoy being genuinely asked about their problems so they shouldn’t feel like they are imposing on their interviewees).

Also be sure to talk about how it may feel like extra, and sometimes uncomfortable, work to talk with customers before creating a product, but how…

Nothing accelerates the creation of a successful product more than talking to your customers about their problems.

Now that you know how to help your students feel what it’s like to use customer interviews as the inspiration for a new product, and can explain their relationship to the Business Model Canvas, you have the tools to motivate your students to do their own customer interviews.

For more details, take a look at the complete lesson plan we’ve provided below, including the link to the sample interview recording.

Get the Experiencing Customer Interviews Lesson Plan

We’ve created an experiential, 45-minute, Experiencing Customer Interviews Lesson Plan to help you motivate your students to talk to their customers. It encapsulates everything we’ve talked about above.

Get the lesson plan

Use it as a basis to motivate your students to interview customers.

 

It’s free for any/all entrepreneurship teachers. Please feel free to share it.

All we ask is that you leave us some feedback on it the comments below so we can improve it!


Interviews, Not Guesses

You want students to develop powerful solutions that solve real problems for real customers. To do that,

They need to become comfortable interviewing customers.

If you want your students to interview customers so their solutions are more powerful, try this technique in your next course.

In future articles, we’ll talk about who your students should target for interviews, and what to ask during them. If you’d like those lesson plans, subscribe here to get them in your inbox.

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Why We Shouldn’t Teach “Idea” Generation

Why We Shouldn’t Teach “Idea” Generation

Click play above for the video version of this post.

Idea generation is one of the most difficult aspects of teaching entrepreneurship. At colleges around the world, you hear the same business ideas over and over again:

  • A dedicated driver service.
  • A way to not you lose your keys or wallet.
  • An alcohol delivery service.

entrepreneurship, ideas, teachingYou’re also hearing ideas that are low impact:

  • Put a logo on a t-shirt.
  • Put a logo on a koozie.

Or you hear ideas that are simply infeasible from a business or realistic perspective.

A Better Way

Below we’ll describe an alternative approach to helping students generate ideas, and provide an experiential lesson plan for you to use in your classes.

Your goal is to help your students identify better business ideas. The higher quality their ideas, the higher quality businesses they’ll build, and the higher quality skills they’ll acquire in your class.

Ideally, student ideas would be simultaneously:

  1. Creative
  2. Impactful and
  3. Feasible

To accomplish the above, we typically start with a variety of idea generation exercises.

The problem is, idea generation is the wrong solution to this problem.

It is almost impossible for anyone to come up with creative, impactful, and feasible business ideas. The best entrepreneurs in the world struggle to come up with ideas that fulfill these requirements; it’s no surprise that we have a difficult time helping our students come up with them.

Idea Generation Doesn’t Work

Before you read past this next image, I want you visualize an entrepreneur coming up with a great business idea. What does that process of coming up with an idea look like to you?

entrepreneurship, idea, teaching

Most of us imagine an entrepreneur having a “light-bulb moment”, where she is inspired to create a genius new product that is impactful and financially successful. In other words,

We think “idea generation” is synonymous with “product idea generation.”

Customers reject products.

After coming up with an impactful, creative product idea, it’s easy to imagine our entrepreneurs introducing their products to customers, who immediately embrace them for their bold thinking and innovative approach.

As you already know, this never happens in reality. Almost universally, customers reject new products whether they’re developed inside, or outside, the classroom. Why?

Because customers don’t buy products. Customers buy solutions to problems.

entrepreneurship, teaching, problem, solution, ideaWhen we teach our students to think of business ideas in terms of products, it’s no wonder they struggle. Customers don’t want products!

If we can focus our students’ attention on what customers really care about – their problems – our students can use those problems as inspiration to generate creative, impactful and feasible solutions to those problems.

What if instead of focusing on idea generation we focused on problem generation?

Starting with Problems

If we know customers buy solutions to problems, it makes sense that any entrepreneurial journey should start from a problem, not a product.

When our students focus on solving problems instead of inventing products, the customers they approach will shift from being wary and rejecting to being curious and enthusiastic. Why? Because someone is finally listening to their problems and helping them do something about it.

That’s when this problem-focused approach begins to produce empowering results:

While customers reject products, they will prepay for solutions to their problem.

It’s not up to us as instructors to decide whether business ideas are good or bad. It’s up to our students’ customers and there’s no better metric for our students to know they’ve found a good business idea than if their customers prepay, or sign a Letter of Intent, for it.

Of course, there’s no better way for your students to collect prepayments and LOIs, than for them to convince their customers that they will solve their problems.

Teaching a Lifelong Skill

When we teach problem discovery skills, we teach our students how to make empathetic connections with their customers.

Knowing how to empathetically connect with others is a lifelong skill that will reap rewards throughout their personal and professional lives, like when they’re:

  • Interviewing for jobs
  • Collaborating with co-workers
  • Connecting with their family
  • And of course, when they start their own company.

How to Teach “Problem Generation”

The first step to teaching problem generation is to help students brainstorm problems they are uniquely suited to solve. To do that, you can use this exercise, which is fully documented in the downloadable Lesson Plan below.

Step 1

Invite your students to write down three customer segments they are members of. This can be just about any three groups of people they feel like they belong to.

Some great examples would be:

  • Skateboarders
  • Vegetarians
  • Only children

Step 2

Next, invite your students to write three “passion segments.” Their passion segments will be groups of people, whom are different than their previous three segments, who they are genuinely excited to serve; people for whom they would like to solve problems.

As with Step 1, there are no right/wrong answers. Some examples would be:

  • Members of a specific religion
  • Crossfitters
  • Under-resourced youth

(Note: it’s fine if they are members of their passion segments – in fact, that’s ideal – they just can’t duplicate any of their previous segments.)

Step 3

Of the six segments they’ve brainstormed, students should now pick their top three.

It doesn’t matter whether they pick all three of their passion segments, all three of the segments they are members of, or a combination of the two. As long as they are excited about helping people in those three segments solve their problems, they’re on the right track.

(Note: a nice consequence of this exercise is you’re demonstrating creative brainstorming techniques to your students. By ideating on a number of different potential segments to serve, and then filtering/prioritizing that list of segments, you’re modeling a creative thinking technique they can use in the future.)

Step 4

With their top 3 segments identified, invite your students to hypothesize three problems members of those segments might be trying to solve right now.

For example, if a student chooses skateboarders, the student might hypothesize their customers would express a problem like, “I am having trouble transporting my skateboard on public transit.”

For Crossfitters, maybe they’d hypothesize a problem like, “I don’t how do I make sure I’m getting the right mix of nutrients in my meals.”

It doesn’t matter if the problems the students hypothesize are realistic, the goal is simply to identify several problems the entrepreneurs are uniquely suited to validate. After completing this step, each student will have identified at least nine problems they are uniquely capable of validating, because they either:

  • Experience the problem themselves or
  • They are passionate about helping the people who are experiencing it.

Of these nine problems, they can pick the problem they are most excited to validate during your course. As a bonus, if that idea gets invalidated, you’ll have helped them proactively come up with eight alternative/backup ideas they are excited to validate!

No matter which problems your students choose, their business ideas will be:

  • More feasible than typical student ideas because they’re focusing on serving people they care about.
  • More impactful because they’re paying more attention to problems than they are products.
  • More creative because they’ll get to use those problems as inspiration (as opposed to relying on a “light-bulb moment”/devine intervention).

Get the Complete Problem Generation Lesson Plan

We’ve created an experiential, 45-minute, Entrepreneurship Problem Generation Lesson Plan that encapsulates everything we’ve talked about above.

Get the lesson plan

Use it as a basis to teach your students to identify problems they are uniquely suited to solve

 

It’s free for any/all entrepreneurship teachers. Please feel free to share it.

All we ask is that you leave us some feedback on it the comments below so we can improve it!


Problems, Not Ideas

You want students to develop creative, impactful and feasible business ideas. Don’t focus their attention on idea generation, because customers don’t buy ideas.

Customers buy solutions to problems.

Creativity plays a critical role in entrepreneurship, but it’s not in coming up with products. Creativity is best used in entrepreneurship to brainstorm solutions to problems.

If you want your students to generate ideas that are more likely to become successful businesses, try this Problem Generation technique in your next course.

If you’d like more lesson plans like this, subscribe here to get the next one, How to get your Students Bought-In to Customer Interviews, in your inbox.

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Intro to Problem Validation

Intro to Problem Validation

If you’re like most of us entrepreneurship professors, after you help your students come up with great startup ideas, you ask them to fill a business model canvas or a lean canvas with their assumptions. Now you want them to validate those assumptions. 

The canvas is great at illuminating all the assumptions students have about their business, but it won’t help them actually test those assumptions.

Imagine if students could take a few quick steps to know if they were on the right track. How can we get them there? Ideally, we teach them an entrepreneur’s version of the “scientific method” so they can:

  • Identify their business model hypotheses,
  • Develop experiments to test those hypotheses,
  • Analyze the experiment results to (in)validate their hypothesis.

5 Steps to Problem Validation Expertise

Many entrepreneurship students struggle to validate the problem they are solving for their customers. While they often understand why validation is important, they don’t know how to test their assumptions, especially when it comes to the critical problem hypothesis.

Here are some quick ways to help them practice hypothesizing their customers’ problems, and validating those hypotheses.

  1. Make a hypothesis: Students hypothesize about the most intense problem the other students’ in their entrepreneurship class are experiencing. They write down what they think other students in your class would say when asked, “What is the hardest part about this class?” (e.g. “The homework is too time-consuming”).
  2. Define a success metric: Before asking their peers the question above, each student writes down the number of interviewees they think will report the problem they’ve written down (e.g. “If 3 out of the 5 students I interview say the homework is too time-consuming, I will have validated my hypothesis.”).
  3. 1-Question individual interviews: Students ask 5 other students in their class,

    “What is the hardest part about this class?”

    For each interview, they write down the name of each student they interviewed, and their biggest challenge.

  4. Analyze their results: Students analyze the answers they’ve written down and tally up how many of their peers reported the problem they hypothesized. Any students who invalidated his/her hypothesis, should highlight the most common problem they heard.
  5. Discuss as a class: Students share their experiences interviewing and being interviewed, the most common problems they heard, how many people validated/invalidated their hypotheses, and what surprised them most about the responses they heard.

Problem Validation Teaching Points

No matter the outcomes of the experiments, you can highlight several teaching points.

  • If a student’s hypothesis is validated: Talk about why it’s a great idea to start a company that “scratches your own itch.” When they are a member of their customer segment, they know the problems and can empathize with their customers.
  • If a student’s hypothesis is validated: Highlight the power of interviewing. If that student built a company to solve their hypothesized problem, that company would have failed. Since they took the time to test their hypothesis, they are much more likely to succeed in building a company.
  • If they find no pattern in the problems they heard? You can talk about what happens when interviewing customers across customer segments. Students learn that “problem noise” creates confusion and you can discuss how developing niche customer based on some criteria (gender, major, age), and re-interviewing those niches can help to find a consistent pattern.

The 1-Question individual interviews exercise above is powerful for a number of reasons.

  • It helps students ease their way into customer interviewing, by talking with a group of people they are comfortable with.
  • It facilitates a discussion about talking to other people about their problems, and what it’s like to have someone asking the students about their problems. The typically enjoyable experience of being interviewed (i.e. having someone ask about, and listen to, your problems), gives your students a sense of what it will feel like for their eventual interviewees. Students typically assume their interviews are inconveniencing their interviewees, but you can use this exercise to highlight that more often than not, customers enjoy being interviewed because someone is genuinely interested in help them solve a problem.
  • By asking about your students’ biggest challenges, you’re modeling the behavior you want to see in your students – you’re collecting data about your customers’ problems!
  • You have the opportunity to talk about why it’s far less important to be “right” than it is to run the experiment. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whose assumptions were validated, and whose were invalidated; what matters is the real-world data collected about customer problems. In this way, invalidated assumptions aren’t “failures.”

Invalidated assumptions provide as much valuable information about the market as validated assumptions.

For more details, check out our complete Intro to Problem Validation lesson plan below.

What Entrepreneurship Students Learn

To summarize, through the six steps outlined above, students learn:

  • How to develop a problem hypothesis.
  • How to develop success metrics for that hypothesis to ensure it’s testable.
  • Why it can be helpful to “scratch your own itch”.
  • Why talking to customers before they start a company is so important.
  • How to not lead or bias their interviewees (by asking about problems, not products).
  • It is not pleasant to be interviewed.
  • It is more important that their hypotheses be tested, than they be right.

Imagine your students leaping from an idea and the basic assumptions underlying their business model to (in)validating assumptions through real time engagement with potential customers. They are now able to describe the problem in the customer’s own words. What if your students understood how to use the information they gather from customer interviews?

Just as entrepreneurship students need to validate problems to create solutions people will buy… 

We as entrepreneurship educators need to validate student problems to build an engaging learning environment.

Download our Problem Validation Lesson Plan

We’ve created an experiential, 45-minute, Entrepreneurship Problem Validation Lesson Plan that encapsulates everything we’ve talked about above.

Get your lesson plan

Use it as a basis to teach your students to:

  • Develop a testable hypothesis
  • Practice defining success metrics for their experiments
  • Validate their assumptions by talking to potential customers
  • Analyze their experiment results

 

It’s free for any/all entrepreneurship teachers. Please feel free to share it.

All we ask is that you leave us some feedback on it the comments below so we can improve it!


What’s Next?

In an upcoming post, we talk about teaching your students to conduct high quality, real-world customer interviews in an engaging and approachable way!

Subscribe here to get our next lesson plan in your inbox.

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Teaching Entrepreneurship Idea Generation

Teaching Entrepreneurship Idea Generation

When teaching entrepreneurship, how many times have you heard:

  • “I have an idea for an app that finds a parking space on campus.”
  • “It’s like Uber for . . . “
  • “I am going to design and sell t-shirts at . . . [homecoming, Greek Week, Spring Fling, etc.]”

Entrepreneurship students default to the first two ideas without thinking. The third idea is just…boring. These are all easy for students to conjure up, and offer little potential impact. As my good friend Alex Bruton says,

“Most of your ideas suck (but they don’t have to).”

You need to tell students that, so they spend less time floundering and more time flourishing.

What Is a Quality Entrepreneurship Idea?

You don’t want another coffee shop or restaurant plan. You don’t want to hear an idea about an electronic Pet Rock.

You want ideas that:

  • Solve a real problem for real people,
  • Serve a niche market accessible to the student,
  • (At least a prototype) can be pre-sold within a semester, and
  • Have the potential to scale.

You want to guide students through the struggle to identify a quality idea like:

  • A pop-up salon for female victims of domestic violence
  • An on-demand service driving food overflow from restaurants and grocery stores to families struggling to make ends meet
  • Fertility treatments that are 90% successful
  • Solar cells made exponentially more efficient through cryogenics.

Imagine an entrepreneurship classroom bustling with impactful ideas like these (BTW, current students are actively working on these ideas).

3 Ways to Generate Quality Entrepreneurship Ideas

Quality ideas are not easy to generate, especially for a typical 20-something college student with limited life experience.

Here are some easy steps to help your entrepreneurship students identify quality ideas:

  • Problem List: students list every problem they encounter or observe over the course of one Tuesday and one Saturday.
  • Observation: students identify the type of business they want to start. They spend 30 minutes observing that type of business – if retail, they wander around the store. If online, they get friends together to play with the website. Students jot down all the problems they observe customers experiencing.
  • 1-Question Interviews: students perform mini problem interviews by asking the same question of 5 different people:

    “What’s been the hardest part about work/school over the last week?”

    Require that your students speak with specific types of people so they can get used to interviewing customers (without the anxiety of approaching complete strangers):

    • A friend who attends the college
    • A friend who doesn’t attend the college
    • A friend of a friend they’ve never met before
    • A non-student who works off-campus
    • A family member

    During this exercise, your students will see that the best inspiration for high quality ideas actually comes from customers themselves.

For more details, check out our Idea Generation Lesson Plan below.

3 Questions to Assess the Quality of Entrepreneurship Ideas

How do you know, and help students test, the quality of an idea? That’s often a semester-long process (which we’ll detail in future posts), but for starters, entrepreneurship students should be able to concisely explain the following for any idea:

  • The problem it solves
  • The customer segment(s) who most painfully experiences the problem
  • Why they are the right team/person to solve this problem

Along the way, you can conduct a quick heuristic idea assessment using these questions:

  • Is it easy to understand the problem they are solving (when they explain the problem, do you furrow your brow or do you nod your head)?
  • Do the customers they identify logically experience this problem?
  • Does the student have any relevant experience, knowledge, network and/or passion for solving this problem?

For example, the founders behind Packback, while students at Illinois State University, could impress the most seasoned investors with their answers to these three questions. It is no coincidence they went on to secure a deal with Mark Cuban on Shark Tank.

As the Packback team says, we should all be helping:

“Awaken the fearless, relentless curiosity inside every student.”

Imagine if your students truly experienced butterflies, back sweat and breathlessness during their classroom experiences!

Imagine your students working on ideas they care about.

Imagine your students quickly testing demand through pre-orders.

Students will learn the mindset and skill set it takes to be a successful entrepreneur in this kind of high-impact learning environment.

Of course, just as entrepreneurship students need quality ideas to build impactful businesses…

We need quality ideas to build an engaging learning environment.

Download our Idea Generation Lesson Plan

We’ve created an experiential, 45-minute, Entrepreneurship Idea Generation Lesson Plan that encapsulates everything we’ve talked about above.

Get your lesson plan

Use it as a basis to teach your students:

  • What a quality business idea is
  • How they come up with lots of them
  • An intro to “customer interviews”

 

It’s free for any/all entrepreneurship teachers, so please feel free to share it.

All we ask is that you leave us some feedback on it in the comments below so we can improve it!


What’s Next?

In an upcoming post, we talk about how to help your students develop powerful solutions to the problems they identify!

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Get new lesson plans via email.