Lessons Learned: The Trough of Despair
Democrateyes is democratizing beauty by bringing together experts to help consumers make informed decisions about makeup and skincare products and routines.
While Democrateyes has made significant progress during Summer Launchpad, it has not been without ups and downs. As part of the Lean Startup Methodology, we've spent a lot of our time talking to dozens of customers, finding patterns in their frustrations, and using this information to inform our product. Many articles have been written about how to find customers to interview and how to interview them, but fewer have answered: what happens after you have this information? Here is the answer.
After talking to so many people, you may realize that some of your hypotheses about your startup are incorrect; it could be anything from your revenue model to customer segments, planned features, or customer pain points (or all of the above!). Your head will get a bit muddled. When people ask what your company does, you’ll glance side to side and stutter a bit. You may feel a sense of defeat. Welcome to what is known as the “trough of despair.”
Before I delve into how my partner, Jason Schapiro, and I have begun to climb out, I’d like to take a minute to encourage and applaud those who have made it into the trough, even if you haven’t made it out yet. If you’ve unlocked this achievement, it means that you have actually been listening to what your customers truly want. It can be easy to selectively hear reaffirming words from your (potential) users. But, if you launch a product that people feel “meh” about, you will have wasted a lot of resources and time.
I’m in the trough, what now?
Here are some things that have helped us:
1) Keep talking to customers!
If your hypotheses have been invalidated, and you aren’t quite sure what your customers need, you must keep talking to people. The more people you interview, the clearer the patterns become. For Summer Launchpad, we are required to do 100 customer interviews (we’re currently at 61!).
2) Take objective notes during customer interviews.
Look over the insights you’ve gathered from your previous customer interviews and really focus on what the pain points have been. Of course, this is only possible if you took clear, objective notes during each interview. Here are two tactics that have helped us:
- Go into interviews looking to invalidate your assumptions. Look for the answers you don’t want to hear.
- Conduct interviews with at least two teammates. While Jason takes notes, I am able to ask questions and gauge body language.
3) Remember that communication and understanding are key.
Make sure that at all points, you truly understand the problem you are solving and that you and your teammate(s) are in agreement that this is the issue. Your founding team is the foundation of your business, make sure there are no cracks in that foundation.
4) Fear the “meh” product.
Don’t try to fit your customers to your product; amend your product to fit your customers. A lot of people get stuck on their initial product idea, ignoring strong customer signals. Don’t get caught in this trap: fear the “meh” product.
Get your team together and draw out customer archetypes, and mindmap every aspect of the business that you are uncertain about. Jason and I have found it incredibly helpful to do this separately, then compare our notes to find where we overlapped and where we differed. We then discuss our conclusions and collaboratively draw out our new hypotheses.
6) Talk to mentors and advisers.
Be honest with your mentors and advisors, and their advice will be invaluable. If mentors have volunteered their time to help you, they want to help you.
Starting a business is indeed a roller coaster, but you will find a surprising amount of support from your friends and family, mentors, connections, and the startup community. Now, get out of that trough and find product-market fit!
This post is part of the Lessons Learned series featuring NYU entrepreneurs’ first-hand accounts of challenges faced in starting a business and the lessons learned along the way.