Entrepreneurial Institute

Lessons Learned: A Startup's Secret Weapon—Customers!

Fang-Ke Huang is a postdoctoral fellow in NYU Langone Medical Center, applying the proteomic approach to understand the brain's functionalities such as learning and memory. Fang-Ke got his PhD from Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences. He is interested in the intersection of science and business.

When I was in graduate school, two fellow students and I participated in a venture challenge in which we had to submit an executive summary of a technology. We worked tirelessly, ruthlessly Google searching and brainstorming, and we came up with the best two-page executive summary we could produce. And we were confident that judges would love our business idea with heartwarming responses. However, our application was turned down with no feedback. Embarrassingly, another team took the same technology and won the challenge. Their executive summary had one clear difference from ours: an added section called “customer testimonials."

Before taking Steve Blank’s 5 day Lean LaunchPad class, I didn't understand the integral role that customers play in the business-building process.

Eric Betzig, one of the Nobel Laureates in Chemistry 2014, developed a groundbreaking method that enables an optical microscope to visualize images at nanoscale. The method is widely used and benefits scientists around the globe. Eric is unique in that he has experience in both science and business. He says in his biography that he "learned from [his] business experience that there is nothing more important than constant contact with the customer as you're developing new products."

Steve’s class taught me not only the importance of customers, but also the application of the scientific method to the business model. This methodology leverages the business model by segmenting the business idea into its components, similarly to how the scientific method breaks down a scientific inquiry into specific aims. Just like the process of scientific discovery, the Lean Startup process employs a hypothesis-driven strategy and uses experimentation with customers to guide the decision-making of each step. Using the scientific approach in business directs our attention and guides us through the engagement of each customer.

I also learned that an entrepreneur should have a productive attitude towards setbacks. Throughout the five days, I started to view setbacks as a chance for feedback and as opportunities to redirect my efforts. When I was looking for potential customers, I entered an office and got rejected by five people in a row. I realized that rejection can be contagious in a confined environment. When I was interviewing a researcher, her supervisor actually asked me to leave the lab because I did not have his permission to talk to the people in his lab. The takeaway? It might be better to do customer interviews in a cafeteria rather than a lab.

In the 5 days of the Lean LaunchPad course, my teammate and I were able to talk to 53 customers and were amazed by how much we learned in this process. In our business model canvas, we quickly identified two distinct customer segments, got to know what their pains are, and how our service could alleviate their pains. We learned how our customers may behave differently in different geographic regions and we even got the chance to talk to a potential partner. Steve Blank’s 5 day Lean LaunchPad course has been an incredible journey for me and I will certainly apply the process I learned to explore my next big idea.