Jade Borgeson is a recent graduate of the NSF I-Corps 2015 Bay Area Cohort and NYU Abu Dhabi alumna. She served as the entrepreneurial lead at the Domestic Violence Knowledge Bank, an online platform that connects the court system and social service providers to the resources needed to implement evidence-informed best practices in domestic violence service provision.
As a homegrown academic (both my parents are now Dr. Borgeson - and not of the medical sort) and recent graduate, my experience in the NSF I-Corps served as my formal introduction to the for-profit, entrepreneurial world. Pivoting from the academic into the entrepreneurial, at first I noticed only the most obvious parallels between the strategies employed through customer development and those employed in pursuit of my academic degree: Throughout both my capstone project at NYU Abu Dhabi and my time spent I-Corps, I formulated clear testable hypotheses, translated interview data into quantitative indicators, and synthesized research in order to refine and analyze the hypotheses I initially set out.
However, it did not take long before some important lessons emerged from my experience in I-Corps that spoke to successfully transitioning from academic life to business model development; lessons that accentuated the differences in achieving success across these two lines of inquiry. These are some of my most memorable takeaways:
Know When to “Turn Off” Scholar Mode
Having conducted numerous interviews with professionals in a sociological capacity, the temptation to rely on a rigid set of meticulously perfected interview questions throughout customer interviews was ever-present. Of course, having a set of questions in mind, developed, and on paper is useful, but don’t be afraid to stray from what you had planned to ask when an interesting bit of information comes up in an interview. Knowing when to probe a little deeper or shift the course of the interview in an unexpected direction when customers give unclear - or even seemingly illogical - responses can lead to some of the most crucial insights for your business model. Through I-Corps, our team learned essential lessons about communicating with potential users of the platform, including how a simply shift in language used to describe the product market could dramatically alter our users’ receptiveness to it. Learning to match the tone and language of your interviewees by dropping academic jargon and using their own words to reframe questions can also make a great difference in the quality of feedback you receive. Sometimes you might even need to ask the same question multiple times in different ways to get an informative answer, but don’t be afraid to stray from “the script” if this strategy does not work in your favor. In short, walk into interviews with a defined yet flexible goal, talk like a human, and leverage your natural curiosity to investigate your hypotheses.
Recognize Your Limits
As Denis Waitley once said, “You must continue to gain expertise, but avoid thinking like an expert.” While talking to potential customers, you are likely to encounter many who challenge the foundations of your scholarly understanding of the subject at hand, or lead you into unfamiliar subject areas. Our team started I-Corps with a substantial history working in offender treatment but quickly came to understand the immense value of speaking to potential customers from a wide range of related careers, some of whom we had very little prior experience working with. Be willing to recognize the limits of your knowledge during the process of building your business, note them, and let them guide you into new and unknown territory. Don’t let your current understanding of the topic at hand limit you from investigating unfamiliar customer pain points and interacting with audiences that you didn’t anticipate at the outset.
… And Challenge Them
Never, ever, try to convince the customer they are wrong. While it might be tempting, the customer should teach and challenge you, not the other way around. Its easy to see potential pivots or challenges to your initial assumptions as hindrances in the beginning, throwing you into the unknown, but try to view these challenges as benevolent guidance rather than unexpected disturbances. In the end, it's the customers who are skeptical anomalies that will teach you the most about potential flaws in your business model, and who the potential saboteurs of your business are. Furthermore, they might shed light onto different perspectives on the work that you are used to doing day-to-day. At the very least, these ‘outlier’ interviews provide you with a nuanced understanding of your field that you can leverage later as either entrepreneur or researcher. At best, these interviews can inspire a beneficial pivot.
Take Notes for Inspiration
This might sound obvious, but taking careful notes about your interviewees, their work life, community, background, struggles, and intriguing leads can be more than just filler text for your notepad (or Launchpad Central, for fellow I-Corps students). Beyond providing a clear reference for you later on in the process when the details of interviews start to blur, these notes can be important inspiration for future initiatives, whether they are academic, professional, or entrepreneurial. Throughout my time in I-Corps, our team discovered over 300 potential contacts in our field, and met more than 100 professionals working in domestic violence service provision. I-Corps provides the perfect opportunity for expanding your professional network, and, in turn, grants insight into new worlds that could inspire more profitable future endeavors, research projects, or career shifts. If someone says something that inspires even the beginning of an idea for a potential product feature, separate business, or academic study, write it down. You never know when it might come in handy.