Lessons Learned: Get Out of Your Comfort Zone to Understand Your Customer

VoiceHacker (formerly Speech Empowered), helps busy professionals improve their public speaking and presentation skills through biofeedback and a supportive online community.

VoiceHacker began as an iOS app that evaluates a user's voice quality and walks the user through warm ups to achieve an optimal voice. As a voice teacher, I believed that this fantastic tool could solve a serious need in the market. However, upon initial customer development interviews, I realized that the market I thought would most need the app didn’t seem interested at all.

This is how I went about finding and understanding a new customer segment:

Finding a New Customer Segment

I began with one customer segment: teachers. Teachers have a significant number of voice issues, and I was sure they would want my solution. Unfortunately, I found that most teachers don’t have the time to focus on themselves, and that a solution they would actually use would be very difficult to implement due to the current Professional Development system. Teachers would not be my early evangelists.

So, I prepared to pivot. Who could use the most help with their speaking voice? I decided to sit in on a Toastmasters meeting to get more of an understanding of why people seek public speaking help and what successful solutions already exist.

Support, Achievement, Positivity

At 7pm sharp, the meeting began. The first speaker to share her prepared piece was a young lady with a speech impediment that caused her to pause, intermittently, for up to 30 seconds throughout her speech. Her assignment was to share a joke with group. Every time she paused, she would look at the group President, who would continuously nod at her until she began again. Seeing her finish the joke and be met with immense laughter and applause was one of the most moving experiences I've been privy to. Her face was filled with relief, as if she wasn't so sure she would have made it through, which turned to beaming pride as she moved towards her seat. I realized I was missing a key component to building confidence and creating long-term customers: a supportive community.

Everyone Contributes, Learn From Others, Respect

Each of the three following speakers did a great job, and received equally enthusiastic applause, though they were all at very different levels of the program. Each speaker had a set of criteria for their prepared speech, and was evaluated on the criteria by one member of the club. On top of that, everyone in the club, even the guests, were asked to write down their own evaluations to hand to the speaker afterwards. Everyone had a voice to share, and the evaluator shared his/her review with the entire club after the speech. There was no sense of embarrassment or censorship as the evaluations were shared - everyone was meant to learn from the good and bad of each speech.

This openness and receptiveness to peer feedback was my huge "aha" moment – do we really need to pay a professional speech coach to improve our speaking skills?

“Little Wins,” Setting and Achieving Goals

Next, came the "improv" segment: members and guests would be randomly selected to give a 1-2 minute speech on an impromptu topic. The leader stated today’s topic, “tell us what makes your father so great,” and scanned the group for a volunteer. He set his eyes on me, although I definitely did not raise my hand. He said, “Let’s ask one of our guests to speak on this topic today.” Never one to shy away from a challenge, I stood up and used the walk to the front to prepare my story.

I have a bad habit of rambling. I also tend to also lose focus and can completely blank out right in the middle of a presentation. So I decided to take this as a challenge, gathered my resolve, and took a deep breath on my way up to the front of the room. I shared a vivid and ridiculous memory of my dad empowering me to teach myself, which has become my most valued skill. My little sharing session had an opening, a middle/body, and an end that tied together what that memory means to me in the broader picture. I hadn’t blanked out or rambled on - I had done it.

Why was this little exercise was so fulfilling to me, as I have performed so many times in my life? There seems to be something about achieving “little wins” that makes them so incredibly rewarding. I realized I was experiencing the reward that would contribute to building a habit – one of the keys to creating long-term customers. Understanding who was looking for public speech help and why one method, Toastmasters, has been so successful, I had some of the clues to implementing a new solution.


The process of finding and understanding a new customer segment was full of learnings for VoiceHacker. After realizing that teachers were not jumping up and down for my speech solution, I focused on the large public speaking help market. Walking in to the Toastmasters meeting, I was on a mission to understand the commonality between members – what brings them in? But the more important question I found myself asking was: what makes people come back? Rewards such as a supportive and open community, along with the opportunity to overcome a small challenge and feel amazing to participants.

What did this do for my business plan? Previously, I focused on a fancy tech solution for optimizing the user's voice in public speaking – but why would they use it daily? What would make them say: “Now it is time to use VoiceHacker”? In order to implement a lasting solution, I'll be taking a cue from Toastmasters and focusing on how to build an environment that assists my users in meeting their goals.

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.