Lessons Learned: The Science of Customer Development with Steve Blank

Steve Blank's 5-Day Lean Launchpad, held at NYU on August 25-29, 2014, was a transformative experience for young entrepreneurs like myself looking to gain experience in and expert insights on launching a start-up.  My team partner, Logan Winston, and I were fortunate enough to be accepted into the program.  For anyone interested in Steve Blank’s methodology, check out his great summary talks online:

Steve Blank is right-on-track with his science!  In fact, customer-driven innovation is siloing-up around the globe as a cost-effective methodology to design innovations based on customer needs and activities.  Managers are finding that they no longer want to make a random bet on hypothetical business models.  Instead, they want to collect empirical data before product production.  The collection of empirical data improves the outcome for success and turns the customer discovery element into a scientific process.

This class provided all of us an immersive and directed experience focused on customer discovery while searching for a successful business model for a particular innovation.  The search for a business model began with an innovative concept.  Initially, for Day 0, at least,  each team used educated guesses to determine the business model of their team's idea based on personal needs and discussions with close-acquaintance.  We drew out the hypothetical model using a Business Model Canvas, as described by Osterwalder & Pigneur.  (For more on this idea, see fellow Launchpad participant Franklin Yao’s blog post, “Lessons Learned: Rethink Your Elephants” and Rebecca Hillegass’s blog post, “Lessons Learned: The Trough of Despair.”)

On Day 1, we focused on customer research as each team envisioned who the customers were for their respective business models.  Starting on Day 1, we were required to “get out of the building!” and conduct at least ten new customer interviews pertaining to our emerging business model.  Each student quickly learned that conducting interviews that specifically elicit customer needs is a skill all unto itself and all too often taken for granted.  (For more on this, see fellow Launchpad participant Tlacael Esparza's blog post, “Lessons Learned: Do Customer Interviews Even When You Don’t Think You Need To” and “Lessons Learned: 4 Tips to Make Customer Development Surveys Suck Less.”)

On Day 2, our class explored the Business Model Canvas building blocks “Value Proposition / Customer Segments.” After an in-depth, group discussion to analyze the customer interviews from the prior day, many teams pivoted slightly by changing their target customer segment; they found that the interviews helped inform who would actually buy the product.  The “in-building” component of the day ended with team presentations of an updated Business Model Canvas as well as hypothesis testing for market analysis customer segmentation.

On Day 3, we dug into the “Channels / Get, Keep, Grow / Revenue" sections of the Business Model Canvas. The “in-building” component of the day ended with team presentations of an updated Business Model Canvas, as well as a customer-driven results of the teams' value propositions and customer segmentation hypotheses and validations.  Many teams pivoted again when they realized the importance of knowing who the gatekeepers are for a business model to be successful.

On Day 4, we focused on the “Partners, Key Resources & Activities” building blocks.  We ended the  “in-building” sessions with team presentations of an updated Business Model Canvas as well as hypothesizes for testing and validating customer segment, value proposition, channel and revenue model of the hypotheses.  Many teams pivoted again when they realized that the revenue models needed redirection based on prospective customer feedback.

On Day 5, our class explored the final Business Model Canvas building blocks “Costs and Metrics that Matter” and concluded the course with morning customer interviews and office hours with Steve, Lindsey, Frank and Owen.  The day concluded with  transformative team presentations that coherently displayed potentially working business models ready for seed funding.

Overall, going through the exercise of customer discovery with Steve Blanks, the Entrepreneurial Institute team (Owen, Lindsey, Frank and Risa) and the graduate student teaching assistants (Jasmine, Jerry and Carlos) was a fantastic experience and one that I will never forget. The program was so rich that I cannot even being to explain the growth from determining and defining our customers, business model development, key partner concepts and learning about how to implement a business idea within a hierarchical society, pivot during development and leverage resources such as UDacity. Not to mention to personal development from watching other students go through the same experience! At the very least, as an academic exercise, this course gives you a “fire drill”-like experience without a “fire.”

Personally, I plan to extend Steve Blank’s ideas to support any of my future research and development (R&D) ideas for new businesses.  If you ever get a chance to participate in Steve Blank’s Lean Launchpad, you will be very happy that you did so!  It will improve your chances of success on any future R&D work!

(For even more on this, see fellow Launchpad participant Kat Degel’s blog post, “Lessons Learned: Get Out of Your Comfort Zone to Understand Your Customer.”)