Lessons Learned: The Customer Comes First

Taking Root helps restaurants who want to be sustainable reach that goal by making composting simple and cost-effective.

Within moments of introducing our idea to Steve Blank, he asked: “Is your idea for a non profit or a for-profit business?” Immediately, we understood that we weren't here simply to solve problems. We were here to create financial value by addressing key customer concerns. And so our journey began.

Entering the 5 Day Lean Launchpad class, we felt confident. Our idea was simple and foolproof, but we quickly learned that our hypotheses would not survive the first contact with customers. In fact, over the course of the week, we repeatedly invalidated our hypotheses, leading to a series of difficult pivots.

In our final presentation, my partner Greg and I confidently issued our “No Go” decision. In 5 days, we realized what took some startups 5 months - we did not have a viable business model. While disappointing, the lessons learned during those 5 days can be applied to any future venture I join or launch. The class’ main objective was not to launch start-ups, but rather to learn a methodology.

One of the most important lessons I learned during those 5 days was to listen to your customers. Only through these conversations will you learn whether your idea has any value.

What you think does not matter, only what the customer says matters. Neither Greg nor I had prior experience in the food industry or in sustainability. However, after having done a significant amount of research online, we were confident in our 3 key underlying hypotheses:

  1. Composting costs less than trash collection.
  2. Restaurants find composting to be complex, but we can make it simple.
  3. Consumers care about how restaurants dispose of their waste.

Essentially, by simplifying the composting process for restaurants, we would save restaurants money and help them attract new customers. The perfect idea — we would save the world and make money!

Over the course of 5 days, we spoke to 62 customers, including 39 restaurants, 9 consumers, 2 waste services professionals, 3 advertisers, and 8 local farms. These conversations led us to thoroughly question each of our hypotheses one by one.

Customer Insights

“It’s nice to know that this restaurant composts, but that’s not why I come here.” – Consumer

  • Learning that branding restaurants that compost won’t bring in new customers invalidated the revenue aspect of value proposition.

“Composting actually increases my costs. Compost bags cost more than $1 each.” – Restaurant that composts

  • Learning that composting won’t reduce customer costs invalidated the cost savings aspect of value proposition.

“We don’t have the space to compost. It’s too hard. Our customers don’t care.” – Restaurant that doesn’t compost

  • Learning that it would be hard to convince restaurant to compost unless it was part of the restaurant’s values drastically reduced the total potential market size.

By Day 2, Greg and I had learned that our business model did not survive its first contact with customers. It was time to pivot.

Rather than just selling the customers our idea, we listened to their key challenges, which allowed us to easily identify potential new business models to test over the remaining days. My week-long glimpse into the world of building start-ups was filled with chaos and uncertainty. However, I confidently navigated the journey because of the structure of Steve Blank’s Lean Launchpad program. When I enter the world of start-ups once again, the Lean Launchpad will be my guide.