Entrepreneurial Institute

Introducing Talking to Humans

In my 16 years as a venture capitalist, I have observed countless teams write a business plan, build their product, and only after they built it, seek customer feedback. Unfortunately, this “if you build it, they will come” approach almost never works. By the time you have built your product, you have fallen in love with it and likely become deaf to (negative) customer feedback, or you have sunk all your precious time and resources into something few people care about.

The lean startup turns this decades-old formula on its head. By securing customer feedback before building your product, you can dramatically increase the likelihood that you build products that customers actually want, and do it more quickly and cheaply. As Steve Blank would say, that’s a “big idea”.

Since Steve first penned The Four Steps to the Epiphany in 2003, thousands of startup teams have been “getting out of the building” with the intention of testing their minimum viable products (MVPs) in search of product/market fit. While many entrepreneurs have achieved a level of lean startup buzzword compliance, most do not know how to effectively conduct the kinds of interviews and experiments that will lead to the insights they seek (and need). It is amazing to watch even the most introverted engineers, scientists and MBAs all become shameless salespeople as they misinterpret “getting out of the building” with asking customers if they like, or worse, would buy their product. This rarely yields useful insights. In the early stages of customer development the goal is not to validate if someone wants your product, but rather to search for who your initial target customer is, and to gain a deeper understanding of the problems you are solving for these customers.


When we teach lean startup methodologies to students and faculty at NYU and to NSF I-Corps teams, we’ve always prescribed reading Giff Constable’s classic blog post “12 Tips for Early Customer Development Interviews.” As good and concise as that post is, I felt it wasn’t enough.

While we typically supplemented Giff’s post with the Lean Launchpad Customer Discovery Videos and a workshop on the Art of Customer Discovery, I still felt that we needed something more. I hypothesized that we needed a way to more explicitly guide entrepreneurs through the process of securing, conducting and synthesizing early customer discovery interviews. I validated the need with my colleagues at the NYU Entrepreneurial Institute, as well as with my fellow I-Corps instructors…and it was clear we had identified a pain point.

Earlier this year, I approached Giff with the idea to turn his blog post into a short book. He loved the idea, and from there, Talking to Humans: Success Starts with Understanding Your Customers was born.

While not a text in the academic sense, Talking to Humans was written to complement the other seminal writings on customer development and lean startups: Blank & Dorf’s The Startup Owner’s Manual, and Osterwalder & Pigneur’s Business Model Generation.

I wrote the outline. Giff did the heavy lifting and actually wrote the book (thank you Giff!). I recruited Tom Fishburne to draw these awesome cartoons and Steve Blank to write the foreword. Lindsey Gray and Jerry Hao of the NYU Entrepreneurial Institute provided extensive, invaluable early feedback. We tested our rough draft MVP with 10 student teams in our Summer Launchpad accelerator, and subsequent draft with another 11 teams in the 5-day Lean Launchpad class we taught this August. We shared early drafts with my fellow I-Corps instructors and other practitioners and educators across the country, and incorporated their feedback and suggestions. It has earned praise from early stage VCs at Flybridge Capital, True Ventures and First Round Capital, as well as from our colleagues at UC Berkeley, University of Maryland, MIT and of course NYU, among others. We knew we were on to something when educators and accelerators across the globe were asking to use Talking to Humans in their classes and programs before the book was finished. We are thrilled to see the praise and early adoption, and I am confident we have achieved product-market-fit and found our earlyvangelists!

Giff and I thought long and hard about whether to charge for the book or not, and how that might impact how Talking to Humans was perceived. In the end, we decided to put it out into the world for free, which was consistent with our original goal of giving back to the community.

Now, you can get Talking to Humans in PDF for free, on Kindle for 99¢ (Amazon insists we charge something), and in print (at our cost) of $10.31. Order or download it, along with other useful materials, at talkingtohumans.com.

We believe that Talking to Humans is invaluable to entrepreneurs, educators and students alike. We value your feedback so that we can continue to improve and augment it. Please share your thoughts here on this blog, or write a review on the Amazon website. Now, get out of the building and tell someone else about it.