Customer Discovery

Anna Asher, VP Insights & Consulting
April 12, 2023

The Entrepreneur’s Dilemma

The most successful innovations are deeply rooted in a problem worth solving. However, the Entrepreneur’s Dilemma makes a solution-first approach – not a problem-first approach – the norm for building startups.

Let’s pitch you on the problem first.

It’s only by finding and solving real, painful, human problems that products and companies are able to create true value for their customers. Yet entrepreneurs find themselves in a dilemma because it doesn’t pay to spend time chasing problems up front. They must first focus on chasing funding. To secure funding, they need a solution that they can sell to prospective investors. 

More times than not, this solution-first approach leads to building phantom solutions--ideas that solve a perceived problem, not the root problem that plagues the customer. 

A problem-first approach produces the best solutions for customers, but a solution-first approach sells to investors. This dilemma creates one of the biggest challenges to the viability of new ideas and businesses. 

Does this sound familiar?

The default mode of founders chasing funding is that of a preacher.

When we’re in selling mode with an unproven solution, we become preachers. We have to instill faith in the intangible–our idea can’t yet be seen or touched. If we don’t firmly believe and convey our belief with total conviction, the uninitiated definitely won’t either. 

Practically speaking, this results in a closed mindset. Some entrepreneurs invoke the late Steve Jobs by saying, “we don’t do market research.” But more often they’ll try to check the box with some form of programmed, cursory customer discovery in an effort to bring more legitimacy to their idea.

Preacher mode creates big problems for finding the better problem.

Every interaction a founding team has with their target audience is an opportunity to learn. However, the overwhelming need to sell – first to funders, then to first customers – creates a force field that deflects any contrarian information that challenges their core assumptions.

This mindset obstructs authentic discovery efforts for entrepreneurs, meaning they are:

  1. Less likely to get honest, insightful feedback from prospects.
    In an effort to win new business, the entrepreneur’s “customer discovery” tends to take the form of convincing and explaining rather than learning and questioning. The sales call puts prospects in a defensive, skeptical mode, where they’re most likely to supply polite praise or non-offensive objections rather than course-changing insights.

  2. More likely to dismiss the input that challenges their proposed solution.
    Entrepreneurs become deeply committed to the story that they’ve sold to their teams and funders. Course change becomes difficult. It’s easier to dismiss anomalous information that challenges their idea than revisit and revise. 

Learn to balance the preacher with the scientist.

To break out of sales mode, we must approach customer discovery with the rigor and intentionality of a scientist. The scientist prioritizes curiosity over conviction, exposes problems and uncertainty, and manages confirmation bias. 

A learning-focused customer discovery interview radically changes the dynamic between your team and your prospects. The customer becomes an insider and collaborator who’s willing to share problems, ideas, and honest feedback.

The first step is to learn the basic tools and methods a scientist would use to conduct customer discovery interviews. Grounding discovery in a methodology removes the temptations to revert to preacher mode.