I’m seeing quite a few teams composed solely of engineers and scientists. And that’s no surprise given the MIT milieu I mentor in. After all it’s an Institute of Technology.
However, some teams exhibit what one might consider classic nerd or geek behavior: they are extremely product focused, not customer focused. So venturing out of their labs or incubators or wherever they build their breakthrough stuff and talking to Joe and Jane Citizen about their needs, problems or even reactions to their prototype comes about as naturally as writing code in Lisp to the average sales person. What to do? Read Dale Carnegie books? Attend charm school? Rely on the plethora of stuff on the Web?
There’s another answer, which goes back to the post: There are only two jobs in a startup. Do you know what they are?
Boston is blessed with a number of graduate schools of business, including Sloan at MIT. As a co-mentor said to a group yesterday, during the first year of business school (typically a two-year program) most business school students are looking for an interesting project to work on. In year two they are looking for a job, either with a startup (which could be their own) or with an established company.
If your team is a part-time student project with no one working on it full time, and none of you are comfortable with the customer development/discovery process that entails talking to dozen of strangers, there’s another way to gather that valuable information. That customer information gathered and analyzed correctly should inform your product development. You need to add business savvy to your team, in the shape of new team member, likely in their first year of business school and looking for a project. Many have strong business backgrounds before going back to school to get their MBAs.
So see if your undergrad program has any formal links with the business school and if so, take advantage of them to find a new team member who can focus on customer development. If not, you’ll have to actually set foot on the business school campus. Virtually every business school these days has entrepreneurial clubs and other entrepreneurial infrastructure, including classes. You will have to overcome any inherent shyness to approach the club, faculty member or other group, but the payoff should be finding a first year student to work with you for credit.
If your project is further along in terms of product development – perhaps having a prototype – seek out a second year MBA student who can help you get customer feedback.
But whether you project is just getting off the ground or you have a working prototype don’t abdicate customer discovery to a single individual. That person may start setting up meetings, but you need to attend. You should accompany your business team member on as many prospect, partner, and customers calls as you can. That will help you learn what questions to ask, what questions to avoid, how to handle objections, and much more. As an entrepreneur you should always be learning, and there’s nothing wrong with learning from one of the members of your team.
Just make sure that whomever you might add to your team is aligned with the founders’ intentions and simpatico with everyone on the team. Doing some test customer calls with the candidate during a “test-drive” period is a good way to get to know them and ascertain if they can really talk to customers or not.