### Intro Over the last couple months I've been neck deep in the procedures and philosophies of "[Running Lean Website](http://runninglean.co/)," a book by [Ash Maurya](https://twitter.com/ashmaurya). The book essentially defines a set of practical applications for coming up with and proving out your next big idea. Not only that, but doing it in a way that is efficient, structured, and actionable. It's not specific to the web space, but that's just how we've been using it. I've also considered using it for some of my game development ideas, and I likely will when it's time to start my next project.
Why use Running Lean?
As a software developer, I'm rarely ever brought in to help shape or define the company's next big product. Instead I've usually been handed a set of UI mocks and business requirements and given a due date. Often times I'd look over the docs and wonder how the hell they came up with the idea. I wonder, am I about to spend the next couple months busting my ass, putting in lots of late nights, to make a product that no one is going to use? Sometimes this is the case. If only the idea had been proven out ahead of time. If only someone had gotten out of the office to talk to our customers. Those wasted months could have been avoided, and that's where Running Lean comes in. The book is all about defining a set of actionable processes that can help facilitate conversations with your customers so you can ask them what they need, instead of blindly prescribing a solution.
I'm currently on a team at Manta called Manta Labs. We're a small group tasked with getting out of the office and talking with customers to find out what their problems are and how we can use our technology and strengths to solve those problems. The team is a well-rounded group that includes members from Product Development, Marketing, Design, and Software Engineers. As a team, we have totally embraced the Running Lean methodology, and we were fortunate enough to have Ash Maurya stop by the office and go over our Lean Canvas. He helped to define and customize the Running Lean procedures to work for our customer segment, which I'd argue has to be one of the toughest customer segments you can choose.
First things first: we defined our initial canvas. This helped to set up a preliminary customer segment and problem set which gave us direction. It's important to note at this point that we didn't need to be 100% sure that we had our problem set nailed perfectly. In fact, the likelihood is very slim that we nailed the customer problems before getting out and talking to our customers. That isn't the point. The point is to give us a platform to facilitate conversation with our customers. In fact, after our first couple interviews it was clear that at least one of our suspected problems did not resonate with our customer segment at all. And the great thing about this process is that you directly ask the customer how much of a pain each problem is. So there's no wiggle room for anyone on the team to try and justify a pre-defined problem/solution that they might have bias to. If the customer says "It's not a problem," it's not a problem!
Setting up the customer interviews
We then utilized one of our competitive advantages — our traffic and data — to come up with a call list of existing customers that we hoped to convert some portion of into interviews. We took advantage of our internal call center to help go through the list and line up interviews. We also individually made calls off the list to try to help fill the pipeline. It was at this point that we had a rude awakening. We came to realize that convincing customers off of our leads list to commit to doing an in-person interview is extremely difficult. Like a 1% conversion kinda difficult. We had chosen a customer segment that literally works from sun-up to sun-down, often skipping their lunch breaks, and treats every hour like an opportunity to make money and grow their business. For them to take a break for a half hour to talk was comparable to asking them to pay us for the interview. We also found that the "Let's talk over a cup of coffee" strategy would rarely work and the "Let us buy you a beer at your local pub after work" was working a whole lot better. I think the beers helped them to understand just how casual it was. I believe the 5 biggest reasons people refuse to do an interview are:
- Time - 'aint nobody got time for that!
- They think we're trying to sell them something.
- They have insecurities that they aren't going to be of any help to us.
- They think you're expecting a solution from them. I think it's important to be clear that you want hear about their problems, not the golden solution to those problems.
- They are nervous about giving up their competitive advantage and personal information.
Referrals are King
Out of all of the tactics for trying to lock in customer interviews, none had a greater conversion rate than referrals. Dropping a familiar name in your opening line is going to help considerably in getting that person to agree to sit down with you and give you a moment of their time.
We found that we were quickly burning through our list of leads, and it was obvious we'd need to find new ways of lead gen. I resorted to using Guerrilla Warfare tactics by utilizing Craigslist to get the phone numbers for both businesses and individuals from different customer segments we were interested in. I found that a simple post such as "Plumber needed" would net at least 30 phone numbers in just a couple days. And this guaranteed I was getting people in our customer segment who were clearly looking for work and new customers. Potentially this means they also have a bit more free time if they're going to the extent of responding to Craigslist ads. The nature of Craigslist allows you to be as broad or as specific as you want to be. A simple "Handyman needed" post is going to get you a wide array of responses, from serious professional handyman businesses to substitute teachers who are trying to make a buck on the side (I seriously had one of those respond). You can also get specific and set qualifications for who you contact. This is just one example of many where we've needed to get creative in order to lock in these interviews. You're likely going to need to come up with your own guerrilla warfare tactics that work for your particular customer segment.
Keep the funnel flowing
On weeks where you've lined up enough interviews to keep everyone on the team busy you need to make sure you don't neglect lining up new interviews. It's important to keep the pedal down setting up new interviews for the next week. Otherwise you're going to find you have a cycle of busy weeks and off weeks. This is where the call center comes in. They can focus on setting up the interviews, while we go and knock em out.
High Level Learning
- Your target customer segment will likely require you to reshape your process. In the Running Lean book, Ash was interviewing young parents, some probably stay-at-home, who were itching for some adult interaction. The customer segment you chose may not be so easily accessible.
- A personal referral goes a long way. All but a few of our interviews completed came as a result of a personal referral. Ask everyone you know if they can pass on a personal referral. And after each interview, don't forget to ask if the interviewee can offer a personal referral.
- Everyone thinks you're trying to sell them something. When cold calling people, the more you put an emphasis on the fact that you're not trying to sell something, the more they think you're trying to sell something.
- You can't get a hold of anyone during the day. We've learned that if you're going to call them, you want to do so during the early morning or late in the day once they're off work. Especially if your customer segment is out in the field all day and not sitting in front of a computer.
Use tools that are available
- SurveyMonkey - We use this in two ways. The first is to run customer-facing surveys to collect information about things we're trying to test out. It allows you to run a preliminary test before committing the time, and the interviews, to the idea. This is really only helpful if you have the traffic to gather a large enough sample size. The second way we use this tool is to create forms that we use internally to standardize the way we log data from the particular interviews that we've completed. Since everyone on the team participates in doing the interviews, which we do in pairs, we need a canonical way to log the data collected. This is going to help down the road when we need to analyze the data we've collected and everything follows the same format.
- Google Drive - We're currently using Google Docs to store all of our spreadsheets and documents like:
- Problem Interview Script and post-interview form
- Solution Interview Script and post-interview form
- General Leads Lists
- Warm Leads (Referrals)
- Zoho - A CRM tool we're now using to better organize the process around how far along a lead is in the interview process. The last thing we want is to have two different people calling a lead to set up an interview or forget to send a thank you email to a customer who spent an hour talking with us.
I'd love to hear about any tools, strategies, tips or ticks you use while Running Lean. You can reach me on Twitter @coreysnyder or comment below.