I've never tried this myself, but I've heard it works extremely well -- and in fact, I'd love for someone to try this and then post a comment on this blog (ideally w/ pics!) describing how it goes:

As I've written about in the past, I've learned with Armory about the importance of putting customers at the center of the company's focus.

If you're the founder of a B2C startup, here's a great way to interview prospective customers:

  1. Go to a Starbucks (or Philz, or Peets, or any high traffic, high turnover establishment that offers gift cards) and grab a table just outside or just inside the establishment
  2. Buy 10 to 20 gift cards for $5 each and lay them out on the table in front of you
  3. As people walk into the store, ask them if they're willing to give you feedback on your startup idea in exchange for a gift card.

Ideally, you'll have something to show them -- say a prototype running on your laptop or your phone. The goal is to solicit very specific feedback from them based on something they can actually interact with.

Huge bonus if they'll let you record the interaction -- maybe you have a co-founder there with you who's recording each customer's reactions on their phone.

Even bigger bonus if you can get the customer to provide you with their contact information -- or even a credit card number -- after you've interacted with them.

Using this approach, you should be able to interview 10 or so customers an hour. In just one morning or afternoon doing this, you'll be able to get a bunch of feedback from your prospective audience.

Why does hearing from customers matter so much?

I recently listened to this great podcast [1] about the evolution of basketball which illustrated both the simplicity and challenge of strong product market fit. Basketball back in the 60s and 70s had gotten boring because tall players were dominating the game. There was a lot of debate about banning slam dunks (which the NBA did for a decade), about moving the basket height up or down, and even imposing height restrictions on players.

But the answer proved to be beautifully simple: The 3 point shot, which allows shorter players (like Steph Curry) to balance the game out and energize it with killer edge-of-your-seat shots.

The beautiful thing here is that nobody was thinking about the 3 point shot when they were all throwing opinions out about how to fix the game of basketball. In fact, it was a competing league, the ABA, which was created to experiment with new approaches to basketball, and tried a dozen new ideas -- most of which were terrible -- from which came the 3 point shot.

The simplicity of product market fit is that in hindsight, it's obvious. But it requires actual experimentation and a willingness to try what may seem like bad ideas -- and to fail -- in order to find it. And this is why actually interacting with customers, running experiments with those customers to get their feedback, and then iterating on that feedback is so important.

And this is also why it can feel like it's not important to interact with customers: Successful PMF is often achieved due to small, simple tweaks -- things that founders think they can do themselves. And indeed, sometimes they can. But just like everyone was focused on solving for basket height, or player height, but the solution was actually away from the basket, I find that as founders we become fixated on what's in front of us, and it's the customers, by sharing their pain and reacting to prototypes in front of them, that leads founders most quickly to strong product market fit.

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[1] A note about the Overcast podcast app I used to share the link above: It's incredible and a highly recommended replacement to the default Apple Podcast app. It allows you to do things like:

  • Share a podcast from a specific point in the episode (like I did above)
  • Let the listener listen to that share from a web browser w/o having to have the app installed (like above)
  • Cuts out dead airtime in episodes, shortening listening times
  • Stream or download episodes -- no more waiting for an episode to download
  • Fast forward by a different speed than you rewind (I fast forward by 60 seconds and rewind by 15).

I listen to podcasts at 2x speed + Overcast cuts out ded space, which gives me even more speed. This allows me to rip through podcasts.

Tons more. Here's an article about it. If you're a hardcore podcast listener like I am, upgrade your listening experience with it. And PS if the creator of the app reads this: Just wish you offered embed code for the shares, so I could've embedded the audio right into the blog above!

Also -- Happy to share some favorite podcasts if you tell me what you're interested in (just comment in the blog below). Please share your favorite podcasts too.