If you missed the first episode with thoughtbot Incubator Program partcipant and founder Josh Herzig-Marks of Knect, you can go here first to catch up.
A key focus of Josh's second episode is the importance of user research and customer discovery. Josh stresses that talking to users is crucial, as it grounds the development process in reality. thoughtbot's Director of Product Strategy, Jordyn Bonds, adds that direct engagement with users builds empathy and understanding within the team, making it more effective.
They also discuss the challenges of identifying a product's target audience and the importance of iterative customer feedback. Josh and Jordyn highlight the need for founders to be resilient and open to feedback, even when it's negative.
JOSH: We're live.
DAWN: Welcome. Thanks, everyone, for joining. I'm Dawn. I am going to be emceeing today, facilitating, really just asking questions and letting these great people talk. Filling in for Lindsey, who is usually here. Thanks for being here. We're excited to talk to everyone and hear your comments and questions.
You might be familiar with thoughtbot. We're a product design and development consultancy. And we like to help people make products or make products better. We are currently in our third incubator session. And today, we're talking to one of two founding teams.
And in case you aren't familiar with the incubator, it's an eight-week program that we run with founders. We pair founders up with a product quad from thoughtbot. And we undergo market research, customer discovery, basically market and product validation exercises to help us hone in on a solution, a potential solution for the problem that we're trying to solve, and build a product plan with the founder, basically set them off on a path for success, hopefully, and next steps. Do you want to kick us off, Jordyn?
DAWN: Tell the people about yourself.
JORDYN: I'm Jordyn. I'm the Director of Product Strategy on Dawn's team. Dawn is my boss. And I sort of run the incubator. I have also founded two startups and been the first head of product at two others, so four early-stage startups.
JOSH: I'm Josh. I am the founder part of this who is working with the thoughtbot incubator. I founded a startup. I wasn't very good at it. I was very lucky at it. I was head of product at a whole series of other startups. And I enjoy that a lot.
A few folks have asked me why I wanted to join the thoughtbot incubator if I've done this before. I'm, like, moderately techie for a non-technical person. And I coach other founders in doing the sorts of things that Jordyn and her team are coaching me on. So, I'm doing this thing for a few reasons. One is being a founder is really, really lonely. But the other one is that there's just a huge value in bringing together the diverse set of perspectives. And we're doing that with a company that's really good at getting complicated things out the door, having them be successful through a focus on who the end user is.
It kind of felt like a no-brainer because I felt like—and we talked about this last week—I had the Josh problem that I wanted there to be a solution to. And trying to figure out, is there a larger opportunity that this represents?
DAWN: Thanks. Well, you cued us up well for the topic, at least that we're going to start with today, which is user research or customer discovery. I think it probably goes by several names. That's another interesting topic we [laughs] could get into. But what is this user research that you're doing? Why is it important? What's it doing for this team at this stage?
JOSH: One of the founders I work with asked me a couple of months ago, "Just remind me again, what are the things I have to do to build a product?" And I'm like, "It's actually really easy," right? My, like, standing on one foot advice is talk to users, mostly customers. Bring your engineers along when you can. And if you do those things, mostly everything will work out. But I think it's actually, like, there's some subtlety in all of those things, right?
It's not that talking to users or customers is going to solve all of your problems. It's just that you're not going to make any progress in the absence of doing that, right? Because then you're just talking to yourself. And I don't know about everybody else here in this group or who might be listening, but it's really easy to get yourself all spun up inside of your head if you're only talking to yourself. Users are the ones who ground you, right? And ultimately, users are the ones who could turn to customers. So, why customers, right? As the people you really want to be talking to. Now, we don't have any customers yet, so we can't do that.
But you know something about customers more than anybody else, and that's they're willing to pay for the thing, for the problem you're trying to solve. They could be paying in money. They could be paying in time. They could be paying in reputation. Oftentimes, they'll be paying in all three of those things or two out of three of those things. But they have an expressed willingness to pay. And that's really the magic of, like, having a product and having those conversations.
Now, why do you bring along your engineers? It's because the most effective tech companies...and I think thoughtbot is maybe unusual in design-build firms in really internalizing this, but the most successful tech companies are the ones where the entire organization is aligned around understanding who is our market? Who is our customer? What is their problem, and what does it take to solve that problem for them?
And too often, all that stuff is, like, stuck inside of the founder's head, or the sales team's head, or the marketing team's head, or the product manager's head, or little bits of stories are stuck other places. But when we're all listening to the same conversations, that's when it's most effective to build alignment around who's the customer? What are their needs? What would they pay for?
JORDYN: I agree. And I would add some detail there that why does it work like that? How does having everyone at the organization talk to users and customers build that alignment? And it's one of those things that's kind of, like, it has to be seen to be believed in a certain way. But, like, you can break it down. You know, we can all sit in a room and argue about what reality looks like out there. But it's a lot more efficient if we're all living in that reality together. There's a lot less bringing everyone along.
If you've got skeptics on your team, and I hope that you do because they're very useful people, they want to hear it from the source. So, great, go have them hear it from the source. And there's nothing that's more motivating as an engineer, having been an engineer, than seeing someone live fail to achieve their goal in the piece of software you're working on. You will turn around and go fix that bug right then. A bug that has maybe been sitting at the top of the backlog for, like, six weeks or six months, when you see someone struggling with it [laughs] in action, you'll be like, oh, I see. Okay, this is actually causing a lot of angst out there, and I...
So, anyway, building that empathy, it's always easiest to build it directly. And it's harder if I am here and if I'm having to triangulate empathy through someone else. Like, if only one person on your team is talking to users and listening to users, and then they come back to the team, and they're like, "Here's what I'm hearing," maybe the team believes you. Maybe they hear the same things out of your mouth that they would have heard directly out of the user, but probably not [laughs].
So, it sounds less efficient. People resist it because it feels intuitively, I think, to a lot of people like a waste of time to have engineers doing user interviews or having anyone else. There's a lot of pushback at organizations for doing this for different reasons. If you're doing, like, an enterprise SaaS thing, sales might really not want anyone else talking to customers because they worry it's going to erode that relationship that they feel like they have.
Nothing could be further from the truth in my experience. Customers feel valued. The more people on your team they talk to, the more they are listened to, the more they are taken seriously, and, like, have people engaging with them, that only bolsters your relationship with them, not the opposite. But either way, it's just much more efficient when everyone is hearing the thing from the people it's impacting directly. I get that that does not intuitively feel true, but I assure you that it is true.
DAWN: So, --
JOSH: And even more so at this stage where our experience as designers or engineers is much less important than our experience as team members who are trying to find who is that initial audience going to be who is so motivated they will let us build a product for them?
DAWN: That's exactly what my follow-up question was related to, which is there's this sort of perception that you sort of stay in your lane, right? With the different roles that you occupy [laughs] in an organization, whether it's early stage or later stage. And even for people who are participating in that customer discovery, you kind of want to, like, ask questions that are most relevant to your role.
So, how do you, like, prepare teams or, you know, offer guidance to teams to help them sort of get into the right mindset going into those conversations, not so that they execute it perfectly because they have to have some UX design background, but so that you can learn the important things?
JOSH: I think it is totally natural for someone to feel unprepared coming into these, but that's okay, right? Their job is to develop this as a skill, and the only way they're going to do that is by actually doing it. I am certain there were people on the thoughtbot team who felt uncomfortable doing this for the first time, talking to somebody who wasn't even a user, a rando who Josh found on the internet who was willing to chat and go talk to them.
And I know they got better at it because I get to watch everybody's interview recordings, and I get to watch the notes they're taking. And I get to watch my own. And we have, like, a team of five of us who, like, are all getting better at this, and that's good. These things are skills, and you got to practice them, which, putting on my friends of thoughtbot hat, is, I think, one of the reasons why thoughtbot likes to do these things because it's a chance to develop these skills in a really intense way, which we may not otherwise get to.
And it's a thing that, you know, as a founder, I want everybody on my team to be getting good at as quickly as possible. So, sure, prep work. You read a book. It's like baking a cake, right? You know, you can read cookbooks. You can walk up and down the aisle at the supermarket, right? You can go to the bakery and try other people's cakes, but until your arms are deep in flour, butter, and sugar, like, you've no idea what you're really talking about. And I just want to get people making a mess in the kitchen as fast as possible. Nothing bad happens if you have a bad interview. Lots of bad things happen if you never interview. That's my very strong opinion.
JORDYN: I share the opinion and its intensity. That is exactly how I would have answered.
JORDYN: There's no substitute for doing the thing. And you can spend your whole life feeling like you're not ready to do the thing. You're not going to learn and get better at it until you just start doing it. It's like...and, Josh, you are right. That is partly what this incubator is for, both internally and externally.
One of the main differentiators of what we're doing here with this incubator from other incubator programs out there is we get into the kitchen with you and get our arms and elbow deep in flour with you so that we can help founders, not necessarily Josh who has brought some skills into this with him, but, like, so that you know what it feels like to do the thing.
There's a lot of content out there about how to start a company, how to do customer discovery, all this stuff, and you can read all of that stuff. You can also listen to people talk about it all the livelong day. There are tons of people out there who do this all the time. They are on podcasts. They are here on this live stream. That's cool [laughs]. Like, listen to them.
But really, there's no substitute for you getting out there and talking to people. And this, I just cannot stress this, like, so many people...given my role here and what I do, people often bring their startup ideas to me. People at thoughtbot, people outside of thoughtbot they say, "I have this idea." I ask, "Who is it for?" They tell me. I say, "Have you talked to those people?" and they say, "I'm not ready to start talking to people yet."
And I'm like, "That is incorrect. You're talking to me. The only way you're going to get to a thing is if you start talking to people, like, yesterday." And they resist. "Well, I still need to figure out." And I'm like, "No, you don't need [laughs] to figure anything out." If you're going to build something for someone, go engage with them, learn what their life is like, what their work is like today. Hello, people listening to this, do this today.
JOSH: Jordyn talks a lot about the emotional labor of being a founder, and I think it's really important. Like, hey, founders out there who hear this and they feel a bit overwhelmed, that's okay, right? The thing which you're going to learn how to do as a founder is talk to people about the thing you're trying to do and have people give you feedback you don't like, and it's not fun.
You know, I work with a lot of very technical founders, and it's amazing the things people will do to avoid that. They will take their savings, their retirement money out of the bank and plow it into design-build firms. They will quit their jobs to build this thing themselves just to avoid having that potentially unpleasant conversation.
So, potential founders, if you want to prepare yourself for being a successful founder or even a mediocre founder, the thing which you need to do is [laughs] improve your frustration tolerance. Get really good at people telling you your idea is bad, or your process is bad, or something else is bad. And maybe they're right, and maybe they're wrong, and it doesn't matter. But you got to be able to tolerate that.
JORDYN: Yes, you have to be able to tolerate that. And you have to be able to actually, like, listen for the relevant feedback that's buried in there. So, the founder Josh just described was me, P.S.
JORDYN: The first time.
JOSH: Not just you.
JORDYN: And not just me, not merely me, but it was me. You know, technical background definitely plowed my meager savings—because I'd already been working in startups, which does not pay well, newsflash [laughs]. I don't know if any of you know this; they don't pay well—into a product that I hadn't really spoken to very many people about. But I knew that I needed to start talking about it with people, but I didn't know how to do that well. That's okay. So, I started talking to people about it after the fact. I should have done this sooner. That's cool.
My first company was this product called TallyLab. Like, you can think of it like a data diary app. Basically, it's a place you can go and collect small data to kind of figure out, like, if you think you have a food allergy. Think of it like a food allergy notebook but a digital app for it. I think that when the moon is full, and I eat over a pint of strawberries, I get a stomach ache, whatever it is. So, you need to track the cycles of the moon and how much strawberries you ate and when, and then you can do this analysis.
Anyway, if you're thinking to yourself, that doesn't sound like a business, you are correct. Anyway [laughs], I was describing this to my friend's dad. My friend had just had her first kid. I was over meeting this baby. Her dad was there. And he was just like, "What do you do?" And I was like, "Oh, I have a startup." He's like, "What's your startup do?" And I told him. And he was like, "Sounds like you're just feeding people's OCD to me."
Like, I felt physical pain at that reaction to this. Like, he was like not only...his tone was so derisive [laughs]. But, like, there was information for me in that. First of all, I needed to think about who is this guy. Where is he coming from? Does this have anything to do with his life at all? Should I even listen to this? In fact, maybe he's, like, my anti-ideal customer. And this feedback is great for me because it means my ideal customer is a good fit, whatever. There's information in there, right?
But this was some of the first feedback I was getting on this from someone in the wild [laughs]. So, I had to dig that dagger right out of my heart. So, it's going to happen. It's going to happen, but you got to, like, steel yourself for it, like Josh says. And you also find a way to respond to it with curiosity.
So, if I could go back in time to that conversation...I just changed the subject immediately, I think, at the time. I was like, "Cool. Let's talk about something else [laughs]." What I should have done is been like, "Tell me more. Why does it strike you like that? Tell me more about this problem in your life," right? That was an opportunity for me to have a customer interview, and I just totally whiffed it [laughs].
DAWN: Hopefully, it didn't harm your relationship with your friend [laughs].
JORDYN: Not at all. Not at all. I think she felt somewhat aghast. She was like, "Dad, lay off." [laughs]
JOSH: Which is actually the other lesson to take from this, which is these things all feel really important and personal and, like, present to you as the founder. Nobody else gives a shit.
JORDYN: No. And this was a lesson for me. I at least didn't have that problem because I had been in a series of touring rock bands, and I had learned over and over again how little anything I was doing mattered to anyone. Like, you know, you get to the point where, like, you walk offstage, and you're like, "That was the worst set we ever played." No one knows that. No one cares. They were, like, talking to their girlfriend at the bar the whole time, like, whatever, man [laughs].
Like, whatever is going on with you, you as a human are maybe this big in their purview. What you're doing professionally is even smaller. So, like, don't sweat it. They're not going to be thinking about it again, ever [laughs].
DAWN: That's the thing. Maybe your startup idea doesn't matter, but you matter. Everyone here matters. Okay?
DAWN: So, I want to go back to the users or the particular customers in this case. Have there been any surprises? Have there been any daggers out there or any delights? What have you been learning?
JOSH: Last time we were speaking, we were basically talking to a convenient sample of people who, let's be honest, look a lot like Jordyn and myself, right? They are people in mostly U.S. tech companies, mostly early-stage ones, not necessarily programmers, but maybe they found the company. Maybe they work in product management, or they have other kinds of executive roles. Maybe they change their job every couple of years because that's what people in tech companies do.
Maybe they like, you know, they carry around a smartphone. They live out of their smartphone. They care about building a network. They attend in-person things when they can. They're in a bunch of, like, networking Slacks, and WhatsApp groups, and things like that. And they all kind of look the same.
And I think the last time we spoke two weeks ago, we were noticing that this thing we were trying to work on was a problem for all of them but not necessarily a problem that they were, on average, investing a whole lot of time and energy into. We recognized this as a group largely because everybody was participating in the conversations and getting better and better at it and getting better and better at kind of, like, pulling out the insights.
So, we experimented with a couple of other audiences. And the reminder here is the idea isn't to build a product for one of these audiences; the idea is to build the first version of the product for one of these audiences who feels the need so intensely they're actually going to use the damn thing and give you some feedback. So, the audience has to have a real pain–a willingness to do some work. And we have to be able to find them, so some attribute that allows us to identify where they are.
They all hang out at the playground after recess is, like, a good attribute, or they all search for the same kinds of things using the same language or a comparable language on Google, or they all follow the same people on TikTok. They are all examples of audiences that we could somehow identify and address. People who, you know, deep down, are worried that their second-grade teacher didn't like them enough, right? Probably not an addressable audience, even though you can imagine, you know, all sorts of potential problems and potential solutions you can build for those folks. So, we got to find that.
So, we've experimented with a few other groups. One is we identified early on in kind of our broader conversations that journalists might have a need for this, journalists or folks that have a broad network, and they check in with those people frequently. And the other one was people who do Biz Dev, or partnerships work at tech companies as well. And we reached out to a bunch of people. And we discovered that both those groups are probably also a little bit too big for us to be focused on.
It's not that nobody in those groups had a burning need for the thing that we're trying to do; it's that people in those groups overall didn't. And now we got to go figure out, like, okay, is there, like, a subgroup inside of there that we can identify? Just sports journalists, just investigative journalists, just journalists who don't have a salary who work freelance, just radio journalists, you know, just journalists who went to specific schools. Hard to know what that's going to be, and that's the work that we're doing, like, literally right now.
JORDYN: We actually published our methodology for doing this recently. People should go to thoughtbot.com and look at our Playbook, our Customer Discovery Playbook, if you want to know how to do this. It is not black magic or something. Basically, you just think about the dynamics that matter that create a need for the thing that you're contemplating building, and then you just generate giant lists of the people who might need that thing.
And guess what? It's going to be totally wrong and weird, and a bunch of different shaped groups of people. It is going to be like people who hang out at the playground and also dog walkers, and just, like, some weird random assortment of personas, individuals, groups of people, but that's where you start. And then you start learning. You take what you know about those people today, and you find the best place to start. And then you start talking to them, and then you learn why they are or are not a good fit, and you keep going through the list. So, it's not mysterious, but it is work. It is hard work.
Synthesizing on a team what you're hearing is part of that hard work, but it's really invaluable because everybody, like Josh mentioned earlier, brings something different to the conversation, thinks about it from a different vantage, brings different life experiences. And that is just invaluable to unlocking insights, perspectives, directions to pursue. It really is very much a...I don't know what we would call it. It's like a real...it's the hard work.
You go talk to a bunch of people. You get together as a group, and you talk to each other about what you're hearing from all the other people [laughs]. You go back and talk to more people or the same people if you realized you weren't asking them the things that you needed to be asking them. You come back together. And out of that process, the patterns emerge.
DAWN: This is also kind of meta, the fact that y'all are doing so much customer discovery with potential customers who their entire work lives [laughs] are managing conversations, both the frequency and timing of that, but also, like, what they're learning from those conversations. So, that's super interesting.
It sounds like, obviously, there are still many conversations to be had. But what else is next? I know we're about halfway through the program. So, what are y'all looking into for the next week or two?
JOSH: I mean, we don't yet have that audience, which is, I think, a really important part of this and something which I think about all the time as the founder. What does this mean that it's hard to find the audience? Like, what does that tell about the idea, about the opportunity? But I think we've had enough conversations with enough people who have enough similarities in the problems we're trying to solve that I think we're getting good insights into if we knew who would really want this thing; we have some good ideas about how we might be able to help them out.
So, we're starting to actually go through the process of, you know, the really early sketches, the wireframes. And what might a solution look like? Which I think is doing two things, right? One, it helps us to sharpen our thinking a fair amount, right? There's, like, a thing which we can react to as a group, which is not as amorphous as an interview. Like, a sharp, pointy thing we can react to. The second is we're going to start showing this to people.
And not everybody we talk to is going to be, like, our final audience we're building for. That's okay. They can still, like, give us thoughts and give us feedback. And it'll probably change the tenor of the conversations we're having with them. And that's also okay, too, right? We're going to learn different kinds of things than we would in the absence of this.
JORDYN: Yeah. And that is super exciting. And then the other side of that coin becomes feasibility questions. So, this thing that we're imagining, how would we build it? Can we build it? What do we need in order to build it? And so, those conversations are really starting to fire up as we start to imagine a solution.
DAWN: I know there's a really awesome blog post to come from Jordyn that I reviewed [inaudible 22:27]
JORDYN: Wow. Public nudging.
JORDYN: I'm late with this blog post, and I'm being publicly nudged. This is so intense; you're right.
DAWN: [laughs] But it's so relevant to exactly what y'all have been talking about.
JORDYN: I know. I know. [laughs]
DAWN: So, [crosstalk 22:40] retroactively point everyone to it. It's really good stuff.
JORDYN: How would you state the problem, Josh, if anyone out there has the problem?
JOSH: The problem we're looking at is people who have a hard time managing their social network in general but their professional social network in particular. You know, that might be, you know there's people you wish you were keeping in touch with, but you just forget to keep in touch with them. Or, you know, you tell somebody to do something in some thread, or some channel, on some social network, or some direct message, and you just kind of forget about that because you don't go back to it.
Or maybe, you know, you're making friends on Discord. You're making friends on Slack. You're making friends out in the real world, but you don't actually, like, add them into your LinkedIn, something like that. Somebody who's having problems like that that's actually done something about it. Did you go and build yourself, like, a spreadsheet? A baby CRM in Notion, or in Coda, or in Airtable? Do you search out a purpose-built tool?
You know, if you think you've ever tried, whether you've been successful or not, to actually solve this problem for yourself, I'd love to talk to you, or Jordyn would love to talk to you. Dawn would probably love to talk to you also. But reach out to any of us any way you can. I got a super Googleable SEO-compatible name, as does Jordyn. So, like, reach out to one of us, and we'd love to chat.
DAWN: Awesome. Well, thanks, y'all. This has been wonderful, as always. And if anybody has questions for the team, feel free to comment on the post afterwards. And we'll see y'all next time.
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