I have a client who, for the last six months, has exclusively been pursuing customer discovery. The founders were lucky to have enough funding to allow this, and they’ve managed their burn rate well, but I can’t say they came up with the idea on their own or even really wanted to do.
Before customer discovery, they had been building software for almost two years. They would spend three months on a product idea, and when no one would buy it, they’d just start building something else. They were following the strategy of “build shit, launch, get users,” but only the first two were happening. In early March we had a come-to-Jesus meeting where I suggested they should stop building. They simply didn’t know enough about the market.
To their credit, they listened and changed gears very quickly. They started talking to anyone they could in their industry (eSports) — team owners, coaches, players, LAN centers, streamers and loads of other industry participants.
Pretty quickly they found they could entirely write off several areas of interest — despite the amount of money in the esports market, it’s all centralized within a few verticals and if a category didn’t have cash, it wasn’t worth digging into further. About three months in, they developed a hypothesis around Twitch streamers and began talking to dozens of streamers each week. Eventually they built a very, very simple proof of concept. Calling it a prototype is generous. They put it out into the world and guess what? No interest. But that first POC inspired new conversations and they eventually built a second very simple solution that is getting loads of positive feedback.
So now they need to switch gears again. After six months of very open-ended work centered around asking questions, the time to re-establish deadlines and task lists. Asking more questions isn’t needed because they have a solid understanding of how the industry works. While the discovery process was very much “let’s see what happens,” now it’s time for them to clearly define the work required to deliver a solution. Without this planning, a four-week MVP could take four months and they’ll run out of cash before establishing product / market fit.
This seems to be a theme right now. I had another client switch back into customer discovery after COVID destroyed their market. The CEO had fallen into despair until he received a world-class verbal ass kicking from me and another board member (with love, of course). Immediately afterward his team brainstormed new verticals, sent a shit-ton of emails and in under two months found an even bigger market than the one that disappeared. And a CEO I recently spoke with pivoted in 2020 from delivering snacks (at the office) to employee recognition products (at home) and grew his business by 50% in the process. His old market might never return and he couldn’t care less.
These types of massive shifts aren’t just applicable to global pandemics. There are always opportunities, especially in the early days of your business, to look for signs you need to change gears.
If your business is experiencing sustained flat growth and you are out of ideas, it’s probably time to get back into exploration mode. You’re likely missing something important and the only way to sort that out is to get out of the office and ask lots of questions. Perhaps your market has pivoted. Perhaps you have simply capped out your current market. Perhaps you stumbled through the last several years with enough piss and vinegar to obfuscate a lack of understanding for your customers. Change gears. Get curious.
Conversely, when you have something you want to try to scale, it’s time to move from curiosity to execution. This is the time to move from learning to doing. It’s no longer about asking questions, it’s about defining the product and getting it launched. It’s hard to execute while simultaneously questioning your own assumptions.
A final note on changing gears that’s very important — you need your entire organization bought in on the shift. Everyone from sales and marketing to engineering to the interns needs to be on board with the new mission. Everyone needs to be rowing in the same direction. Sometimes certain people will no longer fit in the organization.
Towards the end of my time at IGN, while the new executive team was busy turning a 40-person division into a 300-person company, I still wanted to be the mad scientist challenging the core business and throwing curve balls on the product side. Suffice to say, no one wanted me in their meetings.
It’s frustrating when there’s one person in the organization still questioning the basic assumptions while everyone else is getting down to business. Vice versa, when something is not working, no one wants to be the last person hanging on when they should be looking for new ideas. Don’t let that person be you. Know when to change gears.
— Eric Marcoullier
A willingness to change gears takes guts. As my clients regularly hear me say, there’s a difference between “simple” and “easy”. Directing you whole team to switch from execution to discovery can feel like admitting defeat, but I look at it more like stepping off of a moving train. There’s a bit of finesse involved, but really you just have to commit yourself to what happens next.
Having a coach can be useful in such times, whether it’s helping you find the courage to make the leap or figuring out how to communicate the “why” and the “what” to the team. If that’s something you’d like help with, drop me an email at email@example.com or visit my coaching site.