Monday, July 5, 2010

The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Customer Development

Brant Cooper and Patrick Vlaskovits have written a new book, The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Customer Development, which builds upon the foundational work of The Four Steps to the Epiphanywhile improving accessibility, updating the ideas, and making it more actionable. I believe it is the best introduction to Customer Development you can buy.

As all of you know, Steve Blank is the progenitor of Customer Development and author of The Four Steps to the Epiphany. I have personally sold many copies of his book, and continue to recommend it as one of the most important books a startup founder can read. 

I used to give copies of Four Steps out to my employees, in the hopes that it would instantly indoctrinate them into the methodology of Customer Development. I just assumed that everybody would love the book as much as I did, and would instantly change their behavior based on what they read in a book. You can imagine how well that worked. Instead of that naive approach, I wish I'd had a book like this one, to help me figure out how to get started with customer development step-by-step. 

When I wrote a review of Four Steps on this blog in November, 2008, I did my best to be candid and warn of a few shortcomings:
And Steve is the first to admit that it's a "turgid" read, without a great deal of narrative flow. It's part workbook, part war story compendium, part theoretical treatise, and part manifesto. It's trying to do way too many things at once. On the plus side, that means it's a great deal. On the minus side, that has made it a wee bit hard to understand.
Brant and Patrick undertook a difficult challenge: to provide a generally accessible introduction to Customer Development, without diluting its impact or dumbing-down its principles. I think they've succeeded.

The Entrepreneur’s Guide is an easy read.  It is written in a conversational tone, doesn't take itself too seriously, and avoids extraneous fluff. It does a great job of laying out general principles and suggesting specific, highly actionable tactics. You can easily take from it whatever makes sense for your business, and leave the rest. And it's incredibly to-the-point: you can digest this book in a couple of hours.

While the customer development framework of Four Steps is universally relevant, The Entrepreneur’s Guide updates its practices for modern startups. Four Steps primarily centers its stories and case studies on B2B hardware and software startups. This new volume also tackles examples from the Internet and wireless startups of today, both B2B and B2C. And throughout, they maintain a thoroughly realistic take on the power - and limitations - of an entrepreneurship methodology:
Successful implementation of Customer Development, let alone simply believing in it, will not guarantee success for your business. Customer Development will help you – force you – to make better decisions based on tested hypotheses, rather than untested assumptions. The results of the Customer Development process may indicate that the assumptions about your product, your customers and your market are all wrong. In fact, they probably will. And then it is your responsibility, as the idea-generator (read: entrepreneur), to interpret the data you have elicited and modify your next set of assumptions to iterate upon.
Many “airport business books” urge entrepreneurs to never give in. They tell them to persist in their dream of building a great product and/or company, no matter what the odds are or what the market might be telling them – success is just around the corner. They tend to illustrate this sort of advice with inspiring stories of entrepreneurs who succeeded against all odds and simply refused to throw in the towel. While maintaining persistence and willpower is certainly good advice, Customer Development methodologies are designed to give you data and feedback you may not want to hear. It is incumbent upon you to listen.
The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Customer Development includes four powerful case studies/interviews with successful entrepreneurs who have taken iterative approaches to their respective startups that very much resemble the spirit of Lean Startups and Customer Development.  I found these to be particularly interesting and worthwhile.

At the heart of Brant and Patrick's interpretation of Customer Development is their belief that its fundamental teaching is to question assumptions. This gives them a hook with which to apply their ideas to a wide variety of situations. In other words, if particular examples in the book don’t apply to you directly, Brant and Patrick show you how to figure out what might work for you.  This is important, since every situation is different.  I'll give them the last word:
You are already skeptical of Customer Development and Lean Startups and the slew of emerging buzzwords and supple-to-the-point-of-meaningless terms. That’s great, more power to you; we applaud your skepticism. But be philosophically consistent: periodically take the time to question your own expertise and that of your friends, partners and investors. Make the effort to test your assumptions.
If there’s a shortcoming to this book, it’s that it focuses primarily on the Customer Discovery step in The Four Steps.  Here’s hoping they soon tackle Customer Validation. Well done, Brant and Patrick. I can't wait to see what's next. In the meantime, go buy a copy of The Entrepreneur´s Guide to Customer Development right now.
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