The black art of customer development (2): interview with Tristan Kromer of Luxr

As I’m trying to meet as many interesting people who think long and hard about the art of building products and companies, I had the opportunity to talk to Tristan Kromer of Luxr. He’s a coach at the accelerator Nest’Up this spring. He’s also the curator of a few LinkedIn groups on Lean Startup principles.

His interest in Lean Startup methodology and customer development was sparked by reading ‘Four Steps to the Epiphany’ by Steve Blank – the father of customer development. It’s an important book for the lean startup movement, but it was also one of the hardest to read books (it’s now republished in a more accessible version and under a different title).

But as Kromer explains it, reading about Lean Startups is not enough. You have to go out and do something with it. “Knowing the philosophy is not enough to succeed. The skills of lean startup and customer development are very, very practical skills. You can’t just read a blog and say: okay, I can do a minimum viable product now. I bet you’ll still put about 9 too many features in your MVP if you do it the first time. It’s not about the philosophy – it’s about the skills. It’s like basketball: you won’t become Michael Jordan by reading his biography. It doesn’t work that way.”

“It’s also really hard.” One of the things Kromer noticed, he says, when he was doing his own products back in the day, was that his iteration cycles “started out fast but slowed down. It’s really hard, even if you believe in the method.”

He waves to the Nest’Up startups, who are filling a whiteboard wall with Post It notes in all available colors. “They’re creating landing pages now. Some have already built a landing page, but they’ve learned nothing from them. They collected e-mail addresses – from their mom and friends and family. They don’t know what they’re learning, because you have to do it a few times to get it. So that’s what they’ll be doing for months: build landing page after landing page after landing page. Test this behavior, then test that behavior. What channels are the best? They’re all different, very pragmatic skills.”

(Does that also remind you of THIS?)

So what’s the hardest skill, I ask. “Saying I don’t know. The ability to challenge your own assumptions is very difficult. You can do it, but it’s really hard. You have to be able to say: I believe this, but I don’t know it. Sometimes it takes a good framework – like the business model canvas or the Luxr customer persona. That can help to provoke the right questions.”

Luxr is not a brand of lean startup, says Kromer. “It’s a way of teaching Lean Startup, and especially the part about customer development: how to speak to customers and get the info that you need faster? It’s important to realise that the knowledge that you need is out there, and you have to get out of the building to get it.”

It’s a dogma of the Lean Startup, but it’s still not as widely accepted as the tweets and Facebook shares would indicate. “It is hard to find customers and talk to them, and get useful information from them. And engineering entrepreneurs tend to be a bit introverted. Generally, they prefer to build rather than talk to customers. All entrepreneurs have a tendency to explain to me why talking to the customer won’t work. “I think it’s rude to talk to strangers about their personal finances!”

When I go outside the US this generally becomes a bit localized (grins) – “in Thailand it’s rude to talk to strangers!”, or “in Mexico we never ask about people’s finances!” But none of them turn out to be that big of a deal: people everywhere just love to talk about their problems.”

Even the occasional Ford reference bubbles up, says Kromer (you know: if you ask customers what they want, they would ask for faster horses). “It’s a typical argument against lean startup. But if people tell you they want a faster horse, ask why. To win races? Or to get your goods from one end of the country to the other. Ask for the root causes, the basic motivation. Or you’ll build something silly.”

Which, of course, brings us to silly startups. Why are there still so many of them – the consumer apps that don’t really do anything? “Because it’s easy to think that people want it. People want to be Mark Zuckerberg. They want to be famous rather than wanting to solve a problem. There’s still people who don’t get any further than scratching their own itch. Like: we’re a bunch of introverted guys and we hate networking. Let’s make an app that allows us to meet similar people at SXSW and which eliminates the need to talk to anybody. (rolls eyes) It’s SXSW! Everybody is similar to you! Oh, or the apps that promise to “solve business cards”. Look around you – people love business cards.”

“I guess a lot of people just want to create a button that people want to push. It’s a bit like engineer bias: it’s just so satisfying to build stuff. And it’s likewise a huge ego boost to see people sign up. Vanity metrics are so hard to eradicate because they feel so fantastic. It’s very seductive.”

Even after successfully launching your company, talking to the customer stays important, says Kromer. The story he tells about Salesforce is very reminiscent of the story that Ian Collingwood told recently about companies that don’t much care for customer contact.

“There’s a feature in Salesforce that allows you to put Salesforce in bcc when you e-mail a contact, so that the mail will show up in Salesforce. Unfortunately, if the person that you bcc’d wasn’t in your Salesforce contacts, Salesforce would just discard that e-mail. So I called them to ask about a solution – be advised that this was years ago, they might have fixed in in the meantime. But the answer I got from the customer service agent was: yes, I have that problem too. I wish we could solve it. So I said: well, what do your engineers say? His answer: “I’m not allowed to talk to the engineers”. How can you learn what your customers want?”

“The other end of the spectrum is a company that’s called Soldsie. There, every person talks to the customer. As a matter of fact, it’s how they recruit. Soldsie is a SaaS that allows you to sell stuff on your Facebook page. Your fans write “SOLD” and their e-mail address in a comment and they get sent an invoice. It’s something that you see and you say: this can’t work. So when they get new staff on board, they put them in a call with a customer. And the customer tells them: this is the best product ever! (laughs) They’re doing over a million dollars a month in transactions now, and they just closed a round of funding. That’s the power of really talking to your customers.”

[Photo credits: Tristan Kromer, TechYizo, Flickr]

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About the author

Raf Weverbergh

Editor of whiteboard. Raf Weverbergh was a magazine journalist whose work appeared in magazines like Rolling Stone, Playboy, Mail on Sunday, Publico and South China Morning Post. He is the co-founder of FINN, a corporate communications agency where he advises startups and multinationals on their PR and Mustr, the easiest media database for PR professionals. You can contact him on Twitter, Linkedin or Skype (rafweverbergh).

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