At the time my ex-business partner and I started working on the company that would eventually become HireVoice, I had already been through the ups and downs of a startup with Flagback and two other companies.
I had experienced business success and failure, and had a wide network of talent and mentors. My professional background in user experience made validating with real customers from day one a given.
With HireVoice, we were building a platform to help businesses understand how the market perceives them as employers (employer brand monitoring). We started with the right mindset and the newly released Lean Startup was going to give us an edge.
We started validating solutions with prospects in the first few weeks of business startup.
For the first few months, we were only getting positive feedback. This feedback gave us the nod to start building the first (of six) module of our solution.
We released our first version to pilot customers. It was high commitment from the start. It took months for any of our pilot customers to run surveys. Nevertheless, people were excited about the potential of HireVoice.
After our first few modules failed to capture engagement with prospects, we realized that we had been fooling ourselves into thinking that employer brand perception was an important problem (or that it was a valid starting premise). It was a problem, but it didn’t hurt enough for companies to pay for our solutions…
We had a clear picture of our target end user and target customer (not the same in this case), we were following the right process and we did a lot of good things. Yet, we failed. We were able to experience first-hand the limitations of the Lean Startup in B2B.
Although the book was on everyone’s lips, we were already familiar with serial entrepreneur Steve Blank’s The Four Steps to the Epiphany — the book that started the Lean Startup movement and created the customer development process at the heart of this book.
Customer development was born out of B2B enterprise selling; yet the body of knowledge available outside of The Four Steps to the Epiphany was small to non-existent.
We struggled to answer any questions that fell beyond the scope of Blank’s book. The small everyday questions were killing us. We burned contacts, lost face in meetings, got stuck in political dead ends and had prospects mistrust us for withholding key information — all mistakes that could have easily been avoided.
We got better around the time that we joined the MIT Entrepreneurship mentorship program, which gave us a structured way to look at validation. However, what really helped us was receiving the mentorship of Claude Guay, a sales veteran and a two-time startup CEO (iPerceptions and Accovia).
Claude didn’t change our validation process, but he was there to answer all of the small questions we had:
- Should you show prices in a pitch deck?
- At what point should you start asking for money?
- How should you re-engage prospects after the first meeting?
- How can you get businesses to honestly tell you about their spend?
- How can you reward interview candidates?
In the end, we failed to build a sustainable business, but succeeded in in-validating a startup. It was a successful validation with a negative outcome.
It took us six months to in-validate our first two products, but only three months to in-validate the last three. Inappropriate B2B customer development cost us four months of runway.
I wrote Lean B2B to help entrepreneurs save those four months.
After interviewing more than 30 successful entrepreneurs for the book, I can tell you that others have already made a lot of the mistakes you might be making.
⚡⚡ Enjoyed this content? I go into way more detail on this subject in Lean B2B. The book covers the ins and outs of finding traction in the market for B2B products. Check it out »
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