Recruiting customers might be a difficult task, especially if your business idea is outside your current domain of expertise. You can find here plenty of practical tips on how to identify and recruit them.

To recruit customers for customer discovery interviews may be one of the most difficult and time consuming things to do when starting with a business idea validation process to achieve product-market fit (read more here).
One of the mantras of Steve Blank, the serial entrepreneur and academician who started the entire Lean Startup movement by developing the Customer Development methodology, is to “get out of the building“. What Steve says is to get out of the office and speak with real people.
We believe his claim is provocative on purpose, in opposition to the corporate habit of spending hours in crowded meeting rooms to review hundreds of boring slides while trying not to be noticed when glancing at our Twitter feed.
In fact there are a number of reasons why getting out on the street to stop people passing by is not really a good idea:

  • Stopping people on the street is incredibly awkward. We tried a few times, not really nice.
  • Selecting a specific area – like a neighbourhood – might help us find relevant people, but we’d be essentially picking up at random. It will take ages until we have a big enough sample size to validate our assumptions.
  • It’s very unlikely that we will find anyone willing to spend more than a couple of minutes talking with us. People on the streets are always in a rush, and we need engaged customers to get meaningful information.

So instead of running around like headless chickens, a little bit of homework might help to get the customer insights we need.

First thing first: define which are the problems the new business idea or new product is going to solve, and who are the target customers that you expect to be affected the most by those problems.
These will be your early adopters (more about how to recognise them here).

Depending on your knowledge of the industry, it might require a bit of a guess work. In any case, creativity plus some online research will come handy.
We personally find that compiling a Lean Canvas helps structuring our thoughts, so we really recommend using one.
Here is a step by step guide to compile a Lean Canvas.
It takes just a few minutes to do it.

Once the assumptions about target customers are defined, recruiting customers to interview is easier if you ask yourself: where do these people aggregate? What do they have in common?
This is what we call Network Hubs. A Network Hub is a location, either online or physical, where target customers get together.
This might need some research to understand more about what these customers do and where they meet. It might take some time, but it’s not going to be wasted. In fact, it will be a very useful first step to get closer to the target segment and to start an entrepreneurial journey.
For example, one of the startups we have worked with asked us to define the product strategy for a WordPress plugin. After a little bit of thinking, we reasoned that WordPress developers with a certain seniority and background could have been our potential profile of early adopters.
Cool, where do WordPress developers with a certain seniority and background aggregate? What do they have in common? We identified locations (either online or proper places) where they might meet or get together: online forums, communitiesmeet upsLinkedIn groups, etc, and we contacted them right there.
In case network hubs are online, we recruit customers either with posts on online communities or contacted them directly. If network hubs are physical places, we meet these people at networking events.
Either cases, the objective is to ask them to have an in depth chat whenever and anywhere they like.

In certain situations, customer recruitment is so difficult that network hubs might not work as expectedRob Fitzpatrick listed a few additional options to recruit customers to interview in his book “The mom test“:

  • Ask for intros. This is our favourite. Any customer development interview should always finish with “is there anyone else you think I should talk to?“. This will create a snowball effect boosting the recruitment results. But if you start from scratch, ask for intro to advisors, University Professors, investors, or ask friends in the industry for a personal favour.
  • Make cold calls/emails. This is tough, and may require hundreds of calls and email to get a yes. But you only need one yes to start.
  • Put serendipity at work. At any random social situation, you may find out that there is a lot to learn from people if you just ask them about their life.
  • Find a good excuse. Once you have identified a potential customers to interview, get in touch asking to have a coffee with a good excuse. Student researches/dissertations work really well!
  • Launch a landing page. As part of the lean canvas, you would have drafted a solution and a value proposition already.  Even if it’s very early stage, launch a landing page and run some online ads targeting the customer segment, with a call to action to leave their email address to get updates when the product is ready. The objective in this case is not to measure the conversion rate or score some actual sales, but to use that email address to engage in a conversation with them.
  • Organise meetups. You might me surprised by how many customers in your target segment will show up, and by how many insights you will get by chatting with them, not to count the potential in depth follow up interviews. Moreover, this will boost your industry credibility as well.
  • Speaking and teaching. See if you manage to get invited to conferences where your target customers go, or try to organise free workshops, post online videos, webinars, offer free consultancy or office hours. Anything that might attract the people you want to meet and talk with will work.
  • Start a blog about the industry you are targeting. This is also a good exercise to get your thoughts in shape. However, be careful as it might require exceptional writing skills and some time to get proper traffic.

The last thing is about rewarding. Should customers be rewarded for the time they spend talking about their problems?
In theory, not. The thing is: if the pain is big enough and the segment is right, people should be just happy to contribute solving the problem.
However, a bit of reality check will help. If time constraint is a problem, and if you are struggling to convince people to be interviewed, an Amazon voucher might be the way to go.

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