What I learned from interviewing my friends

Posted on 25 March 2014 by Joseph

When I set out to interview some friends about Silvi, I knew it would be useful. It's the Right Thing to Do for a lean startup, maximizing information gain. What I didn't know that it would be as useful in as many different ways as it was. First, let me provide some context.

When I first considered building Silvi, I wanted to do all the things I failed to do my first time around in the startup game - build customer-first, learning about their unique needs and generalizing to produce a robust product. But before I did any of that, I needed to see if there was a real need. Software developers are a notoriously picky group of people. Were people feeling the same pain around their documentation that I had felt myself?

Instead of spending a week trying to find people to talk to and another week or more waiting for them to pencil me in, I reached out to a great resource: my group of friends. Within one week, I had spoken with seven or eight different people, from tiny startups to big companies. Each had their own personal perspective and a unique perspective based on the company they worked for, and each was more than happy to chat with me for a little while. This made for a very friendly environment, rather than the bristly, sales-like environment some market interviews have.

Crucially, this allowed me to validate my idea in a minimal amount of time. When you are considering several startup ideas, minimizing your time to decision is very important. More than that, though, conducting these interviews in a conversational and relaxed environment taught me several things, one of which I wasn't expecting.

Market existence

On the surface, the sole purpose of these interviews is to evaluate whether there was a market need. And it certainly does, though the urgency of the need must be taken with a grain of salt, as one's friends may be building up their responses based on what they think you want to hear. As a result, it is important to continue conducting interviews as your idea evolves. Though I mentioned earlier that the relaxed environment of the interviews was a plus, you should also be able to convince more wary potential clients that you have an idea worth talking about, and they should be your goal in the next phase of your interviews. After all, unless you have a lot of friends you will be selling to these people eventually.

With your friend across the table, you should also try to identify who in the organization would make the purchasing decision, as this is the person you'll want to talk to next. In several of my interviews, the software engineers themselves made the decisions, but in others a manager or even a separate IT department buys software for the teams to use. Getting this information early can help you craft your market alignment.

Technical requirements

Talking with people about the problems they have with existing solutions, both personally and within their company as a whole, exposes technical features to consider for your product. After all, you are trying to fill the gaps in the market for at least a portion of your customer base. Interestingly, these gaps can be completely different depending on who you are talking to and their situation.

One of my friends working for a smallish but successful startup claims that they maintain their documentation entirely in Google Docs, and furthermore that they have never had any problem with it. Another friend at a more established company inherited several generations of documentation, each tied to the source control tools they were using at the time. His whole team had trouble finding anything in that quagmire.

Stories like this will help you solidify your vision for your product. You can't be everything to everyone, but you should be something amazing for the group you are trying to address.

WILDCARD! Marketing language

This one threw me for a loop. As I conducted more interviews, a common language emerged that people were using to describe their frustrations. "There's a complete lack of centralization." "It's almost impossible to find things." "I don't trust our documentation." Phrases like these can become the cornerstone of your marketing language. When you use the phrases your customers expect, you resonate with them; you are familiar.

When you find phrases like this, you should test them out against your other interviewees. When I talked about lack of trust in documentation, I would see eyes light up and heads nod. This is exactly the type of response your marketing copy should have, especially at an early stage. Agreement and resonance help build the so-called "sales environment" - the setting which maximizes your opportunity to connect with your customers.

TL;DR: Before you do anything else, interview your friends or an otherwise friendly group. They are easy to connect with, and you can gain a ton of useful information that will help flesh out your idea. Wait, can you do a TL;DR at the end?

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