Monday, September 19, 2011

    Bootstrapping Business Trip

    A couple weeks ago I went on what could be called my first business trip ever. Initially, the trip was purely personal; I was going down to LA to see some old faces at the CAUSE intern graduation. I wrote off the three days as lost time, before it dawned on me that I could make this trip into a customer development exercise.

    One of our lunch groups was trying to expand out into cities around the country. The expansion did not go smoothly and had stalled at this time. Los Angeles and San Diego were two of the cities that were part of the expansion, so I decided to schedule meetings with the local organizers and see how we could get the ball rolling once again.

    My first stop was in San Diego, where I sat down for a cup of coffee with one of the writers of the Lean Customer Development books. He was quite frank about the weakness of our value proposition and in no uncertain terms told me to go work on it immediately. Just telling people networking was good was just not cutting it, I really had to spell out the benefits of these lunches.

    Moving forward, the SD organizer advised I set up lunches preemptively and then invite people to the event rather than waiting for the group to reach a critical mass. He explained that people would be more willing to join a lunch group if there was a set lunch to look forward. As for promotion, he suggested I craft boilerplate (pre-crafted) emails to organizers to send to their members that clearly illustrated our value proposition. Then with these emails do an A-B test by sending one email to a half of the group and another to the other half in order to determine what language was the most successful. The key to making these lunches happen was to create a turnkey for the organizers, making the lunch recruiting process as effortless as possible. At the end of our meeting, he invited me to come back and attend his weekly coffee meet up so I could talk to the group members and tease out what would get them to attend a Wednesdays lunch. Needless to say, I left that cafe thoroughly enlightened.

    The next day, I was back on the road and in LA meeting with another organizer. I managed to clear up some miscommunications about the level of involvement for the organizer and ended up getting him on board for the next lunch. It turns out that the LA group only met about once a month and these were usually speaker events. The organizer thought that his members would be interested in bimonthly casual lunches as it would help with networking and community building. After this meeting the attitude of the organizer went from I am too busy/not interested to let us give it a try. What a lesson on the power of in person meetings.

    Coffee's for Customer Development

    Back in San Diego, I attended the coffee meetup that the SD organizer hosted, where I met Dave, a member of the group who suddenly made the value of lunch very clear. Dave explained that the entrepreneur by nature is isolated because he has to act as if his startup is doing great and problem free to the outside world. Dave envisioned Wednesdays lunches as a support group for entrepreneurs, a place where they could openly and safely talk about the problems they were having with people who have been there and done that. When I heard that, I thought it sounded like a pretty good tagline for entrepreneurial themed lunches.

    While talking to Dave and the other group members, it dawned on me that this was no different from the anthropological field work that I was used to doing. I was utilizing the same interview and observation skills that I had honed out in the field, doing academic research. Customer development suddenly seemed to be just applied ethnology and the idea of being one’s own customer was nothing more than participant observation.

    The day before my trip started, Startup Weekend (SW) cleared me to go to their LA event and my trip got extended to a whole week. That is how I ended my trip in beautiful Santa Monica, handing out flyers around SW. Not too exciting but it had to be done. There is no insight like the one you get from being on the ground with customers and I relearned that while handing out flyers to people who kept asking me what a lunch club was. The founders and I had always thought that the term "lunch club" was self-explanatory, but after interacting with the SW attendees, I realized that was not the case. So next time on the back of the flyers there will be definitely be an explanation. My trip ended on a high note as I was invited to the front of the stage by the CEO of SW and allowed to pitch the lunch group to all the participants. I could not have imagined a better way to end the trip.

    Ending on a high note at LASW