When Your Customers Just Don’t Get It

Posted by Boris Grinkot on

Matt Munson, Todd Emaus, and Steven Bull have three successful companies under their belts, including BoomStreet that was sold to Tippr last year. They started Acceptly—a tool to help students track their progress through the college application process—in May of 2011 after hearing an NPR story about the stress of college admissions. Students and parents alike were talking about how college prep is complex and competitive, and demands not only effort, but early and careful planning.

The original epiphany, 2 exits deep

Clearly, there was a problem worth solving. Not only that, but the team found that the private consulting market around this very problem was huge. As experienced e-commerce entrepreneurs, they immediately saw an opportunity: productize the existing know-how as a set of user-friendly online tools that will help with planning and decision making, and sell it to the masses at a tiny fraction of the private consultant’s price tag. Sounds familiar? Mint.com came to their minds also, and for the next 7 months they put their heads down and worked on the most useful, comprehensive, and visually intuitive product that would get their users into the university of their dreams. They had their private alpha out by July and launched publically in October. They iterated many times along the way, yet the needle didn’t move much, and they didn’t know why. In January, they showed up full-force at Dogpatch Labs Palo Alto for the Lean Startup Machine workshop.

Putting the brakes on iteration

The rest is now a common LSM story: through understanding—not theoretically, but practically—the Lean thinking, they figured out what was wrong through structured and deliberate customer development exercises. As many other startups, they found this activity both the most rewarding and the most nerve-wrecking: talking to their customers face to face, they began to see their core assumptions shatter. The value they thought they were providing wasn’t connecting. In a day of talking with high school students at the Stanford mall, they realized that the way they—Matt, Todd, and Steven—were thinking about students’ problems was radically different from the way this bunch of 17-year-olds were. The students weren’t looking at the big picture. The comprehensive, grown-up thinking that Acceptly was bringing to the table—truly a better way to solve their customers’ problem—simply didn’t make sense to those very customers. “They couldn’t get their heads around it,” Matt recalls, “They were looking at it as a bunch of one-off problems like scholarships, essays, etc., and not as one big process.”

Identifying the right customer

This experience led the team to make a drastic change in their product, from automated consultative guidance to a process management tool. After further customer development efforts, they hypothesized that a more successful business model may be parent-, rather than student-facing. They identified a more responsive segment affected by same problem: the parents. Acceptly’s story is a reminder how our entrepreneurial reliance on gut feeling (especially when it’s validated by past successes) makes it difficult to follow Lean methods. “We had tried for two months to implement Lean Startup methodology, but were struggling with some of the practicalities. We wanted to bounce questions off people that had done Lean before.” So 7 months and 3 days after they got started, the Acceptly team was heading in a new direction. They were able to make that difficult and painful decision that most startups dread: admitting that futile months of full-time work might have been saved by a weekend of immersion into Lean. “When you talk more before building, you can pivot in 2 hours instead of 2 months.” When I asked Matt what his top three takeaways from LSM were, he sent back an easy-to-remember list:
  1. Talk to customers
  2. Talk to customers
  3. Talk to customers