Reiser: Startups should ditch the surveys and talk to customers

Shane Reiser talks about customer development at Startup Weekends all the time, but it was his first time schooling startups at an accelerator like Straight Shot. The Lean Startup movement is hot on the minds of startups across the nation, and it was no different for the group of seven startups. Most had read "Lean

Shane Reiser talks about customer development at Startup Weekends all the time, but it was his first time schooling startups at an accelerator like Straight Shot.

The Lean Startup movement is hot on the minds of startups across the nation, and it was no different for the group of seven startups. Most had read “Lean Startup” and knew about the general practice.

Some have put it into practice.

“I talked to moms, dads, shoppers,” said Corey Anand of Kitchin, a startup aiming to create a digital kitchen inventory and create recipes out of it. “I creeped a lot of people out, just creeping in the produce section.”

But customer interviews are key to creating a product a customer will actually use or buy, Reiser said during the presentation last month. 

“You’re validating assumptions and running experiments to find out if your thing is really needed,” Reiser said. “You drill on deep-rooted assumptions of your business.”

Reiser spent three hours in a workshop with the startups, teaching them to not asking leading questions, how to act while interviewing customers, what to ask and defining their customers.


  • It’s important to differentiate a user and customer. A mom buying a toy for a kid is a good example—the mom is the customer, the child is the user. 
  • You need to identify customers’ needs, behaviors. You learn that by talking with them.
  • Surveys aren’t great for pre-product launches. Why? Surveys are hard to write without bias. The results can often be misleading because you don’t know if the right type of person is taking the survey. Most don’t take time to answer the questions. They’ll click a button, but won’t answer the “why” questions and then you can’t go back and ask them. They are great for yes/no answers and getting facts or numbers. They’re helpful after the product launches. 

Empathy interviews

  • Look for emotions, faces, feelings when they’re talking.
  • When you’re looking for someone to validate a problem, you want them to like your product. But you’ve got to put bias aside and dig deeper to see if it’s even a problem. If it’s not a problem for people, you need to pivot. Don’t try to solve a problem that isn’t there.
  • Interviews are best face to face because people usually care more if you can see them. Plus, you can read them better, since communication is 85 percent nonverbal. 
  • Interviews are tough because your brain is hardwired to screw you. You start looking for validation in the way you interpret the things they say. You’re looking for validation when it might not necessarily be there. The person you are interviewing will subconsciously know what you’re trying to do. They’re human and want to help you with exaggerations or reassuring answers that may not be true. So you have to gauge that. You are taking a big risk and making big decisions about building a product on the basis of these interviews.

What to ask

  • Only ask questions about the past and present. No one really knows what they will do in their future, so “Would you?” and “Will you?” are moot. 
  • Here’s what to ask: “Tell me a story about a time you _____.” Ask them to tell you a story about your problem. Don’t be so specific that you lead them down a path. 
  • If you’re starting a Yelp for vegetarians, ask them, “What’s the hardest part about eating out as a vegetarian?” 
  • Use followup questions like “Why is that hard?” and “How do you solve that problem now?” and “Why is that solution not that great?”
  • Ask these questions three times.  
  • Look and listen for emotions: frustration, confusion, feeling lost. You can use it in your marketing.

Interview conditions

  • Ground rules: Shut up and listen. Don’t interrupt. No pitching your product.
  • Never gang up on a customer. One person should ask questions, another should take notes and observe, but never say anything.
  • A good interview is ideally an hour.
  • You should conduct 5-10 of these interviews.
  • It’s best to do it in person because 85 percent of communication is nonverbal. At worst, do a Skype or Google Hangout.

Defining your customer 

  • This is (name)
  • He/she is ______ (a unique characteristic)
  • He/she likes to/often does ______ (a behavior, hobby, etc.) 
  • She wants to/needs help with ______ (a need or goal)
  • Draw a picture
  • Create defining characteristics (name, age, marital status, children, job, income, etc.)

An example

“This is Josey. She is 35, married with one baby and is pregnant again. She lives in Florida and owns her own interior decorating business. She likes to hire out services for vanity, like getting her hair and nails done. She stresses about her appearance and wants to look professional, but has a hard time while coordinating her busy schedule. She wants to look the part and be put together. She knows what she wants and is willing to pay a premium for it. She once loved shopping but doesn’t have time now.”


Credits: Photo courtesy Straight Shot.


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