Apply By: April 20
Program: May 21 - June 29

Apply by: June 24
Program: Aug 11 - Sept 22

Eight New Mobile Startup Ideas - Looking Back at Founder Labs

Recently, Founder Labs—  the mobile-focused incubator that I started in August 2010— proudly presented eight fledgling mobile startup ideas, just five weeks old, graduating from our fifth class in San Francisco. Of twenty-four participants in this class, half quit their day jobs to follow their entrepreneurial passions before or during the program. 37% of the participants are startup minded women, the youngest participants were in their 20s, the oldest in their 40s. In this recent graduating class, our participants (we call them “founders”) hail from cities far and wide including: Hong Kong, London, Melbourne, Toronto, Jaipur and Houston.

Founder Labs participants are reflective of the changes in the market - technology isn’t just about the prosumers anymore, or the hard core geeks, it’s for everyone. Tablets have gone mainstream with the largest share going to those 45+, “power moms” are a demographic highly sought after by innovators and advertisers for the spending power and any touch device is natural for kids under 12. Hence, we need more diverse teams creating technology companies. Besides, teams with diverse founders will build better startups, we just need more of them!

Time to think outside the bun. Oops, I mean “the box”. Step in creativity, step in founders with a different perspective - life experience, work experience, world view. To get an advantage in the crowded space, be the target customer yourself or have strong empathy for the customer. Know thy customer.

We put designers, developers, and product marketers in one room for five weeks to figure out what kind of businesses they want to build, and what kind of problems they want to solve with mobile technology. Teams form quickly and organically (we don’t tell anyone who to partner with).  

They are immersed in closed door talks given by Silicon Valley luminaries like Steve Blank (Customer Development), Eric Ries (The Lean Startup), and Ann Muira Ko (Stanford and Floodgate Ventures).  They get mentoring from mobile entrepreneurs with recent startup experience, like Cathy Edwards (Chomp), Mike Rowehl (Admob and Churn Labs), Randy Reddig (Square) and more.  Teams deliver a weekly, required demo of what they have learned from these disciplines: customer development, lean startup, prototyping and testing and user research.

As a founder, and mobile product design geek and marketer, I try to make sure that all of our graduates walk away with practical skills and a real business concept, not just an idea for a cool new app or feature—Founder Labs requires each team to talk to about 100 customers online and off, for example, before writing a single bit of code.

It can be an intense five weeks in San Francisco because some of the future founders are moonlighting and had day jobs at places like Apple, Google, Intel, CMEA Ventures, Citibank Ventures, Obopay and more. We feed these guys and gals a lot of pizza, spicy Indian food and carb-o-licious pasta. A favorite of this class was actually Mediterranean food from Daphne’s (dolmas the aww inspiring brain food of choice!).

Our final demo day included a judging panel of executives and thought leaders from: eBay, AT&T Interactive, Norwest Ventures, True Ventures and io Ventures. They provided quantitative and qualitative feedback to each of the team’s six minute pitches. The teams were pitching to win a second meeting with any or all members of the judging panel. (It would take months to assemble willing advisers of this caliber, otherwise, and their time is not generally something you could buy.)

What is inspiring and refreshing for me is that these teams are taking on real problems in a sincere and passionate way — from helping seniors better leverage technology, to helping developers promote their apps, to helping families better connect to helping you make smarter decisions — these are large markets, with immediate potential to go global and are far from mind numbing, time wasting social games or social-mobile-local mashup apps.

In short, I’m excited to be at the nexus of these ideas. Without further adieu, meet the fifth cohort of Founder Labs, and after the bulleted list, see what judges’ had to say about them…

Kinetify
Wellness mobile SAAS for enterprises to create lasting improvements in employee fitness & nutrition habits using social & charitable motivators.
Twitter: http://twitter.com/Kinetify

AT.PLAY  
A tablet application and app store to help families create new memories together while they are apart.

PeopleMatch.me
Find the best people to meet at networking events and conferences and setup ad-hoc meetings on the go.
Company Website: http://www.PeopleMatch.me
Twitter: http://twitter.com/peoplematchme

Appsperse   
Helping mobile app developers cross-promote their app in other apps.
Company Website: www.appsperse.com
Twitter: http://twitter.com/appsperse
Facebook fan page: www.facebook.com/appsperse

Boomerang
Easy access to technology for the Baby Boomer + generation by creating and curating tablet and mobile apps in a specialty app store designed with their needs at heart.
Company Website: http://boomerang.io
Twitter: http://twitter.com/boomerangio

Cupidlike
A mobile dating site where your friends play matchmaker
Company Website: http://cupidlike.com
Twitter: http://twitter.com/cupidlike
Facebook fan page: http://facebook.com/cupidlike

withFriends.me
A fun mobile decision support system with your trusted network on the go. Initally targeting young female professionals.
Company Website: withfriends.me
Twitter: www.twitter.com/withfriendsapp

Contented:
A tablet app combining the best of prints’ quality journalism and lean back reading experience, delivered in personal and social way for access to the best paid content.

Appsperse won the favor of judges for their ambitions. A judge commented, ”Norwest Venture Partners has found success in backing stellar teams in exploding markets.  Appsperse fits that mold.  The company is mixing great talent from Google with ninja app developers to address the growing app economy.  The company is uniquely positioned to help developers promote their apps and enable users discover more and more of them. We look forward to watching Appsperse grow”.

Apps are the new consumption model. Monetizing developers, however, has historically been a difficult business model. The company’s challenge going forward will be to move up market from indie developers into enterprises and brands that want to cross-promote their apps.” (Rama Sekhar, Vice President, Norwest Venture Partners (NVP))

At.Play and WithFriends were well recognized by Founder Labs social media community (we opened up a Twitter vote, and lots of alumni and future founders’ friends weighed in with a Tweet to the #flsf thread).

“I can’t wait until At.Play is available so I can chat with my daughter when I am traveling for my startup.  Integrating video chat with engaging content and games for my 3 year old is going to change the way we communicate.” Said Everett Harper, an alumni of founder labs, where he launched, Tetherpad.

Demo Day marks the start, not an end - the start of new founding teams and the start of a new ventures, we expect the ideas to morph, evolve and change significantly in the coming months.

We also marked the one year anniversary for Founder Labs recently. Wow, I can hardly believe we’ve had 5 sessions, 3 in San Francisco, 1 in Menlo Park and 1 in New York. This all started out as a test, and much like I preach, I talked to my customers, I iterated, I measured my results and each session has been incrementally better. The learning doesn’t stop!

I’m proud to say two companies that started in our program have been seed or venture funded. Spoondate was funded by 500 Startups.  CakeHealth was funded by Menlo Ventures.  Six other companies are pitching or in product development now including: Authy a mobile security venture, Smarketplaces which provides a distributed marketplace for mobile devices (think Disqus meets eBay on any hardware), and House of Mikko a beauty recommendation app and site.

One of our biggest supporters has been True Ventures who has hosted Founder Labs 3 out of 5 sessions in one year - an amazing set of people who help me realize my vision, thank you True Ventures!

We’re now planning Founder Labs 2012 classes for SF and NYC. If you know a willing mentor, or someone who has great ideas for mobile but just needs to find a team they can work with, let us know!

Panel of judges

Pitch from Team Kinetify

About the author: Shaherose is the founder/CEO of Founder Labs. She was previously at Opinno, a global network of incubator spaces, entrepreneurs and investors. At heart she is a mobile and telephony junkie. She’s led new consumer products at Ribbit (BT). Previously, she was Director of Product Management at JAJAH (sold to Telefonica/O2). Follow her on Twitter at @shaherose.

Social, Mobile Start-Ups Lure Silicon Valley Capital

Shaherose Charania, who, as CEO of Founder Labs and founder of Women 2.0, finds funding for start-ups, works with new entrepreneurs and matches them with VCs, said, “we have a lot of founders in the community who have raised money in the past three months. Social and mobile commerce are definitely hot right now, as are tools to enable mobile development and distribution.”

Read the entire article at http://www.cnbc.com/id/44787871/

Apply to the Free Founder Showcase Pitch Competition

By Jonathan Greechan (Partner, The Founder Institute)

Are you a seed-stage startup looking for funding or exposure? Apply to the Founder Showcase Pitch Competition, where previous presenters have raised over $20 million without ever being required to pay a dime. To apply for your chance to present on-stage, click here.

Any company less than two years old with less than $250,000 USD in funding is eligible, but the Application Deadline is Sunday, October 9th. To see our previous presenters, visit the new Founder Showcase Hall of Fame.

The Founder Showcase event brings together leading investors, founders, and press for one action-packed night to network and help launch a startup company to greatness. The 8th Founder Showcase is scheduled for Tuesday, November 8th in San Francisco, and will be our largest crowd yet (500+). Guests will be treated to a Keynote speech from Michael Arrington, General Partner at CrunchFund and the Founder of TechCrunch, as well as an entertaining Pitch and Demo Table Competition.

This event has sold out the last five times, so purchase your tickets today here.

We are also giving away a free Demo Table ($395 value) to someone who helps spread the word. Just tweet a message with the hashtag #foundershowcase and the URL http://bit.ly/9OlVo8, and, on Friday, November 4th, we will randomly select one winner on Twitter at @founding. A sample message is “Are you going to #FounderShowcase on 11/08 in San Fran? @arrington is speaking. http://bit.ly/9OlVo8 via @founding”

For more information, click here.

About the guest blogger: Jonathan Greechan is a Partner at The Founder Institute, a global network of startups and mentors launching hundreds of companies per year in over 20 locations worldwide. He is also a Partner at TheFunded, the web’s leading online community of technology entrepreneurs to share fundraising advice, and produces the Founder Showcase, a quarterly startup pitch and networking event in Silicon Valley. Throughout his career he has advised hundreds of startups on marketing and PR. Follow him on Twitter at @jonnystartup.

Why You Should Build Your Own “CEO Club”

by Sonia Sahney Nagar (co-founder and CEO of Smarketplaces, and Founder Labs NYC graduate)

I can’t take credit for this idea, but I think it’s fantastic. I recently attended Arianna Huffington and Donna Karan’s WIE conference in New York (Women Inspiration Enterprise). My startup,Smarketplaces, was invited to participate in a pitch event that happened at the end of day one, and I decided to show up early (very early) to catch the full day of speakers. It was definitely worth the Sunday morning early-wake-up, the conference brought together an interesting mix of fashionistas, social enterprisers and politicos (within a span of 2-hours I saw the co-founder of Jimmy Choo and Nancy Pelosi speak). 

Of the many messages conveyed during the conference, there was one that stuck with me and felt very actionable and relevant for early-stage founders — and it was for enterprising women everywhere to start their own “CEO club”.

Let me explain. In one of the panels, one of the women talked about how early in her career she got together with four like-minded, ambitious, forward-charging, entrepreneurial women and they created their own support group. Once a month these five women all get together on a one hour call. On the call each woman has 10 mins or so to talk about anything — professional, personal, nothing is off limits. It’s kind of like group therapy.

The group provides a safe forum for asking questions and resources for getting help. The women’s jobs and roles have changed over the years, but the group has remained intact, and it has been 5+ years that the self-created mini-network has been in place. The woman on the panel said the network had been invaluable to her at many points in her entrepreneurial adventures…

And I believe it. Networks are critical for early-stage entrepreneurs because at many points startups need outside help; whether it’s a warm introduction to a potential investor, new employees, strategic partners, etc. (Actually almost all careers benefit from networks, but given the intense, compressed timeline most startups operate on it seems more crucial here than in other careers). I think it also helps to have a peer group that is in a similar life-stage as you so you can learn from each other and share tactical advice which might be too detailed to get into with advisers or mentors.

This is one value proposition incubators offer startups, by joining a program you are instantly part of a cohort / peer group that can serve as a network of resources for you. Outside of incubator programs there are a few groups that also provide this type of support (e.g., Founder’s RoundtableFirst Growth Venture Network are examples in NYC).

I’m not sure why it never it occurred to me, but there’s no reason to wait or solely depend on acceptance into these pre-formed programs. It’s easier (and may be more meaningful) to form your own. Given the scarcity of women in tech startups (let alone women in the CEO role) this may be easier said than done, but it seems only natural that we should form our own groups and help each other.

Tactically, here are 3 things worth considering if you decide to go this route:

  1. Take your time, find the right people – I’m planning to approach this kind of like dating. I’m hoping to go to events like Women 2.0’s Founder Fridays and put out the vibe (the first NYC event will take place sometime in November). I’ll probably ask for introductions through friends-of-friends and will stalk new female founders on TechCrunch. I’ll go out on coffee dates to get to know people. As with most things in the startup world, it’s paramount to find the right people.
  2. Keep it small – It seems you’ll get the most out of this kind of a thing if you can keep the group small (more time to talk about you :-), all participants get more air time, meetings can be shorter and scheduling also becomes a lot easier).
  3. Commit to a cadence - Lock down a recurring date/time (e.g., 1st Tuesday of every month) otherwise meetings won’t happen.

This is part social experiment and part science experiment. I’m interested to hear how this works out for others and to track this over time. If you’ve already formed a support network on your own, please comment on this post so others can learn what worked/didn’t work for you. And if you’re a CEO of an early-stage New York-based technology startup, look for me at the November NYC Women 2.0 event.

About the guest blogger: Sonia Sahney Nagar is co-founder and CEO of Smarketplaces, a software service that enables bloggers & publishers to generate new revenue through social commerce. Sonia has a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Michigan and a M.B.A. from Harvard Business School. She has previously worked at Amazon, Goldman Sachs and Booz & Co. and participated in Founder Labs NY. Sonia blogs at Smarketplaces or follow her on Twitter at @ssahney and her startup at @smarketplaces.

How To Get Tweeted By Dave McClure

It all went down exactly a week before demo day.

4:00pm: our team was getting ready to present our progress taking part in Founder Labs to Dave McClure, of 500 Startups, and John Malloy, of Blue Run Ventures. We were 4 weeks in, with only 1 more week to go before final demo day before an audience of investors and advisors, and we were scrambling.

We had been exploring various ideas, everything from point-of-sale systems to social enterprise, and weren’t making much headway into any particular avenue. Although our team got on well, it was nonetheless difficult to build consensus and momentum behind one direction. With four team members, we were divesting our energy all over the place, instead of coming together and pulling in one direction.

Just one day before, we had decided to shift our attention back to a previously discarded idea around online dating. We had built a very minimal set of proof-of-concept screens for that idea two weeks ago and presented our findings to Steve Blank. But with no time to build upon our minimum viable product (MVP) to do further customer development and gather new feedback, we suddenly realized that one of the competitors we were researching already had 80% of the functionality we were planning to build into our MVP. So we quickly set up some tests on usertesting.com on our competitor’s website, and also sent that website to a few people we were already doing customer development with, to try out.

5:30pm: We had our new customer feedback and started creating our slides.

6:00pm: Two team members walked in, mentioned that they could not connect with the new online dating idea and decided to leave the team to explore other ideas.

6:30pm: Now with half the team, we were really scrambling to finish up our slides, which we did while listening to the other teams present.

(Our MVP slide)

7:45pm: We got up in front of Dave McClure and John Malloy, and immediately build rapport with our team name, the HoneyBadgers. Dave got a kick out of our MVP slide, and tweeted it right away. See? This blog post wasn’t just a link-bait title. To see what we’re working towards, check out http://cupidlike.com.

About the guest blogger: Alicia Liu is a front-end web and iOS developer. She previously co-founded Benbria, an enterprise software start up that was ranked the 11th fastest growing emerging company in Canada by PROFIT magazine, where she led product management and marketing. She holds a BAsc in Computer Engineering from the University of Waterloo. She’s @aliciatweet on Twitter, and she blogs at http://alicialiu.net.

Have breakfast with Silicon Valley startup gurus/VCs and support startup education? Read on…

[Sponsor an educational video series from Founder Labs and get one hour of 1:1 time with startup luminaries and VCs like Steve Blank, Eric Ries and Ann Miura-Ko : http://www.indiegogo.com/FounderLabs ]
 
Founder Labs is producing an educational video series of eight episodes that focus on the early stage team and company formation and idea validation that takes place in Founder Labs. The episodes follow the participants through the five weeks of Founder Labs – they aim to educate the viewer on how to build the right product with emphasis on lean startup methodology and customer development, and explore the human relationships and team dynamics of a very early state startup.

We’re raising $30K-50K in contributions and sponsorships to fund the cost of creating this show. You can help – please sponsor the show by bidding on an hour of 1:1 time over breakfast with Silicon Valley luminaries like Steve Blank, founder of E.piphany and creator of Customer Development; Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, Jenny Fielding, BBC Ventures; John Malloy, Blue Run Ventures, Ann Miura Ko, Floodgate Ventures. Companies can also apply to be featured in one of our episodes.

Learn more and bid here: http://www.indiegogo.com/FounderLabs.

Get feedback on your startup idea from experts in the field, pitch your startup idea to a VC and support start-up education!

Posted by Resmi Arjunanpillai, VP Marketing, Founder Labs

The Art Of Customer Research: Part 2

In Part 1 of this piece, I had touched upon various challenges that beset qualitative user research… which brings me to some how-tos I’ve learned that are good practices that can help with customer research:

11 tips for getting the most out of your customer research

  1. Define your goal thoughtfully. First off, it’s important tobe clear on what your goal is for any user research at hand. If you’re a typical aspiring entrepreneur, you likely have a hypothesis in mind about you hitting upon a potentially game-changing solution to some problem. But if your goal is simply to rouse potential customers to show enthusiasm for your idea, be aware that unless you’re pitching a ludicrous alien tracking geo-locator for the developing world, you’ll likely achieve it. That’s because the very goal sets up subconscious behavior and leading questions on your part that induce the customers to echo your contagious enthusiasm.

A much more valuable goal is to put aside your product at the outset and understand the user’s regular needs and behaviors in order to learn if they have a real pain point that your solution could alleviate. Often when I do customer research, my goal tends to be to learn where my product fails or why customers don’t find it useful. I find that such an objective frequently leads to far more valuable information – and ultimately, a better product – than just validated enthusiasm for my solution.

  1. Gently get your user ready for the onslaught of researchquestions you’re on the verge of unleashing. Since customer discovery is an art, you have to tap into your empathy skills to avoid bombarding your customer with personal questions at the outset. You also have to gauge when the user is ready for you to whip out that prototype versus when you need to invest a bit more time chatting about the virtues of super-connectivity with your customer who happens to be a physicist (indeed, I learned a lot about super conductors last week). 
  1. Develop true empathy, an actual skill. Empathy is a specific subset of social skills. It’s the subset that really cares about what the user is thinking and feeling. Not the kind that’s focused on what you want to say or impress upon the customer. This skillset requires sensitivity to the non-verbalized needs of others. It entails picking up on every ounce of the user’s body language, reading between the lines as to what they truly intend to say but can’t bring themselves to voice, and both interpreting and being able to later articulate to your team the intention behind every deliberate or misguided swipe of the iPhone by the user. To cultivate empathy, you need to genuinely like your target user.
  1. Watch every instinctive interaction. You don’t need to be conducting a usability test during customer discovery. Nevertheless, instead of showing customers how your product works, explain to them at a high level what the product is about and use the opportunity to observe, even if for just a split second, how they tend to interact with the product naturally before you jump in to show them how it’s supposed to work. You might discover some patterns in users’ instinctive expectations that could inform your design.
  1. Be prepared to get at your answers creatively. You may have to be enterprising to figure out the answers rather than ask directly. For instance, if it’s clear that while Nana loves talking about her high school days, it would just not be appropriate to ask her age, you could artfully inquire, “Gosh, did you really do the jitterbug at your high school dance? That was huge in the ’30s, right – what year was that?”
  1. Try to soothe your research participant. When talking to users, remember two important psychological factors that come into play:
    • people often feel stupid around technology
    • most people want to look impressive and be perceived as smart

If you have the empathy skill down, you’re attuned to the subtle signals your users emit. You can then pick up on their fear of embarrassment in front of a clearly hip, tech-savvy stranger (you!) who they perceive is testing them with unfamiliar technology.

At Yahoo!, I both ran and witnessed numerous usability studies in which participants laughed forcedly in nervous embarrassment or apologized when something didn’t proceed as they expected. Upon encountering an intractable situation where the technology had the better of them, their shoulders slumped in resignation, indicating the unhappy defeat of their egos.

You don’t want your participants feeling like the joke is on them. The key is to help them realize that any unexpected technical behavior or “mistake” is not their fault, it’s the technology’s. When I ran research studies in the lab, I would emphasize that in several different paraphrasings at the outset of the study.

  1. Avoid the 3 specific types of questions that usability guru Jared Spool recommends eschewing:

Don’t ask about the future. When asked about a future scenario, many people will answer what they’d like as their ideal behavior. They want to think they’ll behave in the most logical, effective manner. Yet, in the thick of the situation, people aren’t always so logical. They don’t do what’s ideal. We want to predict future behaviors, so we can make designs that service them. Yet just asking participants may not get the actual answer. I’ve found the best way to predict future behavior is to look at past behavior. Ask participants about what they’ve done in the past. Instead of asking, “Do you think you might need to store messages in different folders?”, I’ve found it better to ask, “When you’re done with messages, what do you do with them?”  

Don’t ask how they’d design a feature. "What would be the right way to organize the menu options?", "What other fields should we include on this form?” etc. The best way is to just ask the participant what that design should be, right? Wrong. Users aren’t designers. If they were, they wouldn’t need us. They don’t know how to deal with constraints. They haven’t really thought the problem through. 

Don’t ask by providing their reason. "Is the reason you don’t click this button because it’s really hard to see?" This is a tough one for many observers. We’re watching the participant and they aren’t doing what we know to be the optimal method. Our brain races with possible reasons. Need to find out. Must ask. "Why didn’t you click this button?" is only a hair better. It doesn’t telegraph the reasons we’re hypothesizing, but it implies the person has done something wrong. They’ll tell you a reason, but it may be more because you’ve pointed it out, not because it’s what they were actually thinking. Be creative about exploring the participant’s understanding of the interface. For example, when I’m curious about why they didn’t click a particular button, I ask them to talk about what each button does. That way, I learn their overall understanding of the buttons.’ 

  1. Be mindful that people want to be nice. Whether or not they mean it, it’s easier for them to stretch the truth and avoid hurting your feelings than it is for them to tell you they’d likely never use your invention. Be careful not to ask leading questions like, “Was this a helpful experience?” Chances are you’ll hear “Sure.” And if you hear that, then you’ve got to be good at reading their body language and detecting their facial consternation as they tell you what they think you want to hear. If you really want to ask that question, one quick and less leading paraphrasing might be, “Was this a helpful or not-so-helpful experience?” and then inquire, “Why?” so you can understand what caused it to be fruitful or useless for the customer.

Another trick I frequently employ is to tell users upfront that I’m not the designer (whether or not that’s true – yes, sometimes little fibs are okay), so they needn’t worry about hurting my feelings with their feedback. That I’m really looking for their honest feedback so as to improve the product for them.

  1. Watch for the following kinds of subtle customer feedback:

·         When the user does something unexpected
·         Verbal or non-verbal indicators of surprise (either positive or negative)
·         How much of the product the user explores (or doesn’t explore)
·         Whether or not the user makes any errors and whether or not they can recover
·         The number of positive statements versus the number of critical statements the user makes of their own accord
·         Any delay or hesitation in answering a question related to their assessment of the product.

  1. Make sure to thank the user for every item of feedback. People like knowing they didn’t waste their or your time. Research participants want to know that their input was of help, but are too unsure to ask. Always reiterate that their feedback was very valuable and that you learned a lot.
  1. Cover the possibility of follow up. Making people feel that their feedback was valuable will also go in your favor if you want to follow up in the future or if you want them to point you to other potential participants. At the end, make it a habit to ask if it would be okay to follow up with them or to contact their friends. You never know when you might need to do so.

As Jared Spool says, “when conducting user research, the most valuable moments are limited times that the team spends with each participant. It’s important to make every second count.”

I hope this post can help you get more value out of your time with customers.

About the guest blogger: Sheba Najmi is a user experience designer who comes with a dose of product management. She learned how humans and computers “think” by earning BS and MS degrees in Symbolic Systems (Cognitive Science, Human-Computer Interaction) at Stanford University. She has since learned a lot more during 6½ years designing for Yahoo! Mail’s 262 million users and especially as Design Lead for Yahoo! Mail Classic for 4 of those years. She welcomes your feedback at snajmi@stanfordalumni.org or twitter @snajmi

Also, despite dissing surveys, Sheba thinks they can be somewhat informative (even though they do not substitute for live user research). So would you please take 2 minutes to answer her team’s survey questions at https://feedbackplease.wufoo.com/forms/baby-boomer-survey/ ? She thanks you profusely.

The Art Of Customer Research: Part 1

The challenges of qualitative investigation


Customer research really is an art.

In my experience, I’ve seen fewer than a handful of excellent user experience researchers who have an innate knack for it. Unfortunately, more often than not, qualitative research is muddied by:

  • users wishing to please the researcher
  • unmindful leading questions by researchers, and
  • artificial settings and tasks that obfuscate true usage patterns.

If, for example, you change the setting or the experience level of the researcher, you’d likely receive a report of a strikingly different set of key findings. 

At Founder Labs, I’ve learned that the hallmark of a lean startup is customer development. Figuring out whether or not your idea has any real appeal for potential customers is fraught with many of the same gotchas as asking users to accomplish contrived tasks in a lab setting. In the product development world, even if someone has an innate talent for intuiting users’ needs between their verbal lines, it takes months of experience to become a good user experience researcher.

How, then, does a small team of budding entrepreneurs with cross-functional backgrounds in engineering, business, and design conduct any meaningful customer discovery under a rapid-fire deadline?

No such thing as quick & easy customer discovery

Early on, when in the Customer Discovery phase of the customer development cycle, as we currently are at Founder Labs, the quick and dirty web survey seems to be a natural bet. The obvious benefits to this are that you can blast it out to hundreds of Facebook and Twitter followers and knock out 44 of your goal of 50 customer discovery participants in one relatively effortless go. Unfortunately, what you get out of it is commensurate to the amount of effort you put in. As I’ve learned, the written word doesn’t tap into that critical first instinctual response you yearn to witness as a researcher. In person, or even on the phone, people don’t have the luxury of time to edit themselves out of their natural first reflex. While it’s tempting to sit back and knock out some emails as the results trickle into your inbox, more thorough live user research is often a lot more enlightening. And if it doesn’t leave you feeling exhausted at the end of the day craving a soak in the tub, you’re likely not trying hard enough.

Quantity is not the goal

It’s also important that customer discovery not be about the numbers. While we’re told to talk to ~50 potential customers, that number is just a guideline to provide some information about what is likely a reasonable number of users to talk to. But the goal is not the number of people you talk to. The goal is really about getting to a place where you’ve iterated on your idea sufficiently (or completely pivoted, as the case may be) till you feel reasonably comfortable that the direction you’re headed in solves a real pain point.

Customer research sans money

My own team has been looking at a particularly challenging customer audience: the elderly. What draws us to this group is our desire to create value in the world. We’d like to tackle a Big, Hairy, Audacious problem. Well, as we’re discovering, there’s a reason why it’s a Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal to improve communication, healthcare, and social engagement for the elderly: The elderly, by default, are not early adopters of new technology. If we were to accost an 80-year-old lady and ask her to interact with an iPad, there would likely be no chance of success.

The following counsel, however, applies to all manner of user research, not just my team’s technologically-averse audience: Given that none of our teams at Founder Labs has money to offer in return for users’ time and feedback, that underscores the need to establish trust and build up a relationship quickly before most users will feel comfortable enough to try an unfamiliar technology that they’re concerned will make them look or feel stupid.

…Which brings me to some how-tos I’ve learned that apply not only to my team’s particularly challenging user market, but are good practices that can help with most customer research. Stay tuned for Part 2 of this article, “11 tips for getting the most out of your customer research.”


About the guest blogger: Sheba Najmi is a user experience designer who comes with a dose of product management. She learned how humans and computers “think” by earning BS and MS degrees in Symbolic Systems (Cognitive Science, Human-Computer Interaction) at Stanford University. She has since learned a lot more during 6½ years designing for Yahoo! Mail’s 262 million users and especially as Design Lead for Yahoo! Mail Classic for 4 of those years. She welcomes your feedback at snajmi@stanfordalumni.org or twitter @snajmi

Also, despite dissing surveys, Sheba thinks they can be somewhat informative (even though they do not substitute for live user research). So would you please take 2 minutes to answer her team’s survey questions at https://feedbackplease.wufoo.com/forms/baby-boomer-survey/ ? She thanks you profusely.

 

Really listening to advice as an entrepreneur

As an entrepreneur, you are constantly bombarded with advice on everything, from what you should be doing, to how you should dress. No matter who you talk to, chances are he/she will offer you some advice. Thus entrepreneurs seem to develop a shell around them, and most of the time, simply ignore the advice. This is completely rational: if you just took all the advice you received, you would probably end up dressing like Lady Gaga, and your product would look like a MySpace profile.

However, not everything is binary. One of the great things about Founder Labs is that it puts you in front of very talented mentors from day one. During the five-week program at Founder Labs, we met wonderful advisors. We met with several of them, and received more advice in those five weeks than we had in the previous 6 months.

Like any entrepreneur, it was impossible to take it all. However, we knew that our mentors were spending their limited time with us, without getting anything in return, other than hopefully helping us, so we made an extra effort to listen.

But it is not only about listening, it is also about executing on it. Some of the advice, we kept hearing over and over again. Those were easy cases: we took the advice and executed on it. Other cases were tougher: it was all too tempting to simply ignore what we were told — a natural thing many entrepreneurs do.

During week three of the program, one of the advisors told us something that we just didn’t want to hear. We had already explored the problem when we started, but it was so technically challenging, and maybe even impossible, that hearing we had to solve this problem first was not what we wanted. Still, we made a huge effort to listen, but more importantly we took the advice and made solving this problem our #1 priority. It’s funny what happened afterwards: three days later, we had a great solution to the problem, and by the next time we met with this advisor, we had implemented a prototype of the solution.

Not only did our product become better and more interesting, it also connected us more to the advisors. It’s rare for advisors to see someone actually listening to them and even further, doing something about it. So if you are one of those rare cases, advisors will notice and will be more willing to help you even further; all they are really asking is for you not to waste their time.

I am not advocating that you take every single piece of advice you receive - it is up to you to decide that; but, if you are dismissing all of it, you are doing it wrong.

About the author: Daniel Palacio (@danielpalacio) is the co-founder of Authy (www.authysec.com) along with Gleb Chuvpilo (@chuvpilo). Authy (@authysec) is a mobile security startup founded during the first Founder Labs NYC. 

"Founder Labs was the best way to keep my thoughts innovative" — The Volunteer Perspective

A few weeks ago, Founder Labs’ first session in New York, lead by Shaherose Charania, wrapped up with an awesome demo night at the USV event space. Leading up to that evening, I spent many of my nights and weekends working with her and the teams as a volunteer, and I’m grateful to have been part of it.

Founder Labs team Smarketplaces presenting on Demo Night to judges Fred Wilson and Jenny Fielding

What I found from the inside was that Founder Labs really is a different type of startup accelerator. The company is run by a team of brilliant and totally authentic women. When they advise on team dynamics, they’re leading by example. The participants were unique too. Every single team consisted of technical minds, business minds, and design thinkers. They all had widely varying experience and perspectives from all aspects of life. I spend my time in the startup world, and many of my coworkers and closest friends are white male engineers in their 20’s — and that’s ok. The thing was, you could tell at Founder Labs that everybody was a whole lot more interesting because there was so much variation in their ideas and teams. The positive feedback loop was apparent.

Founder Labs is designed for professionals who are moonlighting. You go in and are encouraged to keep your day job, while being provided with a best-in-class network of mentors to help you figure out if you, and your idea, are cut out for building a real company. Of course, if you are doing this while keeping your day job, you’re making double the time commitment. Participants weren’t afraid to shed some blood, sweat, and tears.

At Shapeways, I’m focused on contributing each day to the long-term growth of a meaningful company. With Founder Labs, the opportunity for me to temporarily put myself back into the mindset of seed stage, pre-funding entrepreneurs was one of the best ways to keep my mind fresh and my thoughts innovative.

If you’re thinking about whether or not to take the plunge as an entrepreneur, check the program out. It’s run by some seriously high caliber people, and rumor has it that they will be back in NY soon.

About the guest blogger: Ana is a digital community builder and startup lover who chose to forgo a traditional path in favor of New York’s technology renaissance. She currently works as Community Manager at Shapeways, the world’s first 3D printing co-creation platform. Prior to Shapeways, she freelanced with local tech companies focusing on community development and product management, worked as Events Director at New Work City, and founded her own non-profit. Whenever possible, she studies UX design and code, and believes craft beer is way of life. You can follow on Twitter at @anoemi.