How I Failed My Startup & Tactical Advice So You Don’t Fail Yours (2 of 4)
Reason #2: I didn’t spend enough time on user research
Reason #2: I didn’t spend enough time on user research.
I recently failed a startup that I worked on for over a year. It wasn’t an “I raised $5M, built a team, launched a product, and got bought for less than fair market value” failure either. I failed to raise $1, failed to build a team beyond myself, and failed to launch the product.
I failed because I didn’t spend enough time conducting user interviews, prototyping, and running live usability tests.
The four terrible reasons I didn’t spend enough time on user research were:
- I felt like I knew the space really well.
- I consistently underestimated timelines to build vs. prototype features.
- I thought I wouldn’t get valuable feedback on lousy prototypes.
- I enjoy coding more than getting my ideas and work ripped apart.
Why I should have spent more time on user research:
1. I would have pivoted my product way faster.
When I started, I focused on helping people optimize the customer journey of getting a new travel credit card, earning the bonus from that card, and efficiently spending points to travel for nearly free. I skipped the user interview stage because I believed, “who doesn’t want free travel?!” It turns out the people hate credit cards, and there’s a relatively small portion of people who are interested in getting a bunch of credit cards, even if it means free travel.
When I finally did user interviews, I uncovered that an unusually high amount of people have “travel funds”: separate bank accounts they use for travel. I ran a statistically significant survey for the United States. I found that more than 25 million adults in the U.S. use a separate bank account for travel, but almost no one I talked to had automated and optimized their process for transferring money into and out of their travel fund.
I learned this more than a year into my journey; when I should have learned it in the first two months. I created an impressive app that helps people optimize the new credit card points journey and ultimately trashed almost all of it when I pivoted to making it easier to set up and manage a travel fund.
2. My data models would be pristine.
I love coding. I refer to coding as “the modern-day whittling”: you can create something from nothing. As opposed to marketing work I’ve done in the past, at the end of a day of coding, you walk away being able to see what you created tangibly. Every day I got to code, I walked away with a sense of accomplishment.
For example, often, I’d code something, only to code it slightly differently the next day and then the next because I realized my app needed data that wasn’t in the original model. I’d adjust the model on the backend, then change the model on the front-end: except the data now sat in a different document in a separate collection, when it should be right next to the first piece of data.
Had I spent an immense amount of time prototyping the entire application, I would be able to create data models that worked perfectly. I would have ended up with a faster app to develop, quicker load times for users, and a cheaper app to operate and iterate.
3. I’d have more stories to share with investors and potential co-founders.
In my time developing the app, I spoke to two investors. That’s a problem in itself, but what I heard from both was that they didn’t want to hear about my “world-domination billion-dollar autonomous finance for products and money flows” plan. Instead, they wanted to listen to stories of people who experienced pain, tried to solve it with a lousy solution, and why my app provides a better solution than the customer’s lousy one.
After I finally did the user research, I could rattle off the story of my sister in high school who works at an ice cream shop and stuffs a box in her room with the tips she earned as her travel fund. Or the story of a natural bodybuilding couple who saves for travel by purchasing components for a single trip over the year (e.g., buy the hotel in September, the flight in November, the rental car in December), using the travel asset itself as a savings vehicle. Or the story of Erin, a frequent solo traveler who puts an entire travel purchase on a credit card whether she has enough saved or not because she prioritizes her travel goals over a small interest hit. Those were the stories I should have told investors.
Tactical recommendations for spending more time on user research:
1. Remove user recruiting barriers by building a customer board.
Setting up a customer board was the smartest thing I did.
When I worked at a market research company called Forrester, we had a board of clients. The board of clients meetings were a forcing function to get continuous customer feedback. I found success miniaturizing this model for my startup.
I reached out to friends, family, and pretty much anyone I ever spoke to about my startup and asked them to join the customer board. I built a customer board of 63 people to email each week asking for feedback, a remote usability test, a survey, a request to share their last trip budget. It was a B2C app so easier to get 60+ members, but the same applies to B2B, it just requires more cold outreach and a lower target (shoot for 12 and hope to get a 75% engagement rate each week). A huge bonus of having a customer board is that you get to answer the question: “let me know if there’s anything I can do to help” with the actionable response: “it would be great if you joined the customer board!” Here’s an image of my post to LinkedIn, where I got 40 out of my 63 sign-ups:
2. Use The User Interview Exchange to get more user interviewees and usability testers for free.
Finding user interviewees and usability testers in your target market is time-consuming and expensive, so I built The User Interview Exchange to make the whole process free and efficient. Every time you help another founder out by being an interviewee or usability tester for their research, you earn a token to interview someone in your target market. It’s free to use, you get folks applying to be interviewees instead of you reaching out, and you get to network with other founders working on extraordinarily cool stuff. It worked for me, and there’s no cost to trying it out.
3. Collect remarkably specific stories.
Investors are professional bullshit detectors. They get paid to listen to you and then decide if what you said is truth or bullshit. Also, the chances are slim that an investor has personally experienced the problem you are solving or have identified, so it’s essential that you clearly explain the problem you solve and color in the lines with memorable stories. Almost every response to an investor’s question should involve a“for example” user story.
Here’s an example of a bad story I told: “People save for travel in a million different ways; it’s chaos. There isn’t a 401k for travel the same way that there is one for retirement even though more millennials save for travel than retirement.”
Here’s an example of the specific story I should have told: “My sister is a senior in high school. Four days a week, she works at a local ice cream shop. She’s going to college next year, but one of her biggest goals is to travel to Greece. Every night she returns home and stuffs her cash tips into her drawer. That’s her travel fund, and it’s an issue because she isn’t earning interest, it’s risky to keep so much cash laying around, and it’s tough to track how much she has and how close she is to be able to afford a flight to Greece.”