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Get Out of the Building

We’re a few weeks into the Lean Launchpad Class, NSF Innovation Corps edition, and one phrase comes up over and over again by the instructors:  Get Out of the Building. This simple phrase directs the teams to go figure out what their customers need and want, and suggests it can’t be done by researching on the internet or talking to second hand sources. It reminds me of the old phrase, “You can’t learn to swim at the library.”

One of the privileges of being in the class is being able to watch the twenty other teams figure out who their customers are and what their value proposition is. This is part of the customer discovery process. Even though I feel as though I figured out much of this in the school of hard knocks through many startups, the class puts structure around the process which is very useful.Still, we’re finding for our team, which is working on an innovative biosensor technology, the process is not easy. It is filled with frustrations and the need to backtrack after going down blind alleys. The great value of the program, though, is that we’re doing this work without spending any money. If we can find the right opportunity space, it will be fully validated by the time we go looking for money. Not only will our chances for raising money be much higher, we will have saved a lot of burn in the process. Add me the growing list of people who are becoming disciples of this methodology.

Just a week ago I was mentoring a student who is part of the University of Illinois’ Illinois Launch program. It was clear that although he had an idea for a business, he had not done anything to test the concept among the many stakeholders that would need to buy into his vision for his company to become a success. I think in the past I would have questioned his assumptions and challenged him on why he thought the world needed his products. Instead I found myself saying to him, “You need to get out of the building” and go talk to your prospective customers. Will they want what you have to offer? Will they pay for it? How are they getting the service today? How will they justify paying for it? I didn’t have to challenge him on anything, but he was very motivated to look where my finger was pointing, and he emailed me the next day thanking me for the great advice and encouragement.

In just a few short weeks a decade of experience in customer discovery has been reduced to one simple phrase. If you are in the process of launching a new company (or even just a new product), you need to go talk to your customers by getting out of the building.

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I'm Neil Kane - a serial entrepreneur who specializes in commercializing complex technologies that come out of academic research labs or federal laboratories.
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