“I get that the continuous discovery habits framework works well for mature products, but does it work for early-stage startups?”
This question always surprises me. I spent all of my full-time employee experience at early-stage startups (many of them pre-product) and I relied on these same habits to figure out what to build.
But the more I talk with people, the clearer their concerns have become. So I want to dig into this more.
I’m going to start by describing the ideal process. However, I realize we rarely live in the ideal world, so I’ll also tackle what to do in the most common startup situations.
The Best-Case Scenario: Continuous Discovery in the Earliest Stages of a Startup
Meet two fictional startup founders, Sally and Jim. Sally and Jim are avid podcast listeners. They love finding fresh podcasters with original points of view.
Whenever they stumble upon a new podcast that they love, it feels like a gift—the kind of gift that gives them the warm and fuzzies because they feel so seen. It’s as if the podcasters are speaking directly to them.
There’s only one problem. Too many of these podcasts don’t last. They know from talking to a few of the hosts that they run out of steam because it’s hard to build a podcast audience. Podcasts are a lot of work and it’s hard to stay motivated when only a few dozen people listen to each episode.
Sally and Jim desperately want to solve this problem. They want to help these podcasters grow their audience so that they are inspired to keep going. Sally and Jim are scratching their own itch. They want podcasters to grow their audience so that Sally and Jim can keep listening to their great content.
So where do they start?
Start by Setting a Directional Outcome
Sally and Jim are equipped with a clear customer segment profile—first-time podcasters—and a clear value proposition—help them grow their podcast audience.
This is enough for them to set a desired outcome—which will in turn set the scope for their discovery work.
This might surprise you. This is where I see many startup teams get stuck. They think because they don’t have a product yet, they can’t set an outcome. That’s because we assume an outcome is only valuable if it’s measurable.
Many startup teams get stuck thinking that because they don’t have a product yet, they can’t set an outcome. That’s because we assume an outcome is only valuable if it’s measurable. – Tweet This
We forget that we can start with a directional outcome and evolve our way to a more measurable outcome over time.
A directional outcome may not be measurable, but it still sets the scope for our discovery work. So it allows us to kick off our discovery habits.
Sally and Jim might set the following directional outcome: increase the average audience size for our podcast customers.
Notice how this outcome captures the value Jim and Sally hope to create for their customers even though they don’t know yet how they will deliver this value.
This is what makes it directional. It directs what Sally and Jim should explore in their interviews. They may not know how they will drive this outcome, but they can start exploring the needs, pain points, and desires of first-time podcasters as they work to grow an audience. A directional outcome sets the bounds of the opportunity space.
Contrast this with the types of outcomes startups tend to set—find customers or get to product-market fit. These outcomes aren’t directional. They don’t set the scope for discovery. Two startups with completely different value propositions shouldn’t have similar outcomes.
Two startups with completely different value propositions shouldn’t have similar outcomes. – Tweet This
With an Outcome in Place, Work the Habits
Sally and Jim don’t have any customers. Nor do they have a product. But this directional goal allows them to start interviewing people who match their target customer profile—first-time podcasters.
And it helps them know what to explore in their interviews. They might ask potential customers: “Tell me about the last thing you did to grow your podcast audience.”
As they collect specific customer stories, they’ll learn about their customers’ unmet needs, pain points, and desires. After just a few interviews, they can start mapping out the opportunity space.
They might hear opportunities like:
- “I don’t know where to start.”
- “I shared my first episode and got some initial listens, but none of those folks listened to the second episode.”
- “I don’t know how to find people who are interested in my podcast topic.”
- “I don’t know how to get listed on Apple.”
- “I don’t know how to get listed on Spotify.”
- “I don’t know how to get listed on Google.”
- “I don’t know how to get people to subscribe.”
- “I’ve read about a million tactics but I’m not sure which ones to try.”
Jim and Sally realize they aren’t sure what first-time podcasters should be doing either. So they switch up their tactics and start interviewing more experienced podcasters. They ask them: “Tell me about how you grew your podcast audience.”
After several interviews, they start to realize that most podcasters start to reach momentum after they find their first 500 listeners. That’s the point when they start to get word-of-mouth referrals and their ratings and reviews start to increase. (Side note: I have no idea if this is true. Remember, Sally and Jim are fictional characters.)
So Jim and Sally evolve their outcome to: Increase the number of podcasters who get to 500 listeners per episode.
They use what they learn from the more experienced podcasters to start to formulate a product vision for how they might help first-time podcasters and they generate several product ideas they might explore. In a matter of days, they have their first assumption tests live to help them evaluate which way to go.
Notice how Sally and Jim deployed the continuous discovery habits to get here. They started by setting a directional outcome. They interviewed both first-time podcasters and experienced podcasters to understand the opportunity space. They identified several potential product ideas to explore and they used assumption testing to evaluate those solutions.
Why Most Startups Don’t Work This Way
It’s rare for a startup founder to start with a customer segment and a value proposition. Instead, most founders start with an idea.
It’s rare for a startup founder to start with a customer segment and a value proposition. Instead, most founders start with an idea. – Tweet This
When we start with an idea, the scope of our discovery work becomes, “Is my idea good or not?” This framing is rife with bias. The more we invest in an idea, the more likely we’ll fall in love with it (this concept is called escalation of commitment, a bias described in Robert Cialdini’s Influence).
Escalation of commitment, in turn, exacerbates confirmation bias. This means that even when startup founders are motivated to test their ideas, they are more likely to notice the evidence that suggests their idea is fantastic and miss the evidence that suggests their idea is flawed.
The longer they work on their idea, the more invested they become, increasing the likelihood they miss the negative feedback altogether. It’s a vicious cycle.
The longer startup founders work on their idea, the more invested they become, increasing the likelihood they miss the negative feedback altogether. It’s a vicious cycle. – Tweet This
If you work as a product person in a founder-led startup that started with an idea, you can help break this cycle by working backwards. If you aren’t getting traction with your solution, start interviewing to find out why. Work to map out the opportunity space. What unmet needs, pain points, and desires do your customers want you to solve? How might you evolve your product to better match those opportunities?
If your founders aren’t ready to explore alternative solutions, you can start with assumption testing. Story map your solution (even if it already exists) and use your story map to help you generate assumptions. Test the riskiest assumptions. When you find faulty assumptions, bring this new information to your founders and discuss how you can evolve your solutions to work around the faulty assumptions.
If you want to learn more about these methods, I describe how to use story maps to generate assumptions in my book Continuous Discovery Habits. We also have two courses that cover these habits: Identifying Hidden Assumptions and Assumption Testing.
How You Can Interview and Assumption Test Before You Have Customers
Interviewing and assumption testing are two key discovery activities that strong teams do week over week. But it can be hard to do either if you don’t have any customers.
If you don’t yet have a product (or many customers), it will be hard to recruit customers while they are using your product or service. Instead, you will need to get creative.
I recommend two approaches: Go to where your potential customers already hang out and pay to bring your customers to you.
If you don’t have a product or many customers yet, I recommend two approaches to discovery: Go to where your potential customers already hang out and pay to bring your customers to you. – Tweet This
Let’s use Sally and Jim’s startup to illustrate each. When Sally and Jim first got started, they didn’t know any podcasters directly. They were merely podcast fans.
They started by joining the subreddit for podcasters. They watched some YouTube videos aimed at helping first-time podcasters to get started. They found a few different LinkedIn groups about hosting a podcast. They followed some podcasters on Patreon.
They didn’t start by asking people to participate in an interview or an assumption test. Instead, they observed. They made notes about what people asked about most often. They answered people’s questions when they could. Most of all, they took the time to get to know the people in the different groups. Only then did they invite a few people to participate in interviews.
After each interview, they asked for referrals to other podcasters. They shared what they were learning with the different groups they were in. They tried to give as often as they asked for help. Within a few short weeks, they found themselves regularly interviewing podcasters week over week.
But they didn’t rely on these communities alone. Jim and Sally also launched a few different landing pages—each one designed to test different solution ideas. They created one landing page focused on helping podcasters distribute their podcast via Apple, Spotify, and Google, another one about finding your first 35 listeners, and another about collecting your first reviews. They bought Facebook, Google, and LinkedIn ads to drive traffic to the different landing pages and encouraged visitors to sign up for interviews and assumption tests.
Jim and Sally found a nice balance between spending time where podcasters already hang out and spending on advertising to bring podcasters directly to them. As a result, they were able to quickly learn about the opportunity space and were able to explore potential solutions.
Now if Jim and Sally were working in a B2B context, they might have to change their tactics. Instead of hanging out on Reddit, they might have to join professional associations or attend industry conferences. Instead of running ads on Facebook and Google, they might focus exclusively on LinkedIn ads.
You might need to evolve the tactics to match your organizational context, but the underlying principles are the same:
- Hang out where your target customer hangs out.
- Pay to bring your target customer to you.
Do you have other questions about how continuous discovery works in an early-stage startup? We discuss questions like this in our community. You should join us.