Deep Customer Discovery

Today’s column is about more than just SBIR – albeit it definitely pertains to developing a fundable SBIR proposal by picking the right problem to focus developing your solution for, be it a product or a technology.

It was inspired by a recent LinkedIn discussion started by a fellow entrepreneur, a healthcare startup CEO, who talked about a perceived internal tension – between “just giving customers what they want” and “daring to be contrarian (building something that people don’t even know they want)”. So she pondered, “do we go with the faster horses or build the car?”

That post really highlights that even fairly experienced entrepreneurs often struggle to fully understand what deep customer discovery should be about. And the importance of asking the right questions is paramount. 

Let’s change the frame slightly in the example that she had brought up – does your customer want faster horses or a car? Chances are it’s neither – your customer’s “pain point” (problem that needs to be solved) is likely to be inability to get from point A to point B fast enough. But to get to that underlying real need, we ought to frame the question the right way. In many cases that customer is fairly agnostic to the way you’d be able to get them from point A to point B – be it by faster horses, or a car, or (we can dream, can’t we?) “Beam me up, Scotty!”.  Quoting Harvard Business School Professor Theodore Levitt: “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!” 

If we and our startups get to this frame of thinking, that internal tension she has mentioned would dissipate, as it’s no longer a contrarian view – at least when viewed through this lens. Getting to this “revelation” truly changes one’s perception of understanding “what customers *REALLY* want.”

This is a very important point, in particular for those of us practicing Steve Blank’s Lean Startup methodology that is rooted in deep customer discovery. The insight we might gain from that customer discovery relies on our ability to ask the right questions, and carefully listen to the responses. It is not about validating your solution (there will be time for that later) – first you need to focus on understanding the problem your potential customers face, and not on trying to gauge interest in your product or technology.

So that’s it for today – please stay safe and healthy in these crazy times, and reach out to us via [email protected] or take our short questionnaire to let us know how we could help you think strategically about aligning various SBIR/STTR and other non-dilutive funding opportunities with YOUR unique path to commercialize your technology or product faster, so that your innovation could make a difference in people’s health and lives sooner.


Eugene Krentsel
Chief Scientific Officer, XLerateHealth, LLC