In a world increasingly driven by innovation, entrepreneurial success often hinges on the ability to learn from the market, pivot, and iterate quickly. This underlying premise is aptly conveyed in the powerful concept of ‘Customer Development’ – a term coined by Steve Blank and encapsulated in his talk “The Lean Approach: Getting Out of the Building.” The core tenet of this approach is not simply about crafting an innovative product or service, but rather deeply understanding your target market, their needs, pain points, and the potential value your solution can bring them.
Photo caption: Building on his national bestseller, The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley creates images like the one shown here to chronicle the history of innovation, and how we need to change our thinking on the subject. Image source
Customer Development is an essential process that encourages entrepreneurs to validate their assumptions by actually getting in front of customers, partners, and other stakeholders. It implores entrepreneurs to step out of their comfort zones and face the raw reality of the market. This ‘get out of the building’ approach has become a mantra in the startup world, advocating for firsthand learning from customers rather than relying solely on theoretical hypotheses and assumptions.
The importance of innovators stepping outside cannot be overstated. When innovators ‘get out of the building’, they seek truth. They seek to learn the reality of the market, to validate or invalidate their hypotheses. They interact with potential customers, learn their problems, and get feedback on potential solutions. This real-world interaction helps them avoid wasting time and resources on building something that might not have a market demand.
Steve Blank’s student team example serves as an excellent anecdote in support of this approach. The team initially aimed to develop a robotic lawnmower for large campuses – a hypothesis they fervently believed in. However, upon interacting with potential customers, they soon discovered that this idea wasn’t practical. Rather than falling into despair, they pivoted, taking their technology to the agricultural industry where it could differentiate between crops and weeds – a value proposition highly appealing to farmers.
This story underscores the necessity of being curious as an innovator. Curiosity pushes innovators to question their assumptions and seek validation. It enables them to not only listen but to hear and understand what the customer is saying. It fosters the flexibility required to pivot when things are not going as planned. In other words, curiosity catalyzes learning, discovery, and innovation.
Reflecting on this, it becomes clear that the ‘getting out of the building’ approach is not about the physical act of stepping outside, but rather about adopting an open, curious mindset. It is about being willing to step outside the boundaries of one’s assumptions, embracing the potential discomfort of having those assumptions challenged, and ultimately, using those insights to iterate and pivot as needed.
Therefore, as innovators, our foremost goal should be to foster curiosity, to learn, and discover relentlessly. We should strive to continuously validate our ideas in the real world and adjust them according to the feedback we receive. Only then can we ensure that we are truly addressing a need and creating value – the hallmark of successful innovation. After all, as Steve Blank reminds us, a founder’s job is not mere execution but learning and discovery. And the key to that is nothing else but curiosity.