Education, entrepreneurship, innovation, Lean Startup, startup

Working with USAID in Moldova

Lean Startup Crash Course @ iHUB Moldova

Recently I was honored and delighted to be invited by USAID to help companies and startups in Moldova.

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is the United States Government agency which is primarily responsible for administering civilian foreign aid.

I knew where the country of Moldova (not Moldavia – that’s the name of a region) was on the map (Hint: It’s just east of Romania), but I had never previously visited. I was surprised to find a small but capable startup community and a lot of familiar faces in the capital of Chisinau.

The entrance to the cool new iHUB Chisinau

First up, I had two workshops with Moldovan companies and their management about how corporations engage with startups and why; One at Starnet (the primary telco in Moldova)  and one at the coworking space and startup center iHUB (also supported by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs among others).

The topic of innovation and growth is especially interesting in Moldova because one of the leading industries is outsourcing; building apps, websites and software for other western companies. This is a good business model for now – but for how long? What happens when other markets will outcompete them on price? So I talked a lot about the importance in experimenting with developing new products and how, before their business model may become obsolete and also how and why they could be reinvesting in local startups as a part of their innovation portfolio.

Back to back, I was also honored to be invited to speak about my startup experiences at the Startup Grind Chisinau in the evening.

At Startup Grind Chisinau, I spoke a bit about my startup experiences

And a day later I held my popular Lean Startup Crash Course for existing startups and people considering founding one.

In between everything there was also time to sit down with an Estonian startup delegation to learn more about the ecosystem there

My guide and help on the ground was Traian Chivriga of UnArtOras that I already knew from Cologne’s own Pirate Summit – And in the evening there was time for socializing… ;)

Lots of familiar faces…

I met this guy that I also knew from Cologne’s Pirate Summit already; Riccardo Fedeli

And Vlad Calus of – that I too knew from the Pirate Summit in Cologne already

And Livia Ţurcanu that I already knew from my work at University of Maastricht

These were the slides for my Lean Startup Crash Course:

These were the slides for the talk about why and how corporations engage with startups:

entrepreneurship, Events, speaking, startup

Pitching the state of NRW for Startups in Moscow, Russia

So that’s what my name looks like in Russian

Recently I was invited by the city of Düsseldorf (the capital of NRW) and NRW.INVEST to be a part of a delegation with the Lord Mayor of Düsseldorf, Thomas Geisel and others, to spread the gospel about why the German state of North-Rhine Westphalia (NRW – where I have now been living for the 12 last years) is a great place for startups in Moscow, Russia (sister city of Düsseldorf).

Talked a little bit about why NRW is a good place for startups, the biggest exits we’ve seen and which startups who could be having the next big exits here

As you might know, this has been a pet peeve of mine for years and I was delighted to be able to help shed some light on why this region has a lot to offer and why I have been staying on here as a foreign startup founder all these years.

Some impressions:

Yup. That guy again…

Fun fact; Turned out Sigmar Gabriel was also staying at Ritz Carlton Moscow – so we photobombed his press conference

Here are the slides I used:

Education, entrepreneurship, startup

On the state of Startups in Rhineland

Düsseldorf, NRW Germany

Düsseldorf, NRW Germany

Gründerszene has interesting piece about the state of startups in the state of North-Rhine Westphalia (NRW) where I reside and have been championing as a great place to found your startup in since 2011. It is no wonder that people are wanting to invest in/buy startup stocks (Startup Aktien kaufen) to help businesses thrive.

I got asked about my opinion about the startup scene in Düsseldorf. Is it all roses?

Here’s the bit translated from German:

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Customer Development, Education, entrepreneurship, Lean Startup, startup

WTF is Customer Development? You’re probably doing Lean Startup wrong.

First rule of Customer Development Club: No selling! Ever!

First rule of Customer Discovery: No selling! Ever!

A first time founder of a very early-stage startup asked me recently about how to do customer interviews (aka doing the Customer Development part of the methodologies collectively known as The Lean Startup) properly.

I get asked this question a lot. Because doing customer interviews is for many like Justin Wilcox puts it, “a special kind of torture”. And also because of the book by Eric Ries that popularized the Lean Startup methodologies. On the one hand it is great on agile engineering and building Minimum Viable Products – but a lot of people don’t know that Customer Development is an integral part of doing The Lean Startup right, as the book only mentions it in passing. So we need to make more entrepreneurs understand how to use it and how to profit from it.

And the name in itself doesn’t really help; “Customer Development“. WTF does that mean, anyways? Well, to me it is helpful to think of it as meaning a better and faster way to minimise wasting your time and money and minimising the risk of failure by developing your product, your solution, together with your customers from day one.

At the end of this article, you’ll also find a bunch of resources to help you conduct customer interviews like a boss.

But first, let’s take a look at what this Customer Development thing is, why it is so important and how to avoid the usual mistakes.

Brace yourself - the road to product-market fit usually takes much longer than you think

In short, Customer Development is basically a simple methodology and a process for getting out of the building and talking to potential customers, the market – before you start building anything. Because inside of the building, there are only your fantasies. Outside in the market is where the facts are – and it is your job as a startup founder to start testing your fantasies, your guesses about the market, as soon as possible. Because you want to find out today – not tomorrow or in a year from now – when you’ve wasted a lot of time and resources, a lot of sweat and tears, on building the wrong things for the wrong people.

And you have to go out of the building at least twice.

The Customer Discovery Phase has two important steps - you don’t get to skip one

So you have an idea about a solution? Great! But let’s take a minute to find out if we should actually build it first. In this first phase, we are trying to find out if our hypothetical solution, our product yet not built, will solve an actual problem for customers, if potential customers actually feel and recognizes the problem or need.

Yes, that’s right. We are in fact not even talking about our hypothetical product in this phase. We’re not showing or selling anything. We’re just listening to people explaining how they dealt with similar situations, solved similar problems in the past and today. The point of this “customer discovery” phase is to actually test if there is a need in the market before building anything. Further more, is it the types of people (customer segments) that we believe have the problem or could it be that someone else actually needs it more?

Do they have the problem or need? Do they know that they have the problem or need? Have they been actively seeking for a solution to the problem or need today or in the past? If the answers are yes to all three questions, you might have found the right customer segment for you to address – your early adopters.

And we keep at it, interviewing customers until we can either:

  1. Find significant signal, say e.g. that 40% of a 100 interviews actually confirms there is a felt need or problem,
  2. We can’t find significant signal
  3. We find another problem or need during the interview process that is more interesting to pursue.

Oh, and BTW – We don’t need to interview customers to test if people have fundamental needs like getting fit, communicating with other people, find romantic partners, and so on and so forth. It should be obvious to you that these kinds of needs already exist and don’t need further verification. In those cases, we’re interviewing customers to find out if our solution – our exact value proposition, our unique promises to the customer, is what actually resonates with the customer segment – to the point of paying for it. All of this data can be managed by using customer experience management platforms like those found at Qualtrics.

In the second step of Customer Discovery, after actually finding confirmation of a real and felt problem or need, we get out of the building again to test if our hypothetical solution. We want to not only confirm that we understand the problem or need – we also need to confirm that our interpretation of a solution is actually one that the customers would use to solve it. So we get out of the building to talk to the people who indicated they actually have and feel the need or problem a second time.

And no, we don’t test for the viability of our proposed solution by selling it to them. We are not trying to convince them why they should use it in the solution interviews. This is not the time. And no, we don’t start building elaborate solutions before we first go out to test our hypothetical solution. Sketches and mockups are what we start testing with. Click Dummies and PowerPoints are more than enough at this stage.

Again we look for significant signal and we iterate (small incremental change) or pivot (big change that affects your business model) using the feedback we are getting and go out of the building again to show the changed hypothetical solution.

If, and only if, we can find significant signal we start to build it. This is when we start with building an MVP – Our first Minimum Viable Product. And it is at this stage in our journey the “Lean Startup” book by Eric Ries becomes a very useful guide. And we start to try selling it – because we have now moved on to the Customer Validation phase of our startup journey.

So we see the Customer Discovery phase is never about selling. No selling is allowed. Period. Not when testing for the problem and not when testing for the solution. Not ever. Of course, this is hard to do for startup founders – we all want to bend the world to our will – so we need to practice holding back the sales pitch. Why is no selling allowed? Simply because you will then be coloring the feedback you’re about to get and you as a startup founder don’t scale – Once you’re out of the room, you’ll never know if they would buy it (and what they’d say about your potentially crappy solution). And no, a survey is not a customer interview – it has to be in-person so you can actually feel the emotions of the interviewees as they talk about the problem and your proposed solution. Companies such as can help with survey collection, especially if time is a factor and businesses need to keep ticking over and do not have the spare time.

You can also think of Customer Development as an unfair advantage, a super fast and cheap way to becoming a domain expert in your potential customer’s pains, gains and jobs to be done. No technical skills, no engineering required. And if you’re doing it right, it will also work as your secret marketing weapon as the customers are going to literally hand you the best sales arguments, your perfect sales copy on a platter in the interviews. Furthermore, if you’ve been doing this right, you now also have your first customers – and that even before you built the product! And, as those in the know at Ewa-Ha know, it only takes one super-passionate client, and then the rest will follow. How about them apples?

Customer Development TL;DR:

The TL;DR Customer Development Summary in one image

Customer Development Resources:

To learn more, first of all you should take this free course with Steve Blank , the father of Customer Development and the Lean Startup. It’s more or less the Stanford curriculum called Lean Launchpad – but for free. It will teach you everything you need to know about building a startup (at the early stages):

For more in-depth information on Customer Development, read the book “The Four Steps to Epiphany” that started the whole Lean Startup movement.

Read these presentations from the entertaining and actionable Rob Fitzpatrick on how to actually do customer interviews:

(And you also might want to pick up his book, The Mom Test)

These videos with Steve Blank on customer discovery and customer interviews you can use as a checklist and fallback reference on how-to conduct interviews:

And check out Justin Wilcox – He’s a great resource on practical tricks and tips like how to select your customer segments to interview and b2b and b2c interview scripts:

And if you’re still hungry for more, get the biblically sized The Startup Owner’s Manual for everything in one single book. (Auch jetzt auf deutsch als “Das Handbuch für Startups” erhältlich.)

Did I forget something? What would you add to your list of Customer Development resources?

Now get the hell out of the building!

Header image by Dave Fayram / Ninjacam. Some rights reserved.

This article was originally published on LinkedIn. Header image by Dave Fayram / Ninjacam. Some rights reserved.