“Everyone’s got a plan until they get punched in the mouth” — Mike Tyson. Speaking with customers is often a nice, plan-breaking punch in the mouth.

Customer Interviews:

So you’ve decided to take your startup seriously.

Dance like nobody’s watching and interview customers like you can’t get hurt

How to Run Early Customer Interviews

The Seven Interview Commandments

  1. You’re not pitching your startup. You’re Sherlock Holmes. You’re searching for clues. You’re building a story. You are not just describing your idea then asking people if they would use it. Ask questions that will help you deeply understand your customer and their interactions with the problem you’re solving. At this point, “Why,” “talk more about that,” and “how did you feel when” are your best friends.
  2. No Surveys, No Facebook, No Yes/No Questions. A great product takes a customer from point A to point B. These conversations are about learning every detail of that journey — for the right customers. Surveys, Facebook, and Yes/No questions get the wrong information from the wrong people. Feedback from customers who wouldn’t use your product is worse than no feedback at all.
  3. Don’t ask questions you know the answer to. Lawyers never ask questions they don’t know the answer to. Customer interviews are the opposite. Questions like “if I could make you $900 every time you went to sleep… would that interest you?” are a waste of everyones time. You sound like a used car salesman and are obviously omitting important information. Only ask questions with complete information that you don’t know the answer to.
  4. No leading questions. Don’t force people to tell the story you want them to tell. Never lead them one way or another. Manufacturing a story together that fits your product is more harmful than information that disputes your idea.
  5. No “would you do ABC if XYZ” questions. People have grand visions of things they’ll do and what they’ll become. Stick to things they’ve already done. It’s a much better indicator of how they’ll behave in the future.
  6. Remember the Operating Table. Picture your idea on an operating table. You are trying to save it. Information from your customers will help. Anything fake, manufactured, leading, assumed — those don’t help. It’s not you on the operating table — try (as hard as this is) to remove yourself completely and ask questions objectively to get helpful information only.
  7. Get customers to tell stories. Watch the first 19 minutes of this video. It’s a fantastic primer on the process and how you should phrase and ask questions to get customers rambling. Questions like “tell me about the last time you…” or “tell me about your worst experience with…” will normally trigger stories.

THE GOAL: What are we trying to learn?

  1. Are you building a pain killer or a vitamin? Do people need a solution to this problem, or is it a “nice to have”?
  2. How do customers solve this problem now? What’s the exact process? How do they feel during this process? What are the biggest pain points? Specific products, workarounds, “hacks,” etc.
  3. How much money/time does this problem cost people now? If you can, get a sense of how much they’d pay to have it solved properly.
  4. Who else has this problem? Establish a persona for the customer who needs your product the most.
  5. Are you on the right track? Validate your assumptions to this point.
  6. What is everyone missing? Where are the holes? What are customers missing? What are the products they use lacking?
  7. Are customers locked into some existing solution? What would it take to get them out of it?
  8. What would a product look like that made this experience 10x better than what currently exists?

How many customers is enough?

  • For B2C (consumer products): Minimum 3–5 perfect customers (ideally, 5+). The goal is to be able to say “if this person doesn’t need the product I’m going to build, no one from this customer segment will.” That way there’s no doubt. You don’t want to say “well this person didn’t need it, but they weren’t really the right person to speak with.”
  • For B2B (products for businesses): Minimum 2 perfect companies. It’s easy to say “speak with 3–5,” but realistically it’s tougher to speak with companies. Focus tightly on who you speak with. Treat these interactions as the first step in the sales cycle. In your head, you’re going to sell to this company eventually.
  • For Marketplaces: Speak with both sides of the equation. Building an airbnb for boats? Speak with 3–5 people who would be renting the boats, and 3–5 boat owners.
  • Housekeeping: Don’t take notes, record if you can. More of a personal thing, but note taking is distracting to both sides. Furthermore, you shouldn’t need notes. The important things will be repeated by customers, and the really important things will be your instincts and reactions to what’s being said. You won’t forget either. Focus on what the customer is saying, how they’re saying it, and why.
If you need a recording device, I recommend the Talkboy. Or your phone. Both work.

How do I find these customers?

  • Start with who you know. If you’ve got the problem you’re solving, you likely know some people who do as well. Reach out to them first.
  • Meet your friends’ friends. At the end of each conversation, ask your friends who they’d recommend speaking with. This will get you out of your immediate network and hopefully move you towards some more honest feedback (friends are too nice).
  • Think about your problem. Where are people the moment they have the problem you’re solving? Get there.
  • Think about your customer. What do they do in their spare time? Who do they follow on Twitter? What Meetups do they go to? What coffee shops? Where can you reliably find them?

What types of questions should I ask?

  • Walk me through the last time you encountered (problem)?
  • When (problem) happens, what do you do?
  • What’s the most important thing you do each day pertaining to (problem)?
  • If you had a magic wand, how would you solve (problem) / build (product that solves problem)?
  • How much time / money does (problem) cost?
  • Why doesn’t a solution to (problem) exist?
  • Have you tried to better solve (problem) in the past?
  • What is missing from your current solution?
  • Where is this industry headed in the next 5 years? 10?
  • How do you feel about (problem)? The existing solution?
  • What else should I know about (problem)?
Go into customer interviews like you’re Sherlock Holmes. You’re job is to uncover things no one else can.

Woah, woah, woah… Wait a second. I’m not telling people my idea. They’ll steal it!

Further Content:

Further Content:



We help founders with full-time jobs validate their startup before they quit. The posts are tactics we use. http://gettacklebox.com

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store

We help founders with full-time jobs validate their startup before they quit. The posts are tactics we use. http://gettacklebox.com