startup lessons learned market research

How We Screwed Up Doing Market Research

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At Spectafy, our Team members come from a pretty diverse background of education and career types. One thing that none of us had any particular education or training in was doing “market research” or marketing. I put the term “market research” in quotations because it sounds really formal, and when I hear it I picture being at a big table in the middle of the night with bespectacled and bloodshot eyes, stacks of spreadsheets and financial reports spread before me.

In reality, “market research” can be as simple as meeting a potential client/consumer/competitor at Starbucks, or sending some targeted emails to a new contact.

While we certainly haven’t learned every lesson, and I fully expect to screw it all up in the future, we have learned a lot. These lessons might seem obvious, and perhaps to a seasoned pro they are, but for a group of engineers and scientists like us, we had to learn it the Hard Way (which was actually pretty fun).

Transparency can Shoot You in the Foot


At Spectafy, we are all about transparency. I guess I should really say, we are all about transparency, to a point. We have worked on a few ideas we didn’t think were stupid that targeted specific industries, and in one case decided to come up with a minimum viable product that was/is an actual functioning service, complete with a basic web app, in order to really dive in and see what kind of interest we could get. Our situation was a little unique, in that we were developing and targeting a two ideas at once, and they were very intertwined. We struggled with how much separation to have between each venture, and ended up erring on the side of transparency. With a little digging (easy digging), potential customers could see exactly what we were up to on all fronts.

The problem was, we were still in development, and were still hunting for product-market fit. While we had a MVP to market, we weren’t completely sure ourselves how we would provide our product/service long-term. Hustling, craigslist, and email isn’t a cost or labor efficient long-term solution to a problem (at least not in our case)! We weren’t terribly worried about it, I mean come on, we’re a startup. We knew we would find a solution.

It wasn’t until much later in the game, after some mixed results and less interest than we had hoped for, that I got a message from a potential customer detailing his concerns in our ability to deliver on our promises.  He had identified, correctly, that our user base would have to reach critical mass in order to operate well in the long term. Not only had we not reached critical mass, we hadn’t done our beta launch yet.  It dawned on me at that moment that we hadn’t given enough credit to our customers. We knew we would deliver on our promises, but they didn’t know us. In this case, I believe we were too transparent. We should have kept our product in a vacuum. By not doing so, we lost that potential client, and who knows how many others. We never even had the chance to sink or swim.

People are Really, Really Nice


This might come as a shock, but it turns out that when you don’t really have a contact, and are more or less cold calling large businesses to try to get in touch with the right person to do some “market research”, the people that answer the phone or respond to e-mails are really, really nice. I would talk to a new contact for 10 minutes, and come away as optimistic as can be. They loved our ideas and our vision, and our product concept may even be a game changer! Jackpot!

In our case, most of our contacts and potential future customers were in sales positions, and I will just say that they are in these positions for good reason. They were all incredibly positive and friendly, and I don’t doubt that they were genuinely interested in our idea in many cases. One of the problems that we seemed to have is that it can be really tough to make contact with those in more technical or support roles. In our case, we probably could have learned what we needed to know about the industry after talking to a labor crew in the field for about 2 minutes. Next time, we will be more cautious with the early rave reviews, and try to do a better job at targeting those who would interface more directly with our idea or solution, rather than those that spend their careers trying to convince you that you just can’t live without their product or service.  A good conversation with a nice person is great for feeling better about your idea, but is nearly worthless in confirming product-market fit.

Face to Face Conversations are a Must


By far, our most productive conversations with contacts in our target industries have been in person. There really is no substitute for looking someone in the eye, being able to read their body language, and make your pitch or ask your questions. We had decent success just asking contacts out on “coffee dates”, but our incredibly determined co-founder Eric got some of our most important, and ultimately game-changing intel, by walking unannounced right into Corporate Headquarters and asking for the guy he wanted to talk to. This led to a long meeting, complete with a tour of their facilities, and let us know that ultimately we were chasing our tails.

In all of the positive feedback and great information we received doing research over the phone and by e-mail, not one person mentioned that some of the biggest players in the industry already had an in-house solution to the “problem” we thought we could fix. Nice people are really, really nice. And good salespeople want everyone to go away feeling victorious. Nobody wanted to tell us that our idea really wasn’t a brilliant solution to an unsolved problem.

We learned that the best thing you can do is to walk right through the front door of your target audience, offer them your MVP, and get them to commit to use it, or better yet, get a credit card number! Live and learn.


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Ben Watson

Ben runs Customer Development at Spectafy.