Entrepreneurs Don’t Need Focus Groups

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In the past two days I talked to three first-time entrepreneurs that wanted input on their ideas. Every single one cited the desire to use focus groups to help validate their project. Entrepreneurs don’t need focus groups. Henry Ford has a famous quote that exemplifies how I feel about focus groups: If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have said “a faster horse.”

Now, talking to customers and potential prospects is the right idea. Doing focus groups in the traditional sense is overkill and too expensive. Entrepreneurs are much better off seeking out prospective customers and engaging in a customer driven process using the 4 Steps to the Epiphany (free PDF of book) or Lean Startup model.

A few things to consider when attempting to validate a startup idea:

  • Talk to at least 10 potential customers about the idea and get their input
  • For the prospects that express interest, ask for a firm commitment for them to use it (e.g. timeframe, cost, etc)
  • Ask them how they go about solving the problem now as well as what other things they’ve looked into to solve the problem
  • Seek out entrepreneurs or potential advisers that have relevant domain expertise

Validating an idea before jumping into it full-time is one of the harder things to do as an entrepreneur. My recommendation is to roll up your sleeves and talk one-on-one with as many people as makes sense and get direct feedback.

What else? What other tactics do you have to validate a startup idea?

3 thoughts on “Entrepreneurs Don’t Need Focus Groups

  1. I’ve been thinking about Ford’s quote lately.

    I believe the key for great startups and product managers is to talk with potential customers to deeply understand their problems. Then, it’s the product manager’s unique understanding of both customer problems and what’s possible with technology that can create a break-through solution. Customers typically can’t imagine what’s possible.

  2. Many entrepreneurs misunderstand that they need to first validate the problem (and the willingness of customers to pay for a solution) before validating a solution. That’s what customer development is all about. Ash Maurya summarizes this well in his upcoming book Running Lean, “Customers are better at articulating problems than visualizing solutions.” Thus Ford is wrong in his approach. He should have asked, “Why the current horse is bad?” and then should have moved to propose his machine.

    Focus groups are a natural instinct to minimize the costs of interviews. The rationale goes along this line, “If I need to talk to 10 people, it’s faster & cheaper to get them all in one room at once and have a group conversation than talking to each of them individually.” The fallacy here lies in group dynamics. (I was trying to find some of the articles on the subject but failed so I’ll paraphrase without attributions.)

    It all comes down to leadership & groupthink. Some group study participants are more vocal than others and the rest subconsciously relegate the talking powers to them. As a result, only 2-3 people are talking and everyone else is nodding in agreement omitting small details about their personal experience through diminishing their importance. Or an argument erupts over semantics sending the discussion on a tangent. Talking to all of them individually has a greater chance of yielding intricate details that can either uncover a new market niche or invalidate the whole project.

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