This article is the next in a series about business planning. It sounds boring. It is not. It features killer robots and a photo of Ted Danson.

The previous article was ‘Business planning: new approaches in the digital era’. I recommend you read it – there is some good stuff in there!

In that post, we talked about how to map out a vision of your ideal future state. This exercise should give you a good idea of what business you want to be in, i.e. the customers you want to serve, what you’ll be selling them, how you will get to them, and most importantly, why they will buy from you.

If you have done this exercise, you will now be basking in a rosy dreamscape of future world domination. But if you are reading this blog post, world domination clearly hasn’t happened for you yet. It’s time to go and talk to some real people who you think might be your future customers.

When you have a new business idea, the temptation is to find someone who vaguely looks like a customer and in your excitement, blurt out all the amazing things you are going to offer them (“We’re going to create a robot nightclub bouncer! it’s going to use AI, facial recognition, and pheromone sensors to tell if someone is too drunk, underage, or are about to start a fight! Then it will give them an electric shock and shoot pepper spray in their face! This is going to be amazing!”) Some of your claims might be feasible, some might be unlikely, and there is probably going to be a fair bit of complete BS as well. That’s OK. I sometimes get excited and exaggerate things too.

There are a number of problems with this tell-them-all-about-your-idea approach.

  • The other person hasn’t been on the journey of discovery that you’ve been on.
  • They probably don’t need whatever it is you’re banging on about.
  • They definitely aren’t going to pay for something that doesn’t even exist yet.
  • If they are a polite person, they probably won’t challenge your thinking or tell you to shut up. They will nod their head and tell you it sounds amazing (“Yeah, like Robocop for pubs. Sounds cool!” meanwhile thinking “This person has clearly been smoking crack and taking industrial quantities of LSD while watching science fiction movies from the 80s thinking they were documentaries”). 

Buoyed by this faux-enthusiasm, the amateur then goes ahead and builds the amazing thing and no-one buys it. 

There is a better way. Instead of talking about your amazing idea, ask your potential customer what their biggest problems are. Don’t say anything about any new product, invention, idea or anything. Just find out what is giving them grief in their day-to-day job.

A conversation might go like this:

Q: “In your job as a bar manager, what is the biggest problem you face?”

A: “We keep getting in trouble because of underage, drunk patrons who get into fights”.

Q. “Wow, that sounds really annoying. How does it make you feel?”

A: “Worried that we are going to lose our liquor licence. Frustrated that it happens all the time.”

Q. “When was the last time something like this happened?”

A: “It happens every weekend.”

Q: “Wow. OK. What have you tried doing about it?”

A: “We hire bouncers but they are pretty useless. They let their young friends in even when they have had too much to drink and they’re underage.”

Q: “Have you tried anything else?”

A: “CCTV, warning signs, all that stuff. But nothing has worked.”

So it sounds like there is a real problem here. That’s great (for you). You might be able to create something that solves it for them. But there is absolutely no way that you can deduce from this (fake) interview that an AI robot bouncer is the answer to this problem. Maybe improving the recruitment and training of bouncers would solve the problem perfectly. If you’re a software type, maybe you could make a gig-economy platform that matches up nightclub security guards with like Uber does car drivers. Maybe you could start a contract nightclub security business. There are tons of ways of solving most problems. Usually the simplest ones are the best. And the only way you’ll find out what problems are worth solving is by talking to people. No, sorry, I meant asking people and listening to them.

For more information about this approach, check out Justin Wilcox’s FOCUS Framework.

In my next article, we’ll talk about when is the appropriate time to start talking to people about your proposed solution. I know you’re impatient, but you will just need to wait…