Lighthouse Customers: Four Best Practices


A lighthouse is a great metaphor, symbolizing safe passage ahead. Throughout my career, I've associated it with really important customers because they're the ones that help safely navigate small startups into burgeoning businesses.

Lighthouse customers are similar to anchor tenants in a shopping center. Others follow their lead. Lighthouse customers are your company’s champions (and hopefully become members of your Advisory Council). Lighthouse customers support your vision and have tremendous influence on your product or service roadmap because they've committed to you and you've committed to them. You’ll have other customers, for sure, but these lighthouse accounts are the shining examples of your software and service in action. They’ll be your references to investors. They’ll speak to analysts and press. They are your showcases.

That said, they don’t all have to be from the same industry. However, they do have to share the pain points your business is solving.

When it comes to lighthouse accounts, here are four things I tell the Alchemist Accelerator startups that I mentor to keep in mind:

1.     You're forming a partnership that requires commitment on both sides.

2.     Find big names that can be “company makers.”

3.     A solid ‘how many’ rule of thumb is 1:1.

4.     Companies do change.

Both Sides Commit to the Partnership

In the era of subscription selling, it's more important than ever for you to have happy and satisfied customers. Lighthouse accounts provide an inside view into what prospects and customers really need and what your organization is doing (and can do better) to deliver.

For your part, your company will need to provide direct access to your CEO as well as establish a dedicated support team. Best practices with lighthouse customers include

·      Monthly check-ins between executives

·      Quarterly in-person, on-site meetings at either the customer or company location

·      Bi-monthly meetings with clearly defined action items by team

·      Weekly internal email updates about lighthouse customer progress

Recognizing the importance of these key accounts, some startups showcase lighthouse customer logos on their walls. Others host lunch & learns about the customers' businesses, hearing from champions, investors, influencers, and even media presenters.

But the relationship can’t be one-sided.

Lighthouses have to commit, too, meaning they should allocate executive access and provide significant input to your roadmap, but without too many absolute demands. There’s also financial equitability. Lighthouse accounts should pay for what they use, with the exception of possible discounting in exchange for specific marketing activities, such as quotes in press releases or speaking engagements at industry events. Remember, our companies charge customers for our software and services because nothing should be free when you’re providing a valuable service or product.

Find Big Names that Can Be “Company Makers”

Lighthouse customers should be well-recognized brands. It may not be widely known, but forward-looking companies across industries -- think Starbucks and Target, VISA and Mastercard, JPMorgan Chase and PNC, for example -- want to work with you as much as you want to work with them. Global giants stay ahead of competitors by finding ways and new technologies that improve processes, increase customer engagement, drive revenue, and reduce costs. If you have something that can give them an edge, they’re interested.

Association with a few big brands puts a company on the map. Lighthouse accounts not only open doors, they offer tremendous opportunities for the kind of high-scale growth that can make a company wildly successful. Teaming with the right internal champion can turn an initial 50-seat sale into an enterprise-wide deal.

1:1 is the Ideal Executive Ratio

Too many and there's no way to support them. Too few and you don't have enough feedback to improve your product/service nor investor references to continue building. Lighthouse accounts should be the best example use cases of your software or service, making them the most strategic to your company. That’s why each lighthouse account must have a company executive sponsor, leading the relationship to greater success. The ideal ratio for lighthouse accounts is one executive from your company to each lighthouse customer organization. That basically means if you have five execs in your company including the CEO, you can handle five total lighthouse accounts.

Embrace Change

It doesn't have to be the end of either business if a lighthouse customer relationship dwindles. Change is constant. Some companies advance faster than others and timing is everything. Should the bright light of one customer begin to fade, be sure to replace it with another. This goes for both startups and global Fortune 100 companies. There should never be a time when employees don't know the name of your company's lighthouse customers.

Lighthouse accounts help companies of all sizes, across industries, safely navigate forward. They keep teams innovative and competitive. Who are your company's lighthouse customers? It's important for you and everyone else in your business to know.

About Kris Duggan

Kris Duggan is an entrepreneur, advisor, investor, and educator. He's advised and invested in a variety of Silicon Valley-based companies, including Palantir Technologies, RelateIQ (acquired by Salesforce.com), Addepar, Blend Labs, Turo, and Gusto. He co-founded and was the founding CEO of Badgeville and BetterWorks before co-founding a new technology company, based in Palo Alto, CA, this year. Kris is the Chief Sales Mentor at the Alchemist Accelerator. He previously served as an Adjunct Faculty for Singularity University, and is a frequent speaker on the topics of scaling startups, customer loyalty, gamification, employee engagement, and performance management.

About the Alchemist Accelerator

Alchemist is a venture-backed initiative focused on accelerating the development of seed-stage ventures that monetize from enterprises (not consumers). The accelerator’s primary screening criteria is on teams, with primacy placed on having distinctive technical co-founders. We give companies around $36K, and run them through a structured 6-month program heavily focused on sales, customer development, and fundraising. Our backers include many of the top corporate and VC funds in the Valley—including Khosla Ventures, DFJ, Cisco, and Salesforce, among others. CB Insights has rated Alchemist the top program based on median funding rates of its grads (YC was #2), and Alchemist is perennially in the top of various Accelerator rankings. The accelerator seeds around 75 enterprise-monetizing ventures / year. Learn more about applying today.

What’s HQ (Hustle Quotient) And Do You Have Enough Of It?

Hustle isn’t just the difference between good and great: for start-ups, it’s the difference between existence and non-existence, between “good enough” and “gone”. Companies in an industry will experience roughly the same degree of luck. Hustle is what makes the most out of good luck and sidesteps and perseveres through the worst luck. HQ, your Hustle Quotient, is how effectively you leverage your IQ and EQ. Hustle is a resource available to all, and this article explains 6 ways to increase your startup’s HQ. The article also explains the interaction of HQ with social, financial and human capital; and in what way HQ supports anti-fragile companies. Concepts are illustrated via examples from history and industry.

In my experience, one factor — a factor available to anyone — opens the door to success for startups: Hustle — the difference between existence and non-existence. Hustle has to be your guiding compass.

Your organization’s HQ, its Hustle Quotient, measures your perseverance and resourcefulness. HQ is how effectively you leverage your IQ and EQ.

It’s not new. Here’s a life-and-death example of HQ outside the realm of this century’s technology startups.  More than 100 years ago Amundsen and Scott led two separate expeditions in a race to be the first to reach the South Pole. Presumably, their goal was to also return from the expedition.  Amundsen reached the pole first, and he returned with every member of his expedition. Scott and his entire team perished and likely did not reach their goal. The difference in outcome — existence vs. non-existence — boils down to hustle.

Amundsen insisted on 20 miles a day, no matter the conditions, and he never went more that 20 even in great conditions. Scott rested on bad days and covered as much ground as possible on good days. Both teams had roughly the same conditions, but their outcomes were vastly different. Amundsen covered twice as much ground — returning from the expedition. Existence vs. non-existence.

Amundsen had broad contingency plans — literally. He carried three times the supplies that he calculated were needed, and he marked the caches with a 10km band of flags so he wouldn’t miss them. Scott carried the exact amount needed, and planted a single flag for each. Amundsen’s team was fed; Scott’s experienced starvation. Existence vs. non-existence.

Amundsen researched how the Inuit lived in order to understand the problems he would encounter. Scott knew how to use horses, so he used horses—which were not able to survive the conditions.

Three HQ lessons from these expeditions:

  1. Persevere through periods of bad conditions
  2. Contingency plans enable you to persevere
  3. Understand the problems before you choose your solution

A start-up adventure has striking similarities to the Antarctic expeditions, though not that fatal consequences of failure. There are many unknowns, but a bright north star: becoming a billion-dollar company. Startup companies have, on average, similar resources and luck. Hustle is what you make of the good luck, and how you persevere during the bad. Contingency planning gives you the backup you need to survive when the goal takes so much longer to reach than you expected, to endure during the bad luck, and as you navigate the unknowns. In a startup, you can’t dream in a vacuum — you have to address how to solve a real problem. Just as Amundsen created solutions correct for Antarctic conditions, startups must understand the market needs, headwinds, and pinpoints. Outcomes are also similar: existence or non-existence.

Here’s a Hustle example from the technology world: Imagine Larry Page steps on the elevator with you. You could be immediately star-struck and ask for an autograph, while expressing admiration for his accomplishments. Or you could engage him in a conversation that shows off your chops: “BTW I was at the GoogleNext conference last month, and it brought home to me that Google is really giving AWS a run for the money.” Larry is now compelled to say, politely, “Oh, thanks. So, what is it you do (that brought you to the conference)?” You use your HQ to deliver an answer gets his interest, and he agrees to connect with you. Now, although you don’t have an autograph, you do have potential to establish a relationship with Google. This IQ leveraged by hustle.

Anyone and any organization can have hustle. It is a renewable resource with no marginal cost.

So how do you get that hustle, or evaluate your HQ?

  1. Force yourself into uncomfortable situations, outside your comfort zone. Such as promoting your company even when it feels unbearably awkward.
  2. Work on things that truly move the company forward. For example, making 20 prospect calls. You’ll probably have to be uncomfortable — overcoming the feeling of failure that prospecting often brings, which is really overcoming yourself.
  3. Hire people with high HQ. Make HQ central to the interview. What have you done outside your comfort zone, or that’s risky, or leaps into the unknown. You must hire the hustle mindset and behavior, not the job skill set.
  4. Create a culture of tinkering. The route to success is faster if you try over and over, experimenting and learning until you find solutions.
  5. Create options where none exist. If you are prospecting, and get no response, what do you do? High HQ  people brainstorm on how to get a response. Who else could reach my prospect? How can I get near my prospect? How can I create more prospects?
  6. Do not accept binary outcomes. You reached your prospect and delivered your most persuasive arguments, yet you got turned down. Don’t react as if the outcome is Yes or No. You got a No to your offer, so now you ask  “What happened? Why not? What would have led to Yes? Who do you know who might want to use us?” Answers to any of those questions put you far ahead of where you were after No.   

High HQ teams make more of their startup capital. Startup capital is the combination of your social, human, and financial capitals. Financial capital is your buffer for hard times. Human capital is the skills and experience you collectively have. And social capital is your network in the industry you are in. Hustle makes you assess what you can do with your capital. How many people in cloud computing do you know, or how many people in your network know people in cloud computing? What are the gaps in your network? How will you fill those in? Our human world operates within clans or tribes. Hustle is identifying groups that are critical to your success, making sure you invest time and energy in becoming an integral part of them and using them effectively.

As you apply your elevated HQ to your organization, keep your scope broad. Company building is not product building. Product is only one of the variables to manage. The others include finance, advisors, investors, co-founders, talent customers, legal, HR, and partners. Some of these you can select based on their HQ. Some, like co-founders, advisors, and partners, will complement what you do, filling in for your organization’s gaps. It’s all about existence or non-existence.

This manifesto is a result of my constant research into what drives success.  I’ll share my reading list with anyone who reaches out to me.

About Asim Razzaq

Asim Razzaq is the co-founder and CEO of YotaScale. Prior to YotaScale, Asim was Senior Director of Engineering at PayPal and eBay. He built and ran the PayPal cloud infrastructure and his engineering teams made significant innovations in the area of manageability and system administration. He helped build the PayPal Developer Platform from zero to a billion dollars in payments volume. Asim was also responsible for all core infrastructure at PayPal processing 5 million transactions per day. He has lead engineering for multiple early and late stage startups in Silicon Valley and Austin with two of the companies exiting to Netsuite and Navitaire. 

Asim co-founded YotaScale to bring his expertise in large scale, mission-critical, cloud infrastructure management to companies beginning to use cloud services as well as those that are well on their way.

Asim holds a BS (Honors) degree in computer science from the University of Texas at Austin where he conducted research in distributed computing and large scale infrastructure sponsored by IBM Research. He is a published author in the field of computer science in the area of resource management for large scale, distributed systems.

About the Alchemist Accelerator

Alchemist is a venture-backed initiative focused on accelerating the development of seed-stage ventures that monetize from enterprises (not consumers). The accelerator’s primary screening criteria is on teams, with primacy placed on having distinctive technical co-founders. We give companies around $36K, and run them through a structured 6-month program heavily focused on sales, customer development, and fundraising. Our backers include many of the top corporate and VC funds in the Valley—including Khosla Ventures, DFJ, Cisco, and Salesforce, among others. CB Insights has rated Alchemist the top program based on median funding rates of its grads (YC was #2), and Alchemist is perennially in the top of various Accelerator rankings. The accelerator seeds around 75 enterprise-monetizing ventures / year. Learn more about applying today.

Demo Day Advice - From a VC Turned Entrepreneur

Entrepreneurs - congratulations on approaching Demo Day!  You'll soon be surrounded by interesting people, inundated by emails, and distracted by countless potential conversations that you'll need to prioritize carefully.  Based on several years of experience and more than a handful of “Demo Days”, including the Alchemist Accelerator’s, here are a couple of tips I hope you’ll find useful:

1)  Remember that 5 Minute Demo Day presentations are NOT enough time for listeners to decide whether to invest or not.  Your goal for the Demo Day presentations, therefore, is to attract the attention and trigger the NEXT CONVERSATIONS with the individuals in the audience that could be the best sources of feedback / investment ($) / advice / or customer introductions.

  • Sometimes all of these dimensions happen at once, usually feedback and "advice" happens first as a precursor to investment or introductions.
  • None of these dimensions, however, will happen if the listener (for whatever reason) decides they are not interested in having a follow-up conversation.
  • If you think someone or some firm could be a good fit for you, then be proactive in getting their attention.

2)  The demo day presentations are only 5 minutes, if not shorter!  The short format requires you to present in "broad brush strokes" that capture the most important highlights.  Prioritize what content to present and what details to highlight most efficiently.

  • Sometimes the slides you create for "full" 30/60 minute conversations with investors are good ones to reuse.  More frequently, it helps to edit and consolidate top-level takeaways or "aha moments".
  • Pay special attention to feedback from listeners who are hearing your pitches for the first time, domain experts who know your space, and non-experts who don’t know your space.  Each of them will give you different types of feedback, and you'll need to decide who to optimize for carefully.

3)  From my experience as a VC and angel investor, the most important questions to address within an abbreviated Demo Day pitch to trigger follow-ups from the right prospective investors are as follows:  
a.  Why now?

  • Compelling answers to this usually involve something significant changing in the market, with new/different customers or pain points that are growing, or new technology breakthroughs enabling problems to be solved, or something else encouraging different behaviors (such as government regulation or customer psychology).  
  • All of you are smart and talented.  Articulate (in simple terms to someone who is not an expert in your field) why you are excited and passionate enough to be dedicating your life to your companies right now.

b.  Why you?

  • The big opportunities and major inflection points across industries will be discovered by several, (usually many) different teams. What makes your insights unique or authentic?  
  • What experience or exposure do you have to the domain?  Have you or your co-founders been entrepreneurs before, or have you had other exceptional experiences in your life that will make you succeed when others give up?

c.  Target Market.

  • What subset of the market and subset of customers are you going to start targeting first, and how big can that "slice of the pie" get as you grow your product / team / business?  
  • Most VC's focus and talk about Billion dollar markets because its difficult to build large businesses in small markets, but it's rare that new products and new companies can target actual Billion dollar markets from the start.  Usually, whether limited by feature set, market awareness, or geography, most startups have to start by focusing on small pieces of big markets to grow into bigger markets and bigger companies.
  • I prefer to see a tighter focus and deeper understanding of smaller markets as precursors to bigger / quickly expanding markets rather than claims to HUGE markets that are crowded with competition or demonstrate lack of focus or deep understanding of target customers.

    d.  Product (or service). What are you building, creating, or enabling?

    • A single sentence that clearly articulates (again in simple terms that someone who is not an expert in your field can understand) is best.  That single sentence will keep evolving, and it will require more detail when you explain it to people with domain expertise. Even so, you should aim to distill the core trajectory of your company into to a single sentence that can be remembered.
    • What signs of customer validation, or market adoption, or business potential do you have?

    e.  Differentiation. What is defensible now and into the future?

    • What is the strategy for expanding, and what will become the more UNIQUE and compelling dimensions to your product offering vs. inevitable competition?
    • Are you 2x better or 10x better than the alternatives? Across what dimensions and subject to what assumptions?

    e.  Business Model.

    • At the seed stage you don’t need to have the world’s most comprehensive business model, nor a combination of 3 different business models.  You do, however, need to have some ideas on how you might start to capture the value or benefits that you provide.
    • Again, what signs of customer validation or business potential do you see? Deep understanding of how much customers are paying for alternatives, or inferior solutions, or notable competitors in the market are good proxies.

    Overall, strong Demo Day presentations usually weigh heavily towards addressing <Why now> + <Why you> + <Target Market>, with lighter treatments of <Product> + <Differentiation> + <Business Model> (due to time constraints).  Follow-up conversations, and deeper diligence from potential investors will go deeper into the areas of <Why you> + <Product> + <Differentiation> + <Business Model>.
    You can identify individuals/VCs who are a better "fit" for you on the basis of how well they already understand <Why now> + <Target Market>, and how deep they can dive into discussing the other areas. Individuals/VCs who don’t already share your opinions regarding the <Why now> and who don’t ask thoughtful questions about the other areas are usually dead ends, or will require a lot of time to be convinced.
    4) Have fun and stay positive!  Prioritize your time and scheduling of follow-up conversations!  The Demo Day pitches and many conversations that will follow are a unique and special time for you as entrepreneurs.  Build relationships, follow-up with the most relevant potential sources of advice or funding. Don’t let the many NOs and frequent radio silences you will encounter discourage you from progressing up the paths you are on.  You are privileged to see opportunities where others are blind, and courageous to climb routes that others are too scared to explore.

    Onwards!
    About Luis Robles

    Startup advisor & Angel Investor, Blockchain enthusiast, Experienced Company Builder & VC Investor (previously @ Sequoia Capital). Co-Founder, VP Products & Marketing at Diamanti. Knowledgeable about enterprise businesses, datacenter infrastructure, cloud computing, distributed + open source software, big data, IOT. Senior Product Manager and early engineer at VMware. BS and MS degrees in Computer Science from Stanford + an MBA from Harvard.
    About the Alchemist Accelerator
    Alchemist is a venture-backed initiative focused on accelerating the development of seed-stage ventures that monetize from enterprises (not consumers). The accelerator’s primary screening criteria is on teams, with primacy placed on having distinctive technical co-founders. We give companies around $36K, and run them through a structured 6-month program heavily focused on sales, customer development, and fundraising. Our backers include many of the top corporate and VC funds in the Valley—including Khosla Ventures, DFJ, Cisco, and Salesforce, among others. CB Insights has rated Alchemist the top program based on median funding rates of its grads (YC was #2), and Alchemist is perennially in the top of various Accelerator rankings. The accelerator seeds around 75 enterprise-monetizing ventures / year. Learn more about applying today.

    Customer Advisor Board: Early-Stage Hack to Getting Your First Customers

    As a founder and former CEO, I'm delighted to see so many Alchemist Accelerator portfolio startups executing highly engaged Advisor Councils (AdCos) when acquiring their first 10 paying customers. Yet most startups fall short of scaling their AdCos beyond a few influencers and MVPs. This is a critical mistake.  

    Active AdCos drive you to deliver more customer-focused products while creating momentum in the form of champions, stakeholders, thought leaders, communities, and loyal customers. Think of your AdCo as part of your startup's secret sauce, helping you scale quickly from Council (10-50 people) to Community (50-100 people) to User Conference (100+ people).

    As you embark on your customer development journey, an AdCo can serve as an enticing carrot to attract smart and talented individuals with the pain points you've outlined. Joining an AdCo comes with personal and professional perks—from new skills development to high-quality peer networking. Those joining AdCos recognize these benefits, but they'll become your first customers for two additional reasons: first, they really want the product you're working hard to deliver, and second, they want to help you succeed (and have funding to budget to do it).

    Qualifying early AdCo members is important. You want individuals that are

    • Thought leaders with deep experience and knowledge about the problem you are working to solve

    • Open and willing to co-build a solution with you

    • Able to access budget and have decision-making authority to buy

    Prioritize Your AdCo

    There are benefits across the business to establishing and scaling your AdCo:

    1. Product: Ongoing customer-focused product feedback

    2. Sales: Demand Gen (SQLs) of qualified leads and referrals

    3. Fundraising: Venture capital (VC) due diligence during your current or next round

    Product: Build WITH Customers Not FOR Customers

    AdCos instill a customer-first mindset while providing a critical product feedback loop. Product decisions and team scrum/sprints shift from sharing “I think” to “they said, they want, and they need” inputs.

    Data and insights from your AdCo need to be meticulously recorded and then shared “in their words.” At hiQ, we always found the devil was in the details. You should plan for your AdCo members to spend a full day alongside your engineers, data scientists, and product team members in structured round tables, breakout sessions, and panels.  

    Power tip: Host your AdCo meeting at a Council member’s location. Enterprise companies have conference rooms that can seat more than 20 people, and often, the organization will provide the drinks and snacks.

    Sales: Advisors Become Champions, Then Customers

    Your AdCo is one of the tools in your demand-gen and pre-product sales arsenals, and a measurable outcome of establishing one. AdCo members need to be in your sales pipeline as they move from Advisor to Champion to Customer to Reference and Referral. You'll be able to quickly qualify which Advisors will become champions and customers. They're the ones that will write the internal business use case for budget approval because they can’t live without the product(s) you are building. They'll be the ones standing on stage next to you when you officially launch.

    Power tip: Use a pending AdCo meeting to close a late-stage deal. Prospects enjoy talking with customers before they sign, so have them sit next to each other.

    Fundraising: The Best 2 Hours VCs Spend on Due Diligence

    AdCos will scale with your customer growth, and VCs will notice. VCs think in terms of product market fit. This is validated when they walk into a packed ballroom full of clients, prospects, analysts, and job applicants—all wanting to be part of what you're building. There's no better and bigger moment for you and your employees then having customers on a main-stage talking about your product and how it saves them millions of dollars.

    Power tip: Invite VCs to Council meetings as soon as possible. Their calendars book up a few weeks out.   

    About Darren Grant Kaplan

    Darren Kaplan is the co-founder and founding CEO of hiQ Labs (www.hiqlabs.com), a data science company, informed by public data sources, applied to human capital to make work better. Mr. Kaplan is an Alchemist Accelerator mentor, working with Augmented Reality, Cyber Security, and HR enterprise SaaS startups.

    About the Alchemist Accelerator

    Alchemist is a venture-backed initiative focused on accelerating the development of seed-stage ventures that monetize from enterprises (not consumers). The accelerator’s primary screening criteria is on teams, with primacy placed on having distinctive technical co-founders. We give companies around $36K, and run them through a structured 6-month program heavily focused on sales, customer development, and fundraising. Our backers include many of the top corporate and VC funds in the Valley—including Khosla Ventures, DFJ, Cisco, and Salesforce, among others. CB Insights has rated Alchemist the top program based on median funding rates of its grads (YC was #2), and Alchemist is perennially in the top of various Accelerator rankings. The accelerator seeds around 75 enterprise-monetizing ventures / year. Learn more about applying today.

    The Key to More Sales: Focus on Your State

    It's not the product. It's not the timing. It's your body language and tonality. Both have more to do with sales success than other factors because at the core, sales is result-driven communication.

    I've been leading sales organizations for more than a decade. However, when I speak with entrepreneurs as an Alchemist Accelerator mentor, I’m reminded that although not everyone is employed in sales, at different times, we all sell—to potential investors, co-founders, employees, partners, and perhaps, even family members.

    Your State Matters

    Take a minute. Consider how you feel right now. You should care about your state of mind because it’s influencing the work that you're doing and the effectiveness of your communication (i.e., your body language and your tonality). You need to ensure your mood is making a positive impact, helping you achieve what technical professionals call flow or being in the zone. This is your peak state, and it affects the results that you want. It heightens your performance. The opposite is also true. If you are in a bad state, your performance dips, you communicate poorly, and you make mistakes.

    A few months ago, I went to a demo-day event where a number of founders were pitching their products to a large audience. After noticing a disturbing trend in a few sessions, I did a little experiment. What I observed was this: at the start of every presentation, attendees sat up, ready to listen. But by the two-minute mark, most attendees lost interest and were looking at their laptops or phone screens. The presenters were dull. Some lacked energy, others lacked enthusiasm, as they pitched their products.

    One presenter was different. He started with high energy. He sounded passionate and engaging. Attendees looked up from their screens and listened. He asked questions, and they paid attention. Yet within a few minutes, his energy dipped and he lost them. The attendees went back to their devices because he couldn't maintain his state.

    I spoke next, determined to engage the audience’s attention through the entire session. My product wasn't any better than the others being presented, so I knew my communication needed to be different. I took a moment to get myself into a peak state. Then I made my pitch with a powerful and palpable energy. I was loud and enthusiastic. I moved around the stage, and asked a ton of questions. Above all, I maintained intensity during my entire talk, and I paid careful attention to the results.

    Throughout my session, the vast majority of the audience was attentive and engaged. I had five times the number of questions about my product than any presentation before me, and at the end, a number of attendees came by to meet me in person. My pitch was successful, and it had very little to do with the product I was introducing.

    The secret to a successful sales pitch is more than the initial spark—it's sustained energy and enthusiasm. If you can achieve peak state, getting into the zone, you communicate better. Your body language and tonality automatically attracts people and significantly enhances your influence over them. If you can consistently attain this state, you can consistently elevate your performance above the norm.

    Two Simple Ways to Master Your State

    There are two simple steps you can take to very quickly make a meaningful difference in the result of any communication:

    1.     Hack your brain

    2.     Hack your body

    What is hacking your brain? In effect, it's an exercise to change your state. You hack your brain before a big pitch by taking five minutes and focusing your thoughts on these things: (Hint: It helps to write them down.)

    • Think of one thing you are truly excited about today. If it's a thing, imagine receiving it right now or if it's an event, imagine it taking place right now. Focus on how you feel.

    • Think of one thing you are truly thankful for in your life? Take a moment to appreciate that feeling.

    • Think of one person you are thankful to have in your life? Take a moment to consider why.

    When you hack your brain, you put it in a different mood. You replace negative emotions with positive ones—excitement, thankfulness, and appreciation—and those excrete the chemicals that get you closer to your powerful peak state.

    Hacking your brain isn’t enough. You need to hack your body in a similar way because emotions and your body are connected in a profound way. If you change the state of your body, you change the state of your mind and vice versa. As Tony Robbins often says, “motion creates emotion!” Doing any form of exercise (e.g., fast-paced walking, running, dancing, or even some jumping jacks) can influence your mental state and put you in the zone. With the right mental state, you'll start to notice that your communication and body language improves. You do better things and you do things better. Sales is one of those things.

    After hacking your brain and your body, you feel better. Your body language automatically improves, and your tonality matches your positive, confident, and empowered emotions. At this moment, you have the best chance to influence others through your communication.

    Achieve Results

    Your body language and tonality are what people use to interpret what you are saying. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it that matters. Frame of mind and tonality are the reasons two sales people using the exact same script, answering the same questions, can have very different results.

    The next time you're ready to make a cold call, close a deal, pitch to investors, or present in front of an audience, pay attention to your state. If you’re not in a peak state, take a minute to hack your brain, then hack your body. You'll be glad you did.

    About Kevin Ramani

    Kevin is the Head of Sales at Cobalt Robotics, and was one of the founding team members of Close.io, helping to build the company from the ground up. Kevin is also a startup advisor and a mentor to several Silicon Valley startups. Connect with him online.

    About the Alchemist Accelerator

    Alchemist is a venture-backed initiative focused on accelerating the development of seed-stage ventures that monetize from enterprises (not consumers). The accelerator’s primary screening criteria is on teams, with primacy placed on having distinctive technical co-founders. We give companies around $36K, and run them through a structured 6-month program heavily focused on sales, customer development, and fundraising. Our backers include many of the top corporate and VC funds in the Valley—including Khosla Ventures, DFJ, Cisco, and Salesforce, among others. CB Insights has rated Alchemist the top program based on median funding rates of its grads (YC was #2), and Alchemist is perennially in the top of various Accelerator rankings. The accelerator seeds around 75 enterprise-monetizing ventures / year. Learn more about applying today.

    Funding Basics: Fundraising 101

    If you’re unfamiliar with how venture capital funding works, it can seem akin to playing the lottery. Anyone can try, but only a few lucky entrepreneurs actually win. Fortunately, fundraising isn’t as random as a Powerball drawing and founders can improve their odds of success by engaging with right-size partners, recognizing what investors find intriguing, and understanding the technical aspects of term sheets.

    How do I know?

    I was a VC.

    Establish a Strategy

    As an Associate at Draper Fisher Jurvetson and now as Founder of the Alchemist Accelerator, I’ve met hundreds of people with good ideas and great demos, but far fewer with a strategic plan for fundraising. Founding teams can save time (and alleviate stress) by researching fund sizes and prioritizing meetings based on the outcome they expect. Founders and the venture capitalists they choose will need to make the economics work. Investors will need to pay back their funds. A rule of thumb is that one out of every 10 investments in a VC portfolio will drive outsized returns. And a typical fund has 30 investments. So 3 companies in a given VC fund portfolio will likely be responsible for the fund’s performance. Given this, most investors want to see a path to paying back at least ⅓ of their fund size with an individual investment.

    Investors are also constrained by the number of investments they can make. Because they have to limit the number of board seats they take on, they often can only make 2 or 3 new investments per year. And each investment has to deploy enough capital for them to deploy the cash in the fund. For these reasons, investors at large funds (e.g. funds that are $300m or larger in size) will care much more about whether they have enough ownership in your company to create an exit to pay back their fund than the check size of your investment. In fact, if you are asking for too little money (e.g. less than $3m) it can be more difficult for that investor to justify the investment given the size of their fund and the limited number of new investments they can make each year.

    Ideally, founders approach a mix of VCs during the fundraising process, recognizing that there will be more traction with those that are a good fit. Don’t get too excited about meetings because every firm will want to meet for fear of missing the next big thing—think Google! That’s why it’s important for startup teams to have a plan.

    Choose to make scarcity of supply an asset. Optimize for a short, yet intense fundraising process. Establish a list of three dozen firms, then agree to pursue 12 active discussions at a time—segmenting top-tier / second-tier VC firms, angels / high-value investors, and corporates / strategic investors into separate thirds. This will enable the rapid replacement of non-responsive firms, and help ensure the arrival of term sheets at the same time.  

    Share Your Story

    VCs meet (and subsequently) invest in startups for a variety of reasons. The startup meets all of the criteria of previously proven successful companies in their portfolio; the startup is somehow connected to the VCs personal network that she trusts; or the firm likes to make contrarian bets. Whatever the reason, the dance between startup and VC always begins with a presentation.

    During a seed or series A round, fundraising meetings focus on the idea and its potential. In series C and later rounds, VCs spend time evaluating the idea, the market, and results. How has the company executed to date?

    Early round fundraising presentations are expected to be lean, including a brief overview of the team and the market potential. A dozen or fewer core slides is ideal, coupled with a large appendix of slides that goes deeper into specifics. An overview of capabilities and a product demo will also be expected. Sequoia Capital has a good template for creating solid fundraising presentations.

    But wait... Before presenting, stop, summarize how and why you are there (don’t forget to mention explicit connections). The goal of this is to try to address from the top the two fundamental questions wrestles with: “Are you any good?” and “If you are so good, why are you talking to me?”. At the beginning -- from the top -- you want to signal strength (that you are in fact a company the investor should want to chase), and that you are talking to them because of some privileged access that investor has. For example, “Before I begin, let me just set some context. As you may know, we have been heads down with customers and will be beginning our official raise next quarter. Our attorney XXX spoke very highly of you and recommended we get your guidance in advance of that”.

    You then want to unearth any biases upfront the investor may have before you go into your pitch. VCs often provide the best feedback before you speak. This time is also the best chance you have of understanding any bias or concerns VCs may have about differentiation, distribution, market factors, or some other issue you’re going to cover.

    You can simply ask “Did you have a chance to review the information I sent over?” They may not have, but if they have, you can invite them to share what’s important to them upfront so you can cater your talk better to them.

    At the end of the day, VCs want founders to like them and VCs want to like the founding team’s energy and passion. After all, funding is a long-term commitment (typically 3—7 years). Additionally, potential investors want to be sure the market opportunity is large enough and that a startup’s entry point is specific enough to ensure a big return.

    About Ravi Belani

    Ravi Belani is Fenwick & West Lecturer of Entrepreneurship at Stanford University, and Managing Director of the Alchemist Accelerator. Ravi formerly spent six years as part of the investment team at Draper Fisher Jurvetson's Menlo Park global headquarters, where he led investments and served on the boards as the first institutional investor in companies such as Justin.TV & Twitch (acquired by Amazon for $970m), Pubmatic, Vizu (acq’d by Nielsen), and Yield Software (acq'd by Autonomy). Ravi formerly worked in product management at two Kleiner Perkins enterprise startups, and as a consultant in McKinsey and Company's San Francisco office. Ravi is a Phi Beta Kappa and Tau Beta Pi graduate of Stanford University, holding a BS with Distinction and MS in Industrial Engineering. Ravi also holds an MBA from Harvard Business School.

    About the Alchemist Accelerator

    Alchemist is a venture-backed initiative focused on accelerating the development of seed-stage ventures that monetize from enterprises (not consumers). The accelerator’s primary screening criteria is on teams, with primacy placed on having distinctive technical co-founders. We give companies around $36K, and run them through a structured 6-month program heavily focused on sales, customer development, and fundraising. Our backers include many of the top corporate and VC funds in the Valley -- including Khosla Ventures, DFJ, Cisco, and Salesforce, among others. CB Insights has rated Alchemist the top program based on median funding rates of its grads (YC was #2), and Alchemist is perennially in the top of various Accelerator rankings. The accelerator seeds around 75 enterprise-monetizing ventures / year. Learn more about applying today.

    This blog is the third in a financing series with topics designed to help entrepreneurs be better prepared for venture capital conversations.

    How One Hour of Customer Development Saves Five Hours of Coding

    The greatest expert on your customer is: your customer.  I consider that rule number one on any customer development journey.

    Over the years, I’ve discovered one of the biggest mistakes tech entrepreneurs make is overbuilding. Teams get so excited about an idea that they create feature after feature, hoping one of them will help someone, somewhere, soon save time, spend less, or be entertained.  

     

    Getting to Data-Driven

    The reason I wrote Lean Customer Development to stop teams from building things that people don’t want. That’s what successful customer development does for you - allows you to avoid (some) mistakes and focus on building what your customers will use, love, and buy.  You see, no matter how smart people are, no matter how well they know their industry, they’re wrong at least half of the time. That means about 50 percent of what is built is wasted effort!

    In my experience, every hour spent on customer development saves an organization five hours of design and coding time. That’s my conservative estimate. It’s probably closer to 20 hours.

    One of the reasons teams overbuild is because humans like to do what comes naturally. We like to build! We love coming up with solutions (that’s why we join product teams and start companies). But if you’re just starting out, you have to embrace what comes a little less naturally—and that’s listening.

    Following a Proven Process

    Start with a hypothesis. Ask the right questions. Make sense of the answers. Then figure out what to build based on the input. Those are steps to successful customer development, yet not everyone follows them.

    Teams often lead with their own product - a solution created based on assumptions of who’ll need it and why. We don’t create a narrow, unbiased hypothesis that focuses on the person, the problem, and how we can make their life better. This is ineffective for a couple of reasons.

    First, it puts you in the role of the expert when you really need to be learning from your prospective customer. Second, once you show someone a solution, that’s what they’ll talk about. Rarely does the person you’re talking with stop and say, “wait, I don’t really have that problem” or “hold on, I’m not motivated to change my behavior over this”.  When you start with a solution, you risk hearing a lot of “polite maybes” instead of uncovering the “here’s what I really need” answers that lead you to a successful business.

    Getting Input

    As an Alchemist Mentor, I encourage founders to start with one testable hypothesis.  For example, “I believe [type of person] has [problem they need to solve] in order to [experience this benefit]”. There are three segments to that hypothesis, and each of them can be invalidated - you might be talking to the wrong type of person; they may not have the problem you expect; they may not see that a solution will make their life better.

    There may be multiple stakeholders - for example, if you are trying to develop a solution to improve patient compliance in taking their medicine, you’ll likely need to talk to the doctors who prescribe medication as well as the people swallowing the pills. By understanding the behaviors, motivations, and constraints of all your stakeholders, you’ll be better able to design a solution that they’ll actually use and benefit from.

    Abstract up a level: more general, “storytelling” questions about the ways people do their jobs, what they buy, and how they use products give you more informative answers than yes/no questions. For example: What frustrates you about your job? How is work done in your organization? How do you evaluate solutions? Open-ended questions like these give customers the power to talk about what matters most to them. At the end of the discussion, don’t forget to inquire about what else you should have asked.

    I prefer one-on-one conversations: in-person is great, because you can see the customer’s environment - but phone conversations are often far easier to schedule and conduct. The best customer development method is the only you’ll actually do!

    I’m not a fan of focus groups. It seems far more efficient to talk to multiple people at once, but participants may not openly share in a group for fear of sounding dumb or having an idea dismissed.

    Depending on your hypothesis, you may easily find people in your extended network or a community online. (When people ask, ‘but how will I find people before I have a product to show them?’, I ask ‘but how were you planning on finding people after you have a product?’)  Sometimes you’ll need to pay for access to the right people through services such as LinkedIn InMail or user research firms, but generally you’re better off investing the time to figure out where your prospective customers ‘live’, online or offline, and making yourself part of those spaces.  You’ll need to build that trust eventually, so you may as well start in the early phases of your company!

    Making Decisions

    No matter how you discover customers, approach each conversation as a listener, not an expert.  I often recommend telling people explicitly, “I want to hear from you - I’m going to try and talk as little as possible.”  That’s the valuable data you need to inform your decisions. Whether you’re building your first product or rolling out a new feature, test everything. Customer discovery that’s about them, not you, is how to ensure your startup builds something people actually want to use and will pay money to buy.

    About Cindy Alvarez

    Cindy Alvarez is the author of Lean Customer Development: Building Products Your Customers Will Buy and Director of User Experience for Yammer (a Microsoft company). She has over a dozen years’ experience leading design, product management, user research, and customer development for startups, and is currently using that background to drive intrapreneurial change within Microsoft. She tweets as @cindyalvarez.

    About the Alchemist Accelerator

    Alchemist is a venture-backed initiative focused on accelerating the development of seed-stage ventures that monetize from enterprises (not consumers). The accelerator’s primary screening criteria is on teams, with primacy placed on having distinctive technical co-founders. We give companies around $36K, and run them through a structured 6-month program heavily focused on sales, customer development, and fundraising. Our backers include many of the top corporate and VC funds in the Valley -- including Khosla Ventures, DFJ, Cisco, and Salesforce, among others. CB Insights has rated Alchemist the top program based on median funding rates of its grads (YC was #2), and Alchemist is perennially in the top of various Accelerator rankings. The accelerator seeds around 75 enterprise-monetizing ventures / year. Learn more about applying today.

    Do Pivots Matter?

                                                                  There’s a sign on the wall but she wants to be sure
                                                               Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings
                                                                               Led Zeppelin – Stairway to Heaven

    In late 2013 Cowboy Ventures did an analysis of U.S.-based tech companies started in the last 10 years, now valued at $1 billion. They found 39 of these companies.  They called them the “Unicorn Club.”

    The article summarized 10 key learnings from the Unicorn club. Surprisingly one of the “learnings” said that, “…the “big pivot” after starting with a different initial product is an outlier. Nearly 90 percent of companies are working on their original product vision. The four “pivots” after a different initial product were all in consumer companies (Groupon, Instagram, Pinterest and Fab).”

    One of my students sent me the article and asked, “What does this mean?”  Good question.

    Since the Pivot is one of the core concepts of the Lean Startup I was puzzled. Could I be wrong? Is it possible Pivots really don’t matter if you want to be a Unicorn?

    Short answer – almost all the Unicorns pivoted. The authors of the article didn’t understand what a Pivot was.

    What’s a pivot?
    A pivot is a fundamental insight of the Lean Startup. It says on day one, all you have in your new venture is a series of untested hypothesis. Therefore you need to get outside of your building and rapidly test all your assumptions. The odds are that one or more of your hypotheses will be wrong. When you discover your error, rather than firing executives and/or creating a crisis, you simply change the hypotheses.

    What was lacking in the article was a clear definition of a Pivot.  A Pivot is not just changing the product. A pivot can change any of nine different things in your business model. A pivot may mean you changed your customer segment, your channel, revenue model/pricing, resources, activities, costs, partners, customer acquisition – lots of other things than just the product.

    Definition: “A pivot is a substantive change to one or more of the 9 business model canvas components.”

    Business Model
    Ok, but what is a business model?

    Think of a business model as a drawing that shows all the flows between the different parts of your company’s strategy. Unlike an organization chart, which is a diagram of how  job positions and  functions of a company are related, a business model diagrams how a company makes money – without having to go into the complex details of all its strategy, processes, units, rules, hierarchies, workflows, and systems.

    Alexander Osterwalder’s  Business Model canvas puts all the complicated strategies of your business in one simple diagram. Each of the 9 boxes in the canvas specifies details of your company’s strategy.  (The Business Model Canvas is one of the three components of the Lean Startup. See the HBR article here.)

    So to answer my students question, I pointed out that the author of the article had too narrow a definition of what a pivot meant. If you went back and analyzed how many Unicorns pivoted on any of the 9 business model components you’d likely find that the majority did so.

    Take a look at the Unicorn club and think about the changes in customer segments, revenue, pricing, channels, all those companies have made since they began: Facebook, LinkedIn – new customer segments, Meraki – new revenue models, new customer segments, Yelp – product pivot, etc. – then you’ll understand the power of the Pivot.

    Lessons Learned

    • A Pivot is not just when you change the product
    • A pivot is a substantive change to one or more of the 9 business model canvascomponents
    • Almost all startups pivot on some part of their business model after founding
    • Startups focused on just product Pivots will limited their strategic choices – it’s like bringing a knife to a gunfight

    About Steve Blank

    Entrepreneur-turned-educator Steve Blank is credited with launching the Lean Startup movement. He’s changed how startups are built; how entrepreneurship is taught; how science is commercialized, and how companies and the government innovate. Steve is the author of The Four Steps to the Epiphany, The Startup Owner’s Manual -- and his May 2013 Harvard Business Review cover story defined the Lean Startup movement.  He teaches at Stanford, Columbia, Berkeley and NYU; and created the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps -- now the standard for science commercialization in the U.S. His Hacking for Defense class at Stanford is revolutionizing how the U.S. defense and intelligence community can deploy innovation with speed and urgency, and its sister class, Hacking for Diplomacy, is doing the same for foreign affairs challenges managed by the U.S. State Department. Steve blogs at www.steveblank.com.

    Strategy is Not a To Do List

    I had breakfast with two of my ex-students from Singapore who were building a really interesting startup. They were deep into Customer Discovery and presented a ton of customer data on the validity of their initial hypothesis – target customers, pricing, stickiness, etc. I was unprepared for what they said next. “We’re going to do a big launch of our product in three weeks.” I almost dropped my coffee. “Wait a minute, what about the rest of Customer Development? Aren’t you going to validate your hypotheses by first getting some customers?”

    Without any sense of irony they said, “Oh, our investors convinced us to skip that part, because our customer feedback was all over the map and our schedule showed us launching in three weeks and they were worried that we’d run out of cash. They told us to stay on schedule.” Now I was confused, and I asked, “Well what do you guys believe – Customer Development or launch on a schedule?” Without missing a beat they said, “Oh, we believe both are right.”

    I realized I was listening to them treat Customer Development as an item on their To Do list.

    Suddenly, I had a massive case of déjà vu.

    Can You Pull This Off
    I was VP of marketing at Ardent, a supercomputer company where a year earlier I had a painful and permanent lesson about Customer Discovery. I was smart, aggressive, young and a very tactical marketer who really hadn’t a clue about what strategy actually meant.

    One day the CEO called me into his office and asked, “Steve I’ve been thinking about this as our strategy going forward. What do you think?” And he proceeded to lay out a fairly complex and innovative sales and marketing strategy for our next 18 months. “Yeah, that sounds great,” I said. He nodded and then offered up, “Well what do you think of this other strategy?” I listened intently as he spun an equally complex alternative strategy. “Can you pull both of these off?” he asked looking right at me. By the angelic look on his face I should have known that I was being set up. I replied naively, “Sure, I’ll get right on it.”

    Ambushed
    25 years later I still remember what happened next. All of sudden the air temperature in the room dropped by about 40 degrees. Out of nowhere the CEO started screaming at me, “You stupid x?!x. These strategies are mutually exclusive. Executing both of them would put us out of business. You don’t have a clue about what the purpose of marketing is because all you are doing is executing a series of tasks like they’re like a big To Do list. Without understanding why you’re doing them, you’re dangerous as the VP of Marketing, in fact you’re just a glorified head of marketing communications.”

    I left in daze angry and confused. There was no doubt my boss was a jerk, but unlike the other time I got my butt kicked, I didn’t immediately understand the point. I was a great marketer. I was getting feedback from customers, and I’d pass on every list of what customers wanted to engineering and tell them that’s the features our customers needed. I could implement any marketing plan sales handed to me regardless of how complex. In fact I was implementing three different ones. Oh…hmm… perhaps I was missing something.

    I was doing a lot of marketing “things” but why was I doing them? I had approached my activities as simply as a task-list to get through. With my tail between my legs I was left to ponder; what was the function of marketing in a startup?

    Strategy is Not a To Do List, It Drives a To Do List
    It took me awhile, but I began to realize that the strategic part of my job was two-fold. First, (in today’s jargon) we were still searching for a scalable and repeatable business model. My job was to test our hypotheses about who were potential customers, what problems they had and what their needs were. Second, when we found these customers, marketing’s job was to put together the tactical marketing programs (ads, pr, tradeshows, white papers, data sheets) to drive end user demand into our direct sales channel and to educate our channel about how to sell our product.

    Once I understood the strategy, the To Do list became clear. It allowed me to prioritize what I did, when I did it and instantly understand what would be mutually exclusive.

    Good Luck and Thanks For the Fish
    My students were going through the motions of Customer Development rather than understanding the purpose behind it. It was trendy, they had read my book and to them it was just another step on the list of things they had to do. They had no deep understanding of why they were doing it. So they were at a crossroads. Since their investors had asked them to launch now, what happened if their initial assumptions were wrong?

    As they left I hoped they would be really lucky.

    Lessons Learned

    • Entrepreneurs get lots of great advice.
    • Most of it is mutually exclusive.
    • Don’t do it if you can’t explain why you’re doing it.
    • Or else it all becomes a To Do list.

    About Steve Blank

    Entrepreneur-turned-educator Steve Blank is credited with launching the Lean Startup movement. He’s changed how startups are built; how entrepreneurship is taught; how science is commercialized, and how companies and the government innovate. Steve is the author of The Four Steps to the Epiphany, The Startup Owner’s Manual -- and his May 2013 Harvard Business Review cover story defined the Lean Startup movement.  He teaches at Stanford, Columbia, Berkeley and NYU; and created the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps -- now the standard for science commercialization in the U.S. His Hacking for Defense class at Stanford is revolutionizing how the U.S. defense and intelligence community can deploy innovation with speed and urgency, and its sister class, Hacking for Diplomacy, is doing the same for foreign affairs challenges managed by the U.S. State Department. Steve blogs at www.steveblank.com.

    Funding Basics: Customer Development

    Entrepreneurs take note. More startups fail from a lack of customers than from a failure of product development. That’s why I believe strongly that every new product company should have a methodology for developing customers.

    I’m a proponent of Steve Blank’s startup stack methodology for customer development, which features the following steps:

    • Customer Discovery – Begin with a business model canvas, a summary of how you’re going to serve customers and earn money

    • Customer Validation – Make assumptions, then test them to develop a repeatable and scalable sales process

    • Execution –  Fine tune your model to get to a market fit that is tight and profitable; pivot, as needed

    As an Alchemist Accelerator mentor, I recently had an opportunity to share some perspective about the customer development process and how to maximize success. The first thing I told the group in front of me—a large percentage of whom were engineers—was that they should focus everything on finding the right customer segment, rather than building or modifying a new product concept to fit initial discussions. I think I heard a collective sigh of relief before I began my presentation.

    Completing Your Canvas

    Research has proven effective customer discovery begins with a business model canvas, so the first part of our discussion, framed in that context was designed for them to hear one thing: You are making a best-guess at first. There will be plenty of time for refinement, when you know more.

    A strategic management and lean startup template, your canvas should reflect initial assumptions. To begin, you must understand the market you’re targeting—total addressable, served available, and/or target market. You’ll also need to define the type of market you’re hoping to penetrate. Is it existing with incumbents, but a known problem; new with no competition, but steep education requirements; re-segmented where you’re offering a lower cost or niche alternative; or are you cloning a concept from somewhere else?

    Your canvas should also identify key value propositions. What is the job your customers are hiring you to do? How will you do it, and most important, what one-to-three benefits will customers get from using your product or service?

    In the customer relationships section of your canvas, you’ll need to outline how you plan to

    • Get customers

    • Keep customers

    • Grow customers

    In addition, your canvas should highlight any other key activities, resources (e.g. required equipment), partners and costs (fixed and variable), as well as your anticipated revenue model (e.g., one-time scale, subscription, etc.).

    Finding Your Fit

    A completed business model canvas ensures your team has fully immersed itself in the customer problem. As such, it can serve as a foundation as you define tests for customer validation.

    Testing can begin once you’ve identified subjects. Who are they—end users, influencers, recommenders, decision makers, or others? What do they do all day, and can you create an organizational or influencer map around them? Plus, don’t forget to acknowledge any saboteurs because they have no interest in your success.   

    Next, only founders should conduct customer validation meetings, and they should be face-to-face for added visual cues. Don’t outsource the job. Ask open-ended questions and avoid trying to convince someone he or she needs your solution. Test your theories to determine if you’re on the right track. If you don’t get a good signal, reframe the problem. Test again.

    In general, ask questions that help you learn more. Lead with

    • Tell me more about…

    • What do you mean by…

    • How so…

    • Why is that…

    • What are your thoughts on…

    • How would you quantify…

    • How did you measure…

    • How did you come up with that…

    • What was your thinking behind…

    The goal of every customer validation meeting should be the same: To understand the problem space and the current solutions available.

    Pivoting and Execution

    During customer validation, your team may uncover some startling truths. Your product doesn’t fit the market it was intended to serve. Prospects already have a solution for x, but have you considered this other opportunity, y? Do not panic.

    Instead, apply your development methodology to your customer discovery process. Be agile. Don’t build a new product. Find a new set of customers. Pivot into a new space and test again.

    By following a customer development process, you have a tremendous opportunity to deliver what people will pay for, improving your product along the way. Moreover, you’ll have high-quality data to answer the question “who is your customer?” when potential investors ask.

    About Alan Chiu

    Alan Chiu is a Partner at XSeed Capital, with a strong background in enterprise software startups. His investment areas include mobile enterprise applications, data analytics platforms, enterprise infrastructure, and fintech startups. He serves on the Board of Directors of Breakaway and previously served on the board of StackStorm (acquired by Brocade – NASDAQ:BRCD). He has provided support to other portfolio companies including Lex Machina (acquired by LexisNexis of the RELX Group – NYSE:RELX), AtScale, Dispatcher, Teapot (acquired by Stripe), Pixlee, SIPX (acquired by ProQuest), Zooz, BrainofT, Mines.io, Inklo, and My90. Alan is currently Co-President for Stanford Angels & Entrepreneurs, an alumni association that seeks to strengthen Stanford’s startup community by fostering relationships among entrepreneurs and alumni investors.

    About the Alchemist Accelerator

    Alchemist is a venture-backed initiative focused on accelerating the development of seed-stage ventures that monetize from enterprises (not consumers). The accelerator’s primary screening criteria is on teams, with primacy placed on having distinctive technical co-founders. We give companies around $36K, and run them through a structured 6-month program heavily focused on sales, customer development, and fundraising. Our backers include many of the top corporate and VC funds in the Valley -- including Khosla Ventures, DFJ, Cisco, and Salesforce, among others. CB Insights has rated Alchemist the top program based on median funding rates of its grads (YC was #2), and Alchemist is perennially in the top of various Accelerator rankings. The accelerator seeds around 75 enterprise-monetizing ventures / year. Learn more about applying today.

    This blog is the second in a financing series with topics designed to help entrepreneurs be better prepared for venture capital conversations.