Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Have You Reached Out to Your Customer Today?

I took a Feasibility course in entrepreneurship while getting my MBA and it was the best class I took in 20 years of schooling.  The professor, Steven Mednick, started every class by putting this slide on the overhead:

He then went around the room and randomly asked students – “Have you reached out to your customer today?”  It was a relevant question because I was in the fully-employed program, so everyone worked during the day and went to school at night.

The great thing about the exercise was that the room was filled with people who worked at everything from Fortune 100 companies all the way down to start-ups and held positions in every department possible … and yet, the question was applicable to all of us regardless of employer or occupation. 

Why?  Because lessons in entrepreneurship apply to every company and every person in the workforce.

And the key point of this class, and USC’s entrepreneur program as a whole, was that entrepreneurship is all about the customer.  No customer, no business.  It’s a simple message.  Seemingly obvious.  But brilliant nonetheless because it’s so important and so often forgotten.

I’d always looked at entrepreneurship as being about that great idea – the one we come up with in that glorious moment of clarity.  And to a degree, it is.  That’s the starting point.

The valuable lesson for me was learning what happens after that idea is conceived.  Historically, I would develop the idea by putting together a business model and product roadmap using my opinions and beliefs. 

Then I learned that my opinions and beliefs don’t matter.

What matters are the opinions and beliefs of the customer.  And there’s no way to know what those are without talking to them.  A lot of them.

Which is exactly what this course required.  We had to create an idea by the second class and then spend the rest of the semester analyzing and stress-testing it through this “Feasibility Funnel” created by Professor Mednick:

Each step required talking to people.  And not just customers.  Suppliers, partners, industry members, etc.  On top of that, we were required to keep a “Stranger’s Diary” where we had to talk to at least 50 strangers about the concept and record the key takeaways from each conversation.

The result was that my original idea took many twists and turns over the course of the semester.  This was 100% the result of talking to customers.  Let them build your castle for you, as I’ve discussed previously.  And the business plan became much stronger as a result.  I've since used this model to analyze several growth opportunities at TGA and elsewhere.

The great thing about the Feasibility Funnel and customer-centric approach to business is that they apply to start-ups and large companies alike.  Entrepreneurship and its principles live everywhere and I bet they’re applicable to you regardless of your company or position within it.  

Thus, every afternoon, I encourage you to ask: “Have you reached out to your customer today?”

(Post-it notes on my desk help remind me):

(Images, quote and content courtesy of Steven Mednick - Assistant Professor of Clinical Entrepreneurship & Graduate Coordinator at University of Southern California, President of Plenum Revenue Group and a great professor.)


  1. When I went to business school, we were taught there were four stages of selling, in reverse order of complexity;

    1. order taker
    2. salesman
    3. closer
    4. buyer

    The "feasibility funnel" appears to be a good explanaation of how to be a "buyer" for your customers/market. Very good presentation.

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