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Do Potential Customers Really Want Your Product? Here's a Way to Find Out.

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When startups begin their tenure in our Small Business Innovation Program, we typically give them a " Kit." Included is a set of exercises from the popular Design Sprint framework, which takes a critical look at a company's product or service.

Related: 6 Ways to Use Crowdfunding for Product Development

The Sprint Kit helps gauge whether a startup has an actual problem-solution fit and, ultimately, a product-market fit. In short, it answers the question of whether a proposed business is truly of value to its intended customers -- or, as the saying goes, a solution in search of a problem.

A design sprint has five phases, and the Sprint Kit includes a set of exercises for each. These phases are: Define, Understand, Ideate, Make and Test.

Here, I'll focus on two activities in the Define phase: Job Stories and Boards. Both explore the problem that you as an entrepreneur are attempting to solve, which is critical for delivering something of value to your customers. Ultimately, the Define phase helps you answer: "What is the problem we are trying to solve?"

The problem is, Job Stories can be deceptively difficult. Thinking about the "job" their product or service performs often eludes entrepreneurs, as they can become overly focused on the solution. So we ask startups that come to us to fill out the following sentence from the perspective of their customer:

"When ___ <>___happens, I want/need___<>___so that I can___<>___."

As an example: If you were looking to validate an email sign-up form notification product for small businesses (email is always on our minds), a Job Story might read something like:

"When a new customer joins my email list, I want to be notified so that I can start a conversation with them."

You then use your Job Story to begin your Validation Board, an exercise that converts your Job Story into an easily test-able hypothesis.

In the Validation Board exercise, you first take the Job Story sentence and break it into three parts:

  • Context, or the situation when your customer is taking action, ("When a new customer joins my email list. . . ")
  • , or what the customer wants to happen (". . . I want to be notified. . . ")
  • Outcome or the desired result (". . . to start a conversation with them. . . ")

To determine whether your Situation, Motivation and Outcomes exist, you need to set up a way to test them. There are many different ways to test and learn if your Job Story is real or not. You'll need to put your scientist hat on for a moment and think about hypotheses, assumptions and validation. What is the overarching hypothesis you have? What assumptions underlie that hypothesis?

Related: 4 Questions to Ask Before Doing a National Product Rollout

One of our most commonly used ways to test is to have conversations with customers (usually between five and ten). We say conversations because we do not want our customers to feel as though they are being put on the spot. Further, the conversational nature will keep them at ease and also enlighten us on areas we may not even have thought of before.

However, this still is a test. You'll need to have pointed questions to ask that will determine if this Job Story is real for them.

Their answers provide us the clarity we're seeking. If it's obvious that the customer needs to "hire" a product or service for this Job Story, you can then put a big, bold "yes!" in the Validated panel of your Validation Board. If it is unclear, you may want to reconsider, as you do not have validation that your Job Story is real. And if it is clearly not real, caution discourages further efforts along his path, as you risk becoming a solution in search of a problem.

The great thing about Job Stories and Validation Boards is that they are a quick way to return to your goal as an entrepreneur. Even the busiest of startups can take the few minutes it requires to fill out the Job Story and find a few customers for a conversation.

Finally, with these exercises, you can develop better relationships with your customer base and learn more about its members' problems and wants. You can have the opportunity to know that you are, in fact, heading down the right path with the product your business offers.

Related: Entrepreneurs Shouldn't Sell the Product, Rather the Solution

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