Tips on Customer Development from Firebase: From Video Cameras to Parties

May 1, 2012

11:00 am

With more than $10,000 in monthly revenue and a spot in Y Combinator, Envolve was moving along swimmingly. James Tamplin and his team pitched the chat service on demo day, scoring tons of press mentions.

But by that time, they had already decided to shift to a new idea: Firebase. Although Envolve is still running, Tamplin and company are gunning forward to create a “backend as a service” that helps developers build apps super-fast. (For the tech-minded, that means taking care of components like databases, servers, server code, and networking code.)

It’s always tough to start over, but at some point the feedback was too loud to ignore:

“If we hadn’t switched, we could have easily built a really great business,” explains Tamplin. “But we just saw this bigger opportunity, and if we hadn’t done customer development we would never have seen that opportunity for what it was.”

How do they approach customer development? Below are 3 methods that almost any startup can use, plus Tamplin’s 2 takeaway tips.

Tech Cocktail: Was it tough to make the switch to Firebase? 

James Tamplin: Yeah. Shifting the focus and the core competency of a company is kind of like turning around an oil tanker, but the market was clearly pointing that way. There were only 3 of us full-time at the time, and so we were able to really switch quickly.

Tech Cocktail: Tell me about your customer development on Firebase.

Tamplin: We set out to build an API that developers would love, and we set out to do that very methodically. Andrew [Lee] and I have build three products now, and this is our fourth. And we’ve learned pretty hard that you really need to focus on what the end user wants, and … you need to get out of the building, you need to do usability testing. And so that’s what we did.

The first way we did it is we sat down with [developers] and put them in front of a video camera and we told them to build something. And we just shut up and watched them; we videotaped their screen and we asked them to speak out loud and tell us their thoughts and we’d record those, and we’d record everything.

So we did that 60 times with 60 different developers, and we had 60 hours of video. We’d send different members of the team so everyone was getting a feel for what our developers were thinking. And obviously we could review the video after the fact. And this really gave us a feel for who our users were, how they were trying to use it, and their pains.

The second way we did this was we had a big Google group. Each of the people we sat down with, we’d add to the Google group. And then when we had questions about, ‘Hey, what should this API call be named? What’s the preferential way of doing this operation?’ we’d either send them a survey or just send them a free-form email asking how they would do it, and get a deluge of responses. Our users were absolutely incredible to us, and they were passionate about what we were doing, and I think that’s why. And through those two methods … we were able to get a really, really, really good API and a good product.

We had some events that we’d throw as well, so we had a couple of launch parties, we’d take people out for drinks, we’d bring our users together whenever we had the opportunity. And that formed a community around our product that was really helpful.

Tech Cocktail: What advice do you have for startups doing customer development? How do they figure out what users really want?

Tamplin: Build a prototype and put it in front of your users and do videotape them. When you videotape them, it allows you to go back to other members and get an unbiased opinion of what happened. So instead of just taking my word for it, you can actually go and look at the tapes and I can prove to you that, ‘Hey, they had problems with X’ or ‘They had issues with Y.’ So that was really critical.

Build a community around the people you’re doing customer development with. One person’s idea may spark or trigger an idea in another beta tester or alpha tester, that they wouldn’t have otherwise thought of. And that community, also, they’re not just doing it and they’re not just a single entity; they’re now part of this exclusive club that is using this new product, and that really helped us as well.

Some of this you just have to live through; we were stubborn for a couple of businesses and didn’t do this just because we thought we knew best. But it was a painful learning experience that, hey, there is humongous value in going out and talking to your users. You’ll actually save yourself a lot of time and a lot of heartache.

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Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact [email protected]

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