The Spinal Tap Approach to Customer Discovery

Should you turn the volume up to 11?

You’re an entrepreneur with a startup in search of market glory and the million dollar win. But to win, you have to fail fast; you must discover if there’s really a market for your idea before burning time, money, or relationships. Some of your guesses about what people want and need will be wrong. You’ve got to get out of your head and out of the building. Go talk to real customers to discover what they want. It’s better to discover blind alleys sooner rather than later. Customer discovery makes sure you understand the customer and the problem from their viewpoint. Consider it a version of Stephen R. Covey’s 5 Habit, “Seek first to understand then to be understood.”

The point of customer discovery is to confirm that you’ve found a pain point or problem worth solving for a willing and able customer. Remember: you’re not creating value so much as discovering value by pairing a problem with a better solution.

Spinal Tap, “These go to 11.”

Ideally, you’ll identify an intense pain point, a problem that hurts. The current solution (or lack of a solution) costs a lot of money, produces poor results, or is a barrier to growth. It should be among your bullseye target customer’s biggest headaches or pain points. A high volume pain point. A pain point that goes to eleven on the Spinal Tap amp.Spinal Tap Customery Discovery

Low volume pains fade into the background. We have higher priority problems to solve. It’s harder to command the buyer’s attention when they have bigger fish to fry. You want to solve the pain points that are drowning out lesser bands of demons. The louder the paid point, the bigger the value waiting to be discovered and redressed – and the bigger payday for the entrepreneur and the startup that offers a solution. These are the paths to a million dollar plus win.

The Problem of Good Enough

Of course, not every problem or pain point is an eleven. Opportunity for value discovery and capture fall off as the bullseye target customer’s pain volume dial is lower. Which begs the question. How low is too low? Or perhaps, what does too low look like?

One symptom of low volume is when the status quo solution is good enough. It may not be perfect, but it works. Such good enough solutions are often free, ubiquitous, or use multi-purpose tools that can also be used to solve other problems. It’s like a kitchen. We can get by with the basic utensils even though there are plenty of specialized tools offered for sale.

The Value of a Tire Change

Customer Discovery & Pain PointsAn example. Race cars commonly feature air jacks to rapidly and easily raise the car up to permit tire changes. Why isn’t this a feature on family sedans and SUVs? When we have a flat tire, replacing it is far more tedious and time consuming. You have to extract a jack hidden somewhere in the bowels of your vehicle. Assemble the jack. Place it in just the right place under the frame of the car. Pump a lever or turn a crank. A lot. Archimedes can explain mechanical leverage if you need. And that’s if your car has a spare tire and a jack. Many no longer do. As an alternative, we call AAA.

So, why do race car drivers have all the cool toys like built-in, rapidly deploying jacks? Because speed is everything to a race car driver and team. They plan for several tire changes a race. Each driver at the Indy 500, Daytona, Talladega, or Le Mans knows tire changes are part of that trip.

By contrast, everyday commuters and travelers rarely have flat tires. It’s not worth a costly built-in air jack system to have that option on the rare occasion a flat tire pops up. It’s useless weight most of the time. And useless weight hurts fuel economy. Which is precisely why many cars no longer even carry spare tires, much less jacks. We can mess with a manual jack or call AAA should it be necessary. Most years we never have a flat. Many drivers never experience a flat. If we do, we may be late to an appointment, but the risk is low. We’re not going to lose the race.

Can Doesn’t Mean Should

Just because we technically can design, build and install air jacks in a car, doesn’t mean we should or will. When the pain volume dial is turned low, the cheaper alternatives are good enough.

The Cadillac of. . .

But you say, “Built-in air jacks are a premium solution. The Cadillac of jacks! Everyone should have one.” But they don’t and won’t. Not everyone will buy a Cadillac. High-end, high-cost solutions are by definition low-volume solutions. The premium cost is only worth it to a narrow group of customers. Who will buy? The customers with more or different pain. E.g., the need for speed in our race car tire change. If you have such a product, you’re looking for the racing teams willing and able to pay the premium because their pain is louder for the exact same problem (changing tires in our example) or they define the pain differently (the need for speed) than most potential customers.

Seek and You Shall Find

We advise startups to fall in love with the problem and not your originally imagined solution.

Why? It helps you, the entrepreneur, to redefine the bullseye target customer or pivot on the appropriate solution. You’re more open to the feedback from people outside the building, living and spending money in the real world.

Seek a pain point worth solving. Listen for the high volume problems. Find those customer dials turned all the way up to 11. Be wary of chasing value where the status quo solution is good enough. The good enough problem is a signal to narrow your search for the bullseye target customer. You want the customer with the most pain. The customer willing and able to pay the most for a better solution.


Daniel Pitts Winegarden ©2018
Pappajohn Center
Business Accelerator Director
SBDC Counselor
VentureWell LeanLaunchPad Instructor