Startup Library

5. Interview effectively

Being able to plan and run customer discovery (not sales) interviews with potential or existing customers and then to extract actionable insights from these conversations is a critical skill for self reliant entrepreneurs. Because doing face-to-face interviews (primary market research) is the best source of learning about potential customer needs when thinking of starting a business, and the best way to avoid wasting money on developing a product or service that no one wants.

But interviewing people you don’t know is uncomfortable for most of us. Most people struggle in finding people to interview, in conducting goods interviews and in extracting insights from those interviews.

Most people avoid interviewing like the plague.

But the experts say that you need to do a minimum of 60 strong interviews to avoid a false positive… so here are some tricks to getting going with strong interviews.

1. Remind yourself to discover – not sell.

In general, people are interested in talking about themselves. And people don’t really love being sold too. The good news is that early in your startup journey (and forever after actually when you are talking to customers!), you need to know if people actually have a problem that needs to be solved and to do that, you need to get them talking about themselves, their work, their problems. If you go into your meeting with the intent to learn and not just rant about your terrific idea, you might just learn something useful. And if they like you, they will likely ask you about your idea. If they don’t ask, don’t bother sharing. They are not that interested.

2. Craft better overall questions to get usable answers

Bad customer conversations aren’t just useless. Worse, they convince you that you’re on the right path. They give you a false positive which causes you to over-invest your cash, your time, and your team. Even when you’re not actively screwing something up, those pesky customers seem hellbent on lying to you.

We have found a great resource, called “The Mom Test”, a short book written by Rob Fitzpatrick, that provides a set of simple rules for crafting good questions that even your mom can’t lie to you about, to help you ask the right questions.

Good Question vs. Bad Question

Here’s a little quiz from Rob to help you understand the difference between good and bad questions.

Question Quality
Do you think it’s a good idea? Awful question!
Would you buy a product which did X? Bad question.
How much would you pay for X? Bad question.
What would your dream product do? So-so question, but only if you ask good follow-ups.
Why do you bother? Good question.
What are the implications of that? Good question.
Talk me through the last time that happened. Good question.
Talk me through your workflow. Good question.
What else have you tried? Good question.
Would you pay X for a product which did Y? Bad question.
How are you dealing with it now? Good question.
Where does the money come from? Good question.
Who else should I talk to? Good question.
Is there anything else I should have asked? Good question.
Recommendation ⭐️
This book is mandatory for all startups that go through our Acceleration Program. If you don’t have a copy, you can buy it on Amazon here or as a $10 PDF here.
Pull from this list to create your startup’s best subset of questions for all of your interviews.

3. Use a conversation guide with 5 key questions focused around problem/solution discovery

Interviewing customers is a special kind of torture. But we are here to share with you a guide that can help you navigate that hell until you find your own rhythm.

Below is a video by entrepreneur and author of the FOCUS framework that has 5 simple question to take your interviews from being a drag to efficient moment of information gathering:

The 5 questions can be found below:

  1. Tell me a story about [insert problem context].
  2. What was the hardest part?
  3. Why was it hard?
  4. How do you solve it?
  5. How did it work?


They own the problem, you own the solution

You aren’t allowed to tell your customers what their problem is, and in return, they aren’t allowed to tell you what to build. They own the problem, you own the solution. But you are the one guiding the conversation!

4. Tricks to finding and enticing better interview candidates

a. Start with your network

Your first interviews will likely come from your own network — your personal connections, your social networks, your business or research connections…

Quick tip:
Always ask for a referral for another interview candidate at the end of your interview with your connection.

b. Be wiley

Email standards

See if you can figure out a standard for email addresses in a company eg. susie@district3.co; susie.cue@district3.co; susie.c@district3.co.

Intentional in-person “serendipity”

Connect with people when they are a conference or a lab you visit. They are not heads down in their work at that moment so you just might be able make a connection.

c. Use a script

Cold calls

The three “Yes” technique to “hook” the interviewee:
Am I speaking with [Full Name]?” YES
Are you [position] with company?” YES
Do you have a few minutes?” YES


A sample to get you started:
Simple script template for emails

Interviewing doesn’t have to be hard.

The biggest challenge for most people is usually just getting started. They would rather search for the answer on-line rather than ask. But you won’t get the answers you need for your business on-line. So just get out there and “ask”.

Author: Jane Somerville