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How Does Your Lean Startup Get More Interview Referrals?

As an newbie-entrepreneur, one of my biggest challenges is understanding what problems my potential customers face and how strongly they feel them. I thought that helping couples build strong relationships would involve getting people to measure their efforts (because what gets measured gets managed)… but this idea got shot down by many as likely creating a ‘tit-for-tat’ atmosphere in a romantic relationship, which is counter-productive.

As I’ve carried on with my research, I’ve discovered that it’s really hard to get enough interviews to produce meaningful patterns. “Interviews” you say?

Ash Maurya’s book Running Lean revolutionized startup market research by introducing the concept of problem interviews – asking potential customers to how they feel about particular problems. In fact, the book provoked such curiosity and interest that a whole community of sites are springing up to teach beyond what Maurya shared – the devil is in the details – and for entrepreneurs to mutually support each other in applying.

One of those communities is Lean Startup Circle, through which I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with Sean K Murphy.

On Lean Startup Circle, a forum for entrepreneurs applying the lean methodology, I posted about struggling with getting referrals from interviewees. Sean took the initiative to write me this email:

“My sense is from your answers is that you are clear on your needs but may not be doing enough to provide some assistance to the folks that you are interviewing. One reason that folks may not be referring is that the interview was not as pleasant or comfortable a conversation as they were expecting, another might be that you didn’t offer them any practical suggestions for addressing their need beyond “wait until I launch my service.” But in both cases I am speculating. One way to check this would be to have a second person on the interview from your side to listen, take notes,  and de-brief with you afterwards. If you have a co-founder or an advisor it’s reasonable to ask for their help on this.

“Although it’s not a B2B offering there are a few suggestions from that are relevant because these interviews are expensive to arrange (at least at the moment) and you are looking for referrals.

“To boost your introduction/referral rate, close the interview with three requests:

  • “Ask if there are folks they could recommend you can talk to, if they say yes or “let me see” send them a brief e-mail they can forward that introduces your project and outlines specifically the boundaries of the ask:
    • we are interested in interviewing … list selection criteria so that they can self-qualify, more specific is better
    • ten minutes on the phone to cover these three questions (list questions)
  • “Ask if you can follow up in a few days with an e-mail outlining specifically what you learned from them and ask them to clarify if you misunderstood anything. Then do so. You can include a sentence “if you know anyone else facing <challenge> who is <criteria> please let me know, we would like to interview them.”
  • “Ask if you can keep them apprised of what you learn in a general sense and e-mail them every four to six weeks with an update, include practical tips and other suggestions relevant to the problem for your target customer without constraining them to specific features or aspects of your contemplated offering. It’s better if they are complementary. You can include a sentence “if you know anyone else facing <challenge> who is <criteria> please let me know, we would like to interview them.”

“Your service won’t be the only solution that your customers consider or even use to address  their need. It’s better to understand the overall environment  you are going to need to interoperate in and to stress a commitment to helping them solve the problem regardless of whether they decide to try your service. If you can blog about the challenges, and collect other good blog posts and articles you can point them to, this can act as a  partial compensation for their time and may be more effective than trying to pay them for their time. Relevant advice and information does not create a perverse incentive that someone is talking to you to make $10 and not to address a need that your solution is targeting.

Please let us know how it goes.

Sean Murphy ”

When I asked:

” That’s an interesting idea, but I wonder how you’d implement for a dating startup. People are sensitive about their answers and want confidentiality. So while I can send an individual email 30 times, as I interview more people, this gets less manageable, no? Suppose I get to 100, 200 interviews… And if it’s not personalized beyond the first name, I get an issue where people may feel I’m sharing what they said with everyone else. “

Sean again generously took of his time to help and elaborated:

“[Share with your interviewees:]

“- trends
– common problems
– useful tips or resources for addressing the need now / in advance of your offering

” Share with them what you have learned at a high level.
See if it resonates or contradicts their experience. Ask them to suggest other people you can talk to to gather more data / confirm / disprove.”

I was also curious about whether Sean would make this a primary benefit/reason to speak to me, as I wrote: Would you offer this up front or just mention it as a btw, here’s a nice side-benefit of talking to me?

Sean: “I would send them a  sample up front, if you are serious about solving a real problem there should be other people writing about it.
One indicator that you have hit a real need is that prospects will accept partial or incomplete solutions.
If someone says I won’t switch to your product until it’s perfect or better than what I have they are relatively satisfied with what they are doing now.


BTW guys, Sean also mentioned that “I help businesses with this issue on a formal basis so always happy to talk to firms with this challenge.” Visit his site at

Posted in Business.

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