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October 13, 2019 | Tom Ballard

I-Corps South second week check-in on customer discovery findings provides useful insights for entrepreneurs

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

With the exception of one person, all of the entrepreneurial teams participating in the latest cohort of I-Corps South had completed an average of five customer discovery conversations at the midway point of the two-week program when they had to report at a meeting Thursday afternoon.

Ten different teams, some supported by students from the Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education at the University of Tennessee (UT), Knoxville, provided updates with one entrepreneur saying he had completed about 15 conversations with prospective customers.

We attended the feedback session for two reasons. First, we were interested in what the entrepreneurs – some seasoned, some part of Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s “Innovation Crossroads” program, and many still in college – had learned. Second, we thought their insights on the all-important customer discovery process and the accompanying feedback they received from mentors in the room would be insightful for our subscribers.

To refresh readers’ understanding, the I-Corps South program is a collaborative effort between the UT Research Foundation and UT Knoxville’s Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (ACEI). Offered at least annually, it is designed to equip researchers and entrepreneurs with the tools to validate the value proposition around their ideas from the perspective of potential customers.

The interviews that I-Corps South participants must undertake during the two weeks are intended to help answer the question, “Does this idea meet a need so people will buy it?” It might be a great idea but, if the product does not meet a market need, a pivot is needed to make it viable or the idea should be canned.

ACEI’s Shawn Carson is the lead instructor, and he ran the feedback session with support from mentors who included Maha Krishnamurthy of the UT Research Foundation, ACEI’s John Bruck, Tom Rogers of the UT Research Park, Dennis Corley of Three Roots Capital, and Haseeb Qureshi of the Morehous Legal Group.

So, what ideas did we glean that those who are not participating in I-Corps South might use in their own customer discovery efforts?

  • One participant said cold calling worked well, noting, “They tell me everything they know.”
  • Several sent blind emails and a list of questions they want to ask in advance. That approach prompted a reminder that Q&A is not a one-way exercise. Those asking the questions need to be prepared to receive and answer questions from those they are interviewing.
  • One of the Bredesen Center students who was helping an established start-up on its customer discovery activities noted that telling someone you are a student seems to open doors, particularly if the email is sent from an edu account.
  • When one person reported conducting interviews with competitors for the proposed product, Carson observed, “That’s gutsy!”
  • Another participant was using the customer discovery exercise to explore a shift in how his technology might be deployed, only to find that those surveyed thus far prefer the original idea.
  • Several noted that new or slightly different opportunities for their technologies had emerged as a result of the feedback from potential customers. In some cases, it was a refinement or tighter focus on a subset of the potential customer base; in others, it was an entirely different segment.
  • One participant found different market opportunities based on the age of those being interviewed, something that his team had not anticipated.
  • Finally, one used LinkedIn to identify specific individuals in companies she wanted to interview.

The participants also heard a brief presentation by Krishnamurthy on the “Business Model Canvass.” In her comments, she reminded the participants that “the heart of any business model is the value proposition. Why does anyone care? If you cannot write it down in one sentence, you do not know your customer.”

The fall edition of I-Corps South wraps-up Thursday.

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