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October 18, 2021 | Tom Ballard

Participants in “I-Corps South Regional Fall 2021 Cohort” scheduling customer discover conversations

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

“Customer discovery applies across the board,” Shawn Carson reminded participants in Friday’s first session in the “I-Corps South Regional Fall 2021 Cohort.” The in-person portion of the workshop originated from the Haslam College of Business at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK) with the majority of the attendees joining via Zoom.

Carson, pictured right in a screenshot from Friday, is well-known in the region for his ability to teach entrepreneurship and is now a Lecturer in the College. He led the discussion that kicked-off the three-part series that focused mainly on the very important matter of customer discovery which is a key focus of the “I-Corps” process. An additional session is scheduled for October 29 before the participants report out in the finale on November 5 where they will discuss the minimum 20 conversations they’ve had with prospective customers and the way that those discussions have impacted their start-up plans.

Attendees came from UTK as well as Clemson, North Carolina A&T, Florida Atlantic University, and Vanderbilt. Forty-five pre-registered, representing 18 different teams. In the end, only 13 pitched their initial ideas.

In kicking-off Friday’s session, Carson said, “I-Corps is all about a reset of your thinking from developing your technology to meeting a customer need.” Later, he reinforced the point, explaining that “you can’t do customer discovery on the internet. The only way you can do this is to talk to people. You’re creating experiments around your value proposition.”

Through his active engagement with participants and drawing on his own experiences with customer discovery, Carson offered the following key points:

  • He said customer discovery is about “FIT” – identifying a viable solution to a real problem.
  • The process can help with the proverbial entrepreneurial adage of failing fast. “It’s better to be wrong before you spend time and money. If you’re wrong, you can pivot.”
  • People will tell you what they want until you ask them what they will buy.
  • The value proposition is about the “benefits a customer receives from a product or service, based on a validated business thesis and resulting in a minimally viable product (MVP).”
  • Don’t try to pack your technology with every feature a customer might want. “That’s not the goal.” Instead, it is to validate the MVP that has the minimum set of features that solve a customer’s basic needs and can be tested quickly and cheaply.
  • There are three customer types – the decisionmaker, the end user and the influencer. If the first and third are the same person, that’s great, but it is not usually the case.

Carson said the ideal customer is someone who has a problem, knows it, has the means to fix it, and has already tried and failed.

The first hour of Friday’s nearly three-hour session was devoted to short pitches by the 13 individuals, almost equally divided between those attending in-person and those joining by Zoom. The ideas were also very diverse, starting with Alex Stiles (pictured left), a student in UTK’s Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education, who talked about using recycled glass for 3D applications in the aerospace industry. Other presenters included individuals who have been spotlighted previously on – Allison Campbell of Fluffy Friends for Children with Chronic Conditions and Trevor McQueen of Neptune Fluid Flow Systems LLC – along with two participants from the most recent UTK “Vol Court Speaker Series and Pitch Competition” (Alex Weber of D3D VR Studios and Tihomir Nikolic of BusiCard) and a mix of students and at least one UTK faculty member.

After each pitch, four people from the UT Research Foundation (UTRF) questioned the presenters, honing in on the value proposition and customer that would make the “buy” decision. They were UTRF Vice President Maha Krishnamurthy (back row), Technology Manager Kusum Rathore (left), Associate Technology Manager Gregory Sechrist (right), and Assistant Commercialization Manager Robyn Geron (center). Participants are expected to have two conversations with one of the Technology Managers or Carson over the next two weeks.


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