In the previous part, we highlighted why you need to make sure the problem your B2B startup wants to solve truly exists, and it’s important enough for potential investment. We collected the first four steps of validation: defining the problem, listing potential market segments, deciding which segment to start with, and finding subjects for the interview. (If you haven’t read our previous article yet, we recommend starting there.) Now, it’s time to put together, conduct and analyze the interview.
Step 5: Prepare for and Conduct the Interview
When you’ve collected your interviewees and set the date for the first round of interviews, you can concentrate on the questions. Validating your problem needs to be kept in focus. Forget about promoting your future startup or collecting leads at this stage. If you don’t do so, you might end up with a falsely-confirmed hypothesis.
This means, in addition to what you ask, it also matters how, when and why you ask it.
Build Up the Interview
Pose and organize your questions without hinting at what you hope to hear. The most important rule is to refrain from mentioning your hypothesis problem at the beginning of the interview. Instead, charting the business challenges in general is a better start. For example, you may ask your interviewees to list the pain points that impede them the most in their work. It’s crucial to evoke succinct responses without getting lost in details; as you have limited time for discussion.
If they don’t mention anything related to your hypothesis problem, you may direct attention towards the area you are more interested in without mentioning anything specific about the suspected problem. For instance, in case you are eager to learn if companies struggle to recruit members of Generation Y and Z, you can ask whether the company has any HR-related difficulties. Later on, you can be more and more specific. If nothing close to your problem is mentioned in response to the first, second, or maybe third, broader questions, it’s likely that your interviewee doesn’t experience the problem you want to solve at all, or it isn’t high priority enough.
You can address your hypothesis problem more directly at the end of the interview to learn why it didn’t make it to the top-priority issues. It might turn out that the company already uses a solution that helps them recruit younger generations, so you face a strong competition if you stick to your idea. It’s possible they outsourced recruitment, so another sector might struggle with your hypothesis problem. Maybe, this segment has ample applicants, and you need to look for a more shorthanded segment. Either way, you can start the next round of interviews (likely with another segment) armed with extra insight.
However, if you are lucky enough that your interviewee mentions something related to your hypothesis problem, ask them to talk about it. In our example above, relating to the validation of generation specific ATS, the sign you are looking for might be a remark on the shortage of employees in general. Similarly, dissatisfaction with the skills and knowledge of the newly recruited staff, or lack of reliable professionals can be your clue. If you request your interviewee to expand on the subject without mentioning the problem you hope to solve, you have a better chance to explore what is behind the symptoms.
If your interviewee indicates the existence of your hypothesis problem, you don’t need to avoid mentioning it any more. You can freely ask further details about the pain point to learn how they’ve tried to solve the problem, what the challenges are to address in a new solution, and what the special circumstances and demands are relevant to your proposed product or service.
The exact questions vary depending on your topic, therefore we can’t provide you with a ready-made script. You can gain some inspiration from the samples assembled by Customer Development Labs. Nevertheless, it’s vital not to look at the collected questions as a rigid script. Use it as an aid instead, a cheat-sheet if you will; be attentive and pose your questions in response to what you hear.
Be Careful How You Ask
You also need to be careful not to influence your interviewees and inadvertently nudge them into an answer you wish to hear. Loose or unobservant formulation of questions could impact the reliability of responses as much as stating your hypothesis too early.
Avoid loaded questions; don’t use emotionally charged adjectives (neither negative, nor positive ones). For instance, if you ask your interviewee to talk about the long and painstaking recruitment process (especially if these modifiers haven’t been used in this context by them already), you assume that recruitment can only be a struggle. Consequently, your interviewee will automatically search for weak points. Instead, you could ask for their experience with the recruitment process at their company and its throughput.
Don’t let any presuppositions get the best of your interview, stay away from leading questions. You may induce an answer that doesn’t fully reflect the reality if you are not careful enough. For example, if a graphic designer has mentioned having experience with cooperative design platforms, it does matter how you request more information on the subject. If you ask what the problem with them was, your interviewee will attempt to collect all the drawbacks for you even if they find it insignificant. As a result, you won’t learn the overall experience. If you simply ask them about their experience with the platform, you’ll end up with a clearer picture.
Hypothetical questions aren’t your friends either, as you can only receive assumptions in response. That’s why you should resist the urge to ask if your interviewee would use your solution. For a less obvious example, let’s revisit the software solution envisioned in our latest article, the one aiming to help small businesses apply together to new, grander projects. In this case, there’s no point asking whether applying together with other small businesses would eliminate all obstacles in acquiring new projects. The responder simply can’t know the answer. Instead of the conditional, explore their experience. For example, this question supports your goals more: have you ever had to decide against applying to a project because your company could fulfill only part of the tasks?
Decide on the Circumstances
Not only the questions, but the circumstances of the interview require fine-tuning. Planning the right channel, length, and other details is a play with compromises. Generally speaking, the more information you can gain with the interview, the less enthusiastic your interviewees will likely be about the circumstances.
Let’s start with the channel. As personal meetings are usually more time consuming, people are likely to offer other means of communication. Be that as it may, this is an aspect that is least up for negotiation. Meeting in person is essential to observe the facial expressions and gestures. These elements of live conversation enable you to chart how your interviewee feels about the topic. In addition, it helps create the atmosphere for an in-depth and more interactive conversation, so you may learn more valuable information.
However, it’s possible that distance precludes personal meetings. If you want to talk to representatives of your chosen sector from another continent, video chat is a reasonable compromise. But you may not want to settle on anything less personal than that. Even in case of phone calls, you don’t have the chance to experience non-verbal communication components, and it can’t create the same air of confidence.
Sending your questions in email is absolutely off the table, even if you received a desperate amount of rejections for a personal interview. Simply, it cannot provide you with reliable results. Partly, because you wouldn’t work with a rigid script in an interview but react to what you hear; email completely nullifies this approach. Not much can be gleaned about your interviewee’s emotions on the topic, either. Reading through the questionnaire will give your hypothesis problem away.
Another thing to consider is recording the conversation. In the often-referred Bram Krommenhoek article, recording is brought up as a must rather than an option. Nonetheless, it’s better to think through the pros and cons. If you record the conversation, you don’t need to digest and analyze all the information on the spot; and you don’t need to rely on your first impressions that much. You can also spend less time taking notes and focus more on being present in the conversation, while you can pay more attention to nonverbal communication.
However, recording is a sensitive topic and many reject it; and of course without clear permission recording the conversation is out of the question. You need to decide if sticking to it is worth losing potential interviewees. Besides, some people feel uncomfortable around any recording device, which can influence the quality of the conversation. That’s why you may want to judge this question based on your competencies and the interviewee’s attitude. (Consider here your multitasking abilities, if you can take notes and pay attention at the same time, and if you can focus on the most important information immediately, etc.)
Another important aspect requiring compromises is the length of the interview. You need to estimate the time slot in advance to be able to arrange a meeting. You need enough time to get all the essential information, while your interviewee is likely too busy to devote a lot of time for a meeting. Approximately you have a lunch-break-length of time to work with. Half an hour is the minimum threshold worth considering, while professionals are usually unlikely to have more than an hour to spare for the interview.
Step 6: Analyze the Interview
After conducting the interview, the main question is what light it sheds on your hypothesis problem. Your hypothesis problem can safely be considered validated when at least 60% of the interviews indicate it’s a top priority problem.
Mentioning the Problem
There are several signs you can look for to determine how significant the problem is for your interviewee. The most important sign is, though, if it gets mentioned by the interviewee and if yes, when. It’s especially a good sign if it pops up as early as the first two questions, when you attempt to chart your interviewee’s more general professional challenges. If your interviewee confirms the existence of the problem only after you’ve considerably narrowed the topic down, it’s unlikely to be significant enough to be invested in.
The emotions evoked by the problem are also quite telling. It’s beneficial for you if your interviewee talks a lot about the problem without pressing them to do so; and uses a lot of negative adjectives when depicting the problem. Changes in nonverbal communications also signal involvement: more vivid gesticulating when the problem is in focus implies conviction to what’s being said. Similarly, leaning forward or a more open posture hints that you’ve caught your interviewee’s attention.
Seeking a Solution
Bram Krommenhoek lists one more strong hint you can look for. A sign of willingness to invest is when your interviewee talks about time and energy spent on finding a solution; maybe they’ve even put together something in house to ease the struggle. Even though the referred article doesn’t highlight it, it’s also essential that the in-house solution is addressed with dismay instead of satisfaction. In this way, the demand for the solution/service of your future startup is preserved.
The lack of the above signs means that the problem you discovered is not high priority enough for the interviewed market segment. No worries, you may continue the validation process with the next segment on your list. It’s still not the end of the world if none of the segments shows strong interest. You accumulated enough information during the interviews to know which problems really bother your favorite sectors the most, and what solutions are worth creating.
However, if the interviews have confirmed that your hypothesis problem not only exists but it’s also a top priority for a segment, it’s time to turn your attention towards the solution. We will discuss the journey leading to a viable solution, to investors and to the market in our upcoming articles.
If you’ve already validated your problem and it’s time to work on your solution in form of an MVP, check out our services or contact us.
ATS (Applicant Tracking System): A software system aiding the recruitment process.
B2B (Business-to-Business): This is a business model where a business sells its products and/or services to other businesses.
Startup: A privately held micro or small business with a high growth potential aiming to reach huge (commonly) international market in the foreseeable future and to evolve into a big corporation.