Startup explorations #5 / Customer discovery: Further thoughts and first insights

January 12, 2021

In a previous post, I wrote about beginning to do customer discovery. Again, I note that I scraped together an education in this process by reading a few articles; in the future, I would love to see how a real professional conducts these interviews. This is a challenging step in the ideation process. I'd much rather skip all of it and go straight to building—however, in the end, it is well worth knowing that you're working off of hard-earned data from real people, rather than just going off of assumptions and what?—Reddit? At any rate, in real life, we learn the skills we need to learn by doing. I'm very sure I'll be doing more of these in the future, and that I'll also learn as I go.

In this first round, I interviewed ten people. I used a combination of video calls, phone calls, and email. Calls are probably the best by default: it's easier to ask follow-up questions and dig for more detail; but if you're not careful, it's also very easy to get derailed. However, I did not truly see a difference in the quality of responses I got between phone and email, but this is probably because I knew everybody I was interviewing to some degree. These are all people in an industry that I know well; I had a good context for each of them. I knew who would be thoughtful in writing, and who would be better off speaking spontaneously. In my non-expert opinion, it's more important than any particular medium that your prospective customer is comfortable with that medium.

I also had a good idea of the kind of people I wanted to talk to. I went with a variety of creators, mostly but not limited to musicians. What they all have in common is that 1) they are all independent as artists, that is, not under professional management (whether they work non-creative day jobs or not); 2) are actively performing, producing content, or otherwise making a discernible effort; and 3) have the ultimate goal of working full-time as artists. Furthermore, all might be described as squarely "middle class" in terms of the creative economy—that is, they are not "stars" even though they are all very highly skilled and credentialed.

The following are some preliminary insights I've gleaned from these interviews as a whole:

1. Separation of concerns between building a following and converting it to an income. These are quite different tasks—the first one does not necessarily lead to the second, although it enables it, and some of the skills required of both overlap. At this time, I'm more interested in the first.

2. Clarifying following or audience. I observe two different senses in which these words are used. Nowadays when social media is ubiquitous, a following or audience is usually seen in terms of a number of followers or subscribers in any of the common platforms: YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, etc. There is usually a large component of strangers, or people an artist encounters online by chance. The main problem is that a large number of followers does not necessarily translate smoothly into an income. Rather, what it truly provides is a powerful kind of social validation, as well as a way to extend one's reach beyond personal contacts.

In my observation, a smaller number of artists are rather suspicious of social media and don't really bother much with them beyond casual personal use. Instead, they define their audience in terms of personal contacts which they build organically and over time. Usually this applies more to performers where "work" is much more defined—for example, an organization hires you for a specific one-time or short-term job. This kind of audience or following is not necessarily measured by headcount, but by reliability with regard to finding and securing work. The upside is that these relationships tend to be of a high quality. The downside is readily seen during times of disruption, such as the current coronavirus pandemic, when work dries up and an artist suddenly finds that their means to expand their reach are limited without social media.

3. Instagram is very popular. By far, nearly all of the people I interviewed favor Instagram, or otherwise are planning to use it more actively. Instagram is much more outward-facing than Facebook, more focused than YouTube, and it lends itself well to spontaneous connection with strangers. The concept is also very simple and the app is very easy to use. Among my interviewees, the one who has the most experience with Instagram also had the most to complain about: the app has changed a lot over the years, and has become much more unfocused. It has a lot more new features now, and continues to grow far beyond what it was originally intended to be. So it is going the way of Facebook (which acquired it many years back) in some ways; one no longer gets the sense that they are getting authentic updates from their friends and contacts, but rather just targeted content designed to get clicks.

4. The available tools are fine, but require initiative. Of course, this is true with anything in life. Many artists see the work it takes to build a following as a chore—it consumes a lot of time, and also most artists are not really trained to be businesspeople. They are unable to think of their audiences as customers. But no one tool can really do all the work of building someone else's following. Instead, I think we have to think of facilitating the process instead, and making it a little smoother where we can. That said, there are some artists who do enjoy the business aspect of things—such as data analytics, coming up with strategies, etc.—even though it is only a secondary interest next to creating. How can we make all of it more interesting and encouraging to the average artist?

5. By far, the one thing most artists really want is more time to create. Related to the previous point, this is pretty consistent across everyone I spoke with. Time spent promoting work or doing business tasks means less time creating. Creating art or producing content in itself takes enormous time and is often not very efficient. No work is ever really "finished." But to an artist, creating is the whole point of anything—many dream simply of the freedom to pursue and hone their craft, not necessarily to become wealthy or famous, but to inspire, connect, and cultivate good relationships with others.

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