The room was busy, but certainly not crowded. There were enough gaps in between the groups of people that I knew if I stood there in the doorway much longer, people would surely realize I had no one to talk to, that I didn't know anyone. That fear set in. The paralyzing gut-clench signifying I was in the self-conscious beginnings of an embarrassing moment.
Maybe you're one of those lucky souls who have no idea what I'm talking about. Maybe you're someone who is completely at ease in a crowd of strangers, moving from unknown people to new friends without a second thought. But if I was to guess, most people (this is not scientific, just an assumption-invalidate it if you must) feel that acrid sweat of nerves come over them at this point when you must make those first steps towards talking with a new group of people. You try to think of some quick starting lines that will break the ice; something genuine that you hope will be returned with a likewise heartfelt response. For most of us, it's not the conversation that we have a problem with. We're well adjusted, pretty normal people who can carry on the follow-up questions and wit stained replies. It all lies in that opening sentence. Will this person accept my proposal of communication?
These past days I sat in on Steve Blank's Lean LaunchPad educators class in Palo Alto, California, learning the ins and outs of customer development methodology, and how teachers around the country were facilitating this idea. For those who aren't familiar with this subject, it's the idea that in order to launch a sustainable business or startup, you need to get out of the building and interact with your customers in order to prove or disprove the assumptions you've made about who they are and/or what pains they have that your company can solve. Students are asked to do countless interviews with what they think are their preferred customers. In talking with these "customers" students learn whether their assumptions about what their customers want from a product or service is actually the reality. There were countless issues discussed during the course, but the educators kept coming back to the largest problem they encountered with their students-getting them out of the building.
Sometimes students would come back having done little to no interviews. These groups weren't allowed to present that week, because they couldn't comply with the simplest direction: Get out there. Students suffered from nerves during cold calls. They didn't know how to go up to people and start a conversation that produced the answers they needed. Teachers told stories over and over of students lacking the confidence to validate their hypothesis.
So it's not just me. Others suffer from the same lack of courage in this area as well. When I started in this area of entrepreneurship nine months ago, I experienced the same timidity and anxiety about getting out of the building and meeting entrepreneurs, and it was a requirement of my job. Without talking to entrepreneurs and discovering their pain points, how could I ever know about entrepreneurship in its entirety? I needed to find out how I could best help them, and what things they really needed to make their businesses thrive. Just as those approaching their startup through the Lean LaunchPad method needed to find their customers pains in order to help them, I had to be able to talk to entrepreneurs in order to know how to energize and assist the entrepreneurial community.
It wasn't easy. I started with the jargon. At least being able to relate to the vocabulary could keep me going in a conversation for a little bit. "VC funding is not as common as you would think," and "bootstrapping is how the majority of startups begin" were enough to keep people believing I had some credibility. But slowly and surely I found myself interacting with my prospective "customers" more and more. Getting out of the building, or in my case, my own head, and just asking people questions provided me more insight and knowledge about entrepreneurship than sitting at my computer doing hours of research would. I realized my ideas or assumptions about entrepreneurs-people with money searching for their next big idea to jump on and invest in or hackers in hoodies coding the next Facebook-were based on...well, to be honest, I have no idea what they were based on, probably things seen in movies or TV.
Getting out of the building isn't easy. For most people, doing research, tinkering with code or making business plans is what feels comfortable, but these things alone cannot launch a business. Or personify what entrepreneurship is. It is only after interacting with your target market, whether it's customers or other entrepreneurs that you can find a pain to solve.
I still get that gut-clenching feeling standing in a room of people I don't know. I probably always will. But now I know my interactions will lead me closer to aiding entrepreneurs. This is doubly true for founders. A startup cannot definitively say their product or service is solving a problem until they get out of the building, or out of the lab or out of their house...and ask someone.