This is the companion blog to this post which gives an overview of the NSF I-Corps program and the dynamics therein.
The 100 Interviews
You will soon discover that doing interviews is a HUGE part of the I-Corps experience. In fact most people hear about this aspect of the program long before they apply for the funding. Given that interviews are so essential to the I-Corps program you must become adept at talking to people preferably in person. This can be daunting to those who might not generally be fond of social interaction but it’s a must if you are to succeed in this program. Your team mentor should be able to provide names from his or her rolodex but you should always be on the lookout for someone to interview since the course is only 7 weeks long and it is expected that you will have at least 100 by the conclusion. Preferably you should accumulate these at the rate of 15 per week to keep an even pace. I thought I would offer some detailed comments on this phase of the program so you can see how one might approach getting the 100 minimum interviews.
Do they really mean 100 ?
They mean AT LEAST 100 and that number is firm. Obviously some weeks will be drier than others in terms of numbers but they really mean 100 interviews ! The first week is the toughest since you are at the Workshop that has obligations into the evening which cuts into your time for getting interviews. So some teams turn in only a few. The instructors will drill into you incessantly about upping the number which adds to the stress of what is already a pretty intense experience. We were able to leverage contacts in the Bay Area to get about 12 before the opening workshop had concluded. Not all teams did as well and it wasn’t because they were unmotivated or lazy – just that their customer segment didn’t have a lot of representatives in the area or making contact at short notice (like with physicians) was difficult. This is why it’s important to have these interviews lined up in advance before you arrive on site for the Workshop.
Business to Customer ?
The approach you employ to get interviews is contingent upon the nature of your technology in that if you have a “B2C” Business to Customer solution then you don’t necessarily need high tech interview candidates – you can simply engage laymen who might have an interest in your technology. For example, in my cohort there was a team with a solution to snoring and they were able to get over 50 interviews in one day just by setting up in a busy area and asking couples if they could spare a few minutes to talk about snoring. This might be the same with exercise or stress reduction technologies you are considering to commercialize. However, if your technology appears to relate to niche customer segments then it can be challenging to find the right people though this is part of the process and also why I think conferences and trade shows are the best approach.
Beware the Changing Customer Segments
It is to be expected that your previously held assumptions about who your customer segments are/were will change each week – sometimes many times within in a given week. As an example, our team believed that the university research market was solid but we found out that it isn’t except as a trainer/feeder market into drug discovery and later companion diagnostics (a hypothesis which is still under consideration). So while we did interview lots of researchers we came to understand that we would have to look much more broadly to get the perspective we needed to better identify and define more lucrative customer segments. This meant doubling down on interview efforts and led to lots of anxious moments about who we were going to contact and how we would get in front of them. Any I-Corps team can tell you about this problem. You thought you had the 100 interviews in the bag ? Guess again – one or more of your customer segments just pulled out on you or the teaching team challenged you so you have to move into uncharted territory. The good news is that you will have lots of company.
Attend Conferences !!
In my opinion this is the best way to get interviews. Actually you could (and probably should) plan the selection of your I-Corps Cohort around conference season relative to your technology. Some industries are “conference heavy” in the Fall whereas others are more abundant in the Spring with the latter months of the Summer being less popular. I’m making an assumption that your anticipated customer segment demographic does attend conferences and trade shows but you will have to make that determination. Keep in mind that if you do attend a conference and rack up a bunch of interviews that you will also still be on the hook for presenting at your weekly WebEx conference so make sure you have plenty of time to develop your presentation, upload it, and get online for the required 1.5 hours. Most Hotels have decent enough internet but you need to make sure that your connectivity is good.
Make friends with your departmental travel representative since you will be going on the road and will need to make reservations and arrange for reimbursement. By the time I was done with the 7 weeks I was an expert at using my institution’s travel reservation services and submitting expense reports. Also remember to schedule your conference travel earlier in the program as by week 6 you will need to start developing your “lessons learned” draft video and making plans for the closing workshop. I started conference travel in the 2nd week of the program and by Week 5 had been to 3 different conferences which yielded plenty of interviews. I had considered going to another conference but was able to get enough interviews locally to make the quota with room to spare.
How to Proceed at Conferences
It’s better to go to conferences with a team member who can help you cover more ground. For example if you have a Co-EL then you should be able to get lots of interviews. I went by myself to two conferences and got about 21 interviews at each so imagine how many you could get with two people ? Don’t go to the conferences with the idea of actually attending it in the traditional sense. You are there to do interviews – not to sit in presentations except perhaps as a means to identify people who might be interesting to interview. Scan the bios and job descriptions listed in the conference attendee list and try to prearrange a meeting. Even so I had better success just approaching people at breaks, poster sessions, end-of-day receptions, and in the vendor exhibits which are also great since they might be your competition, potential partner, or even customer. In fact some of the best advice and input I received came from vendors.
If the conference starts at 8 then be there at 7:15 to catch the early birds (they are always there). Also, if possible show up one day early to the conference especially if there are pre conference training sessions. Most people are bored and will be happy to talk. Of course the after hours social events sponsored by the conference are also excellent ways to get an interview. I walked into the hotel bar with my conference badge and people started talking to me. The idea is to start a conversation – don’t launch into a robotic recitation of “Hi I’m conducting customer discover – could I ask you some questions”. I found that that approach didn’t work so well. Your mileage may vary.
Keep in mind that initiating a technical or industry-specific conversation at a conference is entirely reasonable and expected which is precisely why the conferences are great for interviews. In our case we were trying to figure out the pain-points of those engaged with large scale Next Generation Sequencing analysis so I stood next to a poster that dealt with this topic and started a conversation with people who approached – “Do you deal a lot with NGS data ?” After that I just let the conversation flow. Not every conversation represented an interview but most did. Remember that most people will gladly tell you their problems so make sure to let them do most of the talking. If you are making notes in a laptop or a tablet just politely inform them that you are funded by the NSF to do some customer discovery. No one had a problem with me doing that. After about 25 or so interviews I got pretty good at listening to their comments and identifying only the “good stuff” which I logged into my notes after the conversation had ended. This way I didn’t have to type as I listened which made the conversation more natural and flowing.
Email – Brute Force Methods Work
Sending out lots of emails and invite requests to people will work as long as you do so respectfully. I found it useful to emphasize in my email that I was funded by the NSF I-Corps program to perform discovery and that I was NOT a salesperson. That seems to be everyone’s major concern – that you are just a sales person trying to find an angle. I dispatched 125 requests over the 7 weeks and got perhaps 40 responses from which I got about 22-25 interviews. My team members got an additional 15-20 interviews so that combined with the conference interviews totaled 120 by the 7 week mark. See what I mean ? I just ended the program and I’m still getting responses from people who are just now in a position to do an interview. I had an odd experience in that my email to one company contained a typo wherein I had accidentally referenced the NSA instead of the NSF and the company president responded by referring me to their lawyers !
I’m not a fan of LinkedIn so this section will be short. I got maybe 5 interviews out of this medium but others in my cohort knew better how to “work” LinkedIn and were expert at connecting in a way that yielded lots of interviews. I’m pretty sure that I-Corps will pay for a temporary upgrade to the higher levels of LinkedIn membership which will allegedly give you the ability to send more “In Mails” and view more distant connections. So if you are a social media expert then maybe this would be a good angle to pursue.
This can be a great way to get some interviews especially if your technology coincides with an existing Meetup group. The trouble I find with Meetups is that many groups aren’t active so always make sure to check their events calendar to insure that a meeting hasn’t gone stale. I was able to attend a couple and conduct some interviews but because what my team was looking for was a bit specialized it didn’t turn out to be a big win. I did consider creating a Meetup for Next Generation Sequencing Analysis just to see if anyone would join the group after which I would schedule a meeting a nearby bar. It costs some money to create the group and if you get lots of responses then it might work. You are in effect creating your own focus group solely for the purpose of getting interviews.
In The End ?
We presented at the closing workshop that we were a “No Go” which means that we are not moving forward with starting a company within the next 3-6 months. It was only very late in the program that we found what we believe to be a reasonable customer segment though that itself is a hypothesis that we have to (in)validate before we pursue incorporation. We’ve also been approached by some of the companies we interviewed to explore the possibility of a partnership so it’s not as if we are slowing down our efforts at this point. Had we not done all of those interviews we would not have made these contacts or be signing NDAs to pursue more discussions. This has been a great experience overall. It is time consuming so make sure you pursue it when you don’t have teaching duties or other involved obligations. But I think you will be pleased with the result.