Launching your startup: The power of user testing

Are you an aspiring entrepreneur looking to navigate the complex world of startups? Maybe you're already on your path to entrepreneurship and seeking guidance to propel your startup to success. In either case, understanding the importance of human-centered principles can be the key to unlocking your startup's full potential.

Paul Cheek, the Executive Director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, embodies this philosophy through his extensive experience as an entrepreneur and educator. And better yet, this concept is captured in his book, Disciplined Entrepreneurship: Startup Tactics.

Paul’s book features 15 tactics that every entrepreneur needs to be familiar with, covering topics like goal setting, market testing, product development, and resource acquisition.

His focus on human-centered principles led Paul to Lyssna as a tool for conducting research and testing. We sat down with Paul to chat about what he’s learned as an entrepreneur, and the importance of user testing

Below, we share some of the key takeaways from our conversation, including Paul’s valuable insights and actionable tactics aimed at transforming your great idea into a functional, funded, and staffed startup.

How to start a startup

1. Understand who the customer is

This is a fundamental concept when it comes to any business, regardless of whether you’re an entrepreneur, a CEO in a large organization, or you’re just starting out. It all boils down to the simple question: Who is the customer? 

“I don't think enough people ask who the customer is,” shares Paul. “And not merely in terms of who will pay for our product or service, but who are we genuinely creating value for?”

It's about delving deeper into understanding their values, motivations, fears, and needs as individuals. As Paul continues, “All these sorts of things help us get to know them as people. If we understand them as people, we can make much better decisions about how to build our business, our products, and how to reach them and make sure we're able to create that value for them.”

This shift of focus from product-centricity to human-centricity is paramount for creating businesses that resonate with people. “If we make decisions based on what they care about, we're going to be able to serve them better. That business continues to grow and grow,” Paul adds. 

“‘Who is the customer?’ is the most fundamental question that we can ask, and we need to have a really good, really specific answer to that question.”

Paul Cheek

Executive Director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship

2. Start research as early as possible

Paul highlights a common misconception among entrepreneurs, which is the belief that they should build a product first and then conduct user research and testing later. He stresses that you should conduct research early in the product development process. 

Rather than assuming what users want and building a product based on those assumptions, he advocates for engaging with real people early on. Paul emphasizes, “We need to get to know our end users first. Do that early primary market research with real people, real potential customers.” 

He shares a simple process, where you sketch your idea or concept, then share it with some of your target users to get initial feedback. Then create a second version of that sketch, share that back with your target users, get their feedback, and then create a third version. This is a simple, fast, and cost-effective way to gather feedback before investing in product development.

“Once you start to actually build a real product, making any change that takes you off course is going to be way more expensive in terms of time and money, which I believe to be an entrepreneur's two most precious resources – time and money.”

Paul continues, “Instead, we can bake user research or primary market research throughout this process of formulating what this product will actually look like, and we're going to be way more effective because we're using our resources efficiently as an entrepreneur.”

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3. Conduct continuous research

Research isn’t a one-time task but a continuous journey of learning and adaptation. Even after launching a product, staying connected with your users and gathering feedback remains essential for refining and improving it further.

“The day you stop doing research is the day the business starts to fall apart, because you're no longer creating something new. You're no longer responding to what the customer wants or needs. You start to die as a business. And we've got to keep moving past that. We have to keep innovating.”

Paul emphasizes that successful entrepreneurship is about putting people first. By prioritizing people and integrating user research into every stage of the process, entrepreneurs can create products that not only meet market demands but also genuinely enrich the lives of their users. 

“I believe that user testing is one of the most important things we can do to achieve this.”

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This is where Paul suggests leveraging tools like Lyssna to gather actionable data at every stage of the product development process. This continuous testing mindset is essential for maximizing the chances of success and mitigating the risks associated with startup ventures.

“I wanted to make sure that readers of the book were aware of Lyssna as a tool that they can leverage to take this systematic, data-driven approach to validate what they believe to be true is actually true. And in most cases, it's not, and that's why this is so important.”

Paul adds, “Once you get further along in the entrepreneurial process and you've got your product, it’s critical to test on a continual basis. Not just the first version of the product, but down the road, as you're rolling out new features and functionality.

“As the business evolves, we encourage entrepreneurs to always be testing.”

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4. Find and serve your target customer segment

Based on Paul’s experience in teaching entrepreneurial skills, he finds that those who prioritize understanding their target customers from the outset are more likely to succeed. Rather than trying to appeal to everyone, successful entrepreneurs tend to develop products tailored to specific customer segments.

“They find that focus early on and we see that dramatically improve their odds of success.”

This early focus, combined with thorough market research and effective execution, significantly enhances their chances of success. Paul adds, “A recent research report looking at the past 10 years of the accelerator program that we run at MIT showed that 69% of the companies who have come through are either still active or have been acquired.”

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5. Craft a minimum viable business product

While the concept of a minimum viable product (MVP) is well-known in startup circles, Paul introduces a nuanced approach known as the minimum viable business product (MVBP). Unlike an MVP, which focuses solely on product features, an MVBP emphasizes validating the entire business model, including plans and pricing strategies.

Paul explains further, ”If we create an MVP and people use it, but nobody's willing to pay for it, have we gotten ourselves any closer to a real business? We'd rather increase our odds of success by making sure that somebody's willing to pay us for it.”

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Once someone has a product idea or has built a prototype, the next questions that Paul pushes people to answer include: What's the feedback? What are you hearing from people? How are you testing this? “We say, now it's time to go out and take this thing and go test it with X number of end users. And I say end user specifically because we don't want entrepreneurs testing their products with just anyone.

“We want them to focus on making sure that the people they're testing with are actually those who would be using it, to reduce the bias that's involved in that feedback process.”

Here, you could use Lyssna to conduct some quick surveys to gain insights into how your target audience resonates with the product, how much they’d be willing to spend to use it, and what their first impressions are. 

This is also a good opportunity to test pricing and revenue models. This will help determine “if there's willingness to pay, and what pricing and revenue model will work best.”

By prioritizing revenue generation and customer validation, startups can make sure that they're building something truly viable and sustainable in the long run.

6. Encourage a strong testing culture

As startups grow and scale, maintaining human-centered principles can become increasingly challenging. Paul speaks about the importance of fostering a culture that puts the customer at the center, advocating for continuous testing and iteration based on customer feedback.

As your business progresses and you add new features, it’s likely that you won’t be the one conducting testing anymore, but maintaining a culture of continuous testing is crucial for the success of the feature and product.

It’s here that entrepreneurs and business leaders rally their teams to embrace continuous research. Paul emphasizes, “Team members need to be empowered with the tools to be able to go and do that research, so making it a part of the culture is really important. It shows that we are rooted in who that customer is.” 

It's essential to embed this mindset into ‌company culture from the earliest stages of development. 

“We're testing the brand and taglines, but when we get into the weeds of building the full-blown product, let's make sure that every element of that actually resonates with the target customer. It’s important to keep that customer-centric mindset going as the business evolves,” states Paul.

This approach ensures that every aspect of the business aligns with the customer's needs and preferences, leading to effective decision-making and growth.

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7. Remain connected with your customer

The foundation of any new business lies in understanding the end user early on, however, it’s the ability to stay aligned with your customer that will ensure the longevity of your business. 

“As the business evolves, business leaders need to keep this in mind, because the further we get from our customer the harder it is to continue growing our business,” shares Paul. 

“Our job as entrepreneurs, as business leaders, is to make sure that we remain connected to our customers.”

To remain connected with your customer, it’s important to keep up a cadence of testing. And there’s no limit as to what can be tested, from feature development, to marketing campaigns, to usability health checks of your product. As Paul explains, “Once we stop understanding what the unique insights of customers are, or how they are changing over time, our ability to respond to the market diminishes.

If you’re looking for inspiration for what to test, check out our Templates library.

“Our job as entrepreneurs is to react when change occurs, and if we understand that change before it happens or as it's happening, and our team is entrepreneurial, we can react much faster and make sure that our business continues to grow.”

Guide your startup journey with user testing

As you navigate through your entrepreneurial journey, remember Paul’s sage advice: “We should be making our decisions based on who we're trying to help. If we make decisions based on what customers care about, we're going to be able to serve them better, and that business continues to grow and grow.”

If you’re a startup or have a business idea you want to explore further, then it’s time to embrace user testing as a fundamental aspect of your process. User testing isn’t just a phase but an ongoing commitment to putting customers at the forefront of your entrepreneurial endeavors, providing sustainable growth and lasting success.

Explore Paul Cheek's book, Disciplined Entrepreneurship Startup Tactics, and unlock a treasure trove of actionable insights and strategies.

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