Customer Discovery is the Key to Scaling Your Startup
How one GIST Catalyst alum's startup is not just surviving but thriving
"My co-founder is a statistician. For them, one person is one data point. If you have a lot of data points telling you something, that's when you really start to pay attention and shift on that."
And now it sounds really obvious in retrospect. But at the time when you're focused on this is what we're doing, this is who we're selling to… You can’t see past that.
That's how we started to shift.
GIST: How has that affected your process internally and your product development cycle?
Maria Burns Ortiz: Tremendously. When we were selling under this model of highly customized products, we started talking about building an in-house platform to be able to accelerate our development process. And then we said, "Well, can our customers just use that platform?" That was the biggest shift.
It was stepping back and listening to what people were asking us for, and making sure that we could deliver that. As opposed to building what we thought people wanted. Now, that doesn't mean that we weren't getting users for the existing games that we were building. Our games were being played by hundreds of thousands of kids. But at the end of the day, we also needed to find ways to keep the lights on, because user numbers are great, but you can't pay anyone in just numbers.
We do a lot of things because they align exactly with what we do. But sometimes we've had to do things that didn't align exactly with what we do, but brought in enough money to be able to then take us to that next step. That combination of those two things is why we're still here.
GIST: Data gathering is critical to customer discovery. How did you go about getting all of the data points to inform your decision making?
Maria Burns Ortiz: We ended up doing two different programs that forced us to take the time to do customer discovery. We did the I-Corps program through NSF, and now we're doing the Vital Prize Challenge. The first program with I-Corps was literally in the weeks before COVID. We did our last interviews the week before schools closed. In that case, we were looking at not just educator needs, but also what needs to happen for our product to be deployed in classrooms. So once we had that, and we had some funding from USDA, we could build out the curriculum and content that met those needs. And then we were able to use our technology to power that on the back end. More recently, we started focusing on selling to enterprises, folks who already had the distribution channels and the sales and all those things, but didn't have the technology.
Maybe later on, down the road, you can follow back up with them when you have built out something that meets those needs. When you're doing customer discovery, you can understand the challenges they face. Their needs. A lot of it comes down to how you get people to change. Who are the competitors? What are they using? What are the things that you'll have to replace? And sometimes the things are just the status quo, right? It's not that you're replacing X product. You have to change behaviors. To get an understanding through talking to people as to what that means has been super, super helpful. When you're not selling, you still have that option to say, “Oh, and we're building this thing” and then they can say, “Oh, well, that sounds like a great thing. Let me know when that launches.” We don't talk about it as a sale. But, as you build out those relationships, you can understand what they want and then people see you're interested in what they actually need, not just trying to force them to buy your thing.
GIST: COVID affected education arguably more than any other industry. Did you find opportunities there? Or was it purely straight challenges? How did that affect your customer discovery and product development?
Maria Burns Ortiz: We were interviewing schools in-person up until two days before COVID and the shutdowns happened. The pandemic did a couple things. One, we had games. We knew they worked. We knew we developed them so that they had offline capabilities–in part because a lot of our initial funding came from USDA to look at ways to close the digital divide when it came to educational software. So we had this solution. And two, we decided that we were just going to make it free to everyone. And we had a huge surge in user numbers. I think it tripled within a matter of weeks.
GIST: It sounds like that kind of combination between a desire to have impact and then that resiliency in terms of your fundraising sources actually just enabled you to thrive in that moment where other companies might have been even more challenged.
Maria Burns Ortiz: Sometimes everything falls your way, and then sometimes you go through a phase where nothing falls your way. And so for us we always want to make sure that we can keep going because we owe it to our company, our staff, and our employees, and the people that helped us build that.
We knew that we were building things that really made a difference. It wasn't just “I feel good about this.” We're getting these stories about the work that we were doing and the outcomes and we have kids saying things like, “When I grow up, I wanna work for you.”
Those are the kind of things that make you go, “Wow! We're really making an impact.”
Sometimes you get caught up in the day to day, we're behind on something, but these kinds of things are a nice reminder of why we do what we do and the fact that it works. That’s super cool.
Thank you Maria for such amazing insight! You can follow her and 7 Generation's success at their website!