What I learned from meeting with alcoholics

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What I Learned from Meeting with Alcoholics

This past summer I had the opportunity to attend an entrepreneurship camp at MIT, where I spent four weeks creating my own startup with three other high school students. While I did learn a lot about a variety of different topics, one of the main aspects of creating products is going out and asking people for feedback on your idea. Essentially, you have to conduct primary market research (PMR for short). You have to physically go outside, find individuals, have conversations with them, and discover who your target customer is.

Now, there was a slight problem with this method when it came down to our specific startup - our target customers were alcoholics. How were we supposed to sit down and have one on one conversations with alcoholics while also getting information that would actually be useful? And how could we find alcoholics to talk to in the first place??

After panicking for a solid five minutes about how we'll never get our PMR done in time, someone gave us an amazing suggestion. What if we actually attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and spoke to people there? And so, our primary market research began. We attended numerous meetings across Boston and spoke to over 50 recovering addicts in total. Here's some of the key takeaways I had from the process:

1. Step into your target customer's shoes

Yes this is probably really cheesy and I know that it's what everyone says but sometimes you have to ACTUALLY empathize with your target customer to understand their psychology, preferences, etc. By attending alcoholic anonymous meetings, I learned so much about their experiences and setbacks - I can guarantee you that you won't be able to learn even half of the things just by doing a Google Search. It was in those conversations where people were willing to be vulnerable, where they were willing to share their story, that I was truly able to understand what led them to this point and what they were trying to do. I had unknowingly formed many, many biases in my head before those meetings, all of which I found to be completely false after talking to a few people.

2. If you're getting someone to test your prototype, stay silent

The best way to get feedback on your product is to see how people interact with it when they're given zero instructions. That is, look into the process of someone's initial thoughts if they were to buy/use your product themselves. Take out a pencil and paper, tell them to say their initial thoughts out loud, and write down every. single. observation. Where do they click first? Are they confused? Are they spending a lot of time using a certain feature? Let them play around with the product for five minutes and then ask them a few questions later to fully understand what their impressions were.

3. Conduct PMR in person!

Sure you could do a phone call, but there's so much you can learn about your target customer or prototype if you meet in person. Unfortunately, there's many people who will answer your questions in the nicest way possible rather than give you their honest opinion. And while they're likely lovely people to talk to, you don't want someone to BS some praise for an idea they dislike.

By speaking in person, there's a lot of nonverbal cues which can help you detect if the person is lying. It's also a lot easier to see if someone is just half-assing their answers because they don't want to speak with you in the first place. That being said, you have to be hyper-aware to ensure that you're not asking any leading questions. If you feed words into their mouth, you'll never get useful feedback!

Overall, it definitely pushed me out of my comfort zone to speak with people suffering from alcohol addiction. And while I got to work on improving my extroverted-ness, I also had the opportunity to learn a lot more about primary market research.

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