Customer Validation – Cheating On The Exam

​During this self-learning journey, I've been reading a lot of books on customer validation, customer discovery etc. All of them attempt to emphasize a singular message: "Talk to your Godam customers, For God's Sake".  But often, the authors struggle to drive their point across effectively enough to sway the readers. Today, I'll try to approach the importance of customer validation with an analogy that helped me.


In my previous post, "A Plan Before 'The Plan’", I mentioned that initially the Business Model Canvas is riddled with assumptions. This is fine — and expected. But now it’s time to turn these assumptions into facts. You have to put on your imaginary lab coat and treat each statement on your canvas as a hypothesis. Your job is to go out there and validate them.

​If you’re like most and dislike the scientist-analogy, I can do you one better. I want you to think of each component on your canvas as simple questions on an exam-sheet. You fill the exam sheet with answers that you believe to be correct. But how often have you put down an answer on an exam that you were absolutely sure was correct, only for it to be marked incorrect by the examiner?


When you first get your exam sheet back, you’re surprised, and maybe even angry. You immediately confront the examiner during her officer hours. But then she points out where you went wrong. That’s when you have that “Oooh...right. Can’t believe I missed that” realization.

Now let’s think about that for a second. What if you had the questions to the exam before the test? Would your score on that question be any different? I hardly doubt it, because you were absolutely sure that your answer was correct. You’d have gone into the real exam and entered the wrong answer.

But let’s say you were cautious enough to validate that your answer was correct. But the only way to do this is to ask the examiner if you have the right answer. But then she’d know you got your hands on the exam and that you were cheating. And cheating isn’t fair… right?

Cheating on an exam

But that’s exactly what is being allowed when it pertains to building a product! You are pretty much allowed to cheat. At school, we are trained to put down answers on a paper at which point — we either get the answer right or wrong. Building a product doesn’t have to be that way. Think of your examiner as your target customer. You get to put down your answers, and then go ask the ‘customer’ if you have the right answer.

Now here’s where it all comes together. When you go up to the examiner and ask if you have the right answer, she may say one of the following:

Scenario 1 : “Hey, you nailed it! Good job.”

(Your customers seems to love what you’re offering. Great! Your assumptions are now facts. Move forward!)

Scenario 2 : “No, no, that’s not the solution I was looking for… I had something like this in mind..”

(Okay, so you missed the mark. But no big deal! At least you know what the customer doesn’t want, and he may just show you what he does want.)

Scenario 3 : “Uh.. I think you are misunderstanding the question…”

(Your customers point out that you’ve misunderstood the problem that they are having. Phew! Good thing you figured this out before building the wrong product. Back to drawing board…)

Scenario 4 : “I’m not your examiner. I think the examiner you’re looking for is in the office down the hall”

(After speaking to your ‘customers’ you realize that your ‘real customers’ are elsewhere. But they help point you in the right direction.)

Customer Validation is part of the discovery phase. And no matter what happens during the discovery phase, you’re almost certain to come out ahead. But ignoring the customer validation  may lead to disaster!

I’ll finish off with a little bit of history Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke The Elder was renowned for innovating the modern methods on directing military armies in the field of battle. One of his famous quotes is:

“No plan survives first contact with the enemy” 

Similarly, in today’s day and age, we can say:

“No Business Plan Survives First Contact With Customers” 

And that's not a bad thing at all. There are way too many variables in business to make accurate predictions. Even a single change in the plan can drastically alter how you execute your vision. Customer Validation is the legal "cheat sheet" in Product Development.

​Further Readings

Steve Blank - Customer Discovery (Coffee with Startups)

Running Lean - Ash Maurya Book Summary

Creating Value: Making Things 'Better'

About the author

Shawn Dexter

Shawn Dexter is a Product Manager, Entrepreneur & Software Developer. He is passionate about innovation management & technology.

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