Get Out of the Building!

Interviewing 100 stakeholders in 5 weeks has reshaped how I think of cleantech innovation- and research. Our eCalCharge startup was initially founded to commercialize the research of my labmate Caroline LeFloch on load shaping and frequency regulation using electric vehicles. However, since the I-Corps kickoff in San Diego, our team has discovered that the market for frequency regulation and load shaping is small, that utilities aren’t yet strained by EV adoption, that EV drivers don’t care about charging costs, and that fleet managers don’t care about demand charges.

Having spent the past 4 years reading over a hundred research papers which set out to minimize these costs using distributed energy resources, I’m staggered most consumers don’t care. Instead, we’ve discovered that customers often dislike ‘smart’ appliances and the complexity they introduce, and instead need ways of reducing overhead infrastructure costs like installing EV chargers.

This type of ‘A-ha!’ moment is exactly what the Lean Launchpad curriculum pioneered by Steve Blank was designed to create. The curriculum (and the NSF I-Corps program which I’m attending) forces teams to draft a set of testable hypotheses that will allow the company to pivot quickly and move towards product-market fit. Steve Blank’s mantra is that ‘there are no answers inside the building- so get outside!’ and interview customers to validate or invalidate the hypotheses.

I’ve found this approach to be an appealing complement to my background in user-centered design.  It’s reshaped how I’ve thought about my two recent (failed) ventures:

  •  Switchski failed because I didn’t actually like talking with the hard-core skiers who would be my early adopters.
  • MyCarbonOffsetter failed because I didn’t get out and identify how we would find customers.

In both of these, I narrowly focused my user research on the customer interaction and user experience, without stepping back to identify the hurdles to attracting and securing paying customers.  I had read The Lean Startup, and thought that my 6-month development cycle was ‘lean’- but now realize that a testable hypothesis can just be a 20-second pitch, a sketch on a napkin, or a set of hand gestures.

If I’d gotten out and interviewed real customers with just a simple idea, I’d have saved hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars.  In the stories of entrepreneurs, I now see the months or years which they spend getting to know the industry before beginning to code- and next time, I plan to get in at least 100 interviews before writing the first line of code.

The Lean Startup / Lean Launchpad approach also has ramifications outside of entrepreneurship. I now am painfully aware of the assumptions which drive most clean energy research.  Every time I see an optimization problem, I now ask myself whether the objective function actually represents the goals of the end user. I’m reaching out to contacts in industry, listing my hypotheses and tallying up interviews, in order to improve the ‘Application’ sections of my papers.

When I was in Washington D.C. lobbying for science funding, I found myself thinking about the assumptions behind legislative reform- and whether there would be better ways of testing hypotheses more strategically than by listening to the loudest voices.

I’m also rethinking the job search, drafting hypotheses about what my salient skills are and what industry needs- then reaching out to test those ideas through informational interviews. By testing, iterating, and pivoting I hope to find the right ‘fit’ that will guide my next steps.

If you’re interested in more details of the Lean Launchpad approach, check out the textbooks we’ve been using:


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