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Customer development and iterating

April 12, 2011
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In the land of software start-ups, there’s a concept coined and espoused by Steve Blank called Customer Development.  The book which describes this in detail is pretty dense, but once you understand the key concepts, it seems pretty obvious and intuitive.  Still, I learned more than a couple of things when I read Blank’s book, The Four Steps to the Epiphany.

With all of the work that we’ve been doing on our inventory system, I thought it would be interesting to describe how we approach product development.

The 50,000 ft. overview of Customer Development is changing the angle of approach when starting a business or developing a product.  Traditionally, someone has an idea, a company builds the idea after which a sales team tries to sell it.  Customer Development takes the approach of finding your customers first, then building what they need.  We like that.

Here are a few key things we’ve done with RoastLog which I think explains much of the positive feedback we’re getting from folks:

  1. Exploration – I had an idea of what would become RoastLog and took a very rough prototype to the SCAA show in Atlanta.  A friend and I shared some booth space with Jay of CoffeeTec and simply asked people what they thought of the idea.  We got out of the building and asked real coffee roasters if a tool like this would be useful.  The response was overwhelmingly positive…Paul from Mecca Espresso in Sydney wanted to buy it on the spot.
  2. Building fast – A few months after the show the first prototype went out into the wild with a handful of testers.  By this time I had roped in Ted and we had made some initial contacts in the industry.  Ryan also jumps onboard to help out with front-end/UI/UX work.  RoastLog was ugly, kludgy and awkward…but it was functional.  The idea here was to figure out what we had gotten right, and what was wrong.
  3. Iterating – We completely revamp the UI to make it easier to use.  At SCAA 2010 we went from 0 paying customers to a dozen.
  4. Listening – Last year at SCAA, even though we had just launched or flagship product, we were already spotting issues and hearing patterns when talking with people.  People wanted to track where their green bean inventory as well as measure more than one temperature at a time.

Now, switch gears to the next evolution of RoastLog….how did we develop our inventory system?

  1. Exploration – Try to get out of the building some more and wrap our heads around what coffee businesses need in an inventory system.
  2. Building fast – After getting an idea of what a professional inventory system build for roaster would look like, we built it and pushed it out as beta software to a small group of testers just like we did last year.
  3. Iterating – We launched inventory earlier than we all felt comfortable with, but a system needs to be tested in the real world.  The feedback we’ve gotten has allowed us to quickly correct mistakes and incorrect assumptions.  We’re on track now thanks to feedback from our beta testers and long nights and weekend coding away…we’ve been doing big updates about once a week, iterating quickly.

Listening isn’t listed in the second set yet….we’ll be at the show and we want to hear from you.  Come by our booth (#445) to get a demo of the system and tell us what you think.  We’ll listen.  Every piece of feedback we get will not make it into the product, but the ones we hear over and over again will.

There will always be bugs in software, we’ll never get it right the first (or tenth) time, but we’re always going to developing systems from your perspectives.  We want to build software and tools which solve your problems and make your lives easier as coffee roasters.

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