The Ultimate Guide to Customer Discovery: Lessons from Airbnb, Steve Blank, and The Mom Test

wooden block with people icons on them looked at through a magnifying glass - customer discovery
Last Updated: August 10, 2023

You know that sinking feeling when you launch a product and…nothing? No fanfare, no rush of users, just the digital equivalent of tumbleweeds. It’s not fun.

But here’s the thing: it doesn’t have to be this way. There’s a tool you can use to avoid this scenario. It’s called customer discovery.

Now, I can almost hear you groaning. “Not another process!” But hear me out. This isn’t just another hoop to jump through. It’s not another meeting to schedule or report to file.

Customer discovery is your roadmap to building products that people actually want. It’s the difference between launching to crickets vs launching to a crowd of eager users.

So, if you’re ready to stop guessing and start knowing what your customers want, keep reading. We’re about to dive into the world of customer discovery. And I promise you, it’s going to be worth it.


Where Did Customer Discovery Come From?

Let’s rewind to the 90s. Steve Blank, a seasoned entrepreneur, is at a software company called E.piphany. Things don’t pan out. The company stumbles. Steve steps away. But instead of sulking, Steve wants to understand what went wrong.

His conclusion? They were building for a customer they didn’t know. They were guessing, not validating. Sounds familiar, right?

So, Steve writes a book called “The Four Steps to the Epiphany” – a cheeky nod to his former company. And let me tell you, this book is raw. It’s got typos. It’s rough around the edges. But it’s real. And it’s got something important to say.


The Purpose of Customer Discovery

Customer discovery is the first phase of the Customer Development model, a methodology introduced by Steve in his book. The model itself is a reaction to traditional product development, which often involves building a product based on assumptions, then trying to find customers for it. Instead, the Customer Development model suggests that startups should first understand their customers and the problems they’re facing, then build a product to solve those problems.

So, what’s the purpose of customer discovery? It’s all about reducing market risks. It’s about ensuring that you’re not just building a product based on what you think the market needs, but on what the market actually needs. It’s about validating your business idea before you invest significant time, money, and resources into building a product.

During the customer discovery phase, your goal is to understand your customers’ needs, wants, and challenges. You’re interviewing potential customers, conducting surveys, and gathering data. You’re trying to answer questions like: Who are my potential customers? What problems are they facing? Can my product solve these problems? Is there a market for my product?


Customer Discovery and the Lean Startup Movement

Enter Eric Ries and the Lean Startup movement. If Steve Blank is the godfather of customer discovery, then Eric Ries is the prodigy who took it to the next level.

Ries, a student of Blank, took the principles of Customer Development and evolved them into the Lean Startup methodology. This methodology is all about creating a sustainable business model through iterative product releases, validated learning, and a “build-measure-learn” feedback loop.

So, where does customer discovery fit into all this? It’s the foundation. It’s the first step in the “build-measure-learn” loop. Before you build anything, you need to understand your customers. You need to validate your business assumptions. You need to ensure that you’re solving a real problem for real people.

But the Lean Startup methodology adds another layer to customer discovery. It’s not just about understanding your customers’ needs and wants. It’s about testing your product ideas quickly and efficiently. It’s about learning from your failures and pivoting when necessary. This message didn’t fall on deaf ears. Founders were busy applying continuous improvement and adaptation to their software companies.


Airbnb: A Customer Discovery Masterclass

Let’s talk about Airbnb. You know, the platform that lets you sleep in a stranger’s bed and makes it feel totally normal? Yeah, that one.

In the early days, Airbnb was just an idea in the heads of its founders, Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia. They were struggling to pay rent, saw a design conference coming to town, and had a lightbulb moment. Why not turn their apartment into a bed and breakfast for conference attendees? And just like that, Airbnb was born.

But here’s the thing: the idea wasn’t an overnight success (pun intended). The founders had to get their hands dirty to understand their customers. They had to do customer discovery.

They didn’t just send out surveys or conduct interviews. They went all in, staying at their hosts’ homes to experience their own service firsthand. This let them talk to their users, understand their experiences, and learn about the problems they faced. It was customer discovery in its purest form.

It worked. Today, Airbnb is a multi-billion dollar company with listings in over 190 countries. It’s a testament to the power of customer discovery. It shows that when you take the time to understand your customers, to really get to the heart of their needs and wants, you can create something truly special.


How to Do Customer Discovery: Lessons from “The Mom Test”

Alright, so you’re sold on customer discovery. You’re ready to dive in. But where do you start? How do you actually do customer discovery? Well, my friend, it’s time to talk about “The Mom Test.”

“The Mom Test,” written by Rob Fitzpatrick, is a book that offers practical advice on how to talk to customers and learn if your business is a good idea when everyone is lying to you. It’s a must-read for anyone looking to do customer discovery. And despite its name, it’s not about getting your mom’s approval. It’s about asking the right questions.

Here’s the gist of it:

  1. Talk about their life, not your idea: Instead of asking people what they think of your product, ask about their experiences and behaviors. You’re looking for insights, not compliments.
  2. Ask for specifics in the past, not generics or opinions about the future: People’s predictions about their future behavior are usually wrong. But their past behavior is a fact. Dig into specifics.
  3. Talk less, listen more: Your goal is to gather insights, not to pitch your idea. Let them do the talking.

Sounds simple, right? But it’s easier said than done. It takes practice. It takes patience. But most importantly, it takes a genuine interest in understanding your customers.


Flexibility and Iteration

Now, you might be wondering how “The Mom Test” compares to Steve Blank’s original prescription for customer discovery. Well, they’re both rooted in the same principle: understanding your customers. But “The Mom Test” offers a more flexible approach.

While Blank’s method is systematic and structured, “The Mom Test” is more about the spirit of customer discovery. It’s about asking the right questions, regardless of the situation. It’s about getting valuable insights, whether you’re talking to a potential customer, a friend, or yes, even your mom.

But here’s the kicker: customer discovery isn’t a one-time thing. It’s not a box you check off before moving on to the next phase of your product development process. It’s an ongoing, iterative process.

Think of it as a feedback loop. You start with an idea. You make assumptions about your customers. You test those assumptions through customer interviews. You gather insights. You use those insights to refine your idea. And then you do it all over again.

So, how do you integrate customer discovery into an iterative process? Here’s a simple way to do it:

  1. Define your assumptions: What do you believe to be true about your customers? What problems do you think they’re facing? What solutions do you think they need?
  2. Test your assumptions: Conduct customer interviews. Ask open-ended questions. Dig into their experiences and behaviors.
  3. Gather insights: What did you learn from your interviews? Did your assumptions hold up? What surprised you?
  4. Refine your idea: Based on your insights, how can you improve your product? What changes do you need to make?
  5. Repeat: Go back to step one. Define your new assumptions and start the process over again.

Remember, customer discovery is about learning and adapting. It’s about building a product that meets real customer needs. And it’s about continuously improving, one iteration at a time. So, whether you’re following Steve Blank’s method or using “The Mom Test,” keep your customers at the heart of everything you do. That’s the key to successful customer discovery.


Wrapping Up: The Power of Customer Discovery

So, there you have it. Customer discovery is not just a buzzword. It’s a powerful tool that can help you understand your customers, validate your business ideas, and build products that people actually want to use.

We’ve traveled through the history of customer discovery, from Steve Blank’s groundbreaking work to Eric Ries’s Lean Startup methodology. We’ve seen how companies like Airbnb have used customer discovery to create successful products. We’ve delved into the practical advice offered in “The Mom Test” and discussed how to integrate customer discovery into an iterative process.

But remember, reading about customer discovery is one thing. Actually doing it is another. So, here’s your call to action: Try it out. Start talking to your customers. Start asking the right questions. Start learning, iterating, and improving.

And if you’re looking for a tool to help you along the way, give Cardboard a try. It’s a tool designed to make customer discovery easier and more effective. And guess what? We’re doing customer discovery too! If you want to participate, send an email to We’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.

So, go forth and discover. Your customers are waiting.