Cover Story

Lauren Gilchrist gives you the lowdown on tapping into your customers’ needs

Lauren Gilchrist has built a successful career focusing on an important element that often doesn’t get the same level of scrutiny as product – the customer.

“Make sure you understand the person that has the problem.” Seems like a simple enough idea to comprehend. But each year numerous startups fail for a variety of reasons, including creating products and services that no one wants.

Entrepreneurs spend a lot of their time developing their product and getting it to market.

Lauren Gilchrist has built a successful career focusing on an important element that often doesn’t get the same level of scrutiny as product development – the customer.

The 30-year-old New Yorker is no newbie to the startup scene. Before she became product manager at Pivotal Labs, an agile software development consulting firm, whose mission is to transform the way the world builds software, she was cutting her teeth at Yipit building key operational processes and scalable workflows, and later at CafeMom where she led development of web and mobile product from launch to 80,000 monthly uniques in nine months.

In 2012 she cofounded Hack’nJill, which produced hackathons and other technical educational events to promote diversity with a 50:50 ratio of male to female attendees. And to think the Columbia University graduate started out as an English major whose first post-college gig was in book publishing.

“I was tasked with helping them set up a database. We worked with a consultant to build a database and I was like, huh, didn’t realize I could do that. I was reading Techcrunch a whole bunch around 2007/2008 and there were a couple companies taking off and getting acquired,” Gilchrist recalled. “So I started poking my head out and asking around and wound up getting connected to an entrepreneur who was hiring a business analyst. And I was like, ‘I think I can do that.’ I faked it until I made it.

“Software development and product management weren’t nearly as ubiquitous or lucrative careers 10 years ago. Not only did I not know that product management was a career track, I did not know it was accessible to people who weren’t software developers. Nowadays, product managers come from all backgrounds – marketing, operations, development, design, and even research. It’s been exciting to see this change every year, and to watch product managers take the spotlight in national media [e.g. Marissa Mayer, president and CEO of Yahoo! and Dennis Crowley, founder of Foursquare],” she added.

Gilchrist came into her own during a time when technology was rapidly revolutionizing industries. In the last 10 years alone Facebook, the iPhone and YouTube were created. Remember what the founders of Napster did to the music industry?

Similar changes were on the horizon for the publishing industry and Gilchrist was working in the middle of that evolution.

“At that time digital rights in publishing were going through a challenging debate like the music industry went through.  Who has the right to store a book online forever and charge for it? The publisher? The author? The marketer? That was going to have a very big impact on the industry. That inspired me to look at things that I might be able to change myself,” Gilchrist said.

She became a product manager because she really wanted to help influence things that people touched in the world. However, to make the user experience positive and valuable, she had to learn the art of delving into the needs of the customer. In order to be successful at it, you have to learn the difference between product and customer development.

“Customer development is the process of figuring out what the problem is and who has it and who is willing to pay for that problem to be solved. Product development is creating the solution that solves that problem,” Gilchrist said. “My advice is the easiest – make sure you understand the person who has the problem. What do they look like? What does their day-to-day look like? How much of an impact does the problem have on the person? Have they [already] paid to try to fix it?”

Gilchrist said entrepreneurs tend to start with a “this will be a fit for everybody” mentality and that that thinking needs to be avoided.

“As you talk to your customers you have people who light up when you talk to them about this problem. People who say ‘meh,’ and others who say it’s not their prob. Finding those people who light up, those are the people you want to keep talking to because they are going to become the first testers. Start with the problem, not a solution,” she added.

This past December Gilchrist shared her know-how at The Lean Startup Conference in San Francisco where she taught captivated entrepreneurs how to “test like a boss.”

She encourages startup founders to be mad scientists rather than “experts” trying to execute something that hasn’t been proven.

“Just because you have decided to launch something doesn’t mean you’re an expert at running a business. If you treat this process as an exercise of being a scientist rather than being an expert, you’ll achieve results faster,” Gilchrist explained. “Experts need to spend time creating plans, designs and researching something that is iron-clad. I’m an entrepreneur I don’t know anything about Google advertising. I don’t anything about hiring and firing. I have 1,000 page views a week. I don’t know how to get those people to come back. If you identify a problem and design an experiment to try to solve that problem, see if it has a positive or negative impact … You just need to get a true or false.

“All of the day-to-day pains that you run into as you try to scale your startup – we have a $500 marketing budget, what should we spend it on? Startups are complete chaos. It’s the period of time in which you search for a sustainable business model. But by thinking like a scientist, rather than an expert, you can find a sustainable business model faster (because you will validate your assumptions along the way),” she continued.

Looking Ahead

Gilchrist on the two things she wants to incorporate in her life in 2015: “More writing. If I could do a blog post every other week … and the other thing I’m looking to do is give back a little more this year. I really enjoyed the community we built for Hack’nJill. I really am trying to figure out this year how to give back: Is it mentoring? Is it teaching?”

For now, Gilchrist is happy with where she’s at in her career. She said she’s really lucky that she gets to do what she likes and is enjoying her time at Pivotal Labs. She also looks forward to doing more work with women in technology.

“I like being able to bring people together and build something in 24 hours. [I ask myself], what’s the way that I can give back in helping women realize that they can have a long and storied career in software development and it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be the top programmer in your class,” she said. “I’ve seen a lot of trends and there are a lot of organizations teaching women how to code. But not a lot necessarily dealing with after [these women] have their first two jobs and when they are not being promoted. How do we solve that problem of retention, of making sure they don’t leave at a 40 percent rate?

Gilchrist said there are plenty of women in tech and STEM that are leaving in alarming rates. “It’s fantastic that we are teaching that coding is an amazing skill set and on the other hand I think it’s very easy to paint the problem as a pipeline problem. There are some truths to face – what is happening at the narrow end of the funnel? Why are people leaving?” she asked.

We have no doubt, with her customer development skills, that Gilchrist will get to the bottom of the answer.

About the author

Natasha Zena

Around age eight Natasha Zena was told it was a woman’s job to take care of the home and since then she has built a career out of telling women they can do whatever the hell they want to do. She is the co-founder of Lioness, the go-to news source for everything female entrepreneur. Natasha was recognized as an emerging leader in digital media by The Poynter Institute and the National Association of Black Journalists. She has mentored women entrepreneurs and moderated panels at a number of national accelerators, Startup Weekends and conferences such as The Lean Startup Conference, the Massachusetts Conference for Women, Women Empower Expo and Smart Cities Connect. Natasha is also the author of the popular whitepaper, "How To Close The Gender Gap In Startup Land By 2021." In her spare time, she writes short fiction and hangs out with her son, Shaun.

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