May 2, 2023

Startups Are Like Researching Goat Smugglers

Back when I was a journalist, I was having dinner with a friend in Dubai while on a reporting trip for the New York Times. “Have you heard about the Iranian goat smugglers?” he asked. I had not. He didn’t have a lot of information—someone had just mentioned it to him a few days earlier—but c’mon, goat smugglers? He had my attention.

I asked around until I had pieced together some interesting tidbits: poor Iranians were apparently crossing the Strait of Hormuz every day with dinghies filled with goats and cigarettes, smuggling goods to make a few rials while dodging the tanker traffic transporting 15% of the world’s oil.

Who doesn’t love a good story? I hired a driver and told him to drive north out of the UAE and into a remote scrap of Oman perched at the end of the Arabian peninsula. I ended up in Khasab, a remote little port with, quite honestly, had little to recommend itself from a tourism perspective. It was so remote there wasn’t even a border crossing, or anyone to ask me about an Omani visa.

But the story! It was one of those days to love the adventure of journalism, and the opportunity to learn about this crazy, offbeat corner of the world where people are spending their lives doing things you’d never even known were a thing. (Sidetrack yourself with Sightseeing in Oman? You Mustn’t Miss the Smugglers)

Journalism and startups are both driven by stories. And the only way to get those stories is to go talk to the people who are living it.

A lot of people talk about storytelling. Today, let’s focus on storygetting.

Startups are more intense versions of journalism for two reasons:

  1. The bar for results is higher. The target audience is expected to pay good money for the solution you’ve come up with, not just spend a few minutes enjoying your article.
  2. Entrepreneurship is iterative, not a one-off story. You need to keep your finger on the pulse of your audience every day, and update your messaging as necessary.

Whether you’re a journalist, researching a startup, refining your product, or creating messaging for your website, you’ve got to get the story before you can tell the story. Here are the commandments for gathering the facts:

  1. Nothing replaces talking to people on the front lines. The standard war photographer mantra is “if your photos aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” The same holds for entrepreneurs.
  2. Don’t propose solutions. You want to talk about your product and features just like a journalist wants to confirm the thesis of their article. Don’t. Learn about the problems your potential customers have.
  3. Ask open-ended questions. Once you’ve found your audience, get them talking. “Why?” and “Tell me more” are some of the best things you can say. Then listen.
  4. Make yourself available. People want to talk about their life. They’re flattered you care. Don’t hide behind info@ emails. Make your phone number available. Encourage outreach.
  5. Great ideas come at the end. Keep your notebook and ears open. Great things come from offhand comments.
  6. Details make the story. Day 1 cub reporter advice is “everyone drives a car, so get the make and model, and every dog has a name.” It’s a reminder to get the little details that bring a story alive. Sure, your product won’t be all things to all people, but never forget that each person has a personal story into which your company is woven. No one is average. Revel in the details.

Gustaf Alströmer, YC founder and former Airbnb executive, has a great, short introduction to customer interviews.

Gustaf’s advice will get you started. As you grow, it’s easy to forget the customers. Talk to them. Anyone building your product needs to understand your customers. Anyone planning your roadmap needs to understand your customers. And, of course, anyone writing your communications needs to understand your customers, so they can relay their stories in full, riveting glory.

I started this story “back when I was a journalist.” I take it back. I’m still a journalist. And you should be one, too.