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"I think you might be a scam" - A Lesson in Customer Discovery

Learning how to talk to customers has been a fun aspect of building a business. Although, it is by no means "easy." Like many engineers, I struggle with this, because what we really know how to do is write code, and we think if we just buckle down and knock it out quickly, we could validate our idea that way.

That might work for some product ideas, but I'm becoming increasingly convinced that "build first" approaches are a great way to waste a bunch of time, effort, and money towards building a product nobody cares about.

I'm not alone in this way of thinking, and it certainly wasn't my idea. My mentor at the startup incubator I'm currently in encouraged me to stop building and actually talk to some customers. I definitely wasn't thrilled to hear that at first. I thought I had a strong sense of what I should build, but he rightfully challenged me on those assumptions.

The Mom Test

I sighed and took a step back, and started to learn how to approach customer discovery. My mentor recommended The Mom Test, and now I couldn't agree more. It's a concise little book that gives you that real, practical advice on how to approach customer discovery, with a particular emphasis on not biasing the prospect. As Rob Fitzpatrick outlines his approach, he details a particular mistake he finds a lot of entrepreneurs making, where they'll pitch an idea and immediately ask "What do you think? Is it a good idea?" This leads to all sorts of psychological issues surrounding human behavior.

The basic issue is that, nobody wants to hurt your feelings. When they are really thinking "meh, I'm not sure why I would use that." Or, "I really don't want to switch products right now.", they are telling you "Yeah sounds great! Let me know when it launches." You walk away feeling like a business genius, but in reality, they just told you what they thought you wanted to hear. This is particularly the case when the person you are pitching your idea to is your mom. But friends and colleagues are guilty of the same thing.

So, how do we address that problem? Just ask people questions about their lives and jobs. You can start out pretty broad, but it's OK to narrow focus around the industry and problem you are interested in. The idea is that by having casual conversations, you let your potential customer tell you what their problems actually are, not what you assume them to be. By hearing the same problems come up across multiple customer calls (the amount varies), you can build way more confidence in your solution as something people will actually buy. I can't do the entire book justice in this post, so if this idea sounds interesting to you, definitely pick up a copy and read it. (Not a paid promotion, I really just think this book is incredible.)

I took a lot of the advice and strategy of the book to heart and set out on finding contacts. I was able to lean on my network for this a little bit, but I've also had to do some cold outreach via email. Waiting for my network to follow up was just taking too long. My product revolves around the volunteering space and fortunately, the space is huge. There is no shortage of non-profit organizations. I was able to email 7 solid prospects in one morning just by looking at my city's chamber of commerce website.

What I didn't fully take into consideration was how my language might sound to some of those prospects. One of them in particular responded in a way I never expected.

Bitter cold outreach

I actually have no real idea how to approach cold calling, and in what was perhaps an overly enthusiastic email power session one Friday morning, I sent this out to a prospective customer.

Hello [redacted],

My name is Nick and I'm part of a startup program at Iowa State, where I'm doing research on volunteer management and organization. I came across [redacted; org name] and am interested in learning more about your organization and volunteer program - what works for you, and maybe some of the challenges. It seems like [redacted; org name] has a wide range of roles volunteers can fill!

Would a member of your team have 20 or 30 minutes to chat with me over the phone sometime next week? I have nothing to sell, I'm just interested in learning more about how your volunteer program operates.

I really appreciate your time!

Thank you,


If you happen to be an expert in cold calling and outreach, I'm sure there are aspects of this email you may find pretty funny. I acknowledge that and I'm looking into how to improve it. In the meantime, please bear with me. I'm an engineer.

I fired off that email and hoped to get a response the following week. Sure enough, it came through.

Hello Nick,

Thank you for reaching out to us.

Could you provide me with a little more details of what information you're looking to gather? Let me know and I would be happy to help if I can.

Thanks and make it a great day.

[redacted; name]

Volunteer Services Coordinator

Fair enough. I could see how my initial message might not be clear to somebody, and they just want to be protective of their time. No problem.

Hi [redacted],

Thank you for your response!

I'm looking to learn more about your volunteer program, in terms of how it operates. Thinking about the "lifecycle" of a volunteer - how they show interest, how they get approved / onboarded, and how they schedule shifts. I'm interested in hearing specifically how you do those kinds of things today, tools you use, and where you see some of the challenges. I am hoping to develop new solutions for this space, but I first need to validate some of my assumptions about the process across different organizations.

Hopefully that makes sense. Happy to address any other questions!

Thank you,


I sent that reply at 9:00 AM, and at 4:00 PM, I received the following.

Hello Nick,

I have to be honest with you... there are a couple red flags to know if this is a scam or not so I'm going to pass on providing our information.

Thank you.



I was honestly shocked.

Maybe it's just me, but if I think something is a scam, the last thing I do is reply to it. Oh, I definitely want to - especially so I can mess with them - but I know I'm better off not engaging.

(Although, the lone "Thank you." is probably my favorite part.)

In all seriousness, I expected to be ghosted by a few contacts, but I never expected to be told I might be somebody trying to execute a scam. I re-read my messages probably a dozen times, pouring over every word, trying to figure out what I said that was so concerning.

I did end up sending a response that I won't show here. I wasn't mean or snarky with them, and even apologized for how I came across, but it's just a little embarrassing. I probably over explained what I was trying to do, and even mentioned things like "I didn't lead with that information (about my company and idea) because I didn't want to bias you." It's absolutely the truth, but I'm sure they don't really care at this point. Phrasing it that way might even come across as me essentially admitting I was trying to play some scammer Jedi mind-trick I was certain would win them over, but now that they've caught me, we can get to the "real" facts to calm their nerves.

I can laugh about this experience now, but it definitely rocked me at first. It sucks to be told something so blatantly wrong, especially when you make the effort to be as cordial and concise as possible. It also made me wonder if the people who ghosted me did so because I came across in a sketchy way.

Moving forward, I will definitely adjust my approach. I think the biggest lessons are,

  • Don't be afraid to say you are a software developer trying to build a new product. Saying you have an idea isn't the same as telling them what the idea is, and I think my prospective contact would have appreciated knowing what exactly I was attempting to do up front. Framing it as "just a conversation" works for some people, but others might find that to be a little odd.

  • Stop talking so much like an engineer. In my follow-up response to their question about what exactly I was looking for, I threw out words like "lifecycle" and started to describe the problem as I would describe it to another engineer. I went way over the top with detail when I should have just said, "Oh my gosh, I'm sorry I wasn't clear. I really just want to learn more about your organization so I can better understand the problems facing volunteer organizers. I do some volunteering myself and I'm curious if other organizations are facing the same problems."

Even with all that, you can't win them all. People will ghost you, and they may not be very helpful. The goal is to keep talking with people who are willing to talk with you until you stop hearing new information. Then, go build a kick-ass product.

And if you're going to scam anybody, find your own strategy. This one is mine.

This blog by Nick Miller is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

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