Building Better Learning Tools By Learning From Your Customers

This article was originally published on the Lean Startup Co. blog

By Lean Startup Co. Education Program

We recently hosted a webcast conversation between Chris and Marilyn focused on how the desire to find better engineering toys for his son turned into an idea to create a toy to help promote STEAM learning in young children.

Don’t have time for the full webcast now? Catch the webcast highlights and tips from their conversation in our companion blog below.

If you’d like to read the full transcript of Marilyn Gorman’s conversation with Chris Cochella, you may download it.

Taking a Hands-On Approach to Hands-On learning

Like many new product beginnings, the idea behind Brackitz came out of a personal need. After he started a science program at his kids’ elementary school, Chris Cochella, founder and co-owner of Brackitz toys, realized that there wasn’t a lot of hands-on science or engineering tools available for young children. To Chris, this was a problem.

Right now, the National Science Foundation says that the declining interest in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) is a national concern. As Chris was looking more into the issue, he discovered that spatial play and spatial reasoning is a very strong predictor of STEAM related things, including degree attainment and math skill development in children ages three to four.

In a world where kids are increasingly on digital devices, how do we get them to willingly put those devices down and start playing more with their hands?

Ask Small Questions, Learn Big Lessons, Repeat

To get started, Chris began by going to his customers. In his case, this meant speaking to teachers and observing young students. To the scientist in him, this was all part of applying the scientific method to the problem. He was collecting data to either support or deny his hypothesis. It was while he was going through his scientific process that he became aware of the Lean Startup approach. Specifically, the build, measure and learn loop.

This approach made sense to Chris. He was already familiar and comfortable with the iterative process and taking measurements. The thing he struggled with a little bit was focusing on the problem and not just the solution.

“…of course I [was] in love with my solution,” he says, “I’m an entrepreneur. I gave birth to this idea. I have to love it or I’m never gonna make it.” But, he continues, you have to be able to also love the problem so much that you’re compelled to remove yourself from the equation and put the customers at the forefront. For Chris, it all comes back to making tight build, measure, and learn loops. In his mind, running multiple small loops can be far more impactful than by applying too many variables to one test.

“If you do lots of [small loops] — and you can do them quickly — then you really build a solid ramp to what will be a solution that delights customers.”

This also helps prevent wasting precious resources by going too big too fast. Time and money can easily be wasted if you prematurely move forward in the process because you falsely think you have the right answer(s).

Talk to the Right People Early and Often

Very early in the process, discovery interviews and learning from the customer became incredibly important to the creation of Brackitz. Generally, teachers came on board very quickly because they recognized the importance of STEAM. And, in trying to understand their world, it drew out their desires and their willingness to help develop the product.

“When people are willing to step up to the plate and […] walk hand in hand [while not being paid], they’re really doing what they say they believe,” Chris says. He believes that behavior demonstrating interest is a stronger indicator than money that you’re creating something worthwhile. Money, on the other hand, is merely a transactional state of relatively low trust.

For Chris, working closely with the customers had the additional benefit of informing the product and marketing solutions. Since he was continually having conversation after conversation with his customers, words and phrases that would become important to product descriptions or advertising plans would emerge. It helped them hone their product just a little bit more, adding even more value in the long run.

Constantly speaking with people and asking questions also offered up another lesson to Chris. He realized that he needed to be cautious about taking a suggestion at face value, even if it’s coming from a person of influence. Just because someone has a lot of experience in some area — business, money management, teaching, etc. — doesn’t mean their suggestions or questions are more valid than anyone else’s. If they don’t have the data or evidence to back up what they’re suggesting, then their idea isn’t necessarily the right solution to your problem.

Not that it’s bad to not have the answers, Chris points out. In fact, he readily admits that he doesn’t always have the evidence to back up his ideas. But it’s important to have the discipline to take the time and go after the data when it’s critical to your product or business.

“Get out of the building. Put on your shoes. Leave the buttons behind. They do wonderful things, but this is not a time for automation.”CLICK TO TWEET

Let your Curiosity Fuel you

By taking the time to talk to the customers and live in their world a little, Chris was able to develop a product that not only helped provide a solution for the initial problem he was trying to solve but it turned out it helped address a few other things as well.

While observing a classroom of children playing with his product, he watched students work together to combine their individual creations. They were talking and engaging with one another — something that’s not too common in young children, according to their teacher. She then pointed out how important engagement is for social-emotional learning as well as for language arts. It was heartwarming to Chris to not only have the opportunity to witness that moment, but to realize that something he worked so hard to create played a valuable part in challenging imagination and collaboration.

Experiences like that classroom moment keep Chris focused on what’s important as he moves forward with Brackitz. And if there’s one thing he would encourage people pursuing their own endeavors to do, it’s to embrace your curious beginner’s mind and to welcome “what if?” questions.

“Your passion for the product will carry you through, but go back to that beginners’ mind and get curious,” he says. “Get out of the building. Put on your shoes. Leave the buttons behind. They do wonderful things, but this is not a time for automation. This is a time for open-ended trust building conversations and seeing what their world’s like, and if you can improve someone’s world, you will have the most loyal following ever.”

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