Why Surveys Are Bad

By Jay Shifley

When I started Dynamic in 2004, I thought I knew it all. I knew that my potential clients wanted to learn English, and I knew that they wanted to learn it from an English speaking American wielding a Masters Degree who had several years of teaching experience under his belt.

Man was I wrong!

As I look back, I still wonder how I could have started Dynamic with more information. I thought about doing surveys in the local universities and markets, but I knew enough about India culturally to doubt that the information I would get from a survey would be accurate. It seems this is one thing I did get right! Surveys are fundamentally flawed in two basic areas.

  1. They assume you already know the questions that need to be asked.
  2. They also assume that you already know the right answers to these questions. How many times have you wanted to qualify an answer on a canned survey and not just choose A, B, C, or D?

Ash Maurya in his book Running Lean repeats the war cry of Steve Blank when he says that in order to understand what a customer wants you need to “Get out of the building” and get out among your potential customers. Get away from the computer, Ipad, and papers and go talk to people. In doing this, your chances of getting good information exponentially increases.

Personally, I’d already wasted a lot of time and money before I was willing to get out and talk to people about things I thought I’d already knew. And when I started the dialogues I made mistakes and asked poor questions. But over time I think I have learned enough principles to share.

1. Talk face to face. Nothing speaks louder than body language.
2. Interview people to learn, not to pitch your ideas. Entrepreneurs find this challenging because we all fall in love with our ideas. However, the only way you can honestly evaluate the validity of an idea is to ask for outside opinions. “Idea Blindness” is the fatal disease of the visionary!
3. Ask questions about what people actually do, and not about what they want. In Zakir Nagar almost everyone I talked to wanted to learn English. However, when I asked what they were currently doing to learn it, few of them actually were doing anything at all. It was the smaller group of people who were spending their time and money to go across town to take English classes that I wanted information from.
4. Take a partner. Not only does this help alleviate any anxiety you might have, it also gives you an extra set of eyes and ears that could be beneficial.
5. Write it all down afterwards. There is a lot of valuable information floating around in my head lost because I thought I would remember it. A guy who has trouble remember a name or a 7 digit phone number should have known better.
6. And finally—the only “don’t” on this list—don’t pay people for interviews. I could write volumes on why this path is counterproductive.

What about you? Have you experienced success with interviews?


Originally written: January 12, 2017
Keywords: startups


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