How “idea laundering” could be throwing off your customer research

Ask any failed entrepreneur: If you get customer research wrong and don’t fix it fast, it completely throws off everything that comes after.

The internet is a graveyard of business ideas that launched on a whim thanks to minimum viable product mentality, only to be met with total and utter indifference because the thing the founder thought was a “burning pain” was actually something their audience didn’t care about. 

Here’s an uncomfortable truth: When customer research goes sideways, the problem usually isn’t an external factor, like your technology going haywire or your funnel not being optimized. It’s you.

Zero to Launch student Joe Leider captures the problem perfectly:

“Even when I talk to people and gather their true feelings, I still tend to shape and change them in order to fit into my own mental model. It’s like laundering money, but with thoughts and feelings instead.”

We call this “idea laundering”: the act of taking customer feedback and jamming it into your preconceived notions. Like with any problem that comes back to you and your mindset, if you know to look out for it, you can correct for it and avoid the online business graveyard.

Here, we walk through two of the most common types of idea laundering traps that entrepreneurs can fall into, and how you can avoid them and keep your idea validation just that — valid.

Trap #1: Skipping right to a solution 

Sometimes, the thing that trips you up in customer research is just the fact that you’re looking for ideas of businesses to start — and you start seeing possible businesses everywhere.

“As you’re talking to people, you’re building all these mental models of how a business would work,” says Joe. “You start doing these internal translations to try to turn what people are telling you into a business.”

The danger here: when you become so impatient to turn a problem into a solution, you skip some steps. It can lead to cutting corners in the name of getting to abusiness sooner — regardless of whether or not it’s the right business.

In other words, sometimes a statement from a potential customer is just that: a statement. And not indicative of a potential solution.

In Joe’s case, when his research calls said things like, “I’m afraid of looking like an idiot in front of my boss,” Joe jumped to “I’m afraid of not being prepared for meetings” — because being prepared for meetings felt like a clear problem for which Joe could develop a clear solution. You can practically see the e-book: “The Ultimate Guide to Preparing for Meetings.”

It could be a great e-book, and it could be the beginning of a great business — as long as Joe is sure that fear of being prepared for meetings is actually the source of the fear he was hearing about.

But “looking like an idiot in front of my boss” is a problem with dozens of solutions. Meetings are just one possible avenue there.

Joe could move forward with his laundered idea that “fear of looking stupid = fear of not being prepared,” without confirming that that’s true. And by doing so, he could find himself six months or a year from now, launching to the sound that is every entrepreneur’s nightmare: crickets.

Fortunately, that’s not what Joe’s doing. He caught himself in the act. He’s taking notes, staying close to what his audience is actually saying and the words they’re actuallyusing. Helping nervous professionals prepare for meetings? That’s still on the table — as long as Joe is sure that it plugs into the true burning pain that he’s actually hearing from his contacts: “I’m afraid of looking like an idiot in front of my boss.”

Trap #2: Hammer-nail syndrome

The tendency to turn what people are saying into what you want them to be saying is strong enough when you’re looking for a problem to solve. It gets even stronger when you think you know what the problem is — and you have a solution already baked.

That’s what happened to Zen Crousore. She had her solution — a system she had created to help busy professional women find time for their interests. She just needed a problem for it to solve. And at first, she went into customer research assuming that that problem would be everywhere.  

“I thought people would respond with, ‘YES, I want to figure out what are the things that make me tick. I want to find the things that I really want to do, that will bring me a lot of joy and energize me, while still fulfilling my obligations as wife and mother and professional.’”

Spoiler alert: That’s not what she got. “Most people would come at me with, ‘I wish I had a maid.’ ‘I wish my husband helped out with housework more.’ ‘I wish my mom lived closer.’”

In psychology, there’s a concept called “the law of the instrument,” or Maslow’s Hammer. It comes from a quote attributed to psychologist Abraham Maslow: “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

When you become invested in building your solution, exactly as you envision it, you become that person with the hammer, trying to convince yourself that everyone you’re talking to has nails that need hammering — no matter how many people tell you that, actually, what they need is a tasty adult beverage made from vodka and orange juice.

The people Zen was talking to weren’t worried about nails. Their problems didn’t need a hammer — and so Zen’s solution didn’t really make sense … for those people.

So you’ve caught yourself idea laundering. What’s next?

Recognizing that there’s a disconnect between what you think customers are saying and what they’re actually saying is key, but your insights are only as good as what you do with them.

Once you realize the disparity is there, there are three things you can do:

  1. Change your solution,so that it more directly addresses what the market is saying.  
  2. Change how you talk about your solution, so that the way you’re talking draws a clearer connection between what you’re hearing and what you’re building. (This is what Joe is doing.) 
  3. Change who you talk to, so that what you’re hearing more closely matches what you want to offer. (This is what Zen is doing.)

Have you ever found yourself doing these or any other weird mental acrobatics when doing customer research? Tell us about it in the comments below!