There’s a $20M market in cricket farming for human consumption.
But does that mean that people want to buy cricket protein powder?
I had no idea. But pre-selling can be a valuable tool to answer questions like this. This question was also the starting point for The Whole Cricket – my team at the Lean Startup Machine (LSM) in San Francisco. If you’re not familiar with the event, here’s the quick version: nerdy people like me enter into a customer development competition. Having the most sales or traction is the ticket to victory.
The tool of customer development means challenging your hypotheses about your customers. And it means you need to find a problem before presenting or even entertaining a solution. It’s based on Ash Maurya’s Running Lean. I can summarize the big takeaway from the book, and it happens to be plastered on LSM’s t-shirts:
Get Out of the Building.
And so we did. We took the information we learned in 11 short interviews to pivot twice, narrow our market, and run a successful experiment. The process landed our team into a first place finish.
Rather than going blow-by-blow through the entire experience, I’ll just give you biggest takeaways. By the end of this blog, you’ll have the tools to conduct an experiment of your own to find out if your business idea is solid in 24 hours or less through tools like pre-selling.
Act I: Gym Loiterers
Our first hypothesis was this: people who take protein powder have a hard time finding truly healthy options. We took to the streets to find out.
The two places we were likely to find buyers of protein powder: the gym, and nutrition stores. Our team split into two small groups and began interviewing people. This was our exact script:
- Build Rapport
- Do you use protein powder every week?
- What kind of protein powder do you use? i.e. Whey, Plant-Based
- How did you choose that specific powder?
- Would you say the protein powder you chose is healthier than others?
- Variation: Do you care if your protein powder is healthier?
- What are your biggest challenges in finding a healthy protein powder?
- If you could wave a magic wand, what does the perfect powder look like?
- Taste and price are the most important factors for the majority of buyers.
- Most buyers try a variety of protein powders.
- Most buyers don’t cite results/nutrients as an important factor.
- Buyers with food allergies are underserved in the market.
Lesson: ask your customers and potential customers questions. Our ask/interview rate was well over 50%, and we managed to conduct and record 11 interviews.
Act II: The Art of Interpretation
What happened to our initial hypothesis that buyers felt it difficult to find healthy protein powder? Rejected. But we learned a few things that allowed us to move forward.
The art of interpretation is knowing which information to act on. It’s no easy task.
We looked at Point 2 first: most buyers try different kinds of protein. It’s a problem in the market and was validated in our interviews. We pivoted to see if there was a subscription service for protein powders to help buyers try lots of different kinds and…
A dozen or so businesses like this already exist. We crossed that one off the list too.
Which brought us to Point 4: buyers with food allergies are underserved in the market.
This one was interesting. We only heard it from a single person – that’s 1 of 11 interviewees – but we thought it had some weight. It implied that more discriminating health nuts would also feel underserved by the protein powder market.
Our team pounded the interwebs.
We pivoted again, this time to a niche customer: Paleo fitness junkies.
The mentors at LSM had some conflicting advice at this point. Some felt we hadn’t confirmed there was a problem, and they were right. We only had one person who said they were underserved by the protein market. But we had another problem – it would be hard to access fitness junkies with strict diets in the time we had allotted in the workshop.
Other mentors told us we had enough information to test a solution: cricket protein powder – which was dubbed The Whole Cricket by mentor Mark Abramson.
Lesson: follow a process and test your hypotheses. Gray areas will emerge – trust your gut, and test that too.
Act III: The Despair and The Sales Page
We were ready to test whether Paleo-Eating Fitness Enthusiasts were interested in buying cricket-based protein powder.
Not to get too technical, but there are a few details that matter here:
- Powders that contain dairy are problematic for strict Paleos.
- Because cricket protein powder uses the entire cricket, it contains more protein, amino acids and essential nutrients per weight as compared to other forms of animal protein.
- Cricket farming is better for the environment because it uses less water and creates less waste as compared to traditional agriculture.
- Non-technical: “all natural” and “dairy free” are winning messages in markets focused on buyers with dietary restrictions.
I only mention this for one simple reason – when you sell, you need to know what to say. This is not different for pre-selling. To know what to say, you need to know your buyer and what they care about. And those bullet points, mentioned above, are some pretty powerful pieces of information.
We set up a new experiment based on the following:
- Customer: Paleo Diet Fitness Enthusiasts
- Problem: Hard/impossible to find protein powders that satisfy their needs
- Solution: The Whole Cricket – cricket-based protein powder
- Riskiest assumption: They’ll buy it
- Success criterion: 10 “sales” on landing page
I set up a landing page with copy, photo and call to action. If we got 10 “sales” conversions then we were in the money.
Here’s what we came up with:
It felt like nothing was going right at this point. For context, we worked on this for about 8 hours and it seemed like we were continents away from any viable business. But I had already put in 11 hours to this workshop, damn it, and I was going to see it through.
So the landing page went up. Check.
In case you can’t see it, the call to action says “Buy Now for $29” – not the most optimized of all buttons. Once a visitor clicks buy, it sends them to a page that says:
Whoops! We’re all sold out. Enter your email address and a sentence or two about your interest in The Whole Cricket and you’ll be on the waiting list.
We only counted the people who clicked the CTA and filled out the form as “sales.”
Now we needed traffic. We could easily have paid for traffic, but that just stunk. Anyone who has worked with paid traffic knows that it takes weeks to optimize, and I didn’t feel confident that we’d be grabbing the people we needed on our page.
We took the route of social media and marketplaces. We posted links in the following locations: Facebook feeds (without implying any involvement in the product) Twitter Reddit Paleo Craigslist Paleo and fitness blogs and forums
And then we waited….
Lesson: It takes 3 hours and 2 people to set up an experiment that’s good enough to learn a lot. There’s no excuse not to do it.
Act IV: Don’t Stick The Beans Up Your Nose
My great grandmother loved to tell this story…
A mother left her boy at home. Before she left, she was sure to tell him not to get into trouble. “Don’t eat all the cabbage. Don’t spill all the milk. Don’t fall down the well.” And then – in an effort to stay a step ahead – she pre-empted her son: “Don’t stick the beans up your nose.”
He had a noseful of beans when she came back home.
As we posted to social sites to get traffic, we used a similar strategy of intrigue. Rather than talking about how the cricket powder was for sale, we used questions and objectivity to create a sense of mystery. Our Reddit post simply read:
“Would you eat cricket protein powder? I’m not selling it or anything, just wondering if you’d try it.”
Proof of Reddit stardom.
This became the #1 Paleo Reddit in two hours with 55+ comments. A few commenters asked for the link to the landing page, and a few of them ultimately became our buyers.
The more objective and seemingly uninvolved we were, the more traction the idea was able to gain. So we repeated the same copywriting mechanics in every ad and social post that we used.
Lesson: you’re dead without traffic, and you’re more influential when you don’t assert your opinion.
Act V: Time For Some Action
Our experiment was a success. We ended up with:
- 19 “sales” on no paid traffic
- 29% CTR on the buy button on the landing page
- 293 page visits
- 1 person paid us through Paypal
The experiment was a success. We won Lean Startup Machine SF after feeling like we were total failures and would live in LSM infamy. Maybe we still will, but at least we won the damn thing in the process.
I’m most proud of a message my teammate Randy received after the landing page went up:
This was a promising sales lead ON A SATURDAY.
Beyond the lessons I already shared, I also learned the importance of big actions. A friend and client recently gave me the audio version of the book The Ten X Rule: The Only Difference by Grant Cardone. I happened to listen to it in the car on my way to LSM. Cardone’s point in the book? Most people who fail don’t actually do enough to succeed.
That was confirmed at LSM. Most of the other groups had meager results, if any. Even members of my own group spent time debating, trying to optimize strategies and mostly avoiding uncomfortable situations. Some of them are business owners and have never seen the traction they expected to have by now.
Let’s be honest: interviewing strangers doesn’t come natural to many people. Selling a product that is total vaporware with a made up testimonial can feel gross. But you know what? We ran a viable experiment with real results that validated a business idea. And that could only be done with massive, focused action.
Lesson: decide on a path and take the steps to execute. If it fails, at least you know what not to do next time. If you never execute, you never learn.
What lessons have you learned here that you could apply in your business today? Would you consider pre-selling?
Leave a comment below. I read and respond to all of them.