A Practical Guide to Primary Market Research: Advice from MIT’s Bill Aulet


Customer interviews are one of the most effective ways entrepreneurs determine if their idea can become a viable product or business. Unfortunately, many entrepreneurs do not adequately incorporate primary market research into startup formation.

In his new book, Disciplined Entrepreneurship Workbook, Bill Aulet dedicates a chapter to the what, why, and how of primary market research. The following partial excerpt from his book focuses on common obstacles to the process and shares tools for effectively conducting research.

The Five Biggest Obstacles to Good Primary Market Research

The fundamental concept of primary market research is quite simple—go out and observe, listen, and interact with potential customers. It sounds easy, but it is not. Here are some of the pitfalls to be aware of before you start the process.

Lack of Structured Process: While there needs to be flexibility in how you obtain information, you must have a process and know the process—and understand that it is a process!

Not Properly Executing the Designed Process: No process will work if it is not used properly. For primary market research, you can’t come up with the right answers without interacting with others. You must get out and talk, observe, and test hypotheses with real potential customers, which often results in answers you would not have gotten on your own. You must dig and get good initial sources to talk to and then grow your sources. You have to learn the process and execute it with good technique. Good technique has a lot to do with avoiding the biases covered in the next three points.

Confirmation Bias: Extremely common for all researchers, confirmation bias is when you only see the information that confirms your worldview. You ignore or block out any information that runs counter to your hypothesis. A good way to counter this tendency is to set up criteria beforehand that will confirm or disprove your hypothesis so that you don’t change the metrics for success once you start. Even then, bias can still creep in based on how you structure your questions and surveys, inadvertently prompting the customer to provide the answers you want to hear. You must be neutral and not “lead the witness.”

Selection Bias: The people you interview, whether during qualitative or quantitative research, may not be a good representation of the opinions of the group as a whole. Think about online polls that allow everyone to vote without controlling for demographics. The type of people who vote do so in percentages that far exceed their true representation of the broader population. As such they produce wildly inaccurate projections. You must understand what your sample should look like to produce meaningful results, and control for variations between people that will affect your results. Sometimes, selection bias can be exacerbated by not clearly defining your customer. If your end user is “women” and you are at the mall interviewing or observing potential end users, will a 15-year-old affluent urban female have similar opinions as a 40-year-old middle-class suburban mother of three kids? Think about whether your definition of end user is too broad to achieve reliable research results.

Social Acceptability Bias: If you engage with family or friends, they will most likely not give you accurate answers because they don’t want to offend you by not liking your ideas. You need brutally honest feedback from unbiased people.

There are other biases such as giving the more entertaining interview more weight, giving the last interview more consideration, etc. It is good to realize your biases and always be on the lookout for them. A great way to minimize biases is to have multiple people conducting the research who have been trained on the biases inherent in research, so that multiple perspectives will keep things honest.

Tools of Primary Market Research

Here are several methods that successful entrepreneurs have used for primary market research:

Customer interviews: As noted above, this is the most common. Essential for qualitative research but also good for quantitative research. [Editor’s note: Read our article Customer Interviews: Tips, Do’s, and Don’ts for more interviewing best practices.]

Observational research: Watch customers in action. Video record them or record their mouse and keyboard activity. Ride with customers in the passenger seat (real or metaphorically) as they do their job, carefully observing and asking questions at the right time while making sure not to change their behavior through your actions or questions.

Immersion: Do the customer’s work and fully experience all the dimensions of the job in a way that will give you an understanding that may not come from observation.

User tests: Landing pages don’t just draw in candidates, they also give important insights into customer behavior and preferences. A/B testing is another effective form of user testing.

User-driven innovation: This is a technique described and validated through research by MIT Sloan Entrepreneurship Professor Eric von Hippel. It encourages you to look for the end user with the most acute pain from a problem and see how they are developing a workaround solution.

Outcome-driven innovation: This framework is also known as “Jobs to be Done,” created by Anthony Ulwick and popularized by Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen. Outcome-driven innovation is based on the concept that customers have measurable outcomes they are trying to achieve in their day-to-day (usually when they are performing a job), and a company should link its innovation to those customer outcomes because customers buy products to solve problems and get jobs done.

Primary Market Research Worksheets

Use these worksheets when conducting your next primary market research.

PMR I: Preparation

PMR II: Execution

About the author

primary market researchBill Aulet is the Managing Director, Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and Senior Lecturer, MIT Sloan School of Management. Aulet is changing the way entrepreneurship is understood, taught and practiced around the world.  During the past seven years he has been responsible for leading the development of entrepreneurship education across MIT, where he has been recognized with numerous awards.  His book, Disciplined Entrepreneurship, which was released in August 2013, has become an international best seller due to its accessible and methodical approach to entrepreneurship. Aulet’s new companion book, Disciplined Entrepreneurship Workbook, is a practical manual for implementing the 24-step framework outlined in Disciplined Entrepreneurship. You can order the workbook here.

Adapted with permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, from Disciplined Entrepreneurship Workbook by Bill Aulet. Copyright (c) 2017 by Bill Aulet. All rights reserved. This book is available at all bookstores and online booksellers. Disciplined Entrepreneurship Workbook is the follow up to the Bill Aulet’s previous title, Disciplined Entrepreneurship (John Wiley & Sons, 2013).


By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. Read More