How to Start a Startup: Running a User Interview

Emmett Shear and Justin Kan, the founders of Twitch, didn’t start out talking to their users. That may have contributed to them selling their first company on eBay.

Emmett Shear shared insights he and the Twitch team gained by talking to users and the right way to go about it as part of Y Combinator president Sam Altman’s How to Start a Startup series.

(For more startup advice, check out How to Start a Startup: The Book. It’s the ultimate reference guide to creating a successful tech startup.)

Shear admits that, in their first business venture together, he and Kan created a product without a solid use case. They wised up, though, and founded Justin.tv which later became Twitch — “the world’s leading video platform and community for gamers.”

If you’re unfamiliar with the entertainment of broadcasting, it’s basically where, instead of playing a video game or watching your friends play on your couch, you watch someone else from your computer or broadcast your own game play.

The platform didn’t start out as this, however. Justin.tv (Twitch’s first form) was a site where you could broadcast your life. Shear said, “If you wanted to run a live 24/7 reality television show about your life, we had the website for you.”

But they needed to get bigger and reach a broader audience and to do that, they needed use cases to find where these people were. In the end, to get broader, they had to pivot. “There were two directions that seemed promising. One was mobile and one was gaming,” Shear explained.

Talk to the Right Users

Shear was in charge of the getting the scoop on the gaming side of things, which of course was the direction the company wound up going. And for the first time, they started to talk to users.

This was especially crucial for them to do early on because, “While I loved watching gaming videos, I was very aware that neither I nor anyone else in the company knew anything about broadcasting video games,” Shear said. To figure out how to acquire content and start broadcasting, they had to reach out to the people who’d be using the site.

As their idea became more tangible, Shear said, “We determined that the broadcasters were the most important people because when we went and looked into the market, we looked into what determined why people watched a certain stream or went to a certain website. They would just follow the content.” So they had to investigate the people who were putting the content out there.

Figuring out which group in their audience was most influential to their business was important, but to get the entire scope of things, they had to identify and interview other groups, as well. “It comes down to thinking really hard and using your judgment to figure out who you are really building this for,” said Shear.

He added that picking a user comes above all else. “Before you think about who you should ask, or what the feature should be, just think about who is going to use this app? … Who am I going to talk to? … and where am I going to find them?”

Interviews will give you these insights, where stats and data just can’t.

Interviewing – Round 1

When interviewing people about your product, it should be all about them — not your app. Don’t ask them about anything regarding any features you’re thinking about or even other competing products in the space.

Shear said that those kinds of questions will distract you from solving the problem because you’re getting answers based on the assumption that people know what they want. But that’s not the case. People know the problem they have, and sure they’ll tell you how they think it should be fixed for themselves, but it’s your job to create a product that solves the problems of your entire audience.

“You [can] get the horseless carriage effect where you’re asked for a faster horse instead of being asked to design the actual solution to the problem.”

Shear added, “So you want to stay as far away from features as possible because the things they tell you feel overwhelmingly real. When you have a real user asking you for a feature, it’s very hard to say no to them because here’s a real person who really has this problem.”

After you’ve talked to a wide spectrum of 6-8 potential users, Shear said it’s best to move on to your next phase, as anything after that is likely to be a lot of repeat information.

Narrow In on Your Ideas

You’re no longer completely shooting in the dark at this point. Now you can literally put faces to your potential users and start figuring out exactly the problem that your product is going to solve and brainstorming how that’s going to happen.

Shear said that a great place to start, if possible, is to build on top of existing platforms. So, if you want to build a new email experience, maybe start with a Gmail extension to test your idea before trying to build an entirely new platform.

When narrowing your idea, you’re not just trying to create something that people will like, and certainly not just something that people will tell you they like. Instead, you want it to be something that they buy (download, view, etc) and even better, something so good that they stop using another product in that space and replace it with yours.

To test your theory, you can build a quick mockup of your product for people to test. But even if you don’t have the capacity to do a mockup or prototype, Shear said you should go into your second round of interviews with your more focused goal in mind.

Interviewing – Round 2

In lieu of showing your interviewees an actual version of your product, which Shear advises against, he said in round two you can opt to draw out diagrams of what it might look like so that people can understand the workflow.

“You want to learn what’s already in their heads. You want avoid putting things there,” he explained.

You could think of it as leading questions in journalism. When you’re interviewing people, you need their honest opinions — not what you want to hear, because even if you lead them to say, “Yeah this is the best app ever. I’d totally use it,” that doesn’t mean they actually will when the time comes.

When interviewing you’re always searching for problems from your interviewee, not validation, and definitely not a solution. Putting them in the position of just commenting on whether they like the app is giving them an easy out and not providing you with any useful information.

If your product is something that you intend to charge people for, that’s a bigger challenge with a bigger payoff because you can try and get them to pay you just from seeing the mockups or the test site. Shear says at this stage especially, “Get people to give you their credit card and I guarantee you they are actually interested in the feature.”

Dissecting Your Feedback

After your interviews, you’re going to have gathered a ton of information. Rather than tackle it comment by comment or just focus on one feature someone mentioned, you’ve got to get the big picture not only from your users, but your competitors’ users and even non-users who aren’t in your space at all.

Your Users

With Twitch, Shear said they looked at all of their user feedback and found trends and commonalities. For their business, they were able to narrow down the essence of the major concerns into five statements that were easier to diagnose.

Most of the issues from their own users were a matter of interface or function. Shear said, “When you talk to detailed users of your product, they come back to you with very detailed things about features because they get mired in the features. You have to sort of read between the lines.”

Competitors’ Users

Shear said the information they learned from their own users was of course interesting, but not as helpful as it could have been.

“If you thought that [went to] address these problems, you would be wrong. People who are using your service already are willing to put up with all these issues, which kind of means that these are probably not the biggest problems.”

No matter how big any of these users’ issues were, they’re weren’t big enough to deter them from the site. So in the grand picture of Twitch, they were rather small issues.

In order to broaden your scope, you have to look at people who are using competing services, or those who have left yours. These are the people who will point out the really raw pain points that your current audience doesn’t care about or overlooks.

When they talked to competitor’s users, they got totally different feedback than what they got from their own about more general issues rather than interface and function issues. Shear said, “We focused on this stuff because this was the stuff that was so bad that people weren’t even willing to use our service.”


This is the powerhouse for ultimate expansion. These are people who are literally not thinking about your brand at all, so they take the most convincing and require the most questioning.

Shear said, “In the case of gaming broadcasting, almost everyone is a non-user. The majority of people you are competing with are non-users,” so they were particularly important for Twitch’s growth.

“If all you do is look at your competitors and talk to people who use your competitors’ products, you can never expand. You’re not learning things that help you expand the size of the market. You want to talk to people who aren’t even trying to use these things yet.”

Again, when you’re talking to these people, you’re not trying to discover the features they’d add or even how they would use your product. You’re trying to learn about their lives to find issues that they’re having and the goals they’re trying to accomplish. Then, you find out where your product can fit into that.

Technical Interview Tips

Do It in Person: Shear says, “Email interviews are basically useless.” When you’re interacting with someone in person or via Skype, people may ramble into places that are really insightful, which you can then explore further.

Record Them: When you record your interview, you don’t have to take notes, which can be disruptive. Also, you can play that recording for your team later, so you can pitch your new ideas with the support of the user feedback in video.

Talking to users should be one of the first steps in creating your startup and will continue to guide you in each decision you make for your company.

Unless the product you’re creating is just for yourself, the people who you’re creating for should have the first say. And if you’ve solved their problems in the right way, you can have the last.

Next Steps

You can watch the video and read a full transcript of Shear’s lecture here.


Also, if you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out How to Start a Startup: The Book. It’s the ultimate reference guide to creating a successful tech startup.

How to Start a Startup: The Book

Featured image was taken from the video of Emmett Shear’s lecture at Stanford.

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