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Matt Foley, Customer Discovery Expert

Matt Foley, Customer Discovery Expert

Hi, I'm Matt

I've been helping companies of all sizes - from startups to enterprises - do customer discovery for over 20 years. Here's my story and how I came to start

The highlights

If you don't have time to read my full story (below), here are some highlights:

  • I've done thousands of customer interviews and focus groups over my career, starting with my time as a Senior Qualitative Research Consultant at Harris Interactive (large global market research firm that is now part of Nielsen).
  • I've done discovery work with hundreds of large consumer brands and B2B companies, including Microsoft, Dell, Google, Amgen, Pfizer, T-Mobile, General Mills, Kraft, FedEx, BMW (and many more).
  • I was the co-founder of a boutique user experience consultancy that focused on user research, usability testing and eye tracking for web and mobile products.
  • I co-founded a startup named PluggedIN that built private online communities for companies to "co-create" new products with their customers. PluggedIN was acquired in 2011 by Edelman, where I became a Senior Vice President.
  • I've launched multiple SaaS products in the customer research and insights space, including FocusGroupIt (online "forum-style" focus groups), QualNow (online video surveys) and Advise.Us (online customer advisory boards).
  • I've given workshops and lectures on the topic of customer discovery to multiple universities, including the University of Rochester, Rochester Institute of Technology, Cornell and University at Buffalo.
  • I've been on the teaching team of multiple startup accelerators and bootcamp programs (Embark, Luminate, NEXUS-NY, Launchpad), helping the startups in their cohorts be successful their customer discovery process.
  • I've helped hundreds of startups/founders with their customer discovery through my work as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence and Managing Director of Startup Incubation at NextCorps, a startup incubator based in Rochester, NY.

And now I'm sharing everything I've learned about customer discovery over 20+ years on this site. This site is my way of "giving back" by documenting and sharing my advice and experiences publicly (I share more about why I started this site here).

Read on for the full story behind the bullet points above...

The early days

Fresh out of college (Boston University) I landed a job at a large market research firm named Harris Interactive (now owned by Nielsen) where I started at the very bottom as a Research Assistant and eventually worked my way up to a Senior Qualitative Research Consultant.

I never really planned to go into market research - it was a random connection through a friend that got me that first job. Market research to me meant "surveys," and surveys were boring/annoying. But I was fresh out of college and needed a job.

I quickly realized that research is way, way more than boring surveys and that early stage, exploratory qualitative research around innovation and new product development/testing is where the fun is at (for me at least). But I digress...

I spent my days at Harris flying around the world doing one-on-one customer interviews and focus groups. There were weeks where I was in 2-3 cities and doing 30-40 interviews per week. I'd do that 2-3 weeks per month, writing lengthy research reports when I wasn't traveling or interviewing.

As you can imagine, I got burned out after a few years of that...

The upside is I walked away with a ton of knowledge about what to do - and what not to do - when it comes to talking to customers/prospects (doing over 1,000 interviews helps!). Harris also paid for me to be formally trained/certified as a customer researcher at the Research in Values and Attitudes (RIVA) Institute.

I also got to work on a wide variety of research studies on behalf of major brands. One week I'd be doing customer/user research the Dell website, while the next week I'd be talking with LG's target customers about their use of household appliances. I even did a study where we installed camera's in people's homes (with their permission!) to explore their use of technology on behalf of Samsung.

The variety of studies was interesting, but also a little exhausting. I wanted to focus on one thing for a bit so I chose discovery research around software products...

The consulting years

After leaving Harris Interactive I teamed up with a colleague to launch a small user research/UX consultancy (that was affiliated with a web development firm). Luckily, many of my clients from Harris followed me to the new company.

It was here that I learned how software products are made, and the important role that discovery research plays in building software that users/customers love.

However, that ended up being the same old burnout while wearing a different hat. I was making more money and liked the focus on one type of research, but was still traveling a lot and doing an unsustainable amount of customer interviews/research.

Something had to change...

My first foray into a "real" startup

In college I took a few entrepreneurship classes and was always inspired by the founders that came and shared their stories with the class. I knew I wanted to start a "real" startup someday, but needed to get a few years of experience in an industry under my belt first to witness the problems in the industry firsthand.

My years at Harris and running my own small user research firm gave me plenty of time to witness the challenges of doing customer discovery research. I could spend pages writing about each of them, but the short of it is customer research can be time consuming and difficult to do (well). For these reasons (and more) people often skip talking to customers, and end up making poor decisions as a result...

I knew that traveling around the world to talk to customers face-to-face wasn't a very "scalable" way of doing discovery work, but at the time (2006) it was the dominant way that companies did it. It was slow (results could take many weeks or months) and expensive (flights, hotels, renting expensive facilities, food, incentives, etc.). The entrepreneur in me knew there had to be a better way...

Around that time social networks like MySpace and Facebook were growing fast. I saw an opportunity:

What if we could use these new kinds of social networks and community platforms for customer research?

That's where the idea for PluggedIN was born. We created a software platform that enabled companies to learn about their customers and develop/test new product ideas quickly, easily and relatively cost effectively.

At PluggedIN we'd invite a few hundred of our customer's current/prospective customers into our private online community platform and host regular (weekly/monthly) discussions with them. It was an awesome way to "co-create" new products directly alongside the target customers (a topic I plan to write about more in-depth on this site).

I teamed up with my former manager from Harris Interactive to start the company, and the rest is history. Our first customer was T-Mobile, and from there it grew (without any need for outside financing, I should add). We eventually landed Kraft, General Mills, Dell, Microsoft, Pfizer, FedEx, Newell-Rubbermaid, E*TRADE and many more...

Five years into running the company we received some unsolicited acquisition offers within a short period of time (1-2 months). Turns out we were on to something - customer research was moving online due to the significant benefits over traditional in-person methods, and we were at the vanguard of that movement by being an early pioneer in these "market research online communities" (aka "customer insight communities").

We chose the offer we liked the best (Edelman, the world's largest independent PR firm at that time). The acquisition was a success, with our product plugging in (pun intended) nicely into Edelman's global network of 55 offices. My co-founder and I were named SVPs and I moved to NYC to help make the acquisition work.

I quickly discovered that selling your company and going through an "earn out" period afterwards is a bit like selling your house and having to live with the new owners for a while.

Not exactly fun.

Edelman was/is a great company, but if you're entrepreneurial and like building things (like I am) then getting stuck with the proverbial golden handcuffs at a large global company can be a frustrating experience to say the least.

Two years in I left Edelman to start my next entrepreneurial journey...

Being a startup mentor

I had a hefty non-compete after leaving Edelman where I really couldn’t work in the industry (in any “real” capacity) for a while, so I decided to get involved with my local startup ecosystem in Rochester, NY to see if/how I could help out.

By chance I happened to meet the team at High Tech Rochester (now NextCorps), a local entrepreneurial support organization (ESO). They were running an accelerator program for early stage software startups, and asked me to help out after finding out about my background in customer research and experience bootstrapping a company from an idea to an exit.

What I learned from two cohorts of that accelerator program was eye opening.

These startups really struggled with doing the kind of customer discovery and concept validation work that I had been doing for the past decade (at that time). They asked leading questions, suffered from various biases like confirmation bias and availability bias, and were generally clueless on how to validate and test their startup concepts in a systematic and unbiased way.

NextCorps would eventually ask me to teach customer discovery principles to hundreds of founders in the incubation program (most of which are software companies), as well as accelerator programs for photonics/optics startups (Luminate) and clean energy/tech (NEXUS-NY). I haven given many workshops, sat on discovery calls and embedded myself in these startups as they went through their customer discovery journey.

Unfortunately, it isn't enough. I can't sit on all their discovery calls. I can't analyze every conversation and tell them what it means. But having me there giving advice on how to do the discovery process well is better than nothing, and I like to think I am able to help prevent these startups from failing.

This is part of my reason for starting this website - to scale up my impact and provide advice and tools to help startups (and companies of all size) be successful in their discovery journeys.

Building my own SaaS products

When I was doing discovery work on behalf of large brands and enterprises I used multiple tools made for professional researchers. The problem was that these tools were too expensive and complicated to use for non-professionals. The startups I was working with would never have been able to figure out how to use (or afford) these kinds of professional research platforms/tools.

I always admired companies like SurveyMonkey that democratized access to powerful tools and made them cheaper and easier to use. I decided to build my own suite of customer research products that were both easy to use and readily affordable for startups, to help them scale up their customer discovery efforts.

The first product I launched in 2014 was FocusGroupIt, which is software to run "forum-style" online focus groups. Think of an online forum, but specifically designed for getting qualitative customer/user feedback. These kinds of focus groups could easily run in the thousands of dollars per week/month for "pro" tools. I took the same strategy as SurveyMonkey and made it free to use with options to upgrade for a very reasonable price ($50-$100/group).

One of the features I launched in FocusGroupIt was a way to capture recorded video replies as answers to questions. The feature was popular, so I made the decision to roll that out into its own separate platform (long story as to why, but it made sense at the time). That platform is called QualNow, and designed for running video surveys (think regular surveys, but with video responses as replies).

In doing my own customer discovery interviews with customers of FocusGroupIt I found out that a sub-segment of them were using the platform to build ongoing focus groups

That brings us to today...

Outside of work

I stay busy mountain biking, snowboarding, playing/writing music (I play guitar, bass, keys and drums), reading (mostly non-fiction) and generally hanging out with my wife and 7-year old son in the Finger Lakes region of Western New York.

As for the question you've been waiting to ask...

No, I don't live in a van down by the river 😏

Why did we launch

Whether you're an entrepreneur or an enterprise, you've probably heard by now that you should be doing "customer discovery" (i.e., talking to your customers to learn about their background, problems, goals, behaviors, etc. so you avoid making critical missteps).

Endless posts have been written about customer discovery and the importance of doing it, but very little content exists on the "how to." That's the niche this site was made to fill. We're going to teach you how to be awesome at talking to your customers.

We'll do that by sending you a brief email every single week with actionable tips, tricks and tools that you can use in your customer discovery conversations. No fluff, industry jargon or consultant speak - just practical advice as you embark/continue on your discovery journey.

Who is behind this site? is run by Matt Foley, a customer research expert with over 20 years of experience doing discovery work for organizations of all sizes - from large enterprises like Dell, Kraft, T-Mobile, General Mills, Microsoft, Pfizer, Hyatt, BMW, Mercedes Benz (and more) to early-stage startups through his active involvement at the non-profit startup incubator NextCorps, one of the largest incubators in New York State. Along the way Matt has started 4 software companies, one of which successfully exited in 2011.

You can read Matt's full bio and connect with him here: Matt Foley bio

Why subscribe to our weekly emails?

The advice you'll receive is directly from Matt's experiences over the past 20 years. You'll hear about what works and doesn't work, how to avoid common discovery pitfalls and unique discovery methods that go far beyond the typical customer interview.

Oh yeah, did we mention it's free to subscribe?

We'll likely have a paid membership options for access to advanced training, community, resources, etc. in the future, but we'll always have a free tier available to help people at all stages be successful in their customer discovery journey...