The underlying basis of product development is learning. More often than not, the faster the rate of learning, the higher the quality of decision making over time. This is true for most things in life, and it’s crucial when developing a product.

I think this mindset is essential for two reasons. First, founders and their teams usually live in a bubble. Tremendous effort is poured into designing and making versions of products, and it’s not uncommon for less than a quarter of that effort to be invested in product testing with people who might like it. And because you can’t learn without ‘getting out of the building’, this mindset forces teams to look for external validation.

Second, I think that the number of product decisions made each month or quarter as a result of externally validated experiments and conversations (i.e. rate of learning) is a lead indicator of a venture’s likelihood of future success.

Where ride-sharing comes in

Most founders I know value time. And when it comes to getting from point to point on the ground, they value the time that ride-sharing companies put back in their diaries. From not having to explain directions to slick payments and receipting.

When I get into an Uber (Lyft hasn’t made it to Australia, please arrive soon), I’m walking into a captive audience and the opportunity to learn.

Product development environments don’t get much better.

I could use my time in the Uber to manage controllable tasks, like making calls or following up on emails and slack. I could also use that time to think more about the fires I need to put out.

Or I could take advantage of the captive audience and do what is often uncontrollable, engage directly, pitch and learn from someone who might be a target customer.

I’m writing about this now because while I’ve been taking advantage of Uber in this way for some time (and learning a lot from drivers in the process), the tables were turned this week. I’ll get to that shortly.

Talking with Uber strangers

I don’t have a specific strategy for how to speak with Uber drivers beyond thanking them for picking me up, enquiring about their day and asking for how long they have been driving with the company. I do however have two or three questions up my sleeve at any given time that I’m curious to know the answer to. They will relate to relate to products that I’m building or ventures in which I have an interest.

For example, when it comes to Drop, I am always curious to know how or if people think about managing their health. I might use a private health insurance advertisement on the back of a bus that we’re both staring at to start a conversation.

Similarly, if a current affair comes up in conversation, I might ask how they heard about the story and then share how I get my news (via inkl). And if the news story relates to people affected by a natural disaster, I will ask their opinion on donations (with a view to learning more for Sempo).

The point is that having questions at the ready and a small segue can be a starting point for a conversation and by default an opportunity to learn.

Obviously, receiving a vibe from the driver that they aren’t prepared to engage can make for a quiet ride. But I have found this to happen less than 30% of the time. And when it does, I turn my attention to emails, slack, returning calls and fire-fighting.

The dual value of Uber, meet Mark

This week I was on my way back from the university at which I teach. Mark responded for my trip, and we soon started talking about what I did and what he did. Mark was asking all the right questions to learn more about me to find the segue to introduce his home maintenance and construction business. He was authentic and a pleasure to talk to.

Mark wasn’t to know that I too am a hustler. But unlike the old adage, don’t try and sell to a salesman, I respected his hustle for one reason: I wanted to learn about how a seasoned tradesman thinks about business development. And the conversation was timely as I may need his services in the future.

While I did not have my two or three up-my-sleeve questions answered, I did learn a lot. And Mark received a few tips about how to manage digital invoicing and payments while he’s on the go.

It was win-win.

One last thing…

Founders should always be thinking about how they can make their company learn faster. There are strategic processes we can all implement, and then there are hacks that take advantage of time, like speaking with  Uber drivers.

For founders, making the decision to engage and talk about your product (or topics surrounding your product) is a unique opportunity. As our companies grow, the chance to have coal-face conversations with customers can diminish. This is one way to maintain a connection with potential customers and stay attuned to trends and different perspectives.

For Uber drivers, I’m sure some rules govern hawking to passengers. But there is an art to business development which primarily revolves around judging mood and timing and delivering a well-considered pitch.

I am not saying that Uber drivers should be pitching their customers relentlessly. What I am saying is that you have potentially hundreds of times per month (depending on how often you drive) to generate revenue while doing product development.

And if you live in Sydney and require a home improvement and construction service, consider Mark. We are.