Stacking the Bricks Podcast EP42 - What is Sales Safari? with Eteinne Garbugli
19 min

In this episode…

This week I'm talking customer research with Eteinne Garbugli. Eteinne is the author of a book called Lean B2B, and after learning that his book included our Sales Safari customer research framework, I offered to talk with him and answer some of his remaining questions about the methodology.

In the next 30 minutes, you'll hear Eteinne and I talk about:
- the surprising origin of Sales Safari itself
- what we really mean when we say "customer pain" and the many forms it can take
- why strategically choosing an audience is actually a lot more straightforward than most entrepreneurs make it

...and a whole lot more.

In the full interview, we also talked about a bunch of other topics related to entrepreneurship and some of Eteinne's favorite lessons in The Tiny MBA, but you're here for the Sales Safari so I'm jumping straight into that here on the podcast feed!

This is some of the most in-depth information we've ever published about Sales Safari outside of our paid courses, so I'm excited to share it and hope it helps you understand and reach your audiences.

Ready? Here we go. 


Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: What is up brick stackers! Welcome back to a brand-new episode of Stacking the Bricks. As always, I’m your host, Alex Hillman and this week I’m talking customer research with Étienne Garbugli.

Étienne is the author of a book called Lean B2B, and after learning that his book included our Sales Safari customer research framework, I offered to talk with him one-on-one and answer some of his remaining questions about the methodologies that we teach.

In the next 30 minutes or so, you’ll hear Étienne and I talk about the surprising origin of Sales Safari itself, what Amy and I really mean when we say customer pain – and the many forms that pain can take, why strategically choosing an audience is actually a lot more straightforward than most entrepreneurs make it, and a whole lot more.

In the full episode, on his podcast feed, we also talk about a bunch of other topics related to entrepreneurship and some of his favorite lessons from The Tiny MBA, but you’re here for Sales Safari, so I’m going to jump straight into that here on the Stacking the Bricks Podcast feed.

This is some of the most in-depth information that we’ve ever published about Sales Safari outside of our paid courses. So, I’m really excited to share it with you, and I hope it helps you understand and reach your customers.

Ready? Here we go!

Étienne Garbugli: Something I see a lot, especially with B2B founders where people will try and solve problems that are kind of always in the same universe while there’s still a portion of these that are not tackled at all.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: A hundred percent. I actually just wrote an article about the availability bias and how that shows up in exactly the problem you’re describing. It’s kinds of businesses and it’s kinds of products.

Somebody, a friend of mine, tweeted this morning, she said, “What kinds of products can developers make that aren’t software, eBooks and courses? I’m having a hard time thinking of any.”

The reason for that is because the most recent things you’ve seen are software, eBooks and courses, so if you don’t have a system for expanding that, which is one of the biggest sets of lessons in 30x500 is how to turn real audience insights by running through a system. So, you’re not relying on your imagination. You’re relying on what’s effectively like a pre-programmed remix algorithm where you put in a problem and algorithmically you can approach a problem and say, here’s a bunch of different variations. Some of them won’t make sense. Some of them won’t be feasible. Some of them, your audience won’t want, and some of them you won’t be able to create. So, you eliminate those. What you’re left with is a bunch of options that will include things that you wouldn’t have thought of if you had a blank canvas and just your creative mind.

Étienne Garbugli: That’s a great point. So maybe connecting that to the methodology that you guys have in place. I personally first came across Sales Safari techniques on Indie Hackers. Some of the posts you guys had mentioned. I also heard it mentioned by other entrepreneurs. I think it’s a really interesting technique, both in terms of research, but also in terms of entrepreneurship, what it can add in terms of value.

So, could you maybe talk about the genesis of the Sales Safari and how it relates to 30x500?

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: So I want to start by making sure that Amy has credit for inventing Sales Safari. This is 100% her brain baby, but to more directly answer your question, when we started teaching 30x500, there was a set of steps that we thought were instructive.

They basically said, go out on the internet, find your audience and read what they’re talking about. It sounds straightforward, right?

People would come back and say, “I didn’t see anything”. “Really? Where did you look?” And they’d be like, “Oh, browsing Hacker News or Indie Hackers forum.” We’re like, “Well, what threads?” They’re like, “I was just kind of browsing around”, and I was like, “Well, did you go into any threads?” They were like, “Yeah, some”, “and what did you see?” “Ah, just people talking about stuff, a lot of them were complaining”. I was like, “Complaining! That’s the thing you’re supposed to be looking for! Why did you ignore that?”. They’d go, “I thought it was just people complaining?” And I was like, “No, no, no. People go on the internet to complain about things because something hurts. Think about how much something needs to hurt in order for you to go on the internet, to a room full of strangers and ask for help.”

There’s a difference between complaining and asking for help, but they were assigning people asking for help as complaining. I was like, “Oh, okay. We need more explicit instructions.”

So, Amy kind of reverse engineering what she did when she would go on a forum and do research, break it down into steps. First, you look at this, then you look at this, then you look at this, and showed people, examples of Amy looking for it.

So, we brought that to people, and they were like, “Oh my God, I didn’t see any of that. That’s unbelievable!” And we’re like, “Okay, cool. Now you go do it.” So, they would go off into their forums, they’d come back, and they’d say, “I just don’t see anything.” “Well, what did you do?” They’d go, “Well, I did what Amy did”, and I’d go, “Show me your notes” and they go, “I didn’t take any notes.” “Then you didn’t do what Amy did, because Amy was taking notes.”

I realized that this group of smart – many of them college educated professionals – didn’t know how to take notes! Fascinating! And realized that that is a researcher skill and not necessarily a technologist’s skill, or a creative skill. The next major wave of Sales Safari development was teaching people how to take notes.

That was when we developed the sort of core quadrants of Sales Safari notes, which are pain, jargon, worldview, and recommendations. Basically, by giving people a pre-created note taking sheet, we could say, when you go to a forum – pass number one, you’re looking for pain. Write down all the pain you see. Then do it again and look for jargon. This is what jargon looks like. Write that down.

I don’t know if we can make it more paint by numbers than we have at this point, but here’s the differences is we teach it as a practice-able skill. In fact, one of the biggest shifts that we made when we redeveloped the course in about 2013 was instead of having people’s first Sales Safari attempt to be on their own audience, we would assign them an audience. We chose freelancers because even if you’re not a freelancer, you kind of have a sense of how a freelancer works and thinks. You can say words like invoicing and client, and that’s not going to sound like a foreign language.

So, instead of sending people into their own audience for the first practice, we’d send them into an audience that was familiar enough, but not their own, and that the stakes were lower and they could practice a thing from a little bit of distance, get the practice in. So that’s sort of the evolution of Sales Safari, where it started, where it came from and how we teach it today.

Étienne Garbugli: So you mentioned pain. So what are you looking for specifically when you’re doing a Sales Safari? Are you looking for what jobs people are trying to get done? Are you trying to look for tasks or you’re trying to look for problems? What are you looking for specifically?

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Emotions. Typically, a wide range of negative emotions, which could be things including struggle, confusion, disagreement, debate. Pain shows up as a lot of different things, so that’s a tough question to answer without having concrete examples. However, I will tell you that it is hard to find environments where pain is not being surfaced. People just aren’t used to seeing it.

Maybe the easiest example is people asking questions. Again, you have to come at it from the lens of people are asking questions for a reason. It’s not just because they don’t know, there’s a reason behind why they don’t know. Sometimes they don’t know. Sometimes they lack the confidence that what they know is correct. Sometimes they’ve gone and done the research. They found three different answers that are shades of correct and can’t tell which one is the right one for them. All of those are variations of pain. How are they expressing it? What are their words? Not, what is your interpretation of their problem, how do they perceive their problem?

That’s the difference between Sales Safari and many other approaches to customer research is this is all about gathering insights into how they see the situation, not what you can do about it – that comes later, but that’s an entirely separate part of the machinery. The very first part is you getting inside their head and understanding their point of view, their worries, their fears, their anxieties. Also, the things that they’re excited about, like what gets them wound up? What gets them enthusiastic? What gets them manic? And then, what does the crash look like? What are their habits? So I’d say, what is pain? What are we actually having people look at? It’s two things. It’s emotions and it’s patterns.

There’s things that are kind of obvious on the surface, but then sometimes there’s things that are lurking underneath and those are the things that come from asking your own questions about why that thing is on the page in the first place.

Étienne Garbugli: So this is a technique that works. I know it worked for a lot of entrepreneurs in B2C. I know it’s worked with entrepreneurs in B2B. So for example, in a business setting where people are maybe less likely to be sharing or expressing, might be more limited in terms of what they can share publicly, do you see any constraints or do you see any ways to work around that to make the Sales Safari effective in maybe a larger business-to-business context?

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: So, B2B is where it actually is stronger. B2C is tough, it’s not impossible, obviously people do it, but it’s tough for two reasons. The biggest one is that consumer audiences are fickle and really inconsistent. The patterns that show up are way, way harder to read, because psychologically speaking consumers buy based on how they want to be perceived or style or brand and those kinds of things.

So, what you’re looking for is people who behave like businesses, or businesses. Because for them, buying on value is a pretty straightforward equation. I have a problem. This problem is costing my business money. Therefore, it’s costing me money. Solving this problem will either put money back in my pocket or stop the bleeding. That arithmetic is happening all day, every day for every business owner and even professionals are still doing some variations of that calculus.

So, the B2B space is actually much, much easier to the point where early, early days, we used to tell our students, you should do B2B, but you can do whatever you want. And we had zero successes in B2C. So, we were like, you know what? Let’s just focus on B2B. So as 30x500 is evolved, we’ve put on guardrails to say, look, we can’t force you to do anything, but in terms of your best chances of success, here are constraints that we’re going to provide. These constraints are to your benefit and choosing B2B is one of them.

Your original question also suggested that B2B was harder to observe. I have not seen that to be true. What I have seen to be true is people assume that because they don’t hang out online in certain ways, like I was just emailing with a prospective student who is more of like a C-suite type executive, mid to late forties or older, and in their head, they go, my peers don’t hang out on Reddit and Indie Hackers, so is this really going to work for me? I’d push back and say, “Do you see people in your industry not go anywhere for advice? Do you buy books? Do you go to conferences? Conferences are a weird thing in 2020, but do you have professional development resources you go to?” and they go, “Of course.” And I go, “Then they exist.”

My favorite example that I love is we had somebody reach out who is a private pilot – he flew planes for rich people. And he was like, “Will this work for me?” I said, “Do your professional peers, people who want to get into your industry or people who hire you, do those people exist on the internet?” He said, “I think so.” I go, “Here’s three or four things for you to go try to go find them”. He came back and he goes, “I just found a bunch of forums that I never knew existed because you gave me the way to sort of think through what is the language and jargon and questions that I do know, map that to the things that people put in into the internet, use this magic thing called Google and all of a sudden these conversations that were a hundred percent blind spot to me show up and I can start participating in those conversations. I can start doing sales Safari and learning from those conversations, but for the most part, just because they don’t hang out in the places that you hang out doesn’t mean they don’t hang out.”

That in itself is a really good meta lesson of the way you are is not necessarily the way that your customers are. You still have advantages, and it benefits you to serve customers that you have those things in common with, but you are not your audience. If you’re making decisions based on what you do and not what you’ve observed your audience doing, you are setting yourself up for a world of confusion, hurt, and probably failure.

Étienne Garbugli: So say in that direction, how would you decide which audiences you should be researching initially? In that case, like that person was a pilot, but would someone else target pilots?

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: So the reason he went after pilots, because that’s what he already does professionally. So the constraints that we teach are so straightforward and yet people so often resist them. I think in part, because they are so straightforward. I think part of this comes from there’s a lot of talk on the internet about things like finding the perfect niche. The other reason that I think people avoid going after an audience that they belong to professionally is because they feel a certain way about their professional peers and it’s usually not good. What I like to remind folks of is whoever you are surrounded by the majority of the time is not representative of your entire audience, and you’re used to looking at them as a bunch of complainer’s instead of with a tool that teaches you how to observe that as pain and create opportunities to help them. I’ll tell you what, when you become somebody who helps people, they start treating you differently. That feedback loop looks and feels very, very different, but you can’t know that until you get into it. So, use every advantage you’ve got is a core tenant of 30x500. Serving audiences that you belong to is key.

The second step to that is audiences you belong to can go into one of three different paths – like I mentioned before – that can include people who do what you do, your peers, it can include people who want to do what you do – so newbies who are a few steps behind you, or many steps behind you, depending on where you are in your own progression. It can also include people who hire you. For the people who are already in sort of the consulting game in some way, that’s an opportunity to look at this from the perspective of, okay, there’s an industry that, I may be a software developer, but I do mostly work in farming or aerospace.

So, you can say, okay, let’s start looking at what a batch of my best clients have in common and are there ways for me to introduce new products and services into my consulting business for customers who I already serve? Because again, I already have that built in knowledge and I have some built in relationships. I have maybe some trust established in the industry. All you need is really one client who likes you to have any amount of trust in industries that appear really vast. It doesn’t take a lot. I think people imagine it takes so much more than it really does, a little bit goes a really long way.

So there’s the people who already pay me – the other way I’ve started framing it is the difference between hired hands and hired guns. You’re hired hands, people just want you to do the work. When you’re hired guns, they want you to come in and tell them what the right thing to do is, and then they’ll go ahead and do it.

Étienne Garbugli: Oh, that’s super interesting. If I flip that around, would you recommend a new entrepreneur go directly to software? Or would you recommend that they go gradually and progressively a little bit like the stair-step approach, discovering what they can do to sell to value and then get to software eventually?

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Software is incredible. Software is very, very hard – even if you are good at building software, there is so much more to selling software, especially if we’re talking about subscription software. Something that is extremely not obvious is that people don’t realize that the amount of trust that is necessary to get somebody to buy a $30 to $50 one-time purchase is much, much, much, much, much lower than to get them to put in a credit card and give you permission to charge them 30 to $50 every month. What’s even crazier is it is easier to sell a $500 one-time purchase than it is to get people to put a credit card in and give you permission to charge them $30 a month or $50 a month over and over and over again. It’s not a rational thing. It’s a psychological thing.

So, software again is incredible, but it is the steepest hill to climb even when you were working with all of the advantages. So can it be done? Of course. Do we have students who have done it successfully? Absolutely. Do they all say it took longer than they thought it would? Yes.

The most common path to success is a hybrid approach where at the beginning you’re creating stuff for an audience that is fast to ship, easy to maintain, easy to support, and stair-stepping your way towards bigger things. I think people get hung up on recurring revenue – which by the way is amazing – again, Indy Hall is a mostly recurring revenue business. So, I dig it and I get why people go after it. But recurring revenue is just one way to look at a lifetime value equation. I can look at the 30x500 business, which has got almost no subscription pieces to it, and I can look at customer lifetime value. Even before somebody gets to 30x500, our flagship that is a significant investment, I can look at people who have over the course of months or even years bought basically everything else. That means that a customer who buys things and actually gets utility from them is also way more likely to buy the next thing.

Taking a portfolio approach of small products is our number one recommendation because it gives you a foundation. It gives you an ever expanding customer lifetime value, and you can use all of those resources, including the trust you earn and the insights that you gain by selling things to people and watching them use it, to build things that are higher leveraged, like software.

If you enjoyed that episode – and I hope you did – I’ve got a couple of quick things before you go. The first of course is making sure that you have your very own copy of The Tiny MBA. If you haven’t ordered it, I’d love it if you did, and you can grab a paperback or ebook at Tiny.MBA.

I also hope you’re subscribed to this show. We’re going to be releasing more episodes like this one with other creators and entrepreneurs, just like you and I’m going to be talking with them about their favorite lessons in The Tiny MBA, learning what’s going on in their world and sharing it all with you. You can search for that by looking for Stacking the Bricks wherever you get podcasts.

And one last thing, check out the Stacking the Bricks website, we’ve got a great newsletter with new articles coming out every week or two following on a lot of the same topics and themes that we talk about right here on the show. You can do that by going to

I hope you have a great rest of your day and don’t forget to keep on stacking those bricks!

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