Building a startup is easy, right? All you need is an idea, and the right skills, with related past experience, alongside a strong team, with just the right amount of money, a grand vision, an insane level of perseverance, people open to giving you a shot, and a bit of luck, all at the right time.
OK fine, building a startup is hard. Well, at least about 4,000 people here agree.
That is why I want to spend some time sharing the importance of customer development (also used interchangeably with the terms user discovery and idea validation) – so you don’t waste months or years of your life building something no-one wants.
But first, let’s level-set on the average progress early-stage startups have made on their product at the pre-seed and seed stage. I’ve found that through the years, as the market has become more crowded and therefore competition has increased, expectations of having some sort of MVP earlier and earlier in a company’s lifecycle have become the norm. In fact, according to DocSend’s research, a heavy majority of companies have gone out to fundraise their first official venture-backed round with at least an alpha or beta version of their product.
As a founder, R&D and market research is hopefully what drives you in these early days of building a company. My love for market research came from these books: The Startup Owner’s Manual, The Lean Startup, Running Lean, Sprint, and Hacking Growth. Check them out if you find yourself resonating with the lessons within this blog and want to dig in deeper.
The three strategies I will focus on — in order to gather idea validation and user feedback regardless of the stage that your product is at — are defining the ideal customer profile, investing in customer development, and finding interviewees.
Step 1: Ideal Customer Profile
Before you dig too much into the idea and solution, customer development, and post-launch user feedback collection, it is important to know who your target audience is. Hubspot has this great tool that I often recommend that lets you create your personas.
Use that as the basis of everything else you do, because if you don’t know who you’re solving the problem for, you’ll end up in the same boat as I see many founders: “So I have built this thing. Does anyone in the world have a problem that this solution could help with?”. That’s the situation you want to avoid, 100% of the time. Define your target audience, and then start customer development.
Another common problem is trying to do too much, or solve too many things, which in-turn has too broad of an audience and in turn no real target audience. Start laser-focused on solving one problem for one target customer, and then expand later when you have proven traction or product-market fit. Know what you plan on doing well day one, while keeping in mind where this could go on day one thousand.
Step 2. Customer Development
Once you’ve got the persona(s) defined, you can start doing some basic outlining: what is the problem, what is the proposed solution, what is your unfair advantage, what are current market trends, and which competitors are working on this. If you need a place to organize all of this, I suggest using Idea Validator, a workspace dedicated to tracking all your pre-launch customer development notes.
This tool has a whole section dedicated to conservation tracking. At this stage, you’re looking for how your potential customers speak about their current way of doing things. Look out for feature requests, pain-points, and patterns. Whether you’re getting on a phone call with your target audience, or sending out online surveys, Idea Validator provides the workspace to document it all.
So, when your investor asks “what type of validation or traction do you have?” you can show them how many people you have collected feedback from, and even how many show support for your proposed solution.
This is the key to making things believable.
I run the other way when I hear these things:
- We’ve spoken to so many people and they all love it – 100%, really?
- We’re overwhelmed at all the positive feedback – is that including your best friend?
- We’re crushing it – no, you’re failing this pitch.
Hence, use numbers and data to back up your narrative.
Solid example: “We’ve reached out to 280 people who are within our target audience, 224 (80%) responded, and of those, 202 (90%) said they would pay $20 a month for this if it existed.
Step 3. Finding Interviewees
Some find this the hardest part. If it’s too hard, then really figure out if you are building something needed. For example, if it’s impossible to find your target audience, then it could mean your total addressable market (TAM) may be too small, or that people don’t self-identify as potential users of this solution. Proceed with caution. Otherwise, if you know your buyers exist and just need more, this should give you some starting points to find folks:
- Reach out to old connections on LinkedIn that fit the persona you are targeting. The advanced search on LinkedIn is very useful here.
- Email your friends, family and colleagues and ask if they know someone who fits the persona you are targeting. You can ask them directly too, but know that they’re likely the ones to just say “yes, you’re awesome just build it” (My thoughts on: How to tell if your friends or mum are just saying your idea is awesome…)
- Meet people out and about, at coffee shops, co-working spaces or networking events. Be careful not to make judgment on whether they fit your persona, and always try to #GiveFirst. Some things you can offer are: free trials, office hours, coaching sessions on your area of expertise, or introductions to people in your network.
- Post on forums like Reddit, HackerNews or Facebook Groups where people are often sharing their own ideas. Kernal is another more recent platform that I recommended checking out too.
- With these forums, it’s important to not join all of them and “spray and pray”. The key is find subtopics, or relevant categories to follow and find people who are in your target group. I always say, it’s better to speak to 20 vetted people than 200 unvetted.
- Join founder/creator communities like Product Hunt or Pioneer. These have recently been my top picks.
- Product Hunt – the best of the best community where anyone can post their project and collect feedback from thousands of people.
- Pioneer – more tournament style (if you want it, you get paired with other entrepreneurs that you work with closely once a week.
- Explore TalkHowdy.com to find free or paid communities on Slack, Discord, and more. There is literally a community for everyone, so join them, start engaging and get them excited about what you’re building!
- Host Twitter Spaces, Clubhouse rooms, or other audio-first platforms to randomly meet people who have the same interests as you.
- Attend Startup Weekends and Hackathons to mingle with other entrepreneurs who are building stuff.
- If you have the budget, you could also use User Interviews or User Testing. Note, these tools are great because they are even more useful post-launch.
Remember though, market research doesn’t stop after launch. Continue to listen to your users. Email them, send follow-up surveys, have phone calls with your most active users, and your least active. Have video calls whenever possible.
Whatever it takes to give them a voice in your product development roadmap.
Just because you gain some traction, raise some money, or have some happy customers, it doesn’t mean R&D stops. This is always a critical role of being (co)founder and CEO.