How to Understand your Customers before Launch
To ensure you’re building something people actually want, you have to understand your customer’s needs before you launch. Here are 4 ways to collect customer feedback before your product is live.
What: Talk to at least 5 potential customers per week, from your target market. In person is best but video chat if they’re remote. It’s better to talk to less people in the right demographic, than lots of people in the wrong one. Focus your questions on their problems, rather than your solutions, e.g. “What task takes the most time for you each day?”, “How do you currently solve this problem?”, “How much would you expect to pay for a solution to this problem?”.
Why: If you’re not talking to customers regularly, you risk building a product based on your hypothesis alone, which is unlikely to gain traction. Worse still, talking to people who won’t be the customer, both wastes time and misdirects your team. It’s tempting to write questions focusing on your solution, but you’ll be reinforcing your existing ideas as opposed to learning about the customer’s issues, e.g. don’t ask “What do you like most about our solution?”.
What: Surveys are best used to test ideas from your face-to-face interviews. Keep it very short, no more than 10 questions. Include open-ended questions, similar to face-to-face, e.g. “What is your biggest challenge completing this task?”. If you’re distributing the survey publicly, collect contact info and demographic data too. Use software to collect and collate the data, like Google Forms or Wufoo.
Why: Correctly implemented, surveys can quickly generate a lot of data, hopefully confirming your assumptions. Demographic info helps you avoid your data being polluted, as you can filter responses from people outside your customer profile. Open text fields are great for discovering customers’ real problems and concerns, plus you can follow up with relevant individuals if you have their contact info.
Customer Advisory Board
What: Ask influencers to join your Customer Advisory Board (CAB), that you’ll meet with at least once a month. In the Enterprise space, this might be a purchase decision maker; in the Consumer space you could enlist a social media influencer. You’ll be surprised how many successful people are willing to help an early stage startup for zero or a token amount of equity — so don’t be afraid to reach out to your dream targets. You’ll want ~10 people on your CAB, so contact 30+ people initially.
Why: Outside of being potential customers in the future, these advisors provide in-depth feedback by spending more time with you and your product at a regular cadence. Open conversations allow you to get honest feedback on difficult problems like pricing and personal information tracking. In addition, you can get contextual feedback on new product changes, before and after each release.
What: Map out your customer’s step-by-step experience with your product using a simple drawing tool, e.g. Lucidchart. Load each screen into prototyping software like Invision or Flinto and then show it to potential customers for feedback. If you run out of new people to demo face-to-face, you can get videos of people trying your demo via services like UserTesting.
Why: Talking to customers about solutions to their problems is not the same as them actually trying it. It could take a long time for you to build a complete product, so the visual demo provides feedback on your proposed experience with minimal effort. Thus, you can complete many iterations on your product, before actually building it.
When you start working on a business idea, you must resist the temptation to dive straight into building your product. If you want build a big business, you must first understand your customer.
This article is part of a series on Startup Growth.
How to Understand your Customers Before Launch
Your First Product Should Be Terrible
A Simple Framework for Goal Setting
Bad Ways to Set Startup Goals
Hit Goals or Your Startup Will Die
How to Get 10% Weekly Growth
Finding the Right Price for Early Customers
Which Pricing Model is Best for Your Startup?
When Should Startups Pursue Partners?
Early Traits of a $100M Company
Sterling Road invests in pre-seed B2B startups based in North America. Full process here: sterlingroad.com/process.
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Thanks to Kaego Rust and David Smooke for reading drafts of this.