Photo courtesy of 10ch

Customer as Collaborator: The Hidden Partner with the Answers to All of Your Problems

Ben Lee
Ben Lee
Apr 4, 2016 · 2 min read

If you’re an early stage startup founder, chances are you’ve heard the phrase “CustDev,” or Customer Development, more than once — in fact, chances are you’re living, thinking, and breathing that phrase every single day. And that’s a good thing: it’s almost impossible to overstate the importance of customer development, as without customers there can never be a business. But while you may be focusing on optimizing your conversion funnel (which we’ve said a few words on before) or cutting your churn rate, there’s one way of thinking about your customers that you’re probably missing out on — and it can have a huge impact on the growth and trajectory of your business.

Looking for Answers, Straight from the Horse’s Mouth

At the early stages of your startup, it’s critical to understand that your customer isn’t just a customer — they’re actually a collaborator in your business. Or, at least, they should be. Why? Because at the end of the day, they’re the ones with all the answers. Ultimately, a startup is a search engine: you’re trying to figure out the value proposition, customer set, and business model that makes your business profitable and sustainable. And your customer knows exactly what is valuable to them about your product, who they and their friends are, and what and how they’re willing to pay for your product!

Looked at this way, customer development is almost more of an interview process than anything else. You need to constantly question the key elements of your value proposition, your business model, your marketing outreach, your monetization model, and every other customer-facing aspect of your business — and those questions should be directed at customers, not just amongst you and your team. To succeed as a startup in the modern world, pivoting fast is critical, and to do that, you need to think of your customer as a partner in building the best business you can — both for you and for them.

So what does this mean for you and your startup? At the early stages, it means building feedback into your platform as seamlessly as possible. While it’s important not to overload your users, try to seek out earlyvangelists — early customers who are passionate about your product — and interview them about what they like, what they don’t like, and what ideas they have. Include simple, short surveys interspersed throughout your platform. And most importantly, don’t forget that you can ask questions indirectly: in other words, test, test, and test!

Written by

Ben Lee

CEO & Cofounder, Neon Roots and Rootstrap. Inc. 30 Under 30 CEO. Helped more than 500 founders build their app startups.

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