Customer Discovery 101

Anika Horn
Apr 18, 2017 · 7 min read

A common challenge to startup and small business founders is the topic of customer discovery. So many founders fall in love with their idea instead of the problem and end up on a path that rarely leads to a genuine solution to a real problem. And I get it. Putting your idea out there to see whether strangers like it and would be willing to pay for it is intimidating. I’m not going to tell you that it’s not. You can find great resources about Customer Discovery all over the internet (Strategyzer!). Here is a summary of some of the most common mistakes I have seen in working with founders:

1. So you think your customer has a problem…

You are probably reading this because you have an idea for a venture that solves a problem for your customer. Problem and Customer — let’s take a minute to figure out what exactly we are talking about.


As part of the business model canvas we talk about customer segments. There is no such thing as an ideal target customer. It is a construct we use to build personas that allow you to segment the different types of people you want to talk to. Jordan Jez of Glass Smith — a mobile device repair service — hit the nail on the head:

“We fix the screens of mobile phones and tablets. Everyone who has one of those devices is our customer! Right? Wrong. We figured out that our ideal customers are people who have such a device with a cracked phone, who want to get it fixed, are willing to pay for it, and appreciate trustworthy fast service that meets them where they are — their office, their home, their hotel room. College kids don’t care if their screen is broken, and they are not willing to pay to get it fixed. People with less demanding schedules might enjoy spending some time in the apple store while their phone gets fixed. Not everyone with a mobile device is our customer.”


What problem are you trying to solve for your customer segment(s)? The more you learn about your customer’s life and habits, values and preferences, the more issues you will uncover. Let’s say your ideal customer is a young professional who cares about looking great in the workplace and really wants her clothes and accessories to be ethically made and sustainably sourced. What is the actual problem here? Does she not know where to find this type of apparel? Is she overwhelmed with the great variety of labels that indicate different fair-trade, non GMO, fair labor, ethical material, sustainable fiber certifications? Or is your ideal customer simply overwhelmed by how many stores are out there that she could buy from? These are three distinct problems and the potential solutions look just as different. Instead of trying to get validation for what you think the problem is or should be, listen to what your ideal customer says.


Always keep in mind that the best you can do is to assume. You won’t know who your customer really is and what their biggest need is until you go out and ask. Be very clear about your assumptions, then go out and test them.

A great tool to work through your customer persona(s) and their problem is the Value Proposition Canvas.

The Value Proposition Canvas, available via Strategyzer

2. Alternatives

“Nobody does what I do!”

If you knew how many times I have heard that phrase.

But that is missing the point. If your customer has a problem then he or she is currently coping in some way or other. Your job is not to invent a never-before-seen solution (even though that would be great!), your job is to figure out how they can solve this problem more efficiently. Better. Faster. With more satisfaction or even fun. Glass Smith did not say “Nobody does mobile device repair the way we do it!” and patted themselves on the back. They looked at how their target customers are currently solving that problem (spending hours in line at the Apple Store, DIY kits, dodgy back-alley repair shops with window neon signs), and figured out how they could improve that process and experience (working with contractors, providing them with training, a booking platform, high-quality tools and lifetime warranty parts, and kick-ass branding).

It is painful to watch founders try to convince me that there really isn’t anything out there at all. You are missing the point. Instead, I challenge every founder to make a list of the 20 most common alternatives that your ideal customer currently leverages. Make it part of your customer interviews and figure out what your customer likes and dislikes about these current alternatives. NOW you’re onto something.

3. Practical Implications

Here is some practical advice on how to make the most of your customer discovery:

  • Start with desktop research. Is there any (inter-)national data on the problem you are trying to address? Can you find data and facts about your target group and learn about their challenges using Census data or Gallup? If the problem is as relevant as you make it out to be, chances are others have looked into it as well. Learn from previous research and exploration. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Plus: Citing notable sources increases your legitimacy credibility in front of third parties.
  • Don’t spam. If you send out a survey to your existing network, choose carefully who you’re asking. Even if you use Facebook, choose your groups and networks wisely.

There is much more information out there if you really want to sink your teeth into customer discovery. And it’s worth it! Remember that a successful business is one that solves an urgent and relevant problem. Rest assured:

Customer Discovery never ends.

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