It’s hot to start a company these days. The idea of hard work, creative workplaces, foosball during lunch and making a sh*tload of money fast lure loyal employees from their safe jobs and students from universities. It’s a step I encourage people to make, but with a huge caveat: minimise the risk of failure. Customer interviewing is an important first step in getting to know if your idea solves a real world problem and if you will make money in the end.
In the last few months I’ve spoken to a lot of people who are about to try their luck in the startup scene. I was surprised by the fact that most of them did not do any interviewing and proper Customer Development. They either had built a minimal viable product (MVP) already or were about to ship something that was more like a full blown v2.0++ rocketship 🚀
I asked them if the had interviewed any customers? Nah, not really. They threw all kind of false reasons for skipping this important step at me. In this post I’ll share the reasons and my thoughts on the ‘fallacies’.
A few words on Customer Development
Customer Development is the foundation of the Lean Startup and a way of building new companies. Interviewing customers is an important part of Customer Development. By interviewing, you will be able to validate the riskiest assumptions about the problem, product and market (customers) in your business model.
Why you should care about Customer Development
Well, most startups fail and sometimes it takes a while, they fail to ‘fail fast’. This is definitely something you should think about before starting a business. Customer Development allows you to better predict the viability of your business model.
Why I care about Customer Development
We co-found and build several startups at the same time, with the same team. And thus, we want to kill or pivot bad ideas in the earliest stage possible. We use Customer Development techniques for that.
Customer Development lays the foundation for your future company. Make it robust or break it down and start over.
Now buckle up, here are the false reasons to skip customer interviews.
#1. I interviewed 3 people and they all had the same problem 👨👧👦
While there is no ground rule, three interviews is not really significant. Try to reach 20–40 people depending on how well reachable your segment is. Up front, determine what percentage of the interviewees should suffer from the problem you’re investigating.
Keep in mind that every person you speak to is a contact and those contacts are your first prospects that enter the sales pipeline. It’s certainly not a waste of time!
#2. Investor X told me my product is the next unicorn 🦄
Me: you pitched your solution, great.
Ok, so two things are wrong here. First, the thing with pitching is that you’re doing most of the talking. Interviewing works the other way around, you are listening to what the other has to say about their problems etc.
Second, you need both customer/problem fit and problem/solution fit to nail a pitch. A great pitch is:
- Directed to the problem of the person(s) you’re pitching to — customer/problem fit.
- Providing a solution to their problem — problem/solution fit.
#3. I can’t find ‘customers’ to interview, so I’ll just skip it 🕵️
Me: how will your sales go, friend?
If you can’t find customers to interview, you probably will have a hard time selling your product. Most of the times, if you can’t find customers to interview you either have chosen the wrong customer segment or you’re looking in the wrong place.
Your earlyvangelists are the people who are actively trying to solve the problem you’re trying to solve. Those are the people you want to interview. If you can’t find them you might have defined your customer segment too narrow.
When you know for certain your customer segment exists and is not too narrow but you can’t find ’em or they don’t want to talk to you, then I have some tips:
- Look at the common characteristics of your segment. For example, you can find young parents where their children are. You can find students where they study. You can find marketing managers at companies of a certain size.
- Think about where the customers of your (hypothetical) competitor would go. Do they have a physical store or an online community? Events maybe?
- Try interview your customer segment while they’re waiting. They’d probably be happy to be interviewed when they have nothing else to do. I once heard of a case where people were interviewed while they were waiting for their coffee at Starbucks. The interviewer asked them for a few minutes of their time and in return the interviewee received a voucher for a free cup of coffee. Win-win.
#4. I have money to build the MVP, I’ll pay you (to shut up)
While it is tempting to grab the money, we don’t work that way. Like I said We Are Builders works on several startups in parallel with the same team. It is super important to work on projects that will lead something great. It’s a waste of our precious time.
#5. They won’t understand until they see it 👀
Showing the end product/visuals of a solution to customers is like pitching (see #2). You should first check with the customer segment if the problem you have in mind really exists. And if the problem is so annoying they’ll pay you to solve it.
#6. I’m solving my own problem and I would certainly pay for it. People are going to love this product!
Me: you are biased.
37Signals wrote in their excellent book ‘Getting Real’ that you should solve your own problems and build software for yourself. In their words: scratch your own itch. At least there’s one customer!
The downside: the solution you come up with might not be the solution others will appreciate as much as you do. In addition, when it comes to determining your pricing you should not trust yourself. Only other people can tell you if the pricing is right.
My advice: please put some effort in finding out who has the same problem as you. Interview this customer segment and learn about how they solve the problem at hand, who the earlyvangelists are and which competitors are in the market. You might even find out your problem is already solved, or you could jump the opportunity yourself!
#7. Company XYZ does the same and has customers, I’ll do better so my model is valid and I’ll have customers!
Customer Development gives you an edge over competitors. It provides you with a competitive advantage, because you learn something about the market other people don’t know (yet). You need this information to nail a solution which will lead to a lot of 💰 and happy customers.
You could copy the business model of a company you admire, but eventually those who do learn from their customers will become the market leaders. Your company will lag behind in features, pricing, customer success, marketing etc. So yeah, if you’re into that, go ahead, but eventually it will catch you.
Also, keep in mind the company you’re copying might also have skipped Customer Development, or did a poor job and you end up with a sub-optimal product.
Have you encountered other reasons? I would love to hear your experiences with customer interviews or skipping them. Please share in the comments!
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