The Startup Owner’s Manual—Part 4—Get the Heck Outside

The first step on the Path to Disaster is not getting your startup customer’s input early and often. In Steve Blank and Bob Dorf’s The Startup Owner’s Manual, they write, “The core of Customer Development is blissfully simple: Products developed by founders who get out in front of customers early and often, win…. There are no facts inside your building, so get the heck outside. Getting out of the building means acquiring a deep understanding of customer needs and combining that knowledge with incremental and iterative product development.” (xxix)

Sounds so simple. But is it hard to do?

Talking to Customers

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John Jantsch of Duct Tape Marketing recently sent an email asking his tribe to take a survey. “In order to build what people want I have a couple questions that I’m hoping you’ll take a minute or two to answer.”

Trent Dyrsmid of just posted to his blog and asked, “I Need Your FeedBack to Help Me Plot the Future of…. I think that I need to get even more focused on a very specific audience and I don’t yet have a clear enough idea of exactly who you are and exactly what you need. I have my suspicions, of course, but who better to tell me than my most loyal readers.

Jantsch and Dyrsmid aren’t asking because they’re dumb. In fact, they’re asking because they’re smart—smart enough to know that they don’t know everything, brave enough to ask their customers what they really want.

How many entrepreneurs have thought, “I know what people want” and proceeded to build it without ever asking the customer what they might actually want and, more importantly, what they would pay for?

I have gotten that question half right and half wrong. Years ago, I got feedback from one of my customers that it would be a great idea if my company developed an additional service line in one of my businesses. I asked other customers if they thought it was a good idea and everyone said, “Yes, absolutely!” Armed with that “market research,” I built out the service line. I hired people. Lots of people. I built a marketing campaign. I rolled it out and sat back, waiting for the money to roll in.

And waited.

And waited.

There is a huge difference between people saying they think something is a good idea and people buying. And the only way to know for sure if you are moving in the right direction is to have people vote with their dollars. Not encouragement. Not pats on the back. Not invitations to join the Chamber of Commerce. When people vote with their dollars (or don’t vote with their dollars), you will know.

Here’s what I learned: Until people vote with their dollars, don’t over-invest in anything. Do the minimum necessary to be able to sell something (the “minimum viable product” is what that is commonly called), then see if people will buy. If they do buy, find out why and do more of that. If they don’t, find out why. Seek your startup customer’s feedback early and often, and you will have a much better chance of avoiding the Path to Disaster.

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