Heading an entrepreneurship community with lots of young entrepreneurs, ranging from early-stage startups to unicorn companies, has taught me one lesson:
Those ventures which eventually succeed truly understand their customers.
Creating a product that customers truly want is often referred to as a product-market fit and the first lesson for achieving it is being able to interview customers well.
The goal of this article is to provide you with useful ‘hacks’ for conversations with customers to derive useful insights for your business. Next, I will go through the three most common mistakes I see during customer discovery and explain what I believe you should do instead.
You are talking to the wrong people
When aspiring entrepreneurs start evaluating whether their idea has potential, they usually pitch it to their friends because of convenience.
However, if your friends are not, by chance, your target audience, they usually don’t have experience with the problem you are solving. This makes their feedback, no matter how honest it is, useless.
Moreover, it’s incredibly difficult for anyone to empathise with someone who experiences problems very different to yours.
Take an app that intends to help blind people navigate on open streets. It will be almost impossible for a person who can see to decently evaluate the fit of your solution.
Yet, this is what most aspiring entrepreneurs default to:
They ask their friends and take their encouragement as an incentive to further pursue their ventures.
This is one of the most fatal mistakes an entrepreneur can make during customer discovery.
The simplest solution is to identify a very clear target group and arrange 5-10 initial interviews. When choosing your target group, think about how to best categorise the users of your solution. It’s as simple as that.
When interviewing your target group, your goal should be to ask them about their problems instead of pitching your solution, which brings us to the next point.
You are talking about solutions instead of problems
Whenever there is a new startup idea, it is natural to talk with people about the potential ‘solution’ one has found. Instead, you should talk about the problems your potential customers are facing.
Robert Fitzpatrick gives a great example in his book The Mom Test: After you had the idea about a new, digital cookbook, you excitedly pitch your mom about this new opportunity.
She’s now able to have all the recipes she needs on her iPad. No browsing pages anymore. She’ll be able to open everything with only a couple of clicks.
When you pitch her your idea, she will most likely be excited. After all, she’s your mother and, before even thinking about whether she actually needs a digital cookbook, she’ll tell you how great you are and how lovely your idea is.
A couple of months later, you’ve built your app, only to discover that your mom still prefers her physical cookbooks.
You can prevent this by asking your mother about her problems and usage of cookbooks.
You can furthermore watch her use these cookbooks. Shadowing people and watching them perform the tasks you want to improve is, in most cases, better than talking about the tasks themselves.
This is because there is so much hidden behaviour that people perform unconsciously.
By watching your mother cook in the kitchen, you’ll likely discover that most of her cooking is based on intuition and memory. Only rarely does she use a cookbook. And if she uses an iPad, googling a recipe is as quick and convenient as having a digital cookbook.
Noticing this would have saved you from coding an entire app that nobody needs.
You are asking for opinions
Being excited about your idea and asking someone else for their opinion will likely result in them flattering you as criticising you straight away would be inappropriate.
Moreover, opinions such as ‘I don’t believe this will work’ or ‘I don’t believe I would use this’ are generally worthless. Firstly, they usually don’t provide you with enough context to understand whether your solution has potential. Secondly, even if people provide you with elaborate detail attached to their opinion, their opinion still doesn’t reflect their actual behaviour.
Within the area of customer discovery, it’s common knowledge that customers’ behaviour strongly deviates from their opinions.
When being truly interested in whether your idea works, ask specific questions and drill down as much as you can.
Ask questions like ‘How do you currently solve this problem?’, and drill down after you’ve gotten your answer: ‘How specifically do you do that?’, ‘What usually happens before you do that?’, and ‘How much does this currently cost you?’. A question which is especially interesting is also: ‘If you haven’t solved this problem so far, why not?’
More often than not, the problem a customer experiences is not big enough for them to actually look for alternative solutions.
Learn more about customer discovery
‘Customer discovery’, i.e. the art of understanding customer needs and evaluating how well your solution really fits is the most effective way of testing your idea before having to build a product or prototype.
Many startups build products before talking to customers and fail when trying to enter the market because no one wants to use these products. You can avoid this by applying the principles from this article. Moreover, the following books are a fantastic resource in case you want to read up:
- The Mom Test, by Robert Fitzpatrick
- Talking to Humans, by Giff Constable
- The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Customer Development, by Brant Cooper and Patrick Vlaskovits
Customer discovery is not trivial. At EWOR, we developed a curriculum for teaching people proper customer discovery together with industry experts and professors from renowned universities.
All of our alumni currently run successful ventures and we believe that this is to a great extent due to how well we teach people to understand their customers. Our mission is to empower individuals all over the globe to build impactful organisations and enterprises.