As a startup founder, you know you should be talking to your customers more. Every startup book you’ve read is full of examples of how customer feedback has helped shape the products you now love using every day. You understand this on an intellectual level yet when it comes to actually getting out of the building, there are plenty of excuses you have for staying inside your comfy startup bubble. I get it, I have been there and still have to be extra vigilant in recognizing this bad habit we all have!
Here’s what you can try if you catch yourself saying or thinking that you won’t test your assumptions on actual customers because …
1) Our product isn’t finished yet, we’ll wait for the first release.
Getting feedback on an unfinished product or prototype is harsh. How can’t the users see your grand vision? Why do they get stuck on unimportant details? Why isn’t the functionality obvious? Alas, even the best product vision has little value if you can’t find a market for it. Finding a market means finding users and customers for your product. The longer you wait to get customer feedback, the more difficult it becomes to admit that you’re building the wrong thing. At my last startup, we used the design sprint methodology to test our assumptions before we spent weeks developing something that wasn’t really needed. A design sprint forces your team to look at the big picture of the problem you’re trying to solve and expose a prototype to living, breathing people — all within one week. The process isn’t easy, it will leave you exhausted, and watching the Friday user interviews will likely be profoundly painful. But wouldn’t you rather spend just one week to find out you’re off target than waste months building something nobody cares about?
2) We don’t know the right people.
This might be an especially handy excuse if your startup isn’t based in Silicon Valley or any other major startup cities. On top of that, European and other cultures aren’t as keen as Americans to strike conversations with strangers. But you do know that, sooner or later, you will need to reach out to customers you don’t know yet, right? My advice? Just start somewhere. While friends aren’t the ideal candidates for user interviews, they can help you get used to conducting users interviews. After some friendly practice, start looking online for volunteers from your actual target audience. You can use a service like Amazon Mechanical Turk to find potential interviewees or drive users to a survey through online ads. Dig into Facebook groups, tweets and other channels where your target customers are talking. Attend relevant conferences if that’s within your budget. If you already have a product website and are collecting email signups, reach out to these people and find out what brought them to your website and try to learn more about their pains. While talking to customers in person is ideal, you can also use video conferencing software to reach customers countries or time zones away.
3) Talking to people is hard.
I hear you, talking to people can be exhausting, especially if you’re an introvert. There is one little trick that can make the process a bit easier and improve your customer interviews: preparation! No matter how good you are at talking to people, you should spend time preparing for each customer interview to get the most of it. The first step is to prepare an interview script based on your goals. This is an excellent guide on how to prepare for and conduct user interviews. If you’re new to interviewing people, my advice is also to practice the script on friends or family. Yes, it will feel awkward at first, which is why it’s essential to build your confidence as an interviewer. To get the most out of user interviews, don’t try to multi-task: separate the interviewer role from note-taking. During the interview, the interviewer should only focus on being a curious listener. Other team members can take notes and give feedback to the interviewer after the interview.
4) People don’t really know what they want.
True, you shouldn’t expect users to give you a list of features for your product. Focus on understanding how your product fits into their life. It’s also very tempting to mistake every “Sure; I’d use this!” for a clear validation of your business idea and then end up frustrated with a low conversion rate. Try to test users’ willingness to pay for your product with actual commitment. At the very least, ask for their email if they say they are interested in becoming customers and try to understand how they’re currently solving the pain you’re addressing. Do they even recognize this pain? Is the pain big enough for them to care? Try to understand why they are asking for a feature and how important and valuable the pain is to them. Once you start to understand what matters to your customers, it will be easier to design products that delight them in ways they didn’t even imagine.
5) We are our own customers, we know our pains.
Ah, a widespread lie we tell ourselves. If you’re building your product for customers like yourself, you might be in a good starting position to understand your customer pains. But it’s also difficult to be critical of your own work and to admit that you’re basing it on unverified assumptions. Unlike you, all your other customers have no insight into the thought process that guided your design decisions, and they will likely be confused by the things you find most obvious. So, even if you’re your own customer, do test your product website and product with other customers, you’re very likely to discover a new perspective.
6) Our product is special, we can’t easily build a prototype.
Don’t forget that you can also get feedback on your product website or pitch! Knowing that you’re meeting a real demand is even more critical if you’re about to invest heavily into a hardware product or opening a brick and mortar store. Even being in a highly regulated industry is no excuse, you can learn a lot just by discussing pains and problems with potential customers. The design sprint book has several excellent examples of how you can design a testable prototype in a week. If a robot company and a medical clinic were able to do it, so can you!
7) We already have Google Analytics/Mixpanel/other analytics.
Great! Knowing how users interact with your website and product can help you make better business decisions. However, if you want to improve your product in a more significant way, you also need to understand why your users or website visitors aren’t converting or using certain features. To figure out the whys, you should run user interviews, user tests, or well-designed surveys. There are plenty of online services that can help you with this — but you also need to understand what is currently the big question for your startup. For this part, I recommend the Lean Analytics book, which can help you identify the key metrics and questions based on your business model and startup stage. Keep in mind that customer feedback is especially valuable in the early stages of product development before you find your problem/solution or product/market fit.