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What are your excuses for not speaking to customers? I know mine.
Some helpful tips on identifying your blindspots and overcoming them
Talking to potential customers is a pain in the arse. It must be, because we all, somehow, try and avoid doing it.
This is despite it seemingly being accepted wisdom that it's essential to do. Especially at the early stage when you are mapping out your startup's potential problem+solution from scratch.
I don’t think the avoidance is due to anyone believing that it’s a bad idea. I haven’t come across people who are advocating avoiding speaking to customers.
So why do we end up not speaking to the only people who can actually help us?
Just as we know daily exercise or DuoLingo is good for us, it doesn't make it any easier to do it. The long term benefits feel distant in comparison to the immediate discomfort.
"We’ll do it next week."
"We’ll hire someone to do it."
"We did enough of it when we first started."
"We’ve worked in that industry, we get it already."
"We just need to get on and build now, don’t worry, they will come."
I can certainly recognise some of my own excuses in that list.
Self-awareness is one antidote to this challenge. By catching ourselves when we are making excuses we create an opportunity for change. We can summon our will power and book those customer development calls we've been putting off.
There's a few stereotypes I've spotted in my work with founders, do any of them land a bit close to the mark with you?
Product thinking pitfalls
There's a few stereotypes I've spotted in my work with founders, do any of them land a bit close to the mark with you? If so, use the pain of recognition to commit to change now!
The armchair strategist
Hands up, you got me. I love a good strategy. Something clean and abstract that makes me feel smart when I think about it. Ignoring the fact it only appears clean and smart because it hasn’t had a brush with reality yet.
Interviewing real potential customers often annoyingly reveals messy and inconsistent needs. And even worse, they have a habit of not fitting into the customer persona we’ve carefully crafted.
The product prophet
Real customers are also an implicit threat to product visionaries. We’ve crafted our beautiful and elegant product. A manifestation of insight, almost artistic in its purity. A solution is nothing without someone with a matching problem and a willingness to pay.
Sonic the Hedgehog
An advocate of less chin stroking and more features. Rather than risking analysis paralysis they’d rather let the market decide. If you build enough products and features some of them will eventually stick. An antidote to analysis paralysis... but you’re a lot more likely to gain customers if you work out who they are before you build something.
The workshop worshipper
In many ways the opposite of the product prophet, a stereotype most commonly found in the B2B market. They’ll get anyone and everyone in a room, regardless of whether they’re a user, customer or passerby.
The first risk of this approach is that you gather lots of opinions but very few of them are from a decision maker. Which creates the second risk - you don't know what features are valuable enough for the budget holder to pay for. You end up with a shiny product, excited stakeholders but no revenue.
The model loving analyst
The old ‘size the market first, ask questions when we get to Series A’ approach. Similar to the armchair strategist but with a different underlying rationale. The analyst forgets that you can’t build a product by picking a juicy market and going top down.
Real people buy products and they want real value delivered. A successful Minimum Viable Product requires an intimate knowledge of the pains and gains of a tight set of early adopters. Who by definition cannot be “all businesses in Europe with more than 250 employees”.
Enough of the symptoms, there is a cure
Luckily there is a simple antidote if you recognise yourself in any of the founder archetypes above.
Find a way to speak to five of your potential customers each week. It saves so much pain in the long run.
Read the ‘The Mom Test’ by Rob Manuel (buy on Amazon or direct). Read it again if you haven't read it in a while. It is a very simple and practical how-to guide. And it's a great way to self-assess your current approach and get inspiration on best practice.
I also recommend the Lean Canvas. It is a simple one page worksheet and is quick to learn and use. It's very useful to help make sure we've considered all the key aspects of our product, not just the parts that we’re in love with the most.
And of course, more broadly, The Lean Startup is an excellent methodology for early stage validation.
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