The short answer is when we have customers or active users. So, it seems we need to build the product, bring the users to use it, and see if it sticks or not. That is the hardest and the most expensive way of testing ideas. Some methodologies can apply here and minimize our costs. Let’s get into it!
One of these methodologies that have gained momentum in the last few years by Silicon Valley veterans such as Eric Ries and others is called The Lean Startup method. It is very simple. The breakdown of the idea is building a simple prototype of the problem that we are trying to solve with minimal features. This minimal solution is called an MVP (Minimum Viable Product). An MVP does not even have to have a functional back-end. It can simply be a landing page with all the functionalities being manually done by the founders offline.
The MVP does not even have to have a functional back-end. It can simply be a landing page with all the functionalities being manually done by the founders offline.
The next step after building the MVP is “Talking to users” and quickly iterating the features to build what they need. So, essentially, the idea is building something simple, showing it to users, getting feedback, and building the next version to satisfy user needs. It’s basically a closed feedback loop as shown below.
There are some subtleties to this approach that are not talked about very often. The Lean Startup approach is correct in theory, but it is not straightforward to apply in practice. Here are a few things to begin with:
Building a good quality MVP takes time
In recent years, the expectation of MVPs has dramatically gone up. So, even if your MVP is a simple landing page with some limited functionality, you’ll need good design and flawless UX.
Finding users is hard
How do we find our first unbiased users? Looking into our network is fundamentally flawed because they are biased or not totally honest with us. They don’t want to hurt our feelings. So, in my opinion, let’s don’t even try to work with them because they will likely send us in the wrong direction.
Another reason that finding users is hard is that most people are not early adopters. They don’t respond well to new products and services.
As we can see in the figure above, only 2.5% percent of the population are innovators. Innovators are our best bet to be the first users of our product. They don’t mind as much if the product is a little bit buggy or weird-looking. Early adopters (the next tear up), however, look for better products than our version 1.0.
What happens if we cold-call or cold-email people? Statistically, out of 100 calls/emails, only two to three people might want to listen. But the reality is even worse. There is a reason those are called COLD emails and calls. Most likely the recipient of those calls is busy thinking about something else when we reach out to them even if they are innovators. Cold emails and calls are not successful compared to targeted advertising. Google ads are even better than Facebook ads because they display our solution when users are actively searching for it not when they are looking at their crush kissing some else on Facebook! LOL
Finding organic users from Search Engine Optimization (SEO) takes time to establish and it makes our learning cycles way too long. We should be able to test our idea in a matter of days, not months.
Finding users in our target market is even harder
In the early days of our product, we don’t exactly know what we are building. If we do know, it must be after laborious research and validation otherwise, most likely, it will fail. We may have a good idea about the problem, but we are not sure whether the people we are solving the problem for are the ones that we have in mind. We are not even sure a sufficient number of those people need our product. So many products start with one intention and end up being used completely differently.
For those four reasons above, even though the fundamentals behind the Lean Startup Methodology are correct, it is incomplete and needs some revisions. Going back to the first issue which was “Building a good quality MVP takes time“, can we validate our solution without building anything? The answer is a hard yes!
You don’t need to build anything before validating your market and idea. Now the question is how we can validate the market without building anything.
How can we validate the market without building anything?
The answer is by doing interviews with customers. Customers tell us whether they need our solution or not, but these questions must be asked delicately. If we simply ask “Do you need this solution?”, they will become defensive and feel like we are selling something. They won’t talk freely about their problems. Remember that the goal of these interviews is not introducing our product, but just learning about the customer’s pain points and verifying that our solution is the answer to their problems. So, when we perform customer interviews, we should be in learning mode as opposed to selling mode. If at the end of the interview they ask about our solution and they like it, there is no reason not to sell, but that should not be the rule. It’s the exception. Speaking of the rules, there are some rules that we need to follow when doing these interviews which can be found here. We’ll also touch on those rules in this article.
Who are our customers?
We need to have an idea of who our customers are before looking for them. When we come up with an idea in our head, it’s usually associated with a problem that we have. You know that you can be a customer if this solution existed. This is just a hypothesis at this point and nothing more! We, as entrepreneurs, tend to be too optimistic sometimes and can underestimate the amount of effort needed to take an idea to market. Optimism is sometimes our biggest enemy. That is why we need to validate everything especially the market.
To answer the question “who is my customer?”, we’ll need to write a list of people who we think can benefit from our product. For example, if we are building a better sales-tracking tool, we should think about what kind of salesperson can use it. Is she working in a large company or a small family business? What motivates her? How can this product make her life easier? And so on.
Once we have a list, it’s time to turn them into personas. I know it sounds unnecessary. I want to skip all of this and start building my product. After all, it’s so clear to me that this need exists because “I” need it so “other people” must need it too! It’s true. If we need it, other people must need it too, but who are those people? Do we have a good description of them? Can we create a Facebook ad and target them right now? We can try and most likely, the ad will have very low conversions because we have not found the right niche market for our product.
So, what are personas? They are simple descriptions of customer archetypes that we think will benefit from our product. Do teachers benefit from it? Are they male or female? What are their goals and challenges in life? What are the pain points do they have that our product will address? Below, there is an example of a customer persona. Why should we bother making personas? It’s simply because when we want to look for our target customers to interview, we should be looking for these individuals and verify that they actually have the needs that we assumed they had.
It is not a huge deal if our personas don’t match the reality. We will update them after talking to our pilot customers. At the end of the interviews, we’ll have much more accurate personas which will lead to more effective ad campaigns. In addition, knowing more about our customers will allow us to design a product that suits them best. For example, if we are building an app that mostly Uber drivers use, we know that they might be driving when using the app and that requires bigger buttons for easier access.
Okay! When we have the personas written for the first time, we’ll need to find some customers to interview. These personas will help us find them. The organic way of finding customers is by searching Facebook and LinkedIn groups, posting ads, and leveraging the physical world such as shopping malls, etc. It’s tough to grab people’s attention these days as everybody is busy. Finding customers is something that we can definitely help with. The process is really simple. You post the project and describe your ideal customer. IdeaCooker has a community of early adopters that will bid on your project. You have the option to pick the ones who are relevant to your work. Wait for a few days so that more people bid on the project. This will give you more options to choose from! Make sure you are using the right keywords in the post to attract the right kind of audience. We’re getting really close!
What questions should I ask in my Customer Interview session?
There are some basic rules that we should be aware of before interviewing customers. In short, they are:
- No pitching: Don’t try to sell anything. If you even try, your interview will go to waste and you’ll not learn anything. Just be open to learning.
- Don’t ask hypothetical questions: Don’t ask “Would you do this or that?“. People tend to answer these questions based on their ideal self which is misleading.
Ask these questions instead:
- Tell me a story about the last time you did something
- What was the most difficult thing about that
- What was hard about it?
- How do you get around that difficulty today?
- Why is it not awesome? What’s wrong with it?
- In the end, ask them a little more personal questions to see if they belong to the persona that you assumed the would.
If we follow those instructions, we will learn so much after the interview. You can record the interview with the permission of your customer or take notes. Attach the notes to the persona that you think this customer belongs to. After several interviews (the more the better, obviously!), reassess your assumptions and update the personas. Keep those personas up to date! You’ll need them for marketing later on.
How about a cute little flashback to our original question? To recap, we found our target customers, interviewed them following the protocols (above), took notes, and updated our personas. We are golden! Now, it comes time to see whether we have the solution to the customer’s problems. How many of our pilot customers pointed out the same problem we had in mind when we came up with the idea? None?! If that’s your answer, you definitely need to pivot. If most mention the problem that we hypothesized, we may be on to something. Next, look at what customers use today to solve their problems. Do they love the solution? If yes, that’s another good reason to pivot. Good thing we didn’t build anything up to this point.
Here’s what’s wrong with start building something before talking to our customers. We fall in love with our MVP and cannot let go even if we see the evidence that our idea is not great. Love is blind! We’ll stop being rational. So, be aware of that!
So, let’s say that our idea solves the problem that most of our pilot customers have and there’s nothing like it out there that customers use today. Now, we are really on to something! At this point, we should conduct a few more customer interviews focusing on the idea and ask a few deep WHY questions around that. When they say it’s hard to do this and that, I’d immediately ask why is it hard? When they answer, keep asking why until they get to the emotional level. At some point, after we ask enough why’s, we’ll hear things like “because it frustrates me” or “because it’s exhausting“. These feelings are their fundamental pain points. The stronger these feelings are, the more important problem you are solving. Pay attention to facial expressions if you are having a video chat. Those will put more weight on these emotions.
Not only these emotions will help you understand the depth of the problem, but also they’ll help us with our marketing campaigns. We can describe the pains of our customers better and connect at a deeper level with them. The legendary success of brands like Apple, Nike, and others is because of that. They speak the language of their customers. Customers feel better about themselves using those products. It’s not just about solving their problem. It’s deeper than that.
The legendary success of brands like Apple, Nike, and others is because they speak the language of their customers. Customers feel better about themselves using those products.
Alright, awesome! This should conclude this post folks! See you next time and thank you for reading. Leave comments and let us know what you think about this article and how we can help you.