Do You Understand Which Customers You Want to Develop?

Whenever I have the opportunity to sit down with an entrepreneur to discuss how an idea is going to be commercialized, a hot topic is “who is your buyer, and how will you win them?” Amazingly, many who aspire to start businesses (even some who have been in business) have very little strategic insight into the answer to this question. By going after the universe, in a shotgun method, the business owner shortchanges the enterprise of the opportunity to develop authentic connections with targeted customers who become loyalists. We break the broad question down into tactical components such as how to listen to customer input and revise a product or service offering. Yesterday I read a LinkedIn article by Steve Blank, the author of The Startup Owner’s Manual. Blank wrote about an interaction with a former student who claimed that following Blank’s advice on customer development was causing his company to fail:

We Did Everything Customers Asked For
“We did every thing you said, we got out of the building and talked to potential customers. We surveyed a ton of them online, ran A/B tests, brought a segment of those who used the product in-house for face-to-face meetings. ” Yep, sounds good.

“Next, we built a minimum viable product.” OK, still sounds good.

“And then we built everything our prospective customers asked for.” That took me aback. Everything? I asked? “Yes, we added all their feature requests and we priced the product just like they requested. We had a ton of people come to our website and a healthy number actually activated. .  . everyone uses the product for awhile, but no one is upgrading to our paid product. We spent all this time building what customers asked for. And now most of the early users have stopped coming back.”

Customer developmentWhat’s your business model?
“Business model? I guess I was just trying to get as many people to my site as I could and make them happy. Then I thought I could charge them for something later and sell advertising based on the users I had.”

I pushed a bit harder and said, “Your strategy counted on a freemium-to-paid upgrade path. What experiments did you run that convinced you that this was the right pricing tactic? Your attrition numbers mean users weren’t engaged with the product. What did you do about it? Did you think you were trying to get large networks of engaged users that can disrupt big markets? Large is usually measured in millions of users. What experiments did you run that convinced you could get to that scale?”

I realized by the look in his eyes that none of this was making sense. “Well I got out of the building and listened to customers.”

The idea of the tests he ran wasn’t just to get data – it was to get insight. All of those activities – talking to customers, A/B testing, etc. needed to fit into his business model –how his company will find a repeatable and scalable business model and ultimately make money. And this is the step he had missed.

Customer Development = The pursuit of customer understanding
Part of Customer Development is understanding which customers make sense for your business. The goal of listening to customers is not please every one of them. It’s to figure out which customer segment served his needs – both short and long term. And giving your product away, as he was discovering, is often a going out of business strategy.

Blank then shared the lessons learned by his student:

  • Getting out of the building is a great first step
  • Listening to potential customers is even better
  • Getting users to visit your site and try your product feels great
  • Your job is not to make every possible customer happy
  • Pick the customer segments and pricing tactics that drive your business model
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