Episode 410 | Customer Development for Dummies

Show Notes

In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and Mike talk about customer development. Based on a Sujan Patel article, the guys walk through 5 tips for doing customer development the right way.

Items mentioned in this episode:


Mike: In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and I are going to be talking about customer development. This is Startups For The Rest Of Us episode 410.

Welcome to Startups For The Rest Of Us. The podcast that helps developers, designers, and entrepreneurs be awesome at building, launching, and growing software products, whether you build your first product or you’re just thinking about it. I’m Mike.

Rob: And I’ve been drinking coffee.

Mike: It’s not whiskey?

Rob: It’s not whiskey. It’s 10:00 in the morning, so I was hoping it wouldn’t be whiskey. Mike, I don’t drink coffee very much anymore. I’m having coffee right now so this is going to be good.

Mike: I have a coffee cup that says, “This is probably whiskey,” on it.

Rob: Nice. I like that.

Mike: Anyway, we’re here to share experiences, help avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. What’s going on this week, Rob?

Rob: Aside from drinking just a tiny bit of coffee this morning, which will hopefully come across as making me energized and sharp rather than wandering all over the place and to crazy tangents, I’ve been listening to a book called Valley Of Genius. It is the history of Silicon Valley, all the way back into the, I believe it’s 50s and 60s as Fairchild Semiconductor came up. It’s told in the words of the people who were involved. There’ll be a chapter telling the history and there’s a chapter or a bunch of quotes from Steve Jobs and Fairchild himself, and a bunch of people who worked in Atari, Nolan Bushnell and people who worked there.

Right now, I believe I’m in the early 80s. I don’t know when it’s going to end, if it’s going to keep going all the way to Facebook and Google or where it goes. I’ve really enjoyed books like this. I grew up there and I remember a lot of orchards and stuff that wasn’t developed and all these concrete tilt up started coming. My dad was in construction and he’s in charge of building a lot of fabs for Intel and they shipped that overseas. Then it was biotech. Then it’s was dot com stuff in the 90s. Then it became just more data centers.

It has a special place for me because I was there but even if you’re not, it’s not like you need to have lived there to get something out of this. It is purely history book. This is a fascinating telling of how these things all developed and really how Silicon Valley became Silicon Valley pretty much by accident. If you’re interested in that kind of history and hearing how things developed, Valley of Genius. It’s a decent book.

Mike: On my end, I’ve got a book recommendation that was sent to me from Keith Gillette and he runs tasktrain.app. He suggested Slicing Pie based on a previous episode where we talked about finding co-founders and how to split equity. I looked into it and it’s a very interesting book.

The Slicing Pie book talks about how to divide equity between co-founders based on a variety of different factors in it. Seems like it’s generally applicable to just about any situation. The general concept is that you divide the equity based on people’s contributions and if you believe in your startup, you’ll probably going to work more on it and you’re going to put more time, effort, and resources into it. But at the end of the day, it’s a gamble. You’re essentially placing bets with your time and money and those are essentially translated into equity points for lack of a better way to put it. Those equity points are divided among the co-founders and that’s how you come out with a final equity split.

I think it’s a fascinating way of looking at it. I didn’t dig into all the details. I’m sure there’s some interesting edge cases but definitely want to say thanks to Keith for sending that over to us.

Rob: Yeah. Definitely, appreciate it. I read that book or at least skimmed it when I first came out because I believe the author sent it to me or maybe he sent it to us. This was a few years ago. I thought it was interesting, although it was probably not an approach I would take.

I’m trying to remember even what it was but I think it was all the founders were starting off and it was a developer and a marketer and you’re just dividing. It’s three developers or whatever and I’ve always felt when I started businesses, we’ve always had brought different things to the table but might not just be task-based.

It’s like, “Oh, so-and-so has $1000 to bring to the table.” That really set things different. Or, “So-and-so has an audience they’re bringing and we’re going to build that on it,” and that has a lot more value than, say, building a certain feature or whatever. I think it’s a good model and frankly, it’s the only book I know that’s been written on this topic. It’s something to be thinking about. What are we talking about today?

Mike: Today’s we’re going to be talking about customer development. The title of this episode is actually Customer Development For Dummies but this is based on an article that was written by Sujan Patel on his blog and we’ll link that up in the show notes.

Sujan was a speaker at MicroConf Growth Edition in 2017 but he talks about customer development in a way that I think that most people can at least get a few takeaways from it and obviously, we’ll add our own perspectives on different pieces of this particular blog post.

Rob: And we’ll, of course, link that up in the show notes. It’s an article at sujanpatel.com and it’s called Five Tips For Doing Customer Development The Right Way.

Mike: His first tip is to talk to your customers, which I think is one of those intuitively obvious things that most of us try to do but I wouldn’t say that we’re all necessarily successful at it. But he’s got a lot of advice in here about how he went about approaching the market for when they were developing Mailshake and they going out to talk to customers.

The one thing that I think he pointed out here which is extremely interesting was that if you’re just trying to validate a product, you don’t have customers yet. So, instead you have to talk to new customers, you can go out and talk to the customers of your competitors, which I think is a really fascinating idea. It’s not just because it’s brutally obvious if you don’t think about it, but I hear a lot of people say like, “Oh, if I don’t have customers, who do I go talk to?” I think that’s just a perfect piece of advice for those people.

Rob: Yup and as a strategy, he says to find your competitor’s customers, going to a site like Capterra or GetApp where people are rating your competitors, and you’ll notice that most of the sites let people connect their LinkedIn or Twitter profiles, then you can reach out. He said, reach out to 30 or 40 people and in his experience, you’ll get 20%-30% success rate, and then ask what they like or don’t like about your competitor’s product. I think it’s a pretty clever hack.

Obviously, you could use something like BuiltWith or Datanyze but those are really expensive sales prospecting tools where you can get list of folks who were using things and this should be more of a freeway. Takes a little bit more time on your end, but more of a freeway to reach out to competitor’s customers.

There’s a lot of value in talking to competitor’s customers and even former employees of competitors, frankly, is an interesting avenue. I guess you wouldn’t get as much customer development. Maybe you can find out more about internal processes or at least approaches if that’s something that you need. It’s probably not something you need this early on but it’s something to keep in mind as you grow.

Mike: The other thing I like about talking to customers or prospective customers and ask them what they don’t like about the products is that it gives you a punch list of challenges that they’re probably having with those products and you can cater your own development to trying to solve those. That’s not to say that, that is going to lead directly to success but if you hear enough people saying the same things over and over that are bad about a particular competitor, then you can use that as a marketing point as well as an engineering point to say, “We are going to make sure that we solve this so that when people are looking for an alternative to this because they are so angry about this particular thing that happens, then we’re the obvious choice for them.”

Rob: Here’s a pro-tip. If you start doing customer development like this and you get the feeling or you get the sense that you’re going to have to build your entire competitor feature set, then make changes, adjustments, or additions in order to get the customers, that’s a red flag. Building out features that’s going to take forever. The best kind of market that you can get into is where a competitor or competitors are bloated and have huge feature sets but a lot of different niches or a lot of different verticals are using say, 20% or 30% of it and that 20% or 30% is broken but it’s the best option.

An example of that is QuickBooks. QuickBooks is a huge tool. It can do inventory management. It can do invoicing, AR, and AP. It can do all this accounting stuff. There’s probably a slice of small businesses that just need a pretty simple, kind of based like freelancers, where they just need some basic invoicing and keeping track of expenses. That’s where startups like Xero and LessAccounting came up, and they just built that part of it. They didn’t have to build inventory management because they were just pulling off of that part that didn’t work.

Another example is Infusionsoft. As we were growing Drip, we realized Infusionsoft has landing pages, shopping carts, affiliate management program, payment processing I believe is built-in, then they had email marketing, they had marketing automation, they had CRM, they had a lot of stuff. We did not build all of that. We just needed to be really good at the email marketing and marketing automation, and we were able to pull a lot of customers from Infusionsoft.

So, two examples of how I view markets. If you had to build all of the Infusionsoft or all of QuickBooks, you just can’t do it. It’s going to take you years to do it.

Mike: That leads to the natural question to ask while you’re talking to those customers is, what things do you not use at all? Or do you use very little? That will help give you an idea of some sort of relative ranking of the features of the competitor that you probably have to implement versus the ones that are probably complicated and going to take a long period of time to develop but most customers don’t use. If it’s not used by 80% of the customers, you probably get away without it.

Rob: Yup and one question that I ask during Drip customer development was, what’s your biggest pain point with tool X? Whether that was Infusionsoft or whether it was MailChimp or HubSpot or Marketo or Ontraport, what do you like the least about it or what do you wish they would fix or what do you wish they would add or how could they do better? AWeber is on that list as well.

The cool part is I started seeing patterns of, “Well, I like MailChimp and AWeber and they’re solid tools, but they don’t do this. You can’t tag people, you can do automations.” Someone said, “I like Infusionsoft but it’s really buggy. The Campaign Builder is too complicated. It’s way too expensive for what it is. Didn’t like the $2000 upfront.” There’s some real specific things that everyone referenced back to. If you’ll notice, that’s what we attack really early on with our marketing. We’re like these guys but better, we’re like this but different. It wound up being something that in 10, 20, 30 conversations that I had, could translate into our entire marketing message.

Mike: Yeah and you’ll find that there’s definite hot spots in those areas as well. As you said, you talked to 30, 40, 50 people, you start to hear the same things over and over again, and you just know where to focus your time and effort.

The next tip that Sujan has is to track your competitor’s pros and cons. I think that goes a little bit back to the previous one where there’s a difference between feature set versus what people like and what they don’t like, and what things they wished that the competitors had. The feature set is what they advertise versus how well they mash the customers’ expectations in terms of the pros and cons. There’s obviously some overlap in the feature set in that but there’s a definite difference between how the customer feels about the features versus what their marketing message is saying.

Rob: Yeah and Sujan says to google things like competitor’s name review, like QuickBooks review or QuickBooks testimonials, and visit as many results as you can trying to come up with a list of the top 10 things people like about each of the competitors as well as what they don’t like.

This is a way to do it without having conversations and I would view this as day zero research. You’re trying to put together a list or get a sense of the pros and cons of your competitors and you’re going to do this for multiple competitors. It’s not just one in general. Typically, more than one competitor has a decent market share.

The next step for me would be then to start having those conversations with either people who have signed up for your early bird list. Even if you don’t have customers, you can ask them, “What do you expect? What do you want? Do you use one of these competitors? Do you use QuickBooks? Do you use Infusionsoft and what do you think about them?” Or, if you don’t have that yet, start building it today and then go and do what we talked about in the previous step which was to go to Capterra, GetApp, and start having conversations with your competitor’s customers.

Mike: The other thing he recommends is that you track the changes to this list over time. I think that’s also an important piece that I’ve not really thought about in the past but tend to agree with them because the technology is going to change over time. The entire market itself is going to change over time. As time plods on, there’s going to be a set of features that is standard across all of your competitors and you need to make sure that you have those features. If you don’t, you’re going to end up being left behind.

That’s not say you should always copy every single feature that your competitors have but if you’re the only one who doesn’t have a particular feature, you might want to seriously consider adding it.

Rob: Tip number three from Sujan is to test before you build. He talks about how Hiten Shah does a really good job of going through a lot of testing. If you want to see someone who is really at the top of the game of pre-validating products and doing customer development, go to hitenism.com––it’s called Product Habits now. Sign up for his email list and just watch what he does because Hiten is, like I said, one of the best at this.

Mike: The reason why you want to test these things before you start building them is that you don’t want to waste a lot of time on building stuff that nobody’s going to use or that isn’t actually solving a problem that your customers have. If you’re just blindly copying a competitor, for example, they may have implemented a feature that they didn’t necessarily know that their customers wanted. They may have just said, “Oh, we think that they need this or somebody mentioned this and we’re going to build it,” and then you spend several weeks or a couple of months building something that, because you didn’t test the market, you didn’t know that nobody needed it either. You’re just copying somebody else. You want to find places where you can save time, not waste it.

Rob: You know why I realize is that we didn’t even really define customer development when we started. Some folks may have heard that and they may have an idea of what it is but there is a pretty solid definition because Steve Blank, who’s a serial entrepreneur and he’s now a professor or was a professor, was it Stanford or Berkeley, somewhere in California. He developed this concept called customer development.

It’s a four-step process. It’s customer discovery to start with. There’s a lot of conversations proposing an MVP, trying to figure things out. Then there’s customer validation once you start building it. And then it’s customer creation which is where you’re scaling and then you’re bringing in customers. And then it’s company building, which is where you scale operations and stuff.

If you google what is customer development, there is a pretty nice diagram of all that and we don’t need to go into those pieces for you to understand it, but just in case you are listening, thinking, “What is this customer development term?” it really just means we are focusing really on the first and second steps here, which are the conversations with your customers and then trying to find product-market fit. I think maybe Sujan is really focused on even just the first step in this article, because second, third, and fourth is more company building, scaling, and organization.

Mike: We talked a little bit about the types of ways that you can test things before you start building them. One that I used during the validation process for Bluetick was, I created a set of Balsamiq mockups and then showed those to people. Instead of building codes and instead of creating CSS mockups or Photoshop mockups of exactly what the app was going to look like, I just sketch it all out using Balsamiq and was able to link the pages together. You can see how the application was going to work without writing any of the code for it. It took me probably 20-30 hours or so to put that together, but that’s a lot less time than it took to build the application and put something that was completely functional together.

During the process of showing it to people, I got a lot of questions about, “Oh, what does this piece do?” or, “How would I go about doing this other action over here,” and it gives you a sense of where your design essentially is going to either fall short of what their expectations are or other areas where you should probably spend a little bit more time on it.

Rob: Sujan suggests getting a wireframe and going to sets like in five-second test or user insights, usertesting.com is another one, and that will give you UX stuff but it won’t tend to give you customer insights like you’re talking about, Mike, where you are actually talking to a group who you knew was interested in the solution that you’re going to be providing. I think yours is harder to do but it’s more valuable in my opinion.

Tip number four is to go to conferences or events where your customers are. This is an obvious one but one that a lot of people overlook. I think you can get a ton of value in a two- or three-day conference. You could talk to 50 or 100 people if you scheduled well. Maybe not 100, that actually sounds like a lot but maybe let’s say 30 or 40 people really quickly in person if you really made a point of having your stuff together, you’ve been having mock-ups.

I was at a startup pitch, was a competition. It was more like a demo day for local accelerator here in town the other day. Someone was talking about something and then pulled out an iPad Pro and was like, “Here, let me just walk you through.” He had, it was either mock-ups or maybe it was an actual app running on it. It was kind of funny to see him just pull it out during a conversation as we were having drinks and it got a better picture of what he was up to. Frankly, I was able to give him feedback of like, “Oh, I was confused by that,” or, “I don’t see my people would use that,” or, “That screen’s really nice.”

Mike: I have something that you can actually show to people. It leaps and bounds above just explaining it to them. When you’re explaining it to them, they’re going to have their own vision in mind of what the thing’s going to look like, how it works, and what it does even. You might say something like, for Bluetick it’s an email automation follow-up software or something like that. They’re going to have in their own head this impression of what something like that does based on their previous experiences and it doesn’t necessarily reflect what you are building. So keep in mind that if you can show them anything at all as opposed to leaving it up to their imagination, you’re going to be much further along.

The other thing Sujan points out is that in an informal setting such as a conference or an event, is much more conducive to getting feedback from people because if you’re getting people on to webinar and you’re doing a sales demo or something like that, people have a tendency to hold back a little bit. In an informal situation, you get, I’d say a little bit more honest feedback because they’ve realized they’re not really being sold to and they’d like to help you out. They want to give you feedback that is going to help you. In just any informal setting, that alone is going to help do that.

Rob: And his fifth tip for customer development is to live a day in the life of your customer. He talks about dogfooding your own product. It helps you smooth out the rough edges. This is one of the benefits of scratching your own itch. Scratching your own itch has been thrown around since 37signals said, “Hey, this is all you got to do because that’s what we did, and look, it worked.” It is cool. It is easier if you can do that but it’s not required. It’s not required to scratch your own itch to build a great product. I’ve seen it done for people entering a market that they’re not part of. However, either way, whether you’re scratching your own itch or not, you should dog food that product. You should try to use it as if your customer was using it.

If I recall, dogfooding was coined by—was it Bill Gates or someone at Microsoft because he learned that the CEO of a dog food company would eat the dog food to test it. Bill Gates was like, “We need to basically eat our own dog food which means we need to use our own software to make it better.” So if you’re curious about where that term comes from, that’s at least my anecdotal memory of where it comes from.

Mike: I experienced this first hand with Bluetick. It was a lot harder when I was working on AuditShark just because there’s only so many servers that I have, for example, so scaling things up is a little challenging in terms of using the app for a large number of servers. With Bluetick, I’ve used it to go out and do email follow-ups. It’s interesting to see the places where I’m running into challenges and whether it’s UI- or UX-related issue, things were just not as quick.

For example, there’s a bunch of shortcuts that have been added and it’s explicitly because I found that it was too many clicks to click between different things. Not one customer ever really said that to me but I also knew just from using it, that it was painful to do that if I had to use the main navigation without those shortcuts.

Those are the types of things that you’re going to find and by finding those things that are painful for your customers to use, you’re also going to be able to fix them and prevent them from moving off to other products because they get so fed up with those and they say, “Oh, this has got UI or UX issues and I can’t get around or it takes me too long to do my job.” You don’t ever want your customers to feel using your tool is a chore because you’re trying to solve problems for them and save them time and money. If you’re causing them more headaches, it’s just not worth it for them and they’ll move on to something else.

Rob: Right and using your own product shouldn’t just be done in the early days because once you have customers, you need to use it on an ongoing basis in a perfect world. That’s where, if it is something you use, you have that leg up because you will get in there and you’ll notice things that bother you about it that don’t bother your customers, and it keeps your product at that really high level of refinement, high usability.

You’ll notice a tiny, like a little misspelling or a like a four-pixel difference between this and that and it’s just something that, if you can catch that, because no customer is going to screenshot that and send it into you. Maybe a typo they will, but there’s just these little things that I used to see in Drip all the time when I was using it. It was like, “Man, that bothers me that that is not perfect.” I would send it over to our design team and say, “Hey, we got to fix this little thing.” It came across as a refinement rather than a complaint. It was like, “Let’s make this tool better.” All that’s safe if you’re able to use a product on a daily or weekly basis you think that there’s a lot of value there.

Mike: Just over time, just by doing that it will naturally get better and smoother over time. That’s really what you’re looking to do is just smooth out the rough edges there and make it a nice, clean experience. When people get that experience from one product and have used others where they didn’t get that experience, they talk about it.

Rob: That about wraps us up for the day. If you have a question for us, call our voicemail at 888-801-9690 or email us at questions@startupsfortherestofus.com. Our theme music is an excerpt from We’re Outta Control by MoOt used under Creative Commons. Subscribe to us in iTunes by searching for startups and visit startupsfortherestofus.com for a full transcript of each episode. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time.

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One Response to “Episode 410 | Customer Development for Dummies”

  1. Great episode! I took a lot of notes in that one.

    If you guys are ever looking for topics, that seems like a great Part 1 of a series that’s based on Steve Blanks’s Four Steps.

    Thanks for your time with these!