As I speak with young startups, or even corporates in some instances, and as we go through product idea, I am bound to ask a pertinent question — who is your target market customer. Or, who are you really building this product for?
If the answer is that this product is ‘for everyone’, and seldom I do get that answer, then I know that it is a red flag. If you are building your product for everyone, then know that you are building your product for no one.
Your initial product needs to solve the problems for a specific set of customer.
So, how do you find out the ‘right’ customer for you to start with?
In 2008, founding executive editor of Wired magazine, Kevin Kelly, wrote an essay titled “1,000 True Fans” that dispelled the myth that you need a million dollars in your bank account or a million fans to be a successful creator. All you need is one thousand fans — or loyal customers.
According to Kelly, true fans or superfans are a group of people who will purchase anything and everything you create. These diehard fans will drive two hundred miles to see you sing and buy your latest merchandise to wear to the concert. These are fans who buy hardback, paperback, and audiobook versions of your book, then buy it again on Kindle to read it on the go. They are the ones that subscribe to your newsletter, read every single word, click every link, and send it to twenty of their friends. They love everything you put out and value it so much that they are happy to give up part of their income for it.
In a time of information abundance, it is rare for customers to feel a personal connection to a brand. The customer will feel special if you can create that connection. It is like walking into a restaurant and the owner knows your name; it makes you feel recognized and more likely to return.
To get to a thousand true fans, Kelly advises building a direct relationship with your customers, especially in the early days. It is not difficult to learn a thousand names. It is easier to offer the very best experience to these people. Make a limited-edition version of your product and give it away to them for free. Connect with them directly. Do whatever you can to establish a personal relationship with your first few customers and make them your true fans.
True fans fulfill two purposes. First, they buy everything you create, allowing you to make your product sustainable. Second, these fans spread your story and tell their friends about you and your products. If you create a good enough product, you will get new customers. If you keep working on your inner circle, these new customers can also turn into your true fans. If you can interest even one person out of every million on the planet, that is seven thousand people.
How do you get to one thousand loyal customers? By making things they want. How do you know what they want? It’s quite simple: by talking to them. No amount of data analysis or prediction algorithms will give you the level of insight that speaking with the customers in a structured manner will.
As obvious as this sounds, this is an often-overlooked step. Would you believe that in 80% of cases where a team is involved in making a product, the development team never speaks with the customer? This means that teams end up building the product before knowing if it’s worthwhile for the customer they are building it for. Sometimes they think it’s not an important enough step, sometimes they don’t know where to find the customers, and sometimes they just can’t be bothered.
I was consulting with a senior corporate member who was venturing out by launching his own technical product line, and he told me that his biggest pain point was speaking with the customer. He did not like interacting with customers. This response has been actually surprisingly common with other entrepreneurs I have interacted with. Either they don’t know where to find the customers or aren’t sure what to ask the customers when they do find them. Also, the excitement of building something seems more productive than actually researching what to build. Personally, I fail to understand why this step is overlooked so frequently, but in my experience, this is one of the most important steps when you are in the stages of what to build.
Another critical step before getting to the ideation stage is to learn about the problem you’re offering a solution to yourself. The only way to do it is by speaking with potential customers.
Start with identifying the right customer and then focus on trying to speak with them. If you are a first-time entrepreneur, you might think that your product will be applicable to everyone. You might be right, but what is your starting point? It is important to identify who you think the first set of customers will be.
Let’s examine Apple’s example. Now, Apple makes a lot of products, such as iPads, iPhones, laptops, computers, and earphones. Each of their products have a different customer base. For instance, iPads have a different set of customers than, say, earphones. Likewise, their phones are solving problems for a very different customer set than their laptops.
The point is, there are different sets of customer bases within a company that a specific product might be solving the problem for. It is easy to say that an iPad is built for the whole world, but the truth of the matter is, it is not. Apple knows this and is realistic about identifying the target customers. iPads are, of course, available for everyone to buy, but the way they structure the features in an iPad is for a specific set of people.
So how do you get more information about your customers? More importantly, how do you find out who your ideal customer is and what their needs are?
If you are a product manager working in an existing establishment with an ongoing product or service, you will need to get access to already-available information. This information will be with the marketing team. Or, if your org is advanced, this step would be done by a product marketing manager. They will have information from their existing data, previous analyses on who the target customer is, and more insight into what the target customer requirements should be. Further, they may already have identified forums or customer groups where you can quickly engage to learn more about the problems of the users.
If you’re building something from scratch or adding a brand-new feature into an existing app, this is where it gets a little interesting.
If you are thinking about fixing a problem, you will have a notion of who is facing that problem. It is all assumed at this point, but you would have an idea. For example, your customer can be a person of American nationality who is twenty-five years of age, falls in X income bracket, and likes to shop online. Based on assumptions, you would identify five to six such users. There are multiple tools out there, such as UserInterviews and Feedback Loop, with which you can specify the user category you are looking for and arrange quick interview sessions.
Most of the online tools for customer discovery are more applicable to the US. If you are outside of the US, then you can hire marketing agencies who will do this for you. They can go out and get information about your customers and their preferences through surveys, calling and talking with customers one on one, and other methods.
All the above options require you to spend some money. However, if you don’t want to open your wallet, take an afternoon and walk around where you think your initial consumers might be hanging out. For instance, if you are planning to launch a product for twenty- to thirty-year-olds, go to a coffee shop where a lot of them are working and speak with them. As counterintuitive as it may sound, nothing will give you more insight than speaking with the consumers directly.
This is what I did while consulting with a technology-based food supplement company getting ready to launch in Dubai. The founders were just starting out and didn’t have much money. For a week, the founders would go to a coffee shop and spend two to three hours there. Whenever they found someone who they thought would be a potential customer, they would go and start speaking with them. Sometimes, they would end up buying coffee for the person. This way, they not only had some direct feedback about the customers’ pain points but collected fifteen to twenty potential customers, who would become their first set of users.
Ideally, you want to collect a set of beta testers who you think will represent the assumed customer segments. Typically, for a feature or a small service, you should have around six beta testers. For an entire app or service, you should have about five users if you are a start-up and twenty-five users if you work in a corporation.
Going forward, the features you build will be only for these users. These beta testers will become your ideal customers to start. As your product matures, these beta users might change. You might want to get feedback from a family member, or someone else, and that’s okay. For instance, in the case of the beauty marketplace I worked with, the founder had initially defined all the customer segments. It looked something like this:
o Women: ages 18 to 30
o Occupation: working women
o Nationality: residents and tourists (given tourists formed a large population in Dubai)
· Service providers:
o Salon owner
§ Gender: women
§ Age: 35 to 50
§ Nationality: American and Asian
Many resources on product management recommend a survey at this point in time, but I am not a big fan. The survey should ideally list some questions that can be answered by your target customers. There are companies such as SurveyMonkey that provide you with this service. Based on the survey responses, you can have more information about the problems, alternative solutions, and other comments your users may have. However, in my experience, surveys are completed by individuals who fill it in for the sake of completing the survey and might mislead your research. For me, it is more important to have a reliable source, as I will be basing my assumptions on this information.
Now, the entire process listed above should not take you more than a week. You just need to identify your customers and speak with them. Period. In a corporate setting, it might take a little bit more time to get the right permissions, but try not to spend a lot of time on this step, as you are in the process of building your high-level product strategy.
The beauty and wellness marketplace start-up, based on their assumptions, identified eight salon owners and eight end customers. They spoke with around twenty salon owners, of which eight were friendly and okay with seeing what their product was about. The eight end customers were all from the founder’s family and friends. All the features that the start-up built were to cater to this identified set of users.
Now, if you are an early-stage start-up, I would advise not to make more of this than needed. High-level assumptions are fine at this point. However, in corporations where you have a little more liberty with time and resources, it is good practice to create a user persona once you have identified your target user. The reason these were introduced was to give a human form to your target customers that would enable you to make more empathy-based solutions. It makes sense that instead of brainstorming solutions for women who are thirty to forty-five years of age, you would have an easier time thinking of a feature for Karen, a white woman who earns a certain amount and is likely to buy from certain places.
There are four simple steps to build a persona:
1. Identify a user base (from what we discussed above).
2. Reach out to users. This can be done in several ways:
a. Cold outreach on LinkedIn or a social media platform.
b. Reach out to your network.
c. Reach out to groups.
d. Hang out where they hang out.
e. Leverage internet tools.
3. Conduct research. It is important that to identify the problems the users are facing at this point in time — so speak with them. I use the following questions when trying to deep dive into the problems faced by the users and reflect on the answers throughout the product development process:
a. What is the hardest part of [doing the thing]?
b. Could you tell me about the last time you encountered this problem?
c. Was there anyone involved?
d. Why was it hard?
e. What were the circumstances?
f. What, if anything, have you done to solve this problem?
g. What tools did you use?
h. What don’t you love about the solutions you have already tried?
4. Design a persona. There are various ways in which you can create personas. Align with your marketing and management teams. If you are a start-up focusing time on designing a persona, kudos to you — you’re excellent with time management. Figma and Miro are two tools I have used to make personas, and they are very easy to use. A sample persona diagram was depicted in the Chapter 3 section, “UX/Design.”
A sample user persona (feel free to use your own templates).
Finally, how do you track what the customers are saying about their pain points, and their feedback about your product? A simple Excel spreadsheet will work. There are also freemium lightweight CRM services. I am a big proponent of lightweight CRMs, as they help you streamline your communications and customer behaviors. Here’s an example of a format that has worked well for me in the past:
In all the start-ups and products I have worked with, this step is overlooked about 90% of the time. I’m always surprised to find that a lot of features we ended up making were unimportant. It just continuously proves that speaking with the customer should be the first step. As uncomfortable as you may be approaching users with random questions, and as trivial as this activity might sound, please ensure that you identify and speak with your users.
 Kelly, “1,000 True Fans”