Startups, How Do You Know What Your Customers Want?

There’s a saying in business that goes something along the lines of, “Give your customers what they want.”, or maybe it’s, “Be where your customers are.”, or maybe it’s, “Solve a problem for your customers.”… ugh, maybe it’s just a bunch of cliche stuff that “consultants” say to sound smart.  But what does it really mean.  Let’s say you want to start a business but aren’t quite sure what business you want to start.

So you think about some demographic, and what their problem is, and how you might solve it. But how do you know before you make the hundreds, thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars in investment to get it going, that you are actually giving customers what they want? Customers don’t even know what they want, or they’d probably already have it, so how are you supposed to?

  1. Communication – Talk to Them.
    This is by far #1, and the easiest but most ignored way to do it.  Why?It takes time, and that is of course a hot commodity when you have news sites to browse and facebook posts to review. It takes more time than you might even imagine it would take. You can’t just ask someone, “what’s bothering you?” and expect to get a meaningful answer.  First you’d be putting them on the spot, and no one makes good answers on the spot.  Second even if they did give you an answer they’re probably not telling you what’s really bothering them.  They might even give you some mis-information that makes you feel like you got an answer when the real issue is something completely different.

    It takes some real thoughtful time to dig into it, but luckily there is a method to follow.  Just follow up the answer numerous times with another question — “why?”.   Ask why as many times as you need to to get to the true issue.

  2. Build MVP’s – Minimum Viable Product’s
    This hugely popular term, is popular for a reason.  No matter if you spend months or years talking to “potential” customers, you may still not be building the hit you think you might be building.  Once you have something you, “think”, will work build it.  Build just that one idea.  Do not build every feature you think you may need in the future, build the MINIMUM that you need today to start getting real usage feedback from your customers.  (Then refer back to #1, and ask “why?” about a billion more times)You will need to pivot, you will need to make changes, you will need to take your business in directions you couldn’t have imagined.  Embrace it, and be stronger because of it.
  3. Be Where Your Customers Are
    This doesn’t mean, build a product where they are so much, as it means physically be where they are.  Are your customers on facebook? Are your customers on news forums?  Are your customers at meetups?  Are your customers at tradeshows?Be part of their community.  Integrate yourself with them and be a member of their circle.  Genuine interest in your industry is going to be a huge plus here, and that’s why another cliche comes to mind… do what you love.  It will make it far easier to want to be in these groups if you actually have a genuine interest in it.
  4. Solve One of Your Problems
    More than a business or two has been created by solving your own problems.  It’s very likely, almost a certainty that anything you do has been done before.  In this world of 7, moving towards 8 billion people, the law of large numbers pretty much ensures it.If you can solve a problem, that you couldn’t find a solution to from elsewhere, then chances are, someone else would like to know about it. This is of course where the rubber meets the road though.  Many great ideas never turn into businesses also.  That’s because there is more to it than just having a great solution.  Execution is always the hardest part, but it can be made simple if you just focus on making that first sale, then that second sale, then the third and so on.