Note from Rob Z.: This is another tip culled from experience working with the fine folks at StartupWeekend. Though written with them in mind, the information I present here can be used in any startup, in any company in really any context. Understanding your customers’ needs by actually talking to them is the first line in both real customer support and product development.
Alright, folks, you have 54 hours to
- create a killer company
- develop a business model
- prove that your product solves real customer needs
That last one has tripped up a lot of folks in the past. The Customer Validation piece of the StartupWeekend puzzle seems like a lot to ask in so little time. Without knowing your market and whether your solutions really address their needs, though, your success is in jeopardy.
Getting solid customer validation and turning it into a marketable audience is not as difficult as it seems, but you need to begin working on it as early as you can. In a typical StartupWeekend event, that means identifying your target market, building your surveys and getting ready to ask the tough questions late into night one and being ready to hit the streets early the morning of day two.
Relax. This is going to be fun.
Day 1: Identify Your Customers, Ask The Tough Questions
I get it – your wicked slick mobile app is such a game changer that it’s head-slappingly shocking no one else has thought of it before. Awesome. Who are you building it for?
“Everyone!” you declare. “This is something small businesses can use, college students can use, my parents can use…” and you drift off into a misty-eyed, hockey-stick shaped haze.
Snap back to reality. Your product may be useful to everyone, but your resources are limited. Your potential customers may be similar, but they aren’t the same and neither are their needs. You can spin your wheels trying to be all things to all people, or you can tighten your focus and build the best possible product for a small, intensely dedicated group of folks eager to shower you with money. This small group is your niche – they are your people.
You need to define your niche the first night and consider how your product can best suit the specific set of problems they face. You also need to determine how you can reach out to them to confirm and refine your assumptions. If you can’t identify a niche that your product can help by the end of night one, the rest of the weekend is going to be pretty grim. The target audience you select will drive every decision you make for the rest of the weekend, so don’t skimp.
Learn everything you can about the people you’re targeting: how they work, how they buy, what their price sensitivity is, how comfortable they are with technology, where they get their coffee and – perhaps most importantly – where you can find them on a Saturday morning. Come tomorrow, you’re going to be meeting with as many of them directly as you can.
There are going to be a lot of “I don’t knows” in the profile you build around your niche – Google can only do so much. That’s OK. Find the contact information for as many members of your market as you can and reach out to them as early as feasible. Those “I don’t knows” are perfect fodder for customer interviews.
Write down all of the relevant questions you have about your target market and the problems they face. Figure out some solutions you can introduce into your product to address those problems and be prepared to present them to these customers, even in an abstract form. Your goal for the following morning is to interview at least five potential customers (more, if possible) and get some long-form responses from them that will drive the design and development of your final product, from the revenue model down to the interface design.
Before you go to bed, you should also build an online survey that you can submit via email and your social media channels to get as much feedback as possible. Designing a survey can be a tricky business – the VerticalResponse Survey Tool makes it easy to design the survey itself (and, as a StartupWeekend participant, you get 500 free survey responses), but you need to give some thought to the questions you want to ask. It’s tempting to write the survey as if it were a sales piece, leading the the respondent down a path to wanting your product. The feedback you get from these will be worse than useless – they’ll lead you into a false sense of security thinking your product is awesome when it may be far off the mark.
The answers to your survey questions should be as neutral as possible. Questions like, “Would you purchase a mobile app that is both inexpensive AND keeps your life organized?” generate obvious “yes” answers from all but the most jaded. A better question is one that helps define some of those features. For instance, what does “inexpensive” mean to them? $50? $500? $5? You can get the answer by asking, “How much are you willing to pay for the product we have described?” and supplying a set of ranges. Don’t shy away from multiple choice and open-ended questions – these may be difficult to graph, but they provide valuable insight and suggest answers to questions you never thought to ask.
You can find a lot more best practices and tips for creating effective surveys here at the VerticalResponse site.
Day 2: Talk To Your Customers, Get Regular Feedback, Build To Their Needs
It’s 9am. Grab a cup of coffee or a 6-Hour Energy drink and look alive – you’re going to go meet some of your customers. Putting soles to the cement is the best way to understand your target market. If you can’t meet them in person, get them on the phone. You have two goals when talking to your customers:
- Determine whether the product your building actually addresses their problems
- Build a team of Customer Advisors you can check in with throughout the weekend
Dive into the challenges they face and ask hard-hitting questions about the solutions you’re proposing. Ask them how they would address these challenges if they could build a solution themselves. Find out how much time and money they spend on the challenges you’re addressing and how much they’d be willing to pay if you could fix them. Determine the value of your product to your targeted market. Listen to and record their feedback – this will drive product design for the remainder of the day. Finally, ask them if it would be OK to call them or email them throughout the weekend with mocked up designs, beta versions of your product or any additional questions you may have. Those who say yes will become your customer advisers – your most powerful asset.
By no later than 1pm, you should have a clear vision of how well your original idea will help your target audience. You may discover that you were wildly off the mark. There’s a simple solution to that – pivot! If you’ve done your work, sent out your surveys to the right people, talked to a good segment of your target market and really listened to their challenges and needs, you should have a wealth of ideas to draw from to make their lives easier. If your original idea is no longer sounding as groundbreaking as it did last night, that’s fine – in fact, that’s excellent! It’s far better to focus on a product that solves a real need than to bump your heard against something that no one wants. Listen to your customers and begin designing a product they actually need and they will actually use.
Your developers should begin working as soon as possible – preferably even the night before. Sure, they may not have the complete story laid out, but they can lay down some of the base code – authentication mechanisms, database connectors, etc. – and get their environments and version control schemes set up. By 4pm of Day Two, they should have some idea of what the final product is going to look like. Get design mock ups as soon as you can – even if they;re just simple wireframes – and go back to your customer advisors for feedback. Don’t tell them how it’s expected to work, let them try to discover that just based on what you show them. Listen to them as they struggle to figure it out and write down their questions and comments. These are pure gold that will lay your path to Sunday pitch victory.
Day 3: Confirm Your Assumptions, Demo To Your Customer Advisors
We’re in the home stretch. Hopefully, your developers have been cranking out code most of the night and have been showing you some awesome functionality at this point. Don;t just sit there and “ooh” and “ahh” at it – show it to your customer advisors! They’ll eventually be the ones to use it, make sure they’re oohing and aahing as well. Again, listen to their feedback and try to apply as much of it as you can before the demo.
You need to start working on your slide deck and demo starting at about noon. By 3pm, do a dry run of your pitch to your customer advisors. If you can’t meet them face to face, put together a quick YouTube video or throw it up on SlideShare. They’ll care less about the business model and the history of how you got to where you are than they will about the demo. If your customers are blown away by the demo, the judges should be as well.
Again, record your customers’ reactions, write down their comments, etc. This time, however, do it with an eye toward including these comments and reactions in the final pitch. You want to demonstrate clearly to the judges that you have worked closely with your target market throughout the process and understand their needs to well that they’re lining up to start using the product you developed. Even if you don’t get the grand prize on Sunday or place in the top three, if you have a marketable product with a base of ready and waiting customers, you’re team has won the challenge.