startup customers

There are many fascinating and mysterious things about startups. One of the most intriguing is how little they know about their customers.

It seems strange to operate with little insight about the people who purchase your products, but startups are product-centric (obsessed?), rather than customer-centric. They spend too much adding features that customers may or may not want.

Startups would be smarter and more successful if they followed the approach used by Ikea. The Swedish retailer makes home visits in cities around the world to understand how customers live so it can develop new ideas for products. It’s a hands-on exercise that provides Ikea with valuable insight that wouldn’t bubble up if the company operated in a silo like many startups.

When a startup develops a product, it’s a hypothesis or an experiment  based on an entrepreneur’s ideas or vision. But it is just one person’s view of the world, even if that person is really smart, hip, stylish, trendy, a problem solver, etc.

Until a startup understands why customers may need their product or how they use the product, it is operating in an information vacuum. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to shape the product and achieve the magical “product-market fit”.

So how do startups get information from customers? The answer is straightforward: they ask them.

Yes, customers and potential customers are happy to talk about their needs and interests. Many of my startup clients are happily surprised to discover this reality. They find it amazing that customers will invest the time to provide their thoughts and ideas. I worked with a CEO who realized his fast-growing business could do even better if he talked to customers on a regular basis.

Here are a few ways that startups can approach customers:

  1. Surveys are an effective way to gain insight into a customer’s needs and how the product could be improved. The trick is keeping is them short and snappy, and perhaps offering an incentive to complete the survey such as the chance to win a prize.
  2. Net Promoter Scores deliver insight into whether a startup is meeting the needs of their customers and, as important, if their customers would recommend the product to other people.
  3. Telephone interviews are opportunities to receive in-depth insight. It begins by creating a list of your best and most challenging customers to get different perspectives. Then, you approach them via email to set up an interview. Check out this blog post by Groove on how well this process can work.
  4. Take them out for coffee, lunch or dinner. Yes, it means meeting face-to-face with customers. It can be a scary proposition for startups that operate behind the curtain like the Wizard of Oz but as Seth Godin says, “business don’t sell to businesses, they sell to people.”
  5. Host user groups meetings or conferences. By getting customers together, it is easy to give them information about your product and roadmap and solicit their ideas, issues and insights.

The bottom line is getting insight from customers is fairly easy and painless. Startups have no excuses for not knowing what their customers are thinking, doing or buying. The better they understand their customers, the better their business is going to perform.


If you’re looking to jump-start your startup marketing, I can help you make it happen – everything from messaging and brand positioning to strategic planning and content development. I published a book, Storytelling for Startups, that provides strategic and tactical guidance to entrepreneurs looking to embrace the power of story-driven marketing.

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