The only thing a new startup should be focused on is customer development. And the only goal for your customer development effort should be talking to potential users. And by “talking to” I mean having a face-to-face conversation or by phone. That’s it. If you aren’t having one-on-one conversations with potential users for your startup, then you aren’t doing customer development and you aren’t going to grow.
The Challenge with Customer Development
The biggest challenge for founders is finding people to talk to and actually getting them on the phone. If you’ve already launched you might have a small user base to target, but more than likely you’ll need to hunt for users, get in touch with them and convince them to talk to you.
The good news is at this stage you’re not trying to acquire a user base. You’re simply trying to talk to enough people that you can validate or disprove your problem hypothesis. In other words, you just want to learn one thing:
“Will my business idea work or not?”
To do this you may only need to talk to a handful of people. Shooting for 100 conversations is a good rule of thumb, but even talking to 20 people will give you critical insight into whether you’re targeting the right market and the right problem.
It can be very difficult to convince 20 people to talk to you about your startup. Simply going into a Facebook group and asking if people are willing to chat with you about your idea doesn’t work well. People generally don’t want to take the time to talk to you on the phone and they tend to shy away from customer development conversations at first. If people know you are going to ask them to share personal experiences and stories, which is the core of what you want from customer development interviews, they’re not initially going to be into it.
You have to build some trust with users before you can get them to share the intimate nuggets that lead to quality insights about your business idea.
To get around these challenges I’ve developed a 3-step process that works every time. I’ve tested it myself a dozen times and I’ve had over 100 students in my entrepreneurship course use it over the past six years.
The Problem Hypothesis
I’m going to assume you’ve already done the work to develop a problem hypothesis. But as a quick refresher, the first step to customer development is to develop a hypothesis that covers these three things:
- Who you think the customer is — the market and their function in that market
- What their problems are — what significant unsolved issues do they have
- What benefits do they get from solving this problem — what impactful result do they get from your product or service
The best way to formulate a problem hypothesis is to put it in the form of a user story. A user story goes like this.
“As [a user in a market], I want [to perform this action] so that [I can accomplish this goal].”
As an example, here is the user story that Twitter likely wrote down before they built and launched their product.
“As an internet user, I want to be able to share short ideas with my friends, so that I can stay connected without spending a ton of time writing.”
There are tons of resources on creating a problem hypothesis and writing user stories for customer development. Remember, you’re trying to create a business not a feature — understanding the most significant pain point for your customer is the only way to get there. So if you haven’t done the problem hypothesis work yet, start there and then continue with this article.
Getting Customers on the Phone
It’s not enough to get potential customers to fill out a survey. And it’s definitely not enough to trust secondary research. And it’s almost a counter-productive to trust your gut. You have to get people on the phone, or Zoom, or in person. It’s the ONLY way to elicit the experiential stories that are absolutely essential to know if your product will have a real and significant impact on a big enough market.
That said, my process does start with a survey. And the data you’ll get from that survey is useful. But the primary goal of the survey is to identify people that are willing to talk to you. Here’s how it works.
Step 1 — Build an Insightful and Straightforward Survey
The first step in the process of getting users on the phone is to create a survey. You’ll want to craft a survey that meets the following criteria:
- Asks relevant questions that a respondent feels like they haven’t wasted their time and would be willing to give more information on a follow-up call
- Short enough that it only takes 5-7 minutes for someone to complete (less than 20 total questions)
- Format your survey so that questions take up the least amount of vertical space (i.e. use columns when possible) and make at least 80% of your questions required, especially the last one
- Multiple choice, checkboxes, and ranking questions only (paragraph responses take too much time and work for the respondent)
- Includes a request for follow-up conversation as the last question
If you create a good survey, you can expect to get about 20-30 percent of the respondents to agree to a follow-up conversation via phone. So if you’re shooting to speak with at least 20 people you will need to get roughly 80 people to complete the survey. That might seem like a lot, but it’s totally doable.
Remember, don’t use paragraph response questions, make it as easy as possible for people to complete. There are 4 types of questions to include in your survey.
- Qualifying Questions – These are informational questions that aim to validate you are talking to the correct person (ex. what they do, where they work, gender, age, interest, products they use, etc.) and should make up no more than 20% of your total questions.
- Situational Questions – These are questions that pose a hypothetical situation and ask users to tell you what they are most likely to do (ex. what method works best for this situation)
- Impact Questions – These are questions that ask users how impacted they are by a particular experience (ex. rank these activities in order of how impactful they are for you)
- Behavioral Questions – These are questions that ask users to share behaviors or activities they participate in (ex. specify the frequency you engage in the following activities)
There are of course unlimited potential markets and customer segments you might be targeting. But let’s look at a few questions of each type that just about anyone can resonate with and should help you formulate your questions for your market.
All of these examples are from real customer development I’ve done for Markup Hero, a screenshot, and file annotation software startup. We have the benefit of having numerous target markets: product managers, teachers, content marketers, etc. But we were also highly challenged because of a desire to initially focus on a single market.
“Qualifying” Customer Development Questions
Here are several questions that provide contextual information to quickly categorize your respondents and make sure you’re targeting the right people.
For Product Managers
For Content Marketers
“Situational” Customer Development Questions
Here are some example questions that aim to learn about situations that your users might encounter and how they would deal with them.
For Product Managers
For Content Marketers
“Impact” Customer Development Questions
Here are some example questions that get to the impact a particular activity or experience for a user.
For Product Managers
For Content Marketers
“Behavioral” Customer Development Questions
Here are some example questions that try to learn about the activities a particular user engages in.
For Product Managers
For Content Marketers
The last question of your survey is a critical ask. Here you are basically asking users for permission to contact them for a follow-up conversation, like these.
Step 2 — Finding People to Take Your Survey
Now that you’ve written an insightful and easy to complete survey, it’s time to start getting respondents. This is surprisingly easy and there are lots of places to get them. The easiest and free way to get people to fill out your survey is Facebook Groups. You really shouldn’t need to go anywhere else. There are millions of Facebook groups for literally every topic you can imagine.
How to Pick the Right Facebook Groups
Start by searching Facebook Groups your target market (from your user story, remember). For the three examples I used above: Product Managers, Teachers, and Content Marketers, you’ll find thousands of groups. Here are some criteria to use when selecting which groups to join.
- Choose groups with at least 2000 members but not more than 20K — if it’s too small, you won’t get enough responses. If it’s too big, you’ll get lost in the sea of messages
- Pick groups that have between 5 and 50 posts per day — too few and the group isn’t active enough, too much and you won’t get seen
- Don’t join groups that are owned and operated by other companies — you want groups that are run by passionate people within your target market
- Scan the messages to make sure people are posting things relevant to your interests — sometimes the group name won’t accurately represent what people are actually talking about, just do a spot check
How to Request to Join a Facebook Group
Start with 3 or 4 groups from the previous step. Don’t try to join too many. You probably don’t need more than 3-4 to reach your survey completion goal and it will be overwhelming to manage more than that at first. Plus, many people are part of multiple groups covering the same topic. If you post your survey request in too many groups, it will appear like spam to some users that are seeing the same post in different groups they’re members of.
When you request to join, read the rules, and complete the questions with complete honesty – never lie here. It’s very unlikely you will be asked a question that you can’t answer honestly, but occasionally you will read a rule that restricts you from posting surveys specifically or one that you might inadvertently violate. If you see this, just move on and choose another group.
For questions that relate to the reason you are joining, just be honest. You are looking for feedback and guidance from others [enter target market and user role] and want to share your experience in [enter target market]. Even if you have no experience in a particular target market, you can bend the truth a little here.
Most of the time you will be accepted to the group in a few days.
How to Post Your Survey in a Facebook Group
After joining a group, it’s best to participate in some conversations and provide a little value before you make an ask. Do not pitch your product at this stage. In fact, the purpose of this exercise has nothing to do with pitching your idea. You can always go back later and try to acquire users after you’ve done some customer development.
Scroll through the posts every day and comment when you can. If you have no experience in the target market, then just do some research to respond to some threads. The goal is to get your name visible before you make the survey ask. You should post on at least 3-4 threads and be active in the group for a week. After that, you’re ready to post your survey.
Optimally you make the post from a benign angle. In other words, you will get a better response if it doesn’t appear that you are asking people to complete this survey for the purpose of launching your own business. Try to think of a positioning that plays into people’s willingness to help the underserved. It’s best not to completely lie, but again, I’d bend the truth if I needed to.
In my case, I have the benefit of being a high school entrepreneurship teacher. That’s not my full-time gig. I only teach one class and I do it because I love it. With this, I usually position my request to complete a survey as a project my students are working on. Here’s an example of a post for the teacher survey.
I got 8 completed surveys and 3 people agreed to talk to me via phone. Sure, I bent the truth just a bit as this survey was for my startup, but I do in fact teach an entrepreneurship course and my students do projects. If you take a few minutes to think about it, you can find a unique angle that tugs on people’s heartstrings too.
If people comment on your post, be sure to reply and thank them. This not only helps others see the authenticity of the post but also increases the position of your post in members’ feeds.
Repeat this process in more Facebook groups until you reach your desired survey completion numbers. If you can alter the post message a bit, that will help, but honestly, it still works if you post the exact same thing.
Step 3 — Review Survey Results and Contact Your Leads
Review the survey results as they come in — don’t wait until you have 80 submissions to do this. Eventually, you can log and do a deep dive on the data you collected, but for now, just try to see if there are any glaring issues with your survey. You might find that a few questions are getting a lot of “other” or “not applicable” answers. This suggests that the questions aren’t relevant enough, don’t resonate with people, or are missing selection options. Just go in and make edits to the survey. You can always remove and replace questions as well.
Also, look at the survey metrics around starts and completes. Some survey tools won’t give you this, but Survey Monkey will. I recommend spending a few bucks to get a subscription at least for the period you’re doing customer development. Remember the goals: survey completion and agree to a follow-up call. Everything else is gravy.
Contact People Quickly
As soon as you get your first “yes” to the last question, reach out to that person while the survey is still fresh in their mind. Your message should include these things:
- Keep your email short
- Tell them who you are
- Remind them of the survey the completed
- Thank them for taking the time and let them know how helpful they’ve been
- Thank them for agreeing to talk to you further
- Ask them for a time to speak
The last step is the big one. Rather than leaving this open-ended, you can increase your conversion rate by more than 50% by giving them several days/times to select from. Just say “Do any of the following days/times work for you? I expect the call will take no more than 10 minutes”.
Don’t worry, a 10-minute call will almost always turn into a 30-minute call if you do a good job at getting people to tell you stories.
There is a lot to be learned about doing effective customer development interviews. This article isn’t about that, but I’ll share a few key pointers anyway. The reason it’s important to talk one-on-one with potential customers is that it’s the only way to get them to share stories and experiences. Inside those stories are powerful insights around customer needs that are rarely obvious — and your job is to discover those insights and use them to prove or disprove your problem hypothesis.
- Develop an interview framework — what are the questions you are going to ask that lead to stories and insights
- Never ask them what their problem is — let them indirectly tell you their problems to avoid false positives
- Avoid yes or no questions — stick with questions that require people to share experiences
- Stay away from solution talk — if they propose a solution, or better yet, your solution, great, but don’t lead them there
- Ask open-ended questions — these questions dig deeper; follow up with “why’s” or “tell me more’s”
- More listening less talking — you can’t learn from your users unless they’re talking, so let them
As Jake Mendel likes to say “Ask why, why, why, why, why”. This is called a Root Cause Analysis, a process designed to get to the root of a problem. This process was popularized by the founder of the Toyota Production System, Taiichi Ohno.
The 3-step process I’ve outlined here is a full-proof way to find potential customers and conduct customer development interviews. However, this workflow assumes two important things which I don’t fully cover in this article:
- Creating a problem hypothesis and user story – This must be done prior to reaching out to customers and before you can follow the process in this article
- Creating an interview framework and conducting customer development interviews – This is critical to learning important insights from your potential customers.
Spend some time preparing those two steps first — then you’ll be ready to find and connect with potential users. The system I’ve explained here is almost certainly the only full-proof part of customer development. Just follow the steps and you’ll be on your way to validating your idea and launching a successful business.
- Step 1 — Build an insightful and straightforward survey to identify people who are willing to talk to you in person
- Step 2 — Find qualified people to take your survey using Facebook groups
- Step 3 — Follow up and interview those people with questions that lead to stories and prove or disprove your idea
Using this simple process, I was able to get 100 customer development interviews in just 30 days.
That’s it really. If you get stuck, just keep it simple. Remember the goals of each section. All you really want to do is get people on the phone. If the survey itself yields unhelpful data, but you got people on the phone, that’s a win.
Jeff Solomon is currently co-founder of Markup Hero, a screenshot and annotation tool for Mac, Windows, and Web. Jeff is a 5x founder of both bootstrapped and venture-backed companies, with several exits under his belt. He is a product and marketing focused entrepreneur with deep experience in SaaS.