To paraphrase the baseball great Yogi Berra, entrepreneurship is 90 percent about customers and the other half is hard work.
Every successful business exists because it provides a product or service that customers need and are willing and able to pay for.
Keeping this reality front and center isn’t automatic—especially for entrepreneurs who come from scientific and technical fields as so many company founders in technology businesses do.
Follow these 5 tips to create a company where customers are the pivot point from day one. That leads to sales.
1. Validate solutions with real customers in real markets before you create a prototype.
If you can’t get customers to validate your concept, they won’t buy your product. It’s as clear cut as that. As a startup with no track record, no references, and no history of product service, your learned knowledge of your customers and their needs is the single best tool you have to build credibility when you are ready to close that all-important first customer.
- Use personal, professional, and industry connections to reach out and connect with individuals who have the problem you are trying to solve. Do this on the phone or in person. The way not to do it is via email or text. Discussions need to be iterative and open-ended.
- Compose questions ahead of time. Listen and take notes. You are not there to validate your assumptions as much as to discover where your assumptions are wrong.
- Talk to people who are using competitive or alternative solutions. Find out what they like and what they don’t. Which features they are willing to pay for and which features are “nice to have.”
- Explore the barriers to change. Inertia is a powerful force. Successful startups are all about disruption. Aversion to risk protects the status quo.
2. Create a system to document and organize the quantitative and anecdotal information that you collect about the market and potential
The information gained in these early conversations will be useful in many ways as the business moves through the stages of growth, from Pre-Concept to Concept and beyond.
- Add credibility to the business model and investor presentations with references to first-hand conversations with potential customers.
- Keep connected with the potential customers as you build the product prototype. Let them know how their input influenced your solution and helped create a differentiated product and a prototype that fits their defined market need.
- Early contacts can be great prospects for beta sites, early adopters, or even potential investors.
3. Create a prototype of the ideal customer. Use that prototype to make connections that can lead to early adopters and sales.
Use the same approach you used in creating a market-driven prototype to imagine the perfect customer—the person who has a need so compelling that when they hear about your solution, they will want to buy.
- Build a complete persona. Where do you find that “dream” customer? Where do they work? What industries? What types of companies? How do they fit into the organization? What do they do? Job titles? Responsibilities and metrics?
- Identify the problems that make an ideal customer ideal. Why will they be willing to listen to you? Spell out the value proposition that will make them accept an appointment with you and eventually say “yes.”
4. Target the industries and companies in your geography where those “dream” customers work.
Your personal and business connections and your connections’ connections can open doors.
- Take your target list of companies and ask friends, family, and associates if they know anyone who works at your target list who matches your ideal customer profile. Even if the person is not in the right department or at the right level, it’s a start.
- Don’t be shy about approaching Fortune 1000 corporations as well as medium-sized firms. These businesses have unsolved problems and untapped opportunities—challenges so significant that if a startup can provide a solution, a big-name corporation might be willing to take a chance on being that startup’s first customer—or even funding development.
5. Build strong partnerships with first customers.
Create a foundation of customers who will stand up and tell friends and strangers how beneficial is it to do business with you.
- Think about customer problems as if they were your own. Helping customers succeed is the best path to succeeding yourself.
- Like your customers and be liked in return. Be genuinely interested in their business, interested in their problems, and respectful of their time.
- Be open and willing to share your ideas and your dreams—especially with customers who may have started as entrepreneurs themselves. It’s a bond.
Among the million and one new things that every successful entrepreneur wants to learn, customer relationships belong at the top of the list.