95 Ways to find your first customers for customer development or your first sale

You can have the best idea in the world, but until you find someone besides yourself that wants it, it’s not really a business.  To find those people, as Paul Graham wrote in a recent essay, you have to “Do Things That Don’t Scale.” The problem is, it is often unclear what those “Things” are.

Fortunately, the internet is full of help. In particular, I was inspired by recent posts on someone going from zero to revenue in 5 weeks using customer development and validation by Melissa Tsang for her new startup Cusoy. I’ve also found the advice for Joel of Buffer about his start and the advice from this post by Jason Cohen of ASmartBear blog to be spot on. With all that advice though I still hadn’t seen anyone tell you where to look.

How to use this post:

Before we get into the massive list of tactics below, I want to be clear on what to do with this list and what to expect when you find a few tactics you want to follow:

  1. Your initial goal should be learning.
    In the immortal words of Lean Godfather, Steve Blank, “No Plan Survives First Contact With Customers.” With that in mind, the last thing you want to do is be hard selling your idea to them. Instead, you want to interview your customers to understand their problems. You can learn how to do customer development interviews here.
  2. Understand you’re going to have a low success rate.
    There is no silver bullet for finding users for your startup, just tactics like the ones below that work to varying degrees depending on your idea and market. Even for good channels, a 10-20% response rate is normal, so don’t get discouraged.
  3. Don’t worry about scaling!
    None of the ideas below are really scalable when taken literally. However, like Paul Graham said in his essaydon’t worry about scaling right now. Just do whatever it takes to find people and the scalable methods will emerge later. If you have a cofounder worried about scaling early, have them read the Paul Graham essay.
  4. Remember your manners and personalize.
    You’re likely asking people to talk to you when you have nothing but an idea and maybe a prototype of some sort. Be respectful in communicating with them. Also realize that no one likes a form note, so the more you personalize it and make it feel like they’re special, the better chance you have of a response. Elizabeth Yin of Launchbit has an awesome slideshare with advice on reaching out to customers effectively.
  5. Don’t get banned.
    If you abuse any of the tactics below, many of the sites and groups will ban or block you. Pay attention to restrictions to how often you can do certain things (like Meetup.com allows you to message 12 users per day). Realize the more times you break a terms of service, the more likely you are to get noticed and banned. On the flip side, it is easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. Just don’t be egregious.

A special thanks to these people that helped edit & provide ideas for this post: 


I’m writing a book on How to Build Customer Driven Products.

You can sign up for updates and early access to chapters that will help you build product customers will love by signing up here.


 

95 Ways to Find Your First Customers for Customer Development and Sales

Linkedin:

1) Use Linkedin Answers: Look for people asking questions around your problem and market or ask your own.

2) Join Linkedin Groups: Join Linkedin Groups for your target market. Engage in discussions there, reach out to people that post relevant ideas or questions, or post looking for help.

3) Use Search + InMail: If you know the kind of person you want to talk to, try searching for them (like VP Marketing at companies between 25-200 employees) and using InMail to message them.

Gabriel Prat InMail example.jpg

4) Check your existing connections: People change careers a lot more than you may expect.  You may have also lost touch with an old classmate that is now in just the right market. Either way, your existing connects are very likely to respond and you’ll have access to their email address, which is better than their LinkedIn inbox.

5) Ask your connections for intros: It’s quite possible the perfect people to talk to aren’t already a connection, but they may be one degree away. Don’t be afraid to ask connections you have a good relationship with for an intro.

6) Post to the Linkedin Social Network: Linkedin now has status updates you can post. It’s a lot less active than other networks, but it can’t hurt to see if anyone notices.

7) Run Linkedin Ads: Linkedin is the network for professionals and their careers. If your startup idea has them as the target customer (say marketers or executives), then an alternative to the high maintenance of Linkedin Groups can be to run ads. Linkedin also has a partner network for a lot of business content sites which can further the reach. There’s a great guide on KISSmetrics for Linkedin Ads here.

Facebook:

8) Look up your friends: For most people, their closest people in their life now and in the past are on Facebook. If you haven’t already exhausted your existing network on Linkedin, definitely look to see if any of your friends are in the market and worth talking to.

9) Ask your friends: There’s also a lot of random people you met in college and other times. You never know who knows who so you have to ask. I just got introduced to another person in tech through someone I was in a beirut league with in college.

10) Look for Fan Pages: There’s fan pages for just about anything you can think of. People that run those pages in your market are great people to talk to both as potential customers and to see if they’ll post something on your behalf on their page. Friends who have leveraged this have found it cheaper than Facebook ads, even when they pay the Fan Page owner. Just click the “message” button on the fan page.

fan page message button

11) Run Targeted Facebook Ads: If you think you really know your audience demographics, then running a small set of Facebook ads to a landing page, can be a great way to garner interest.

12) Try the new Graph Search: I haven’t had a lot of success using it, but it’s worth searching for things related to your market to see if anything else turns up, especially now that you can message people you aren’t friends with. In particular, Facebook has a great geographic filtering ability you won’t find on Twitter or otherwise.

Twitter: (My personal favorite)

13) Ask your followers: If you have any kind of follower base at all, you should definitely tweet about who you want to talk to. If you don’t have a big follower base, ask the people with bigger followings you’re friends with to ReTweet you. As you develop your idea, you may want to tweet different requests, which may be seen by different people since no one sees every tweet of their followers.

14) Ask your followers for referrals: It’s not just about who you know. The bigger benefit is who your network knows so be sure to not just ask people you follow or follow you if they’re a fit, but ask others for referrals.

15) Run Twitter Ads: Twitter ads can be a cheap way to reach people you’d never know otherwise. We got thousands of sign ups for MyAnalytics App at KISSmetrics using them. Like any channel, the more mature it gets, the more expensive it will become, so by 2015, this may not be nearly as economical (like many Adwords today).

16) Ask Twitter Accounts to tweet on your behalf: Just like you can ask Fan Pages on Facebook to talk about you, you can reach out to Twitter accounts in your target market to see if they’ll tweet something for you or ReTweet you. If it makes sense for your business, you can also ask some celebrities via tools like BuySellAds and Sponsored Tweets.

17) Search for relevant Hashtags: Hashtags are a big part of Twitter for many markets. For example, in the analytics market, there’s #Measure. Find accounts using the hashtag and reach out to them and join the conversations happening. Find relevant hashtags by asking others or checking out sites like Hashtags.org

Measure hashtag screenshot

18) Join a Twitter Chat: Many groups have regular chats that can be found based on the group’s hashtag they use. A great example is the Community Manager chat, #cmgrchat. This is a great way to ask questions and engage your target audience if they’re holding Twitter chats.

19) Search Twitter for People Talking about your Problem: Remember that time you were really annoyed at a company? What did you probably do? You tweeted about it. Try searching different ways for people talking about frustrations and you’re bound to find people happy to talk because they’re excited someone is going to make things better. I’ve successfully used this to talk to people about, of all things, email migration.

Email:

20) Email relevant friends/contacts: There’s a right way and wrong way to do this. Yes, you can spam all your contacts in one big dump asking for help. What will yield a better result is if you invest the time to be more targeted in who you reach out to. Close friends and family won’t mind and those actually related to your target industry.

21) Start a personal newsletter: I’ve known some people to start a personal newsletter to have their contacts *opt into* that then regularly updates them on your startup journey and can ask for specific help then repeatedly in the newsletter. This works great for getting mentors and early supporters engage in a small ask (just opt in) and later help more as you have different needs.

Personal Newsletter

22) Use Rapportive to find emails & cold email: Somehow you may have stumbled upon someone you’d *love* to talk to, but you don’t know them. You can use tools like Rapportive to guess the email address and send them a personal note asking to speak with them about what you’re working on. You can find more advice on this tactic here and here.

zuck rapportive

23) Make your GChat status a call for help/intros: This may seem simple and passive, but you’d be surprised who reads your GChat statuses. Adding a note of what you’re looking for and leave it up for a few days and you might just get a few people to help you out. This works for other chat tools as well, of course.

24) Make your signature a call for help/intros: Just like your GChat status is a long tail way to get people’s attention, you can use your email signature the same way. Below your name in your signature  is the perfect place to let people know. Don’t forget to update your mobile app’s signature as well as your computer’s.

Meetup.com:

25) Join & Attend Meetups in your category: Meetup has become an amazing hub of groups around just about any topic you can think of. Whether you’re making an app for LARPers or a hardware startup, there’s a meetup group likely in your area you should join to meet and talk with group members in your target market.

Meetup Group

26) Ask organizers to message the group: Organizers have unique privileges to send messages to their groups. You don’t get what you don’t ask for, so don’t be afraid to reach out to group organizers to talk to them (they may be a great target user) and see if they’ll message the group. They often make no money in running their groups, so you can think of them like the Facebook Fan Page owners previously mentioned.

27) Ask the organizer to allow you to address the audience at a Meetup: Potentially even better than getting into everyone’s cluttered inbox is the opportunity to address the whole group at one of their events. This allows people most interested to immediately approach you. This can be a great consolation ask if they don’t want to message their whole group since this requires no work on their part.

28) Mention in your Meetup profile what you’re looking for: Like the GChat status, this is a passive move that alone won’t get you everyone to talk to, but you’d be surprised how often people read the profiles of other new members in a group. Be sure to include your desired contact method if you want Meetup members to reach out to you.

29) Message users on Meetup.com: Not every member of a Meetup group attends every event and if there’s no upcoming meetups or it’s a group outside your area, you can still reach users by sending them individual messages. Per a great write up by Melissa Tsang, Meetup has a limit of 12 messages per day, which is still enough to get some quality responses as she writes in detail about.

30) Create a Meetup group: Just because a group doesn’t exist, does not mean there would not be interest. Countless people have launched successful businesses based on the idea of organizing a high value group. Just remember that if you do this, not only will you build trust and relationships with all the attendees, you’ll be the organizer who can send all those messages, decide who addresses the audience, etc.

Your Blog:

31) Write a blog post about the problem you’re solving:  If you feel you know some of the key problems that users are facing in your target market, write about it! If it resonates with them, they will share, upvote, tweet, etc it and some will even sign up as long as you remember to have a call to action to sign up at the end. You can see an example here, where 1,000 reads turned into 10 sign ups and a look at some famous companies that started with a blog here.

32) Post your blog to discussion sites in appropriate categories: Sites like Reddit and HackerNews are awesome to access established audiences for your market. Before posting, do your homework so you actually post it somewhere it’s welcome; a baker would not be well served to post their baking innovation on HackerNews, but a marketing startup would do very well posting to Inbound.org. By posting it to these sites you’ll significantly increase the reach of #31 and might also get some interesting commenters there you can reach out to like this example from Vero.

getvero hackernews

33) Update your About Page for what you’re looking for: Just like #23 and #28, it is always beneficial to list what your looking for on your About page. The most engaged people on your blog are likely to click to your about page to see who you are and if they see this, they can help even if they don’t read your specific blog post about your idea.

34) Make a page on your blog just about your market: Depending on your blogging platform, this could be easy or hard, but it can never hurt to organize your information in a way that people can easily navigate it. If you’re writing a whole series of items or have already created a lot of related content, this can be a great way to assert your expertise and act as a honeypot to draw in interested potential customers.

35) Start a blog just to talk about your industry: Don’t already have a blog or don’t want to talk about your startup on your existing blog? Then start a new one. It helps to have more content than just one post, so if you go this route, try to have a few posts you can post over a few weeks. If you know your startup’s domain, you can make this the start of your company’s blog. Especially for blogs like this, try to get users to either sign up for an email list or to explicitly sign up for customer interviews.

Other Blogs:

36) Reach out to other bloggers for interviews: Chances are, there are other people writing about the market and potentially even the problem you’re interested in solving. These people are generally very knowledgable on the market and so they make great customer interview candidates and can also shed a light on more places to look for people in your market.

37) Ask other bloggers to run an ad for you: Many bloggers, like those fan page owners, don’t make a lot of money, so they may be willing to run an ad for you for very cheap or mention you in a relevant post just because they’re nice or like you.

38) Ask other bloggers to write about you: Going beyond an ad (which may be seen on multiple posts) you can see if a blogger is willing to write a whole post about you. If you’ve already interviewed them and they’re excited about your idea, this may be an easier ask than you think (and thus do it for free).

39) Ask to write a guest blog post: If your own blog has no audience, the best thing you can do is get a post you’d write on your market/problem on a blog that does have your desired audience. Bloggers love having more content to share, so if it’s a good post, they’re very likely to be willing to publish it. Look for guidelines and advice on guest blogging on sites you want to write for like on KISSmetrics’s blog.

guest blog post image

40) Use Blog lists to find the right blogs: Not sure who to reach out to? Sites like Technorati, Blog Catalog and AllTop are great for finding out top blogs for things like Top Fashion Blogs or just about any other category. You can also look for other influencers on sites like Klout and PeerIndex.

41) Reach out to commenters: If you see passionate comments on someone else’s blog, follow the link and the profile/name from the comment to find out who they are and reach out to them. People usually will include a link back to their own blog, About.me profile or Twitter account from such a comment. This will give you a more direct, personal way to reach them, and avoid writing a bunch of comments, which the blog owner may then mark as spam and never be seen.

Q&A Sites like Quora, Quibb, & Answers.Onstartups 

42) Reach out to people that ask relevant questions: If you can see who asked a good question related to the problem you’re solving, reach out to them using any methods the site allows to see if they’ll do an interview.

43) Answer questions about your problem/market: If you’re already knowledgable on your market, don’t be afraid to jump in and answer open questions. The people that ask can become great people to talk to and are more likely to be responsive if you already helped them with your answer. Don’t be afraid to drop a mention of what you’re working on right in the answers. Thomas Schranz at Blossom.io has done a great job of doing this in a helpful, non-spammy way.

thomas good answer quora

44) Reach out to great answers: If you see someone who has given some great answers, they are likely very knowledgeable in your market and the problem you’re solving. Reach out to them to do an interview. Obviously, you’ll want to be careful it’s not a competitor. ;)

45) Ask questions to see who answers: There’s no reason not to join the conversation by asking questions as well. Reach out to the authors of any answers you find satisfactory or interesting. The best part of asking your own questions is that virtually every Q&A site will send you alerts when your question gets answered so you can easily keep track of them even if you ask a few.

46) Put Calls to Action in your Profile and Answer Subheadings: Sites like Quora allow you to put whatever subheading you want below an answer, so don’t be afraid to mention something about your startup there. Also, like the other sections, always put in your profile what you’re up to so anyone that checks you out (even for answers you may have written in other areas) can find you and potentially reach out.

IRL (In Real Life), aka “outside the building”

47) Approach people in native environments: Would your target customer be found in a coffee shop, grocery store or mall? Then go there and try talking to people. Like anything this is a skill. This can come off as harassing or creepy (and the store may ask you to leave) or it can work great. The founders of Sincerely have been know to walk over to a nearby mall and offer strangers money and app credits so they can see how a user uses their app.

48) Look for people unhappy with a service: Are you trying to make a real world activity (like finding a locksmith or a good mechanic) better? Then looking for disappointed people near that service may be just the unhappy customers you could delight with your service. After taking a bad cab ride, you’d be the perfect person to explain all the reasons you’d likely prefer to take an Uber next time.

49) Go to conferences for your target audience: Just about every industry has a few conferences related to it. Established businesses get booths, thought leaders speak and many deals get done.  You should be there too as you’ll never find such a concentration of people in your industry. Take advantage of attendee lists to figure out who you want to meet with. Offer to volunteer or just ask for a discount ticket because you’re a startup and you’ll be surprised what you may get.

50) Go to trade organization events: Depending on the business you’re in there may be regularly “Chamber of Commerce” style events where your target customers may be. This would work especially well if you’re targeting people who own brick and mortar stores or provide contract services.

51) Go to places you know they’ll congregate: Have an idea for people that own boats? Then going to your local marina is a *great* place to find boaters to talk to. Golfers might just be at the golf course or driving range, frequent fliers at an airport and teachers at a school. Timing is obviously everything, so be cognizant of when someone looks like they’re approachable and have time to kill versus trying to hurry somewhere else.

52) Ask people on long train rides or airplanes: I’m always amazed by the kinds of people I meet when riding Amtrak or flying. Sometimes serendipity can work in crazy ways, so don’t be afraid to tell random people you meet what you’re working on. They might just be helpful or someone nearby will overhear and jump in.

Your existing user base (even if small)

53) Offer a user Referral Program: You need a great product before you should be trying to aggressively hack your growth, but that shouldn’t stop you from offering an incentive to your existing users to help you get more users. They likely know where to find more of them (their social graph, emailing friends, etc) so a little incentive will get them to help you out. There’s a great Quora thread on the subject here. 

54) Ask your users via email: Especially in the early days, you should regularly talk to your users and be updating your whole user base regularly. As part of those updates for new features, major bug fixes and outreach, don’t be afraid to ask them for referrals to more users or people to talk to.

55) Always ask your users when you talk: Whether you’re doing a customer development interview, usability testing or just talking to a user about a support case, remember that you don’t get what you don’t ask for.  Ask them both if they know anyone specific who might also be interested in your startup as well as places they generally find other people. The latter may turn out to be a meetup, a Twitter chat or something else that is very target rich for you, but you would never have known.

Craigslist

56) Look for relevant postings: Does your startup idea do anything that is relevant to one of the many Craigslist categories? Quite a few companies have had great success building a massive business off just 1 category (see below). Try reaching out to posters to talk to them and later you can potentially scale this. AirBnb is the most famous recent example, which Andrew Chen highlights well here.

57) Make your own post: Just like you can respond to posters, you can also make your own posting in the appropriate category and filter the ensuing responses to find the right people to talk to. A friend working on a startup recently used this to success by making a basic post and then sending all respondents a qualifying survey to make sure they were a match. A small cash incentive in the posting will generally drive a solid response rate.

Forums, Micro Networks & Communities on the web

58) Join in the conversations on the sites: Just about any community exists on the web today. Many of them are in places you would have no idea exists until you dig in.  If you can’t find them initially, ask some of the early users you meet using some of the other tactics listed in this post. Once there, look around for people already talking about your problem you’re solving and join that conversation to learn more. You can also post new discussions specifically on your target subject to see who is interested.

slashdot comments

59) Message individual users of interest: If you see someone talking a lot about the problems or opportunities you’re working on, see if you can send a private message to them on the forum or at worst just reply to one of their comments asking to speak with them. Anyone sufficiently passionate will be excited to share their thoughts.

60) Reach out to moderators: If this is truly a community site (and not another company’s forums) then the moderators are often the most passionate people of all. Reach out to them as great people to talk to and learn from. As a moderator, they’ll be spending as much time as anyone following all the conversations there so they could provide valuable insight beyond their own experiences. If it is a company’s forum, then tread a bit more carefully depending on if your idea is competitive or complimentary.

61) Ask Moderators to post on your behalf or run an ad: Many forums on the web are run with very little revenue and more as a passion project. Therefore, much like some of the previously mentioned Fan Pages, etc, they may be open to posting on your behalf or running an ad for a very small fee. They’ll know the ins and outs of the site, which will give you a better chance of reaching the maximum audience.

Google Adwords & other ad networks

62) Run Adwords with a landing page: An efficient (though at times costly) way to build an early user list is to run a quick, targeted Adwords campaign linking to a sign up landing page. You can learn how to set that up here. There’s also good advice on evaluating the success or failure of such a campaign here and here.  Realize that paying to get a bunch of people on a list doesn’t validate much on its own. It’s then using that list to reach out to users and talk to them and ask them to pay for something that does.

cusoy landing page

63) Run ads on lesser known networks: Google may have the largest audience, but not the cheapest or best targeted. Consider your market and think about if other ad networks would work better. There’s everything to consider from Yahoo and Bing to mobile ad networks or blogger ad networks. You can find a list of alternatives here.

64) Have your SEO basics in order: What’s better than the perfect Adwords campaign? Showing up organically for searches on your problem. Great SEO takes time, but you can make sure to have the basics right from day 1 so that you can at least get a trickle of interested users to your blog or site. There are a lot of great tips on the KISSmetrics blog including this great SEO Guide for Beginners.

Newsletters

65) Talk to newsletter owners: Just like passionate people often run forums simply for the love of it, others will run newsletters. If you already subscribe to them, don’t be afraid to just reply to the newsletter and ask for a few minutes to talk to them. Most people are excited to hear from people who read their work!

66) Buy Ads using a newsletter ad tool: There’s a great newsletter ad network called Launchbit. It can be a great help in both finding out what newsletters exist in a category and allowing you to quickly set up an ad campaign across multiple such newsletters.

67) Ask for mentions in a newsletter: In addition to talking to newsletter owners as potential early adopters, you can also ask them for exposure. Many newsletters have no formal advertising system like Launchbit, so often you can just go direct to them to ask for a mention for little or no cost. The more excited they are for what you’re doing, the less likely it will cost you anything.

newsletter ad

68) Start your own industry newsletter: If you don’t find any newsletters in your category or are think there’s room for another one, then don’t be afraid to start your own! It will take time to build up an audience, but it’s a great way to put to work all those signups you’ve been driving to your landing page.  Often times, it’s easier to first get people on a newsletter and then later convert them to a paying customer.

Complimentary Startups

69) Reach out to complimentary startups: No matter your industry or idea, there will be others in the market you compliment. At KISSmetrics, there were many other SaaS tools we were happy to integrate with and swap customer/mailing lists. In most cases, our analytics was something their users needed and many of our customers could use a support tool, call tracking metrics or track a MailChimp email campaign.  The best case for success with this method is to target companies of similar size (ie- mailing lists and user bases are of similar size) as that assures an equally mutually beneficial relationship.

unbounce kissmetrics landing page deal

70) Ask to guest post on their blog: Just like there are industry blogs run by volunteers and people just generally passionate about the space, there are also companies with prominent blogs. One of the biggest challenges they often have is having enough content. Reach out to someone on the marketing team or any contact info you see on the blog and propose topics that allow you to naturally link to what you’re doing.

71) Find their users and reach out to them directly: If you think your idea would be helpful to that company’s audience, look for people actively engaging and discussing the company on all the platforms I’ve been writing about throughout this post. While it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission, remember again to use tact so as to not be spammy or offend the company.

Your Competition

72) Watch what they do: As the saying goes, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Chances are your competition has figured out at least a couple of spots where your customers exist and you can enter the conversation there as well. In more modern terms, if something they do works, then consider Jobs’s favorite quote, “Great artists steal.” Like their Facebook page, and follow the company and key employees on Twitter for some inspiration based on what they link to.

73) Look for social mentions: Especially if you’re trying to disrupt a large incumbent, there’s likely many people talking about your competition. Look for especially people complaining about the product or experience. These are perfect people to reach out to learn from and hopefully convert to giving you a try. This also works for other startups you’re competing with.

Ben Sardella outreach to MixPanel customer

74) Use research tools: Tools like MixRank, which shows the ads a site has been running, and Spyfu, which shows you the expected ad spend and keywords purchased for competition. If you’re looking for inspiration on the kinds of ads to try, those tools will help you get there.

Data Research Tools

75) Use Datanyze: This tool will tell you what apps any of the top 1,000,000+ websites are using as well as what they’ve recently quit. It’s transformed more than one sales team I know and provides priceless information on the state of just about any web SaaS market. Their free demo can help you understand market share, while the pricey version has alerts for specific tools and lets you see what any site is currently using.

Datanize market share tool

76) Leverage tools that tell you contact info for key roles: If you know the persona of your target customer, then a list like Hoover’s or Jigsaw can help you find some of those types of users at especially bigger companies. Note that this lists they have aren’t 100% accurate, nor are they cheap. Try to hustle access via a friend or advisor.

Your College, University or School

77) Ask your professors: Many professors live vicariously through their students, and are happy to help out current students as well as alumni. If you had a professor that you had a particularly strong relationship with that is relevant to your startup, definitely reconnect with them. Also realize that many professors will talk to alumni who they never taught. Most professors have industry contacts they can help you with introductions as well as be a great channel to their students as potential customers or hires whether via emailing them or letting you address the class.

78) Leverage your alumni network: Whether it’s old clubs you belonged to, a fraternity or sorority or simply the alumni group for the city you’re in, you’d be amazed what people may be doing after school regardless of major or study habits. Don’t be afraid to both reach out to old classmates and club members as well as reach out to the clubs themselves for help from current members. Every student group I was in loved to hear from alumni.

79) Use your alumni directory: Many schools have searchable alumni directories that can allow you to track down contacts at some of the most powerful positions in the world. The shared experience of going to the same school is often all you need to mention to get someone who normally would be unreachable to suddenly be accessible to you for a meeting, mentorship or the right introduction.

alumni directories

80) Reach out to student groups: Even if you weren’t a member of the group, student groups are usually excited to hear from alumni. If any student group fits as a target customer for your startup, you should reach out to them. Playing the alumni card often gets you a great response and can often lead to offers to help you in many ways. They can email their list, let you address the group at a meeting or assist in recruiting help.

Leveraging the Physical World

81) Post an offer in public places: Bulletin boards still physically exist in many places and people still put up physical signs for all kinds of things. The stereotype are things like meetings and guitar lessons, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get attention being creative. If you know there are places your target audience will go to or pass by, consider posting something to get their attention. If you’re doing a Concierge MVP for your idea, this is a great way to start.

82) Use handouts, fliers or mailers: If hanging something up and hoping people will read it and respond doesn’t work for you, consider a more 1 to 1 communication through handouts you can give out or mail. One person I met that had a parking ticket app would carry fliers with him and put their flier under the wiper of a car that already had a parking ticket on it as well. It had a massive conversion rate. Get creative!

83) Buy someone’s service: So you want to start a business serving artists, or maybe housecleaners or some other service? Try buying their service and take a few minutes before or after their service to talk to them.  If they care about customer service, they’ll be happy to discuss their problems with you. A friend of mine started his mobile invoicing startup based on the problems his cleaning lady had tracking payments.

Kickstarter & other funding sites

84) Look for products getting funded in your industry: Funding sites are booming which means all kinds of companies and ideas are getting funded. Others in your industry can be incredible sources of knowledge not just on how to run a campaign, but what they’ve learned from interacting with their new customers.

85) Ask complimentary funded projects for help: A fellow crowd-funded project that has finished their funding will be very busy trying to deliver their product to their supporters, but they might just be willing to send a message, tweet or post on your behalf. If their funding is still open, you may be able to swap promotion to your audience and theirs. Remember: You don’t get what you don’t ask for!

kickstarter contact

86) Reach out to users that backed the project: Every Kickstarter has a tab for Backers which includes their profiles, which you can click to see what else they’ve backed. While they have no messaging system (Indiegogo does), with their full names on Kickstarter, you can likely Google or search Twitter or Linkedin for them and message them there.

87) Put your idea on a funding site: If you feel you’ve validated your idea enough, then running your own crowd-funding campaign is a great way to validate interest for your idea. There is tons of information on the web about making the most of a campaign, just search on Google or Quora.

Youtube

88) Talk to Youtube Channel owners: Youtube is filled with creators making content on all kinds of markets. If you go to Youtube’s channel search, you can search for your category and see who has channels and how many subscribers they reach. Just like you can talk to bloggers as experts in a market, you can learn a lot by interviewing channel owners.

Youtube Channe

89) Ask channel owners for promotion: If your idea resonates with the channel owner, there’s a good chance you can get them to talk about you on one of their episodes or maybe even have you as a guest. They may charge you a fee, but if it’s your exact target audience, it might just be worth it.

90) Start your own channel: If you think video is a great medium to communicate with your audience then creating a channel to connect with them may be a great option. Just like starting your own Meetup group, it can initially be hard, but once you’ve built an audience it will have a great, long-term payoff.

91) Run ads on Youtube: Youtube leverages Google’s ad powers to run targeted ads. You only pay for the ads people fully watch (not skip) so if video seems a powerful way to communicate with your audience, it’s worth experimenting. Remember, Dropbox started with nothing but a video and got over 75,000 signups (although they did not run it as a video ad).

Your own Product:

92) Put your name on it: If any part of your product can be seen by a non-customer, make sure your name is on it. This is easy, free marketing that your customers can provide for you simply in using your product. KISSinsights (now Qualaroo) had incredible growth without doing any paid advertising because of a simple link in each of their pop up surveys.

qualaroo powered by93) Make sharing an option for more access: If your product has metered usage, then you will always have customers who are uncomfortable moving up to a new, costlier tier. MixPanel has a free 50,000 events plan that can become a free 175,000 plan if you put their logo on your homepage. I’ve seen countless startups with that logo in their footer for just this reason, so don’t think your users won’t do it until you try.

94) Build a product “worth tweeting about”: In the rush to build MVPs and move fast, it can be easy to end up building a half assed product instead of half a product. If you instead solve a deep pain in a delightful way, people will naturally rave about it. Crashlytics, which was Twitter’s largest acquisition ever, used this strategy to experience viral growth of their app crash reporting tool.

Mobile:

95) Run ads in your side project apps: A number of my friends have built apps as side projects that end up having a few thousand users that never really monetized or amounted to anything. As a free user base you can always insert your own ads into your app. I met one of the founders at QBix that built the Groups App for the iPhone (helping you organize your contacts) and they used this tactic to drive people to their other apps. You can also send them to mobile landing pages to avoid building anything.

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Woah…that was a lot. Thank you for making it to the end.

I hope a few of these have inspired you and point you in the right direction to find those difficult first few users. While some of them are paid options, I hope you see how many alternatives there are to paid acquisition on Day 1.

There are many, many more ways to find your first users, so let your creativity run wild (like making a fake Vodka brand to launch your events site) and just remember to focus on learning and don’t worry about scaling on Day 1.

What are the most clever ways you’ve heard to find your first users?

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The Lean Startup Movement’s Guidebook: The Lean Entrepreneur

I was lucky enough to get an advanced copy of the Lean Entrepreneur* and have been reading it on my commute for the past few weeks. After having spent time reading many other Lean books and blog posts, I’m excited to see this book released. In the interest of keeping a review MVP, here’s why you should, and shouldn’t read this book:

Reasons to Read the Lean Entrepreneur:

1. You’re not fully convinced to use Lean.

This book is like an FAQ on Lean. It beats down all the stereotypes (like Lean is only for software) with specific examples and thoughtful explanation.

2. You want to hear real life case studies of Lean in action.

The authors went to great lengths to get great case studies from everything from hardware companies to commercial cleaning products to prove that you can apply lean to *any type of business*.

3. You want help evaluating how you’re really doing at being Lean. 

One of the best things about this book is that between the concepts and case studies are a ton of checklists that help you see if you’re really properly evaluating your company at each step of the lean process.

Reasons to Not Read the Lean Entrepreneur:

1. You are already a 100% lean practitioner.

I’ve been doing lean basically full time for 3.5 years now and I still learned a lot. You’re bound to learn a few new things.

2. You like detailed, helpful diagrams and pictures.

Sorry, I know we’re all supposed to love @FakeGrimlock, but I’m underwhelmed by his drawings. I don’t think his drawings added much to the book or were helpful other than to give the book a lighter, more accessible feel.

3. You were hoping for the nitty-gritty details of exactly what to do.

This book won’t help you write your customer development interview script (here’s a post for that) nor help you find the phone numbers of your customers. What it will do is answer the critics’s questions and get you asking the right questions about your business.

Overall, I thought this was a solid book that adds a lot to the conversation of the evolving Lean Startup movement. I read a lot of books and this falls in at a 7.5 on my rating scale.

It goes much further and deeper into how to approach actually doing Lean in your business than Eric Ries’s The Lean Startup book. I hope that some of the people at companies with case studies in the book will share some more tactical advice that didn’t fit in this book.

The Lean Entrepreneur came out today. You can dive into Lean best practices and get your copy here.

*Disclosure: Patrick Vlaskovits is a friend of mine and he asked me to review his book.

Connecting the Dots: How a Boston Connector Landed at an SF Startup

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”Steve Jobs, Stanford Commencement Speech, May 2005

One of the most common questions I’ve heard over the past few weeks from younger members of our community, especially students, is how to build a career in startups. Unlike climbing the corporate ladder, it’s not a straight forward, linear process. As I just made a major move in my career to join KISSmetrics, I’d like to share how I ended up going from Boston startup connector to SF Product Manager.  This will also help answer questions I know some of you have about how I landed this job.

Connecting the Dots – The unorthodox journey of one startuper

To really begin this story, you have to go back to my days at oneforty. When I joined oneforty, I was given the title of Customer Development Manager and asked to help make oneforty a Lean Startup. Since I had only spent a few months working part time with John Prendergast as his cust dev intern, I really had very little experience. Laura Fitton, oneforty’s founder, took a leap of faith I could learn it, but she also was wise enough to know I could not do it alone.  That’s why she set me up to have mentors from day 1.

Immediately upon starting at oneforty, Laura connected me with two Valley Lean experts she got to know while she was out west raising money for oneforty and Pivotal Labs worked to build V1.0 of the site.  These people were internet mentor legends, Dan Martell and Hiten Shah.  Once a month I seemed to find myself on the phone getting what I would happily call an “ass-kicking” from Dan helping me realize all the things I was doing wrong and most importantly, could do to improve my custdev methods.  Roughly every other month I would have a similar discussion with Hiten.

These discussions were priceless in my career development. I would take copious amounts of notes and seriously reflect upon what Hiten and Dan discussed with me each time. I would also share these notes with Laura to make sure I truly understood them and to force myself to teach someone what I learned (a great tool for deepening your understanding).

A Chance Meeting

Fast forward 12 months at oneforty and it is April 2011. I’ve learned a ton about customer development and lean startups, enough that Trevor Owens, founder of Lean Startup Machine (which was just getting off the ground at the time) invited me to be a mentor at the Lean Startup Machine event in New York City. As destiny/fate/karma would have it, Hiten Shah was also one of the mentors for the weekend.

Being a mentor traveling in from another city is very different from mentoring in your home city. When you’re in your city, you likely only stop by for a brief period of time that fits your schedule. But, when you go to another city, you find you spend the vast majority of your time there…which both Hiten and I did in New York City.

After Saturday’s activities wrapped up, all the mentors went out for drinks.  This turned into an audition and test for me.

With Hiten Shah to my right and Patrick Vlaskovits (co-author of the awesome Lean book at custdev.com) grilling me on all sorts of topics from lean startups, to lessons learned at my first real startup job to topics on psychology and body language.  At the time I was dead set on leaving oneforty to start my own company so all Hiten said was, “if you raise money for your idea, come out west and I’ll give you some intros.”  He also encouraged me to quit ASAP to start doing my own thing if that’s what I was passionate about. Coincidentally I did just that on Monday back in Boston.

Out on my own, but on the Radar

After leaving oneforty, I set out to start my company I’ve always dreamed of.  After spinning my tires for 6 months though, I found myself pretty empty handed and a bit discouraged. After a meeting with Sim Simeonov, I refocused my efforts on the lean startups movement.  After a month of interviews and discussions, I published the results, which caught Hiten’s eye when they were tweeted out.

Hiten DM’d me after my first post and we had a call to discuss my findings, which confirmed his suspicious: Lean as a concept is far ahead of actual solid execution of it in the startup world. At the end of the chat, I mentioned that I was planning a trip out to the Valley in early December and asked if we could meet while I was in town.  He agreed.

Meeting in SF and an Offer

When I met with Hiten in December during my Valley trip, we barely talked about KISSmetrics or my potentially working there. The vast majority of our one hour chat was about my strengths and weaknesses and where I was at in my startup career.

Hiten tried to sell me on the idea that coming to the Valley would solve many of my problems, but I presented a series of challenges that I felt prevented it from being the right decision for me.  He countered I could come work for him and it would resolve many of them. I noted the offer, and it did intrigue me, but it mostly sat just sat in the back of my mind.

By the end of the trip, I was much more interested, thinking it may be the next logical step in my career. On the flight back, I emailed Hiten expressing great interest in the role, especially as I discovered I could potentially be filling the shoes of the departed Cindy Alvarez (who just weeks before my visit had left KISSmetrics to join Yammer).

Getting Serious

With the holidays fast approaching, Hiten and I took things slowly, talking about the the potential first in loose terms then in much more specifics. After one phone call where Hiten lifted the proverbial kimono on everything I wanted to ask regarding KISSmetrics as a business, all that was left was an answer to the question, “When can you come meet more of my team for an interview?

With that, I booked tickets to take a quiet trip to SF for the interview in early February.

Sealing the Deal

With an interview scheduled and a focus on landing this job, I employed my proven job acquisition system that requires me to produce, insightful, valuable content for KISSmetrics.  I happened to be reading a psychology book at the time and so I produced a massive document on different ways KISSmetrics could improve their site based on the principles I found in the book.  I also aggregated all my lean learnings in one place so the rest of the team could see the credibility in Lean that Hiten knew I had.

I wasn’t sure what to expect in the interview. All I had were the names of the people I would be talking to and a vague idea that we’d talk about the KISSmetrics product.  Most of the interview turned out to be focused on implementation: how would you do this, what’s wrong with that, what would you do in this circumstance.

Despite not really preparing for such questions, I was able to crush the interview for one simple reason: the last startup idea I had worked on was a Lean Product Management tool.  While the idea didn’t pan out, it led to me talking to 40 people who run product at companies. Through this, I picked up on many best practices and common mistakes. I was armed with more than enough fodder for the interview and believe I’m really armed to take on my first full time product role.

Conclusion – You Never Know…

Whether it’s lessons learned in a failed startup idea’s customer development interviews or an event you’re randomly invited to in another city, you never know what will lead to the next great opportunity in your career.  Startups are all about embracing serendipity. Embrace the machine and you never know where you’ll end up.

Do you have an example of unrelated events that looking back were instrumental in a step or moment in your career?

The Concept – Product Chasm: The End of my Lean Product Management Tool & Rediscovery of Passion’s Importance

For the past couple of months I’ve been working on ideas in the lean startup space. As explained in previous posts, it seemed logical: I have a solid background in it from my days at oneforty as well as consulting before and after and the subject is hot now with Eric Ries’s book out, Steve Blank’s book coming soon and a seeming never-ending discussion about the principles in our community.

After initially exploring the opportunity to provide tools for performing customer development, I pivoted to the broader idea of providing a tool to help with Lean Product Management. Initially, the response was great; I wrote a blog post on the concept of Lean Product Management and it was universally loved. It’s the most read blog post on my blog ever and it generated significant inbound interest.  At the same time, I talked to quite a few people that had interesting feedback on the process and where they were coming up short. I also met a number of people and companies that needed help in the areas I was looking for the product to work. However, in the end, a few major issues are leading me to place this idea on the scrap heap with the other previous 8 ideas I’ve evaluated over the past year.

The Concept – Product Chasm

The biggest problem in developing this idea was a major gap between the buy-in to the concept I wrote about and the actual execution of the concept.

In the product management world, it seems everyone has a different way of implementing it. Some people are absolutely hardcore and have impeccable wikis and project management tools (like a 1-2 punch of Jira and Confluence). Others keep it loose with simply a Google Spreadsheet and a Kanban board (both real and virtual).  Finally others have utter chaos and have absolutely destroyed their project management tool by jamming everything in there (usually Pivotal Tracker or BaseCamp).  It seems individuality is greatly valued in the world of product management…

This presents a series of problems:

1) There is no silver bullet

The difference between a Kanban board and a wiki based product management tool is significant. This would mean any tool that was valuable for one is unlikely to be interesting to the other.

2) Marketing is a nightmare

With everyone having their own ideas on how to implement product management principles, targeting and acquiring a customer would be extremely difficult. Even those that I confidently believed had problems in their process often either A) did not perceive there was a problem or B) even if they knew they had a problem, they weren’t actively seeking a solution.

3) There was no MVP

As I talked to over 40 people who owned product at their company, I found no consensus on what part of the process was broken for them; without this consensus, there was no way to build an MVP. More importantly, the lack of consensus showed no agreement on a core problem which could be used as the tip of the spear towards acquiring customers and building out a platform over time; building a Lean Product Management tool would take significant time to become a complete, full life cycle solution, but there was no clear path for doing so.

A Greater Problem – Passion?

One of the most fascinating things about my trip to Silicon Valley in December was seeing how entrepreneurs interact with one another there versus here in Boston. Specifically, I’m talking about the first questions an entrepreneur is asked about their startup/idea. There is no right or wrong here, just different.

In Boston, common questions are:

  1. What stage are you at?
  2. How will you make money?
  3. Do you have any customers?

In the Valley, common questions are:

  1. Why are you passionate about this idea?
  2. How will you acquire customers?
  3. What is the big vision for your idea?

Of all the questions, the one I found most jarring was, “Why are you passionate about this idea?”

Over the past 9 months of questing for an idea, I’ve been attacking ideas with laser focus and rigid customer development methodology. While this has likely saved me a lot of time on any of the ideas, it also was devoid of the thought of passion; was I ever really passionate about an idea in the moving industry or restaurant services? Being completely honest with myself, I don’t believe I was.

Rebooting – a Focus on Passion

Paul Graham, amongst many others, has always said, “solve the problem you wish someone would solve for you.” I actually have an Evernote full of “hack project ideas” that are just that. I plan to start looking hard at those ideas and working on approaches to test those ideas.

Jason Baptiste wrote a blog post back before Cloudomatic (which came right before he and his cofounder discovered the OnSwipe opportunity) which covered a series of ideas he was thinking about. He got a great response from people showing who also cared about the ideas. I may do the same soon.

Embracing Fate

I had a great conversation with Eric Paley after a Dart Dinner early this past fall about my struggles to find an idea. He told me, “I think founders have to believe in a little fate; the right idea will find you at the right time.”

Those words have stuck with me and ring true with my first real venture: Greenhorn Connect. I could not have had that idea come to me at a better time both personally (it was the only way for me to build credibility in the Boston startup ecosystem and land a job 4 months later at oneforty) and for the ecosystem (October 2009 was the very beginning of our ecosystem’s awesome resurgence…the perfect time for a uniting site).

More importantly, I wasn’t even looking to start something when Greenhorn Connect happened. It just grabbed me and I couldn’t not do it. As many of you who knew me then may remember, I was a man possessed to make it work. Despite all the obvious reasons not to do it, I still did it (Lean Startups principles would have definitely it shot down). I will never forget my first Mass Innovation Night after launch and Adam Marchick and Michael Cohen both giving me the proverbial “You’re crazy. Why are you doing this?” speech. Both are great converts now, but it was only the passion and a touch of fate/destiny/luck that really possessed me to so blindingly go after the idea.

After 9 months of trying to force ideas, I’m trying to get back to basics. I need to find my passions and try to let the right idea find me instead of desperately grasping in the dark for ideas or trying to force an idea through the grinder.  A quote from Drew Huston has stuck with me in this process.  He said that of all the 5 or 6 companies he’s started, only Dropbox felt like,the wind was at our back.”  That feels telling and reminds me of the commonly discussed need of Skill, Luck and Timing to build a truly great company.

Alternate directions

It’s been 9 very long months since I left oneforty. While even today I have a runway left that most young entrepreneurs would envy, I’m realistic about my endeavor to start something; how long should you stick with it before you realize the timing isn’t right?

The great entrepreneurs say it takes Skill, Luck and Timing to build a great company. I believe I have the skill to build a great company, which is why I left oneforty. I was also inspired by this oft-tweeted blog post encouraging you to quit your job and start a company even if you don’t have an idea. However, as time continues to slip by, I ask myself if I’m making the most of my time.

That’s why I’m beginning to evaluate working opportunities for the first time since I started this process.

I’ve thought a lot about the framework of what I’m looking for; not needing the money gives me the luxury of weighting all my other priorities over compensation. I’ve realized the most important things to me are:

  1. Working on a really big idea
  2. Working with a truly great leader I can learn from
  3. Having the opportunity to further develop skills that are assets to a business founder

No Regrets

I have ZERO regrets of how I’ve spent my time since leaving oneforty. I’ve learned a tremendous amount about myself, what I need in a technical cofounder and thanks to this most recent idea, how to manage product. I’ve also continued to build my network which is filled with mentors I know I can count on for help when I need it and people I can’t wait to invite to join me in working on that great ideaI know I’m going to find.

Like Steve Jobs said in his Stanford Graduation speech, “you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.”  If you found me 3 years ago and told me I’d have done the things I’ve accomplished thus far, I wouldn’t believe you. However, looking back I can see how critical each step was in this crazy journey. Frankly, the less logical the next step, the more it seems to have worked out for the best.

I can’t wait to see what’s next and hope you’ll stay tuned; my beliefs are unshaken: I will build a great anchor company one day.

How Do You Get Back on the Customer Development Horse?

Note: This post originally appeared on GreenhornConnect.com on July 27, 2011. I’m organizing all my customer development posts from GHC on here for easy reference (see the Lean Startups tab).

It happens to us all. Your startup is cruising along, or at least you’re really busy running in a million directions. Maybe you’ve also got pulled away with some personal issues like selling your home, caring for children or relationship challenges. No matter what the cause, you get away from the most important thing: Getting outside the building and talking to customers.

So knowing that you have dropped the ball and need to pick it up again, what do you do? How do you get back on the customer development horse?

How Do You Get Back on the Customer Development Horse?

Step 1: Review your previous notes

The first thing you should do is go over all of your past customer development work. Look at how you’ve already progressed and jog your memory on what you have already learned. This should include previous raw interview notes, any summaries of those notes and progress from your Lean Canvas.

This is a good time to find out if you’re taking good enough notes! If you can’t efficiently figure out what you learned, than anyone else using your notes, canvas and summaries can’t either.  A great Lean Startup should be keeping their team and their advisors up to date on customer development progress and most of what they’ll have to go on are these notes.

Step 2: Schedule new customer development interviews

Once your memory is set (this should hopefully only take an hour or two if you’re organized) then go back and see if you had any outstanding interviews to shedule. This is your low hanging fruit to schedule meetings. Reconnect with these people immediately and schedule new meetings with them as soon as possible.

Customer development is a numbers game, so regardless of if you had oustanding interviews, you need to get more feelers out for additional people to talk to; not everyone you reach out to will respond.

Here are a few ways I’ve found work to get more customers to talk to:

1) Your Early Adopters: Ask any of your early adopter users to talk if you haven’t talked to them (also get product feedback if you haven’t connected with them lately).

2) Ask Past Interviewees for Intros: Ask any past customer development interviewees that fit the problem you’re solving if they know anyone they could intro you to. (You should ask this at the end of any interview…it has a 4x success rate of responses compared to cold emailing.) In general, people want to be helpful and if you really are working on solving one of their problems, they’ll be happy to connect you with someone they know that also has the same problem.

3) Cold Email: Cold email, call or walk into the buildings of your potential customers. Unfortunately, this mode has a particularly low success rate (expect a 10-20% response rate on cold emails at best, but 5% isn’t unusual) so be prepared to have to do a lot to get results. I usually email 10-20 people at a time expecting a few responses.

If you know a good blog post on tips for cold emails for customer development, let me know and I’ll link to it here.

4) Use the Reverse Lead Model:  I’ve recently fell in love with the reverse lead model: if your startup serves a group their has their own customers that your tech supports (such as a real estate agent software that helps them interact with homeowners or moving company software for booking moving deals), then pretend to be a lead for your target customer (ie- pretend to be a homeowner or someone about to move).  Then turn the tables when they call you.

The trick I’ve found is when they call play along at first but be chatty. Pretend you’re still selling your house or moving, but then ask them about the software they use as you talk. As this first friendly conversation goes their way…then switch it up to talk about the problems you think they have and see if they confirm. If they do then pitch your product and try to get a face to face meeting (or separate phone call with a decision maker) to talk more.

Trust me, this works. I’ve actually had people complain to me about their software in these conversations…talk about a self-identified problem!

Note: This will take time. I’ve found that it generally takes a week to week and a half to get back into scheduled interviews; if you start emailing on Monday, you’re unlikely to have a full plate of interviews until the middle of the following week.

Step 3: Get your customer development questions updated

Now that you’ve started filling up your schedule with more customer development opportunities, you should determine what your goals are to discover in your current round of customer development.

Go back to your Lean Canvas and look at where you stand in testing assumptions. Remember that the goal is to test the riskiest assumptions you’ve made.  If you’ve already verified some, then you should begin testing new assumptions.

Great customer development starts with a good script of questions. It will make you more confident and comfortable in the interviews and make sure you don’t forget to ask something important.  You can (and should) go off script based on where the discussion takes you, but this is your anchor to bring you back to the key things you want to discover.

Step 4: Set a routine for staying on the horse in the future

In the end, the hope is you won’t fall off the horse again. The best way to do that is to set yourself a plan to keep it in your routine.  This can be as simple as carving out a few hours one day a week to review customer development progress and see how many interviews you have upcoming. If you drop below what you find is an acceptable number of pending interviews, go back to Step 2 and try to get a few more in the pipeline.

You can also give yourself an added boost with some external accountability by setting up to regularly update others on your customer development. At oneforty, I sent out bi-monthly reports to the entire team on key takeaways from customer development and updated the management team every 4-5 interviews. This ensured the whole team was up to date and I had extra motivation to try to keep customer development cranking.

Getting outside the building is never easy, but if you’re committed to being a lean startup, you have to stay on top of it. It’s easy to get distracted by other responsibilities. When that happens, now you know what to do.

What advice do you have for Lean Startups trying to maintain a routine of customer development?

Lessons Learned in Customer Development

Note: This post originally appeared on GreenhornConnect.com on September 9, 2010. I’m organizing all my customer development posts from GHC on here for easy reference (see the Lean Startups tab).

“Customers live outside the building.” Every startup is well served to remember this and make sure they’re reaching out to their customers/users to understand them.  As customer development manager at oneforty, I’m on the front lines of that effort and our overall goal of implementing Lean Startups methodologies.  I’d like to share a few things I’ve learned along the way.

Lessons Learned in Customer Development

1) Ask the right questions the right way.

One of the key tools in customer development is the user interview.  At its heart, you’re trying to understand what problems your users have and how your startup may solve some of them.  The greatest challenge in these interviews is keeping the discussion focused on user problems and frustrations instead of features and their ideas for solutions; users are notoriously bad at suggesting features they need or would actually use, so you absolutely need to focus on what problems are behind those feature requests.

There are some great contributions in the blogosphere to help guide you in preparing your interview questions:

2) You manage what you measure.

In addition to interviews, metrics are the other big piece of customer development. You have to understand what’s happening on your site and decide what aspects you will work to improve and in what order.

The best way we’ve found to track this is to consider everything under Dave McClure’s AARRR model.  There are all kinds of numbers we can measure on oneforty, but by grouping them into categories of Acquisition, Activation, Retention, Referral and Revenue, a clearer picture of the meaning of all the numbers is formed.  We then take those numbers and focus our engineering sprints on improvements in one of those categories at a time.  This helps engineering understand what they’re building while also making it easier for us to measure for improvements based on those efforts.

3) Communication is key…inside and out!

While Jeremy and I dive into the metrics on oneforty each week in great detail and I interview many users to understand their problems, that’s just the beginning of the work for customer development.  It is essential that what is discovered is shared with the team in a concise and clear fashion; they need the information to act on what we’re seeing and understand the reasoning behind development decisions.  At oneforty, we go over key metrics results with the entire team for 5-10 minutes each week and have a monitor on the wall in the office that displays 3 core metrics we’re focused on right now.

In addition to communicating within the team, it’s important to also communicate outside.  First, you always want to be tweaking your interview questions based on how your site or product is changing; if you’re considering adding a new feature it is important to understand if it solves a significant problem or is particularly compelling for users before you devote significant engineering time.  The best way to do this is through full interviews, but with tools like KissInsights and SurveyMonkey available, you have easy ways to ask large groups of people questions as well.

The other form of outward communication that’s important is with others doing customer development.  Often, it is hard to tell what is a good number for a metric and if you don’t know, you may be trying to improve something that’s already well optimized.

Recently, I discovered two key figures from asking others:

  • A 10% response rate on email requests to do a customer development interview is actually good.
  • For email newsletters, a 30% open rate and a 20-30% click through are solid and standard across most industries.

To learn these numbers I didn’t do anything special; I simply talked to one of Laura’s mentors, Tweeted a question, tried AskDart and asked some friends.  It didn’t take very long, but saved me a lot of time in the long run.

4) Pattern recognition is your most important skill

In the end, I think customer development is all about recognizing patterns.  You don’t memorize everything a user says in an interview; you’re merely looking for commonalities across many interviews. You should be asking yourself, “Are similar users mentioning the same frustrations or questions?”   These patterns are how you identify your “earlyvangelists” and identify the most important issues to work on.

You can also look at metrics the same way.  The goal is not to have to measure every single activity on your site. Rather, you should be searching for a few specific activities that can lead to the needle moving on many things on your site.

Customer development is an essential part of an early startup’s life as they search for product market fit. It’s a challenging job, but fortunately there are tons of great resources out there and an open community sharing their knowledge.  If you’re looking to learn more, search for content from Steve Blank and Eric Ries, look for the hashtag #LeanStartups on Twitter and look for Meetups around you on this topic.

What have you learned by doing your startup’s customer development?

5 Lessons Learned in a Lean Startup

Note: This post originally appeared on GreenhornConnect.com on February 23, 2011. I’m organizing all my customer development posts from GHC on here for easy reference (see the Lean Startups tab).

In honor of both the Lean Startup Circle Meetup on Thursday and the Lean Startup Machine coming this weekend, I’d like to share a few lessons I’ve learned in the past year as I’ve served as Customer Development Manager at oneforty and been actively learning the Lean Startups methodology.

5 Lessons Learned in a Lean Startup

1) Don’t ask what people would pay for. They lie.

Yes that’s right. Even Honest Abe wouldn’t have told you what he’d really pay for if you showed him a web app and asked what he’d pay for on top of what you showed.

Customers are terrible at explaining their problems and understanding the root issue. As the saying goes, the one certainty for a patient seeing a psychiatrist is that what the patient says is cause of their problems is never the actual problem.

Even I have lied. I was talking with Chris Keller about his awesome tool Followup.cc, which is an email reminder system, and I said, “I would pay to be able export all of my reminders to my Google calendar.”  Chris wisely also looked at engagement and based much of his pricing system on number of reminders, but he also put the calendar export in his paid version.  I am now a paying customer of Followup.cc but have yet to actually use the Google calendar system.

Did I intend to lie? Of course not. But it just goes to show the mindset you can get in and how far from the truth it can be. Don’t ask people what they’d pay for.

2) Nothing beats getting a customer to actually pay for something.

There is no better validation for your business than getting a user to actually pay for something.  Despite the true value of your time, few people actually account for this. That means they are actually quite likely to be willing to use your free product, while having no intention of ever paying for it.

Paying also moves you beyond the realm of being a favor; friends, acquaintances or just nice guys, no one will pay for your product unless it really solves a pain or strongly interests them.

As an added bonus, once someone pays for something, they have expectations. That means that their feedback will be stronger, because they gave you their money and now expect that you will deliver on what they hoped they were buying. This feedback is priceless, as building something that satisfies them can be built into the repeatable process that goes into a sales funnel.

3) You have to learn the customer’s language.

You may call your product anything you want but if it and the language you use to describe it doesn’t resonate with your customer, you’re unlikely to move forward.  You need to understand your customer’s language and make your product speak that language.

The best way to do this is to look at what words your customer uses to search for the problem you’re solving and, of course, the customer development interview. Remember, your customers should be doing 70-80% of the talking in your interviews.

4) A customer’s stating a problem is more valuable than a customer agreeing with a problem you present.

One of the key tenants of Lean Startups is that you’re solving a customer’s pain.  Often the question is if what you are building is a so called “Vitamin,” which is nice to have, or you’ve created a “Pain Pill,” which they definitely need.

One indicator of which side of the Vitamin/Pain Pill coin your product is on is how the problem that your product solves is surfaced. If in the middle of your interview (before you pitch your solution) the customer talks specifically about the problem you’re trying to solve, you have a much stronger indicator of pain than if you ask them if they are experiencing pain in the area you believe is a problem.

Now, this does not mean that someone who doesn’t come right out and say your problem isn’t a potentially valuable customer. However, when you’re looking for those early adopters (aka- earlyvangelists) you should be thinking about who most desperately needs your solution and that is likely people who have the problem you’re trying to solve on top of mind.

5) Be precise in your Hypotheses.

So you think you have a product solution that is the greatest thing since sliced bread? Great. But who is it for and how does it solve a key pain for them?

One of the risks in creating your lean startup is that you forget to get specific on your hypothesis. Don’t say “this is for doctors”; say “this is for pediatricians in suburban environments that have small, private practices.”

The reason you need to be specific is to avoid false indicators. If you don’t make your hypothesis specific, than you are very likely to talk to a wide range of people. When talking to this wide range, you may not find the interest you would otherwise if you specifically went after a specific group.  You could end up talking to a bunch of chiropractors and surgeons and never realize that the reason there was no interest in your product wasn’t that it’s not a great idea solving a problem; no one was interested because you weren’t talking to the right people.

There’s a seemingly endless amount to learn about Lean Startups, so no matter what stage you’re at just remember: Stick with it, Be patient and Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

There’s a great community on Twitter (look for hashtags #LeanStartups and #CustDev), many awesome blogs (Eric Ries, Ash Maruya, Dan Martell, David Cancel and many others) and of course great events (Lean Startups Circle) to help.

How to Structure (and get the most out of) Customer Development Interviews

Running a startup puts a ton of responsibilities on your plate. From marketing to sales, ghetto-HR to accounting, development to project management, you’re wearing a million hats.  We all know that Lean Startups methodology and customer development are important, but *actually practicing* it can be hard (if you’re not familiar run to CustDev.com *right now* and get Brant and Patrick‘s book The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Customer Development ASAP!).

As you commit yourself to “getting outside the building” to talk to your customers and truly quest for Product-Market Fit, it’s essential you make the most of those discussions. One of the hardest things for newcomers to customer development is structuring their questions for customer development, so I’d like share how I structure interviews to maximize their effectiveness.

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I’m writing a book on Building Customer Driven Products.

You can sign up for updates, early access to chapters and help shape the topics I cover by signing up here.

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How to Structure (and get the most out of) Customer Development Interviews

A few others have written about how they do interviews, so definitely check out Cindy Alvarez and Sachin Aggarwal’s thoughts on the subject. 

I structure my custdev interviews in 3 parts – People, Problems, and Your Solution. Depending on the person, this question flow generally takes me 30-45 minutes to go through. (Note: This structure is best suited to B2B customer development, but with a little creativity, you can definitely adapt this for B2C interviews)

1) People – Aka – Who Are You?

Before you get into anything about problems or your solution, you need to figure out who you’re actually talking to. This both warms up your interviewee with some softball questions and gives you an opportunity to build some rapport with them.

Some example questions you could ask:

  • What is your name and role at your company?
  • How do you fit into your company’s department structure? Overall in the company?
  • What is your budget like? Who has to approve your purchases?
  • How do you discover new products for work? Do you need any approval to try them?
  • Have you tried anything new recently?
  • What is a typical day like on your job?
  • How much time do you spend doing [task X]? (Task X being anything they mentioned in their typical day that stood out)

Do not shortchange this opening section of questions! You don’t need a novel on their daily life, but you *do need* enough to be able to understand their role within their company, who key players are and a general baseline of their sophistication. All of this will help you later pattern match who the user type that is most receptive to the problem you’re solving and the solution you offer.

2) Problems – Aka – What are your greatest pains?

This section is where you try to find out whether the person has the problem you believe you’re solving.  Your goal is to not lead them to your problem. The less you lead them while still hearing your problem being mentioned the more validation you have!

Some sample questions you could ask:

  • What are your top 3 challenges you face in your job?
  • What are your top 3 challenges you face in your job related to [industry X]? (Industry X being the one your startup is in)
  • If you could wave a magic wand and instantly have a solution to any of those problems…what would the solution be?
  • Dig deeper into their typical day on anything that sounds painful or expensive. (You can add some hyperbole here to get them to rant a bit by saying things like “that sounds inefficient…” or “that sounds expensive…”)
  • How have you dealt with or solved [Problem X]? (You’re looking to find out if they’ve hacked a solution together themselves. If they have…ask for a copy of it!)

People love to talk about themselves, so let them go nuts here and really rant about their problems (i.e.- Shut up and listen!).  Generally, people are terrible at proposing solutions, but you want to hear generally what they envision as solutions or see what they’ve cobbled together themselves.

Notice, you haven’t mentioned your solution or problem yet. If they don’t mention your problem specifically, then as you finish this section of questioning, you should directly ask them if what you think is a problem is a problem for them. Whether they agree it’s a problem or not, you want to then probe why it wasn’t one of their top problems.

3) Your Solution – Aka – See if your idea survives customer interaction

If in your discussions in part 2 your problem you think you’re solving comes up naturally from your interviewee you’re on the right track! Bonus points if the way they describe solving it with their “magic wand” remotely resembles what you’re doing.

No matter what happens in part 2 you should discuss with them what you thought the problem was and what your solution is. Getting validation that they wouldn’t be interested in the idea is just as helpful as finding out they love it; either they’re not a customer or you are learning what your customers want instead of it.

Some sample questions you could ask:

  • Walk them through the problems you believe your solution solves. Do they agree?
  • Does [your solution] solve any of their problems?
  • Would you be willing to pay for our solution? How much? (Don’t be afraid to probe for the pricing you know you want…”Would [X] be reasonable?”)
  • If they’re willing to pay your price and like the idea then…”Would you be willing to start right away?”

If all goes well and you really are solving a pain, then your customer should want access to the product right away. More likely, you’re going to learn a ton about what they do and do not want and your idea will begin evolving.

This basic structure can carry you a long way towards some great validated learning about your idea and the market’s desire for it.

A few last things to remember:

1) Take Good Notes or Record Everything!

- Once you’ve interviewed 8-10 people, you should be going back over all of your notes and look for patterns. This includes especially looking for patterns in the Part 1 section to see what all the people that agree you are solving their problem have in common. You should summarize your notes then and share with your team.

2) Have other team members sit in on some interviews

- A good customer development focused company will have everyone involved in the process. Performable, pre-HubSpot acquisition, had their engineers spending 30% of their time on the phone with customers. Nothing helps someone do their job better like understanding who they’re building/selling/marketing for.

3) Be conversational

- It shouldn’t feel like an interview! They should feel like they’re just having a conversation with a friend about their problems at work. The more comfortable they feel with you, the more they will open up.

4) Go off script

- The best stuff comes when you dig a little deeper on something that strikes a chord in the discussion.  The script is there to be your roadmap, but there’s no reason you can’t return to it after a 5 minute digression about a specific pain or discovery about how the company operates.

5) If they’ve made an MVP…ask to see it!

- Nothing gives you more insight to a customer than what they’ve hacked together themselves to solve a problem. The best thing you can do is ask to see it, which will give you an idea of what they’re hoping a solution will provide. These people are also the strongest candidates to be great, helpful early adopters of your product.

6) Always follow up

- It’s just common courtesy to thank people for their time and help, but it also opens the door to follow up with them in the future if your product changes and is a fit for them or to invite them to your beta.

7) End with an ask

- Always end your interviews by thanking them and asking them for something. It may be to get a copy of their MVP or even better, ask for an intro to someone they know that might be interested in what you’re working on. In my experience, these intros have an 80-90% success rate in becoming new customer development interviews, whereas cold emails only have a 10% success rate.

8) Be open to new problems! That’s how great products are born.

- As Steve Blank has said, “No idea survives first interaction with a customer.” Don’t be afraid to shift your focus from your first idea to what you’re actually hearing customers want.  If you probe in part 2 and find a burning problem…find out how they currently solve it and what they’d pay to solve it.

In the end, you want to find a “hair on fire” problem, not a “nice to have problem.”  Think about it this way: If my hair is on fire (literally), and you’re selling buckets of water, I’m definitely going to buy your product. But if I’m cold and wet, I’m not likely to buy your bucket of water right now, but would consider it in the future.

Find customer pain and a solution they desire and will pay for. Rinse. Repeat.

What advice do you have for entrepreneurs doing customer development interviews?

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Don’t build that feature! How to use the 5 Why’s to learn what your customer really is saying

This post originally appeared on Greenhorn Connect here; I’m housing posts on my blog here as well for easy reference.

Whether you interview customers regularly, watch support requests on HelpScout or use a GetSatisfaction or UserVoice – like tool, your startup is inundated with feature requests from your customers.  It’s great to have them engaging, but can lead to the dreaded “feature creep” that leads to a bloated, unusable product. What’s a startup to do? The answer may surprise you in its simplicity: use the 5 Why’s.

Don’t build that feature! How to use the 5 Why’s to learn what your customer really is saying

In case you’re not familiar, the concept of 5 Why’s is that by asking a person a series of “why” questions, you can get to the real root cause of an issue. Commonly, the issue can be used to do analysis of technical failures as outlined in a great post by Eric Ries found here. However, this can be just as powerful when you apply it to discussions with customers about features.  The power comes from saving you from building things customers actually don’t want or need and surfacing what is really important.

This concept really crystallized for me when I had an experience talking to Chris Keller, the founder of email reminder tool, Followup.cc. I was an active user, but Chris hadn’t decided how to monetize yet. I told him I’d pay for Followup if he provided a calendar to see all my Followup reminders.

There’s just one problem – despite the fact that Chris built that feature not long after our discussion, I’ve never used the calendar even though I am a paying customer because of the core product.

Chris could have avoided building the feature if he had used the 5 Why’s. Here’s how it may have gone.

Me: I’d pay for Followup if you provided a calendar to see all my Followup reminders.

WHY #1: Chris: Why would that make you pay for it?

Me: Because I could then see all the Reminders I’ve set up.

WHY #2: Chris: Why do you want to see all the reminders you’ve set up?

Me: So that I know when I have reminders coming up.

WHY #3: Chris: Why do you want to know when you have reminders coming up?

Me: So I’m sure I know when I should expect a bunch of reminders.

WHY #4: Chris: Why do you need to know when you should expect reminders?

Me: (long pause) …So I’m sure I get all my reminders.

WHY #5: Chris: Why wouldn’t you get all your reminders?

Me: Good question. I guess I’m worried about it not always working.

Chris: Don’t worry. I’ve built Followup to be robust and reliable. Are you sure you need that calendar?

Me: Maybe not.

Your results may vary, but the point is, customers are terrible at coming up with solutions. What they are good at is sharing their problems, which you can solve. The key is to interact with them in a methodical way to get to the heart of what they really need.  Next time you hear from a customer that you need to build a new feature…ask them the 5 Why’s first!

The Lean Product Life Cycle

See my previous post to understand how I got here. The hypothesis is that product development is messy except for the most disciplined. After talking to a number of great product people, I have a theory for how great product can be developed while being customer centric (aka lean).

The Virtuous Cycle of Lean Product Development

The Product Management Funnel

I think of product management as a funnel. At the top are all of the ideas your team generates. If you’re a lean startup, that’s hopefully driven by customer interviews, website and landing page behaviors and support interactions and of course the occasional green space wild idea.

As product manager, this is the most dangerous step. Once you have more than a few employees, it’s easy to have these ideas overflowing and interfering with the whole product process. Multiple teams I spoke with have been using their project management tools to capture these ideas which leads to a huge mess (one such company had over 4,000 stories in their icebox!) and a major time suck (one vp of engineering is spending an hour + each day managing these ideas).

The problem is project management != product management. The only thing that should be in your project management tool are key bugs to fix and what you’re building now or in the very near future (ie next sprint). Everything should be clearly defined and in a language and structure preferred by your engineers. All the evolution of the product from idea to customer validation to final prioritization should be done outside the project management tool.

The Rest of the Funnel

The Full Product Funnel

Going back to the beginning, you need discipline at the top of the funnel; the best product people I spoke with are requiring a shred of data tied to an idea to make it into their coveted ideas list. They also often expect a disciplined approach to what goes in by having people state, “Feature X will move Metric Y by Amount Z” so it’s clear why the feature needs added. In earlier stages that may be in a “Hypothesis vs. Metric to Invalidate” format instead.

The key of this step is effectively managing the signal to noise ratio; for every 5-10 ideas that come in, you may only make 1 or 2. Even the less disciplined product managers I spoke with have some type of hot-lukewarm-cold system for trying to rank ideas. To avoid the 4,000 stories in your icebox (or anywhere else) you have to be disciplined on dropping stale ideas and focusing on what matters now. When you’re a growing startup, where you were 3 months ago is dramatically different from where you are now so why keep those stories cluttering your system now?

After wrangling the initial feeder of ideas under control, you need to effectively refine the ideas that make it into your system and allow the most important ones to rise to the top of your list. As planning for your next sprint begins, you need to prioritize these ideas and balance with other existing projects, bugs and other demands.

Once you’ve settled on what you’re going to have engineering build next, you need to engage your team on the ideas you want to implement; you may need copy from marketing, stories from support to describe customer complaints, links or screenshots from analytics to show present activity and relevant customer development notes. All of this feeds into the project management tool you have, but now it’s uncluttered and your engineers are much happier and efficient. Unless you’re github or heroku, chances are your engineers don’t understand the customer they’re building for perfectly so all this structure makes it easier for them to see what’s going on and then adapt it to fit the project management tool they’re using to track building.

As an added bonus, there’s transparency for your other employees as they engage in more than just the initial ideation process. It also means sprint planning no longer needs to have all hands at it as they’re already well aware of what’s going on and have had opportunities to contribute as needed to the stories now being generated in the project management tool.

Completing the Virtuous Cycle

We all know this image so well as the core of what lean startups is all about, but how often is this cycle cleanly implemented? The project management tools out today all do a great job on the build aspect, but what about measure and learn?

The funnel process I described above captures the learn aspect as you engage your team for ideas and validation. All that’s left now is to measure.

After you build something new in your project management tool, your engineers will submit it for some form of approval. Once approved, it universally ends up disappearing into the ether, because the project management tool is built to track what you are building or about to build. After building isn’t part of their process.

To close the lean loop, you need to look back and see if that feature actually moved the needle. This needs to happen within 2-4 weeks of building it; sooner wouldn’t be enough data and longer would be distorted due to other things you’ve likely built by then. This last step of learning should help you refine your instincts and feed back into what you build. This is one of the biggest challenges as Eric discusses his principle of Innovation Accounting in his book.

The amazing thing I discovered in so many of my interviews was how rare it was to do this measure step; how can you improve your accuracy without seeing if you hit the target?

The Product – Lean Opportunity

What started as an investigation of lean startup opportunities has broadened to helping teams close the loop in managing a product lifecycle. I believe there is tremendous opportunity to build a platform to aide on both sides of the project management tool and much wider than those adopting lean concepts officially (as we all know, being customer centric is not a new concept).