Always talk to customers first

A guide to not wasting your time in the early stages.

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If someone else sent this to you, then the biggest thing you can do is….

Ok, let’s talk turkey…

Where did all the customers go?

I once heard Michael Seibel (CEO, Y Combinator) say the question he is most often asked is, “Where do I find my first customers?”

This is a great question to ask. If you know right away where you are going to find them, then you are 10 steps ahead of the competition.

Everyone eventually asks this question and usually they ask it at the wrong time.

We preach a gospel of falling in love with a problem first. And I believe, to say you’ve fallen in love with a problem, you have to talk to customers.

It is very common for founders to go into great detail about a problem they are going to solve or a need they are going to fill, and have never talked to a potential customer about it.

Too often, we’re getting into the business because we have a vision for a product that will make us a bajillion dollars – or at least a comfortable living.

In any business, almost without exception, being product-first rather than problem-first can put you on a path to failure.

Although there are no sure bets in the early stages of any new venture, here are four ways talking to customers early on – before the solution is even a twinkle in your eye – will give you a leg up.

You can validate the problem and decide if the juice is worth the squeeze.

Do you believe customers care about solving this problem?

Are these customers people you want to be around?

Can you come up with a compelling value proposition to test?

Do you have a clear understanding of the market potential and the existing alternatives?

In other words, before you decide to go on the journey, get an idea of the terrain. You’ll come away with real information from primary sources, and be able to use that to build out your business model and the assumptions surrounding it.

You’ll figure out how to find customers.

Can you find your initial customers? What if you want more?

Nothing is a bigger waste of time than having a product you spent time building and having nobody to show it.

By doing the work to reach out and have conversations with potential customers, you’ll create both a backlog of customers to reach out to, plus a better idea on how to find more of them.

Access to customers is one of the biggest advantages existing businesses have against their competition. Unfortunately, they worry too much and don’t engage customers in their early ideas out of fear it will hurt their brand. This leaves those customers wide open for new entrants who couldn’t care less.

You’ll emerge with a better MVP.

As a rule of nature, MVPs are both the solution the founder loves the most and too damn big. I don’t make the rules, I just observe them.

If you can discipline yourself, talking to customers early helps develop your true leap of faith assumptions and you’ll be able to prioritize your experiments in a way to reflect the actual risk to be reduced.

Rather than showing up with a solution to a problem you don’t fully understand you can use techniques to dive deeper into the customer problems and understand what is truly essential and what is optional.

You just might find your first customers.

A funny thing happens when you tell someone you're going to solve a problem they care about: they tend to pay attention.

Even if they don’t fully trust or believe you yet, if you can communicate even the most minimal amount of competence matched with the maximum amount of intent to solve the problem, customers will want to hear you out.

We can’t help it. Everyone is wired to avoid problems.

When you find a real customer problem – a problem that keeps your customers up at night, a bleeding neck problem – they’ll pay attention.

The bottom line:

Imagine having all of that on Day One?

If I had my way a new venture would start with figuring out what identifiable groups of customers they think they can contact, then doing some research to identify some problems to validate, then trying to get those customers on the phone to talk about it.

Whatever group with the biggest problem that consistently gets on the phone with you…that’s the new business.

You’d rather start with customers you can reach and build a product for than have a product with customers you can’t engage.