I once talked to a dozen startup founders about getting out of the building to validate their startup idea with actual customers. About half of founders were techies and half non-technical industry people. I’ve played both roles in the past, and could understand where each get stuck.
For techies, getting out of the building often falls outside their comfort zone, and they rather focus on building their product first. Unfortunately, the longer you wait to ship, the more you postpone learning. Shipping sooner is better, but is not a panacea.
If you ship a product to see what happens, you are guaranteed to succeed – at seeing what happens. Something will always happen (Eric Ries)
For industry guys, going out of the building is what they’re used doing. But after probing a bit I realized that most actually either asked their customers what they wanted and brainstormed about product features, or did a sales talk. There’s nothing wrong with sales (I am a big fan of sales myself), and as a founder, you should be your product’s first salesperson. As salespeople however, we are instinctively going for a yes, and especially if we are used to selling a service (as many with an industrial background are), we go for a total customer solution. There’s also nothing wrong with a service business, but it requires a fundamental mindset shift to go from building a service to a building a product. From building what a customer asks (basically, custom software development), to building a product for a market (one product for many).
As a founder, you own the solution (vision), and customers own the problem.
So who is right, the techies or the industry people?
That’s exactly what I like about customer development: it teaches us how to combine the best of both worlds. Did you ever wonder what does it mean to develop customers?
Customer development is about finding a market for the product as specified.
The techies were right about this: you specify your product as you envision it. You even start building it. But so were the industry people, because then you need to go out looking for customers. You look for a market for the product as specified. When you see something is not working as assumed, you go back, change an aspect of your business model (“pivot”) and go back out to check your new assumption.
In other words, your startup assumptions are an essential tool in your toolbox. Actually, there’s probably no other way to create something new, something that didn’t exist before. Building a startup requires a huge leap of faith and an ability to envision a brighter future for your customers. Customer development does not remove this step, it builds on your vision as a fundament, adding steps that help you find customers for your product.