As a stupid 18-year-old, my first ever business was buying things off Groupon, posting on Carousell, and reselling them.
I made a few dollars here and there but it never scaled.
When we were 20, a friend and I spent $2000 on Amazon’s Black Friday, got things at a discount, and once again, sold $0.
We suck at products
Today, lean customer development, is a well-accepted way to build products that sell, and scale.
Lean customer development, as described by Cindy Alavaraz, is the process of
understanding the customer through a series of interviews.
I’m here to tell you why that hasn’t worked in our business, and how we’ve adjusted from there.
If I knew what customers wanted…
If I asked what customers wanted, I would have built a faster horse.
Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, famously said,
Customers don’t know what they want.
The assumption of customer interviews is that if you understood
- the customer’s painpoints,
- how the customer is currently trying to solve those painpoints
- why those solutions haven’t worked well for them
then you would have a must-buy product on your hand.
I’m not sure that is always the case.
Once again, theory is sh^t when it meets the real world. Pardon my French.
Across 2020 and 2021, we launched a combined total of 4 different products, for a combined cost of $8400. We sold a total of $207.
Yup that’s right.
We didn’t even cover our costs.
Here we want to talk about what worked, and what didn’t, and how that fits into customer development.
Product development shouldn’t start with only you
The first was One Day at a Time, a series of inspirational postcards designed to motivate people during the difficult time of COVID.
Despite spending $1050 on a Singaporean calligrapher, we sold about $180 worth of it.
Didn’t those cards look nice? Wasn’t motivating people during COVID a sellable solution?
What I realised, in retrospect, was no.
Because these cards had started from me. I liked inspirational messages on my walls, and thus built this set of cards out. I also liked writing postcards to people.
But that didn’t necessarily mean that others wanted it. Nor might others even be writing cards to people.
Whilst you might often be your best customer profile, I would often suggest that you create with someone else.
That way, he or she can provide feedback to how the product is going.
So our first ever product failed. And we thought,
Okay, we should really try customer development. We should ask, interview, and build a product based on what people tell us.
Do customer development surveys really work?
We built out a list of questions, and started asking people.
We interviewed 5 different people we wanted to pitch our product to, and thought by now, we had a pretty good handle of what we wanted to create.
When we pitched to them our first online course, on fitness, we got … crickets.
No one bought it.
Then we changed our offer, this time to excelling as a student.
We got crickets, again.
By now you can see the pattern.
Why didn’t customer surveys work, even though we did them? You might say that we only did 5. But I beg to differ. Doing more probably wouldn’t have gotten us better insights into finding a product market fit.
Reflecting on the process, this is what I’ve realised.
Gurus sell you from where they are at, not where you’re at
For those who say customer surveys are the way to go, that’s only if you have already previously solved for product-market fit.
This means that you’ve successfully launched a product, and gotten customers to pay, and that you’ve gotten a good customer base.
By good, I don’t mean the 300 followers on Instagram. I mean an email list of at least, 10,000. Why email? Because today, email addresses are the most personal things. If you invite someone into your inbox, you’re telling them.
Hey, I’m giving you the keys to my home. You can come visit me anytime.
Ikario, run by Shane Melaugh, is a personal development brand that we follow.
Even they admit that with an email list of 10k, they have struggled to sell their content.
Gurus tell you it works, because they have an existing customer base. They have an audience.
That’s why customer survey interviews don’t work, at least from what we’ve experienced.
So you might ask me,
So John, what works?
How have I created a business?
I will share my perspectives from selling services, rather than exclusively from products.
Services have a lower barrier to entry
The product business is very competitive.
But if you do a service, like fitness training, digital marketing, those are much easier to enter.
The question always is,
How do you launch a successful business?
And here, contrary to what is taught, I’m going to say this.
Stop doing customer survey interviews
Before you throw your mouse at the screen, here’s what I’ve realised.
If you have no product, there’s no point asking. So what if you managed to understand the customer’s painpoint? You wouldn’t be able to serve them anyway.
You’re wasting your time trying to understand your customer, before you even have a solution.
Here, there’s a tension. It’s not about building a product, and then stuffing it in your user’s face, trying to ask them to buy it.
Nor is it about going fully into the direction of trying to understand your customer, at the risk of not building anything.
An easier way would be to start with what you have.
What can you do better than anyone else?
You have a skill. It might be creating a product.
But it might also be a service. The most important thing would be to understand what you can do better than anyone else.
When I first started writing as a paid service, I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t necessarily write better than everyone out there.
But I wrote much, much faster, and at a far greater reliability than what clients were used to. Clients came back over and over again because they enjoyed that I was able to deliver what they wanted, when they wanted it.
I, unknowingly, had found a product-market fit.
The most important problem to solve is product-market fit
Solving for product-market fit is the most important challenge of any business.
Without a demand that you can fulfil, your business is effectively dead. You need to know what problem you can solve.
Mind you, it’s not just what problem the customer has. It’s what problem the customer has, that you can solve.
That’s why asking customers what their pain-point is, is sometimes a waste of time. Because knowing what they are facing, isn’t necessarily something that you can sell.
For example, we discovered early on that customers lacked motivation to work out.
But what we realised that selling them an online course wouldn’t solve the problem of motivation. That needed a personal trainer.
And how do you know you have demand?
- It’s when customers come back,
- Customers refer you to other customers.
That’s when you know you have demand.
People just keep knocking on your door.
Create first, ask for the sale, then ask for customer feedback
Customer surveys are sometimes, a way for you to procrastinate from doing the actual hard part of creating the product, and then doing the selling.
You might think that you’re doing work by asking for people’s feedback. But you’re not.
Are you closer to getting money into your bank account?
I don’t say this to put you down.
But I say this because after meeting tons (and I mean hundreds) of entrepreneurs and entrepreneur wanna-bes, the only thing I’ve realised that differentiates both is,
Focus and action.
Entrepreneurs know what they want, and they do the things that get them to it.
So stop doing your customer surveys.
Go sell something.
And yup, stop reading the next article.
Come back when you’ve sold something.