Lessons Learned in Customer Development

“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:
    - Cindy Alvarez of KissMetrics
    - Sachin Agarwal of BlueLeaf

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 startups customer development?


 

Posted by Pardees on behalf of Jason Evanish 

Discussion

Thanks for this.

Jason, Just today I was asked to put together a customer development plan for a company I'm advising (at Dogpatch.)  Your thoughts are helping me get this started. Thanks!  Des www.ChangeAgentDes.com

Des Pieri