A Few Quick Notes on Customer Discovery

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I often get emails from readers asking, “do you think X is a good idea?” I appreciate these emails and try to give my best feedback based on the limited knowledge I have about whatever market they’re asking about. But my knowledge is limited by experience and time.

Rather than rely on my limited knowledge and experience, I encourage people to go out and do customer discovery instead. The input or feedback of a few “experts” or “VCs” or people who see lots of startups really isn’t all that valuable compared to the feedback of people who could be actual, real-world users.

In fact, customer discovery is the most important thing you can do before getting real, actual customers. It’s the process that allows you to de-risk the time, money, and energy it takes to build and market a product. And it’s the thing that helps you save time iterating on the product once you have it built.

(At 1517, we invest in companies at the pre-seed stage. Many have just a few pilot customers when we first invest. Part of our diligence process is speaking to those pilot customers. Good customer discovery means happy pilot customers. Happy pilot customers means good diligence and investors excited about writing checks.)

Here are a few bullet points I find myself repeating about customer discovery. I share these to help founders and aspiring founders know what goes through an investor’s head when looking at a company at the idea or pilot stage. Take them for what they’re worth.

  • Regular paying customers trump paid pilots. Paid pilots trump free pilots/beta users. Free pilots trump email list signups. Quality customer discovery trumps email list signups.
  • Customer discovery interviews trump surveys. Surveys trump polls. Polls trump email list signups.
  • One customer discovery interview is worth ~10-20 customer discovery surveys. When running surveys, be sure to collect contact information. Make note of which surveys stick out to you and reach out to those respondents. Ask them to hop on Zoom with you for 20 minutes and record the interview.
  • Listen to and take notes on the specific language that people use when you interview them. How do they describe their hopes, dreams, fears, and current problems? What words do they use? This will be useful for marketing copy down the line.
  • If you are selling into brick-and-mortar establishments, go visit the establishments and see how people actually go about their days there. Cameron Graham, the founder of Storii (a recent 1517 investment), visited hundreds of assisted care facilities to get an idea of how those caring for the elderly went about their day and what their workflows looked like. (Listen to my interview with Cameron here.)
  • If you’re building a SaaS product and have a demo — or even wireframes — available, let people use it and watch how they use it. If they are using it remotely, ask them to record using it with Loom and share that video with you.
    • I cannot stress enough how important letting your potential users use a mockup or a very early version of the product is. I have seen teams spend months building an early version of a product that they think is intuitive and easy to use only for the users to be confused trying to use it. If your user base is not particularly tech savvy, this is even more important. Things need to be spelt out clearly and obviously to users.

Here are some resources for doing customer discovery:

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