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Understanding Customer Development

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Customer development sounds like a million things that it’s not. It’s not developing customer relationships. It’s not lead nurturing. In fact, it turns the traditional company/consumer relationship on its head, essentially asking the inmates very nicely if they’d run the asylum. Simply put, the definition of customer development is asking your customers for input that helps you develop the solution they’ve been hoping for.

But the complications of this idea, coined by Steve Blank of The Startup Owner’s Manual, add up fast. How can you have customers before you have a product? How do you know which customers to interview? What questions can you ask them that will garner the most actionable insights? When do you say “enough is enough” and build the thing already?!

Yes, it’s a can of worms bursting at the seams. But when used correctly, customer development can result in a better product and a stronger business model. So let’s tackle those questions one by one.

How can you have customers before you have a product?

Even if you haven’t developed a product (not even a minimum viable product), you likely have a hypothetical solution in mind for a problem you’d like to solve. The people who experience that problem comprise your target audience. At this early stage, you can use friends, friends of friends, focus groups, or social media data to begin brainstorming how your solution will work best and can flesh out your buyer persona at the same time for future marketing.

How do you know which customers to interview?

If you’re fresh out of friends, or just want a larger impartial sample size (highly recommended), then try this:

  • On Twitter, search for people who have talked about similar products, related terms, or the same or similar problems to the one you propose to solve. Then ask them, with individual direct tweets, if they’d mind telling you what they think of your idea. Most will be happy to oblige.
  • On Google Alerts, set up an alert for keywords related to your idea, and watch for a blog post or comment to pop up. Then contact the author, and request his or her feedback.

In short, find people who are already interested in your solution or who are experiencing the problem you intend to solve. Don’t just grab random folks off of the street or ask your mother. The first won’t care, and the last cares way too much.


What questions can you ask that will garner the most actionable insights?

There is a fine art to asking the right questions you’ll need to make customer development work. Here’s the first rule: Don’t ask what they want.


Seriously. Customers often don’t know what they want, but they are very clear on what they don’t want: They don’t want their current problems to continue. There are better questions you can ask that will lead you to far more meaningful answers.

  1. What would you like to get done? Why is it important?
  2. What is your current process (i.e., Which tools do you use)?
  3. What do you wish worked better for you?

Notice that, for customer development purposes, you want to hear about their problems, not tell them about your potential solution. As you move further along the customer development road, when customers give feedback directly on your solution, you can ask more targeted questions. At that point, the most important thing to remember is to value criticism. People who tell you what doesn’t work for them are giving you a gift.

If you choose to conduct your customer development interviews through surveys, be aware that short is best. If it takes longer than 4 minutes to complete, you’re out of luck.


When do you say “enough is enough” and build the thing already?!

Right now! After initial customer research, you have enough information to build a minimum viable product. From that foundation, you can begin the process of testing it in the marketplace, refining it, and testing it again. It’s a constant process of building and revising, at least until your business is well on its way to profitability.