Thoughts about startups, tech, marketing, and life

This is the third post I’ve written about some of the mistakes I’ve made with past startups. You can find the other two here:

  1. Alignment with Idea – Lessons Learned from Past Startups 
  2. Alignment with Co-Founders – Lessons Learned From Past Startups Pt. 2

This week we’ll talk about the mistake I’ve made with customer development.

Customer development is super important, and I am totally guilty of not doing enough of it for my first two startups.

Customer development can be simply defined as talking to your potential or current customers to learn about their problems, needs, and wants to inform the solution that you’ll build for them.

It is SO important during the early stages of your startup where you need to discover the right market for your idea, validate that your idea is actually needed, and determine the initial set of features that will be built into your product.

Let’s see how I screwed this all up.

Dokkit

Build, build, build.

That was my mindset when working on Dokkit, the smart calendar app I worked on.

I pitched the idea at a Startup Weekend DC in November 2011 and while I didn’t get to work on it, I received amazing feedback from the crowd.

I also received many excited responses from my friends and family about the concept.

So I thought – let’s build, build, build.

We did get an alpha version launched and tested. But before that, we really should have done customer interviews (we did zero) to learn more about our potential users.

While we ultimately failed for founder alignment reasons, doing customer interviews would have benefitted us in a number of ways:

  1. We would have learned about our potential users’ needs
  2. We wouldn’t have wasted a lot of time building instead of learning
  3. This customer discovery phase could have been a test project where the team could have learned more about how well we would work together – a date before getting married

Not doing customer discovery for Dokkit was a big mistake.

Ribl

The ribl team did some customer discovery, but not nearly enough.

We had a vision of what the app would look like from the start, and we were very guilty of wanting to build it fast.

Across the three team members, we performed a total of about 30 customer interviews. That’s a decent number of interviews, though with three people, we could have certainly done more.

But the real problem was that the interview questions didn’t dig deep enough to truly extract what problems users faced in discovering local news and events, or if there were any problems at all.

We were blinded by the desire to build something fast.

I’m not against moving and building quickly; that’s a key advantage of startups vs. big companies.

But building something fast solely based on your vision is a mistake.

If I had to do it all again, I would have definitely performed more customer interviews until we had a relatively clear direction of what the product should do.

It is difficult to come up with a hard and fast direction from early-stage customer interviews. The aggregate feedback is cloudy, at best.

That’s no excuse to just jump into building something, like we did.

Applying this to WinOptix

I’m not making these mistakes again.

I’ve performed over 40 interviews with government contractors before even thinking about building anything. The feedback from these interviews transformed my initial idea to the very different concept that WinOptix is now.

Based on the feedback, we’ve created mockups and are testing them with potential customers. Once we get some solid direction on the mockups, only then will we develop the platform.

This process has taken six months already. In six months of working on ribl, we were able to build, launch, and promote both iOS and Android apps.

I’m not worried how long this takes, though. I’m more worried about truly learning about customers’ problems and ensuring that we’re building something that they really need and want.

Even then, I know I might be wrong and ultimately fail.

Regardless, I’ll feel better knowing that I took the right approach.

Conclusion

Customer development is so important, especially in the early stages of a startup.

I made a bunch of bad mistakes in the past, and I’m hoping that by applying the techniques and process more thoroughly and completely, I’ll avoid the fate of those mistakes with WinOptix.

How are you using customer development, and what has worked and what hasn’t? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.


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