As a founder, it’s essential that you know how to talk to potential customers and validate your startup idea. This is harder than it might seem at first. After all, you’re probably passionate about your product and can talk about it for hours on end.
But when it comes to talking to potential customers, there are a few things that new founders consistently get wrong, or don’t do often enough.
These are some common mistakes that we’ve made, learned from, and seen almost all new founders make at some point. They can be costly and often lead to launching a product that nobody wants. Learning how to avoid them will help you build a better business.
- Not talking to potential customers
- Talking to the wrong customers
- Not identifying Masters and Strugglers
- Talking about the idea instead of the problem
- Asking bad questions
- Getting tunnel vision
- Talking too much and not listening enough
- Seeking approval and compliments
- Avoiding bad news
- Trusting false commitments
- Failing to recognise when you’re wrong
- Failing to keep validating
Not talking to potential customers
When you’re validating your idea, it’s essential that you get out there and speak to as many potential users as possible. This means getting out of your comfort zone (and your office/garage/bedroom) to find potential customers before you’re 100% sure what you’re actually selling.
If you don’t do it, then you risk falling into the trap of believing that most people are like you, think like you, and agree with you.
This is known as the “false consensus bias”, and it’s something that you need to be aware of as an entrepreneur and creator.
Talking to your target market is hard work and it can be scary to put yourself out there, but the worst thing you could do is skip it. That’s the fast track to building a product that nobody needs or wants.
Talking to the wrong customers
When you’re starting out, it’s tempting to talk to anyone and everyone about your idea in the hope that someone will give you that all-important validation.
It’s essential that you target the right people; as tempting as it might be to test your ideas with your friends, family and colleagues – don’t. (unless they’re actually your target market)
You need to speak to people who are in your target market, who are experiencing the problem that you’re trying to solve. Finding these people can be tough, but it’s a problem that you’ll run into eventually. Start solving your distribution problems from day one.
Not identifying Masters and Strugglers
One of the most useful things you can do when talking to potential customers is to identify what our partners at Who’s Fabio call “Masters and Strugglers”.
Masters are people who have already solved the problem that you’re trying to solve. They might not need your product, but they can tell you a lot about how they solved the problem and what worked (and didn’t work) for them.
Strugglers are people who are still trying to solve the problem. They’re the people who your product is for, and they can tell you a lot about what they’ve tried so far and why it hasn’t worked.
You need to know exactly which you’re speaking to.
Strugglers can be keen to share their ideas for potential solutions, but you should be careful not to get too caught up in their suggestions. Remember, they’re struggling!
Masters, on the other hand, can provide incredibly valuable input on possible solutions, but may be dismissive of the problem itself.
Talking about the idea instead of the problem
We get it, we really do. New ideas are exciting and you’re keen to tell everyone how much better things will be when they can use your product.
But when you’re talking to potential customers, it’s essential that you focus on the problem. By talking about your idea, you miss out on the chance to really understand the problem and what potential customers are looking for in a solution.
Always keep in mind that people don’t buy products; they buy solutions to their problems. So, focus on the problem and what it’s like for the customer to experience it.
Asking bad questions
As a founder you must continually remind yourself that bad data is worse than no data, and train yourself to spot the signs of bad data. Remember, bad questions lead to bad answers.
It’s easy to ask questions that give you the answers you want to hear, rather than the honest truth. You should always be on the lookout for these signs of bad data:
- Fluff (as described in the Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick)
- Generic claims (I usually, I always, I never)
- Hypothetical maybes (I might, I could)
- Future-tense promises (I would, I will)
- Anecdotal evidence (e.g. “my cousin tried it and she loved it”)
- Responses to questions about your idea (e.g. “Do you think you would use this app for collecting employee feedback?”)
Don’t worry, the #3 freaks everyone out!
How are you going to validate your idea if you can’t ask people about it?
Asking questions that allow people to share their real-world experiences with you is the only way to know how they really think and act when confronted with a problem.
- Bad question: Do you think you would use this app for collecting employee feedback?
- Good question: Can you walk me through your employee engagement process?
The responses to the “good question” will give you much more useful data to work with.
Getting tunnel vision
When you’re starting out, it’s essential that you start with a problem area and really dig into the details. But you must avoid forcing yourself and your potential customers to only focus on this area.
When validating an idea, your job is to understand all of the different problems that the customer faces, their relative priorities, and how they interact with each other.
For example, if you’re validating a product for busy parents, you might want to focus on the problem of getting dinner on the table. But if you only focus on this problem, you might miss out on the fact that getting dinner on the table is just one part of a much bigger and more pressing problem: the problem of managing the family’s busy schedules.
To avoid this, make sure to ask lots of follow-up questions and probe beneath the surface. It’s only by really understanding the situation that you’ll be able to create a product that solves the right problem – even if it isn’t the one you started at.
Talking too much and not listening enough
This one is closely related to the previous point. When you’re talking to potential customers, it’s easy to get caught up in your own story and start talking too much.
But if you’re not careful, you’ll find yourself doing all the talking and not learning anything new. So, make sure to keep the conversation focused on the customer and their experiences.
One of the best ways of doing this is to ask follow-up questions that dig into the underlying details, and then shut up and listen. It sounds simple, but it’s amazing how easy it is to forget to do this!
Understanding the 5-whys interview technique is a great way to improve your ability to ask follow-up questions – just be careful not to sound like an inquisitive toddler!
Seeking approval and compliments
When you’re talking to potential customers, it’s natural to want them to like your idea. But if you’re only looking for approval and compliments, you’re not going to get the honest feedback you need.
To do this, you need to treat all compliments as toxic and throw them away. It sounds harsh, but it’s the only way to avoid getting caught up in your own ego and making bad decisions.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that you should be rude or dismiss people’s opinions out of hand. But it does mean that you should be wary of taking anything anyone says at face value, and always look for the underlying message.
Avoiding bad news
This is the opposite of the previous point. Seeking approval may be almost as tempting to do as avoiding criticism. But instead of ignoring information that puts your idea at risk, you must actively search for it.
During customer interviews and conversations, you should try to ask at least one question that could ruin your idea as it stands. This might mean asking about how much time and effort is spent solving the problem today, or how frequent and painful the problem is.
It’s not easy to ask these questions, but they are essential if you want to avoid building a product that is doomed to fail. The goal here is not to be needlessly pessimistic, but to make sure that you’re not blinded by your own optimism. After all, it’s better to find out about a flaw in your idea now than after you’ve invested in building it!
Trusting false commitments
One of the cruelest mistakes that new founders make is trusting false commitments from potential users. Just because someone says they would buy your product doesn’t mean they actually will.
In fact, people are often far more likely to say they would do something than they actually are to do it. This is called the intention-behaviour gap, and it’s something you need to be aware of if you want to avoid being misled.
To combat this, you should always look for evidence of actual behaviour rather than relying on what people say they would do. This might mean seeking a commitment by way of referral, follow-up interview, or pre-order.
Failing to recognise when you’re wrong
It’s easy to fall in love with your own idea, but it’s important to be open to the possibility that you might be wrong. If you’re not careful, you could find yourself investing time and money into a product that nobody wants. So, how can you avoid this trap?
The key is to have a growth mindset and to be constantly learning. This means being open to new information and willing to change your opinion when necessary. It also means being comfortable with making mistakes and learning from them.
If you can do this, you’ll be in a much better position to make decisions that are based on evidence rather than emotion.
Failing to keep validating
The process of validation is not a one-time event. It’s an ongoing cycle that you should be constantly repeating as you develop your idea into a business.
Too often, founders make the mistake of assuming that they’ve validated their idea after a couple of customer interviews. But the reality is that things can (and will) change over time. What this means in practice is that you should always be on the lookout for new information that could invalidate your assumptions.
The hidden benefit to ongoing validation is that it is almost never a wasted effort. You’ll eventually need to find real customers and convince them to buy from you; customer validation is simply starting that process early!
So there you have it: the most common mistakes that all founders make when validating their ideas.
The goal of this post was to help you avoid making some common mistakes when validating your startup idea. Remember:
- Don’t get too caught up in your own ego. Be open to criticism and willing to change your opinion when necessary.
- Seek out bad news as well as good news. Ask questions that could put your idea at risk.
- Never take someone’s word for it. Always look for evidence of actual behaviour rather than relying on what people say they would do.
- Validation is an ongoing process, not a one-time event. Be prepared to repeat the cycle as your business develops.
If you can force yourself into good habits and avoid these pitfalls; you’ll be in a much better position to launch a product that people actually want to buy.
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