There are few things entrepreneurs hate more than wasting time and money. We squeeze value from every penny, always looking for creative ways to make our capital take us as far as possible.
Despite our reputation, we also dislike risk. Our relationship with risk is not one of reckless pursuit. It is one of respectful acceptance and strategic mitigation.
Why then, do so many entrepreneurs fail to identify a source of risk that can waste hundreds of thousands of dollars (or more) and add months, even years, to break-even timelines?
Finding out post-launch that you’ve missed product-market fit can be the beginning of the end. Yet, it is completely avoidable with the right mentality and process.
Always Keep a New Product State of Mind
To prevent building something no one wants to buy, you need to first admit that you are wrong: YOUR vision of the perfect product is different than the vision of your customers. This needs to be more than a cursory acknowledgement. You must fully believe it and adopt it as a state of mind. If you fundamentally understand that you are wrong, you can recognize that being wrong now is a good thing and put your company on a path to be right when it counts – at launch.
If you engage customers early in development, you can incorporate their collective voice into your design, branding, marketing, and sales processes. There is nothing more efficient and cost effective than letting your customers tell you exactly what to build and how to sell it to them.
Embrace Embarrassment and Show What You’ve Got
To do this correctly, you need to physically meet with potential customers. Yes, you must actually speak to people. Face-to-face. Unless your customers are spies trained to withstand interrogation, their body language and tone of voice will convey as much information as their actual words.
While in development, this means you are showing them an unfinished product. That’s ok. If you are not at least a little embarrassed to show what you’re working on, then you’ve waited too long. You don’t need to have a physical version of the product, you can show a 3D rendering, wireframe, or even a sketch in a notebook. Simply describing your product verbally leaves an open door to misinterpretation. What the customer envisions will likely be different than your verbal description. You must let them SEE something.
Seek Brutally Honest Feedback
Resist the temptation to take the comfortable (and faster) path: throwing together a simple automated survey and tweeting the link. Asking yes/no questions yields binary quantitative data. In the development phase, you need qualitative data. You need pure, honest, brutal feedback. You want people to tell you that your product is crap, why it is crap, and how to make it better.
To get this type of feedback, go where your customers are (tradeshows, the grocery store, wherever) and ask open-ended questions that elicit their thoughts and feelings about your product and the problem you are solving. Listen more than you talk, and let the discussion evolve naturally. As you conduct more of these customer discovery conversations, you’ll notice commonalities. These common customer needs and wants should drive your product design, marketing, and sales processes.
If You Build It, They Might Buy It
Integrating a customer discovery mindset into the development process is not difficult. If you spend 5 minutes a day writing down questions you want to ask your customers, you’ll have a good list in a week. Treat every interaction with a potential customer as an opportunity to learn what they care about, and you’ll identify common answers to the questions on that list. Use those common answers as tools to influence your design, and you will reduce the risk of missing product-market fit and increase your chance of success.
If you build what your potential customers told you to build, and market it the way they told you to market it, they just might buy it.