Be Your First Customer, But Not Your Only One

Published on July 3rd, 2022

TL;DR Startup founders can get into the trap of building something so hyper-specific to themselves that it creates a barrier for potential customers.

Bill was a sharp guy. As someone in the insurance space, he saw first-hand how poorly people tracked their finances. In fact, most people never create a budget. Those that did had trouble sticking to it. So it was no wonder Bill met so many people struggling to meet their financial goals.

Ah-ha! A light bulb went off in his head. "What if I build an app that makes it dead simple for anyone to create and track a budget?" He then spent the following few months building slide decks and gaining conviction regarding his idea. He then cashed out a significant portion of his retirement savings to go for it.

It all made sense, but Bill lost 100% of his time and money.

I've met many people like Bill in my career. Having worked at a full-service web agency for 4 years, I would guess that about 20% of our ~300 customers were people launching their first business. We would take them through a discovery period where we would extract the project's key goals. Then we'd go through the standard process of definition, designing, developing, and launching the website.

And That's Where Things Went Sideways

Bill was a sharp guy. He had a lot of ideas, some of which were good. But, best of all, he was solving a problem he had.

Bill was his first customer.

This can be a great thing! A founder with empathy for the problems and challenges that others face can be a strong advocate. They'll say, "I know they need this because I need this!"

This can also be a bad thing. A founder with a specific way of solving a problem may become fixated and try to force others to do things exactly the way they did. They'll say, "I know they need to do it this way because it works for me!"

Fast forward several years. While the website was beautiful and the technology worked perfectly, Bill never got more than a dozen people to use the app. And those that did gave up after a few attempts.

Bill was his first customer. Unfortunately, Bill was also his only customer.

Bill is not alone. There are many Bill's out there falling into this trap.

Validate Demand Through Interviews, Testing, and Payments

There are many schools of thought on how to avoid this trap. One of the best ways is through validated learning (see Lean Startup by Eric Ries).

At one of my previous companies, we knew we had built an exceptional tool for web developers. It was fast. It was flexible. It was perfect for individuals or agencies working on multiple projects simultaneously.

We also had terrible adoption out of the gates.

We would hit up our colleagues over email and Twitter to try and get them to use it. The result? Radio silence. Excuses. Objections. "I'm too busy!" Whatever. It was disheartening. We started to question ourselves. Did we build the wrong product?

It turns out we had a gap in our go-to market strategy. When we went to conferences, we noticed that simply having a booth presence resulted in a lot of tire-kicking but no bites. So we tried a different approach.

We created a "test" where we wanted developers to race through 7 everyday work tasks. Then, we sat next to them with a notepad to capture any pain points they had along the way. And for their trouble, we gave them a $20 gift card to Starbucks or Amazon.

It worked like magic.

From Disinterested Colleagues to Passionate Advocates

The mere experience of using the tool is what hooked our first users. They could experience the speed, and many even said, "holy shit, that was fast." But we also learned of critical gaps. "Can it do X? I can't use this in my day-to-day workflow until it can do Y."

As we zipped through 30+ independent tests, we found common pain points. Many of these were critical features needed before they could entirely change over from their current tools. We also identified many language issues with what we called things and how we organized them. They made sense to us, but it was confusing to someone with fresh eyes.

Taking this feedback, we iterated and started to see growth pick up.

We were no longer our first and only customer.

Best of all, because they had a direct say in helping shape our roadmap, they felt more connected to the success and expansion of the tool. For example, at one event at Drupalcamp London, we had a person bring 30-40+ people to our booth and proceeded to pitch to them why they needed to use us. It was a game-changer.

Taking it Further By Taking Down Payments

Jim is a smart guy. In a recent conversation, he was asking me how to best start his go-to market strategy for a new app he's building. "Should I ask for them to sign up? Ask to sign-up for a newsletter?"

Unfortunately, Customer Interviews can also lead to dead ends. People are often aware of the problem but not the best way to fix it. Check out this great Twitter Thread on this subject. Notably:

Mistake #1: Asking people what they want As Steve Jobs famously said, "It's not the customer's job to know what they want" Customers are experts in problems—not solutions Start by understanding what people do today and where they struggle, then work backwards to a solution

Do you know what a better tell is? Asking leads for a down payment. If what you sell is already dead on, people who see the value are more likely to pay upfront. And if they won't, this is a great opportunity to ask them questions like…

  • What specifically is holding you back?
  • Is it a missing feature?
  • Are the potential benefits not spelled out clearly enough?
  • Do you not believe this can work for you?

All of these can be helpful questions to draw out the objections. Once objections are on the table, they can be addressed. For example, asking for payment and getting rejected can be good if you can leverage that rejection into the right questions.

Going Further

Bill and Jim are smart folks. Likely, you are too! But on the path to creating a great product, don't fall into the trap of believing everyone will buy or use your product just because you do.

You gotta put in the work to test and see if others react the way you do. And if they don't, you have to work to find what features and language resonate.

Good luck!

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About Rick Manelius

Quick Stats: CXO of Atomic Form. Graduated from MIT in '03 (BS) and '09 (PhD). Life hacker and peak performance enthusiast. This blog is my experiment in creative writing, self-expression, and sharing what I've learned along my journey. For more information, read my full bio here or contact me.