Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Lo, my 1032 subscribers, who are you?

When I first wrote about the advantages of having a pathetically small number of customers, I only had 5 subscribers. When I checked my little badge on the sidebar today, I was shocked to see it read 1032. As it turns out, it was much harder to get those first five subscribers, then the next thousand, thanks to great bloggers like Andrew Chen, Dave McClure, and the fine folks over at VentureHacks. Thank you all for stopping by.

Of course, 1000 customers is pretty pathetically small too. When startups achieve that milestone, it's a mixed blessing. On the one hand, having a little traction is a good thing. But on the other hand, figuring out what's going on starts to get more difficult. You can't quite talk to everyone on the phone . You have to start filtering and sorting; deciding which feedback to listen to and which loud people to ignore. It's also time to start thinking about customer segments. Do you have a particular set of early adopters that share some common traits? If so, they might be pointing the way towards a much bigger set of people who share those traits, but are not early adopters.

Let's take an example of a startup I was advising a few years ago. Of their early customers, about 1/3 of them turned out to be high school or middle school teachers. This wasn't an education product - it was a pretty surprising group to find using it. What all these teachers had in common were two things: they were technology early adopters that were willing to take a chance on a new software product, and they all had similar problems organizing their classes and students. At that early stage, it was the company's first glimpse of what a crossing the chasm strategy might look like: use these early adopters to build a whole product for the education market. Then sell it to mainstream educators, schools, and school districts, who shared the same problem of organizing classes, but were not themselves early adopters.

So how do you get started with customer segmentation? If you've already been talking to customers one-on-one, don't stop now (and if you haven't, this is still a good time to start). Those conversations are the best way to look for patterns in the noise. As you start to see them, collect your hypotheses and start using broader-reach tools to find out how they break down. I would recommend periodic surveys, along with some kind of forum or other community tool where the most passionate customers can congregate. You can also use Twitter, your blog (with comments), or even a more structured tool like uservoice.

I'd start with a simple survey (I use SurveyMonkey), combining the NPS question with a handful of more in-depth optional questions. In fact, I feel like I should eat my own dogfood, take my own medicine, or whatnot. Here's my survey for Lessons Learned:
As a loyal subscriber, I'd like to invite you to take the first Lessons Learned customer survey: Click Here to take survey
I put this together using the free version of SurveyMonkey, to show just how easy it is. If you're serious about this, you probably want to use their premium version, which will let you do things like add logic to let people easily skip the second page if they choose to, and send them to a "thank you page" afterward. Be sure to make the thank you page have a call to action (like a link to subscribe, for example) - after all, you're dealing with a customer passionate enough to talk to you.

So, to those of you who take the time to fill out the survey: thanks for the feedback! And to everyone who's taken the time to read, comment, or subscribe: thank you.
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  1. I can't remember how I came across this blog (you can probably blame Hacker News) but I'm sure it was prior to your posts on VH. Either way, I've been a happy subscriber ever since. Lessons Learned is the best RSS source in my overflowing Newsgator Online account.

  2. Hi Eric, Will Pate here. I'm Community Manager at VenCorps, co-host of commandN. I worked at Flock, ConceptShare and co-founded Raincity Studios in Vancouver. Really enjoying your blog, keep it up. Would love to grab a coffee next time I'm in the Valley.

  3. Hi Erik,

    I'm a independent games producer based in Vancouver.

    No idea how I found your blog but I follow it with my Google Reader.

    FYI the surveymonkey link isn't operational.

  4. Thanks for letting me know. The response so far has overwhelmed my free SurveyMonkey account - I'm really gratified by all the responses!

    I've put up a new version of the survey - thanks everyone for answering it!