What's wrong with this picture?
Steve Blank has devoted many years now to trying to answer that question, with a theory he calls Customer Development. This theory has become so influential that I have called it one of the three pillars of the lean startup - every bit as important as the changes in technology or the advent of agile development.
You can learn about customer development, and quite a bit more, in Steve's book The Four Steps to the Epiphany. I highly recommend this book for all entrepreneurs, in startups as well as in big companies. Here's the catch. This is a self-published book, originally designed as a companion to Steve's class at Berkeley's Haas school of business. And Steve is the first to admit that it's a "turgid" read, without a great deal of narrative flow. It's part workbook, part war story compendium, part theoretical treatise, and part manifesto. It's trying to do way too many things at once. On the plus side, that means it's a great deal. On the minus side, that has made it a wee bit hard to understand.
Some notable bloggers have made efforts to overcome these obstacles. VentureHacks did a great summary, which includes slides and video. Marc Andreeson also took a stab, calling it "a very practical how-to manual for startups ... a roadmap for how to get to Product/Market Fit." The theory of Product/Market Fit is one key component of customer development, and I highly recommend Marc's essay on that topic.
Still, I feel the need to add my two cents. There's so much crammed into The Four Steps to the Epiphany that I want to distill out what I see as the key points:
- Get out of the building. Very few startups fail for lack of technology. They almost always fail for lack of customers. Yet surprisingly few companies take the basic step of attempting to learn about their customers (or potential customers) until it is too late. I've been guilty of this many times in my career - it's just so easy to focus on product and technology instead. True, there are the rare products that have literally no market risk; they are all about technology risk ("cure for cancer"). For the rest of us, we need to get some facts to inform and qualify our hypotheses ("fancy word for guesses") about what kind of product customers will ultimately buy.
And this is where we find Steve's maxim that “In a startup no facts exist inside the building, only opinions.” Most likely, your business plan is loaded with opinions and guesses, sprinkled with a dash of vision and hope. Customer development is a parallel process to product development, which means that you don't have to give up on your dream. We just want you to get out of the building, and start finding out whether your dream is a vision or a delusion. Surprisingly early, you can start to get a sense for who the customer of your product might be, how you'll reach them, and what they will ultimately need. Customer development is emphatically not an excuse to slow down or change the plan every day. It's an attempt to minimize the risk of total failure by checking your theories against reality.
- Theory of market types. Layered on top of all of this is a theory that helps explain why different startups face wildly different challenges and time horizons. There are three fundamental situations that change what your company needs to do: creating a new market (the original Palm), bringing a new product to an existing market (Handspring), and resegmenting an existing market (niche, like In-n-Out Burger; or low-cost, like Southwest Airlines). If you're entering an existing market, be prepared for fast and furious competition from the incumbent players, but enjoy the ability to fail (or succeed) fast. When creating a new market, expect to spend as long as two years before you manage to get traction with early customers, but enjoy the utter lack of competition. What kind of market are you in? The Four Steps to the Epiphany contains a detailed approach to help you find out.
- Finding a market for the product as specified. When I first got the "listening to customers" religion, my plan was to talk to as many customer as possible, and build them as many features as they asked as possible. This is a common mistake. Our goal in product development is to find the minimum feature set required to get early customers. In order to do this, we have our customer development team work hard to find a market, any market, for the product as currently specified. We don't just abandon the vision of the company at every turn. Instead, we do everything possible to validate the founders' belief.
The nice thing about this paradigm is it sets the company up for a rational discussion when the task of finding customers fails. You can start to think through the consequences of this information before it's too late. You might still decide to press ahead building the original product, but you can do so with eyes open, knowing that it's going to be a tough, uphill battle. Or, you might start to iterate the concept, each time testing it against the set of facts that you've been collecting about potential customers. You don't have to wait to iterate until after the splashy high-burn launch.
- Phases of product & company growth. The book takes its name from Steve's theory of the four stages of growth any startup goes through. He calls these steps Customer Discovery (when you're just trying to figure out if there are any customers who might want your product), Customer Validation (when you make your first revenue by selling your early product), Customer Creation (akin to a traditional startup launch, only with strategy involved), and Company Building (where you gear up to Cross the Chasm). Having lived through a startup that went through all four phases, I can attest to how useful it is to have a roadmap that can orient you to what's going on as your job and company changes.
As an aside, here's my experience: you don't get a memo that tells you that things have changed. If you did, it would read something like this: "Dear Eric, thank you for your service to this company. Unfortunately, the job you have been doing is no longer available, and the company you used to work for no longer exists. However, we are pleased to offer you a new job at an entirely new company, that happens to contain all the same people as before. This new job began months ago, and you are already failing at it. Luckily, all the strategies you've developed that made you successful at the old company are entirely obsolete. Best of luck!"
- Learning and iterating vs. linear execution. I won't go through all four steps in detail (buy the book already). I'll just focus on the paradigm shift represented by the first two steps and the last two steps. In the beginning, startups are focused on figuring out which way is up. They really don't have a clue what they should be doing, and everything is guesses. In the old model, they would probably launch during this phase, failing or succeeding spectacularly. Only after a major, public, and expensive failure would they try a new iteration. Most people can't sustain more than a few of these iterations, and the founders rarely get to be involved in the later tries.
The root of that mistake is premature execution. The major insight of The Four Steps to the Epiphany is that startups need time spent in a mindset of learning and iterating, before they try to launch. During that time, they can collect facts and change direction in private, without dramatic and public embarrassment for their founders and investors. The book lays out a disciplined approach to make sure this period doesn't last forever, and clear criteria for when you know it's time to move to an execution footing: when you have a repeatable and scalable sales process, as evidenced by early customers paying you money for your early product.
When I first encountered this book, my first impulse was as follows. I bought a bunch of copies, gave them out to my co-founders and early employees, and then expected the whole company's behavior would radically change the next day. That doesn't work (you can stop laughing now). This is not a book for everyone. I've only had luck sharing it with other entrepreneurs who are actually struggling with their product or company. If you already know all the answers, you can skip this one. But if you find some aspect of the situation your in confusing, maybe this will provide some clarity. Or at least some techniques for finding clarity soon.
My final suggestion is that you buy the book and skim it. Try and find sections that apply to the startup you're in (or are thinking of building). Make a note of the stuff that doesn't seem to make sense. Then put it on your shelf and forget about it. If your experience is anything like mine, here's what will happen. One day, you'll be banging your head against the wall, trying to make progress on some seemingly intractable problem (like, how the hell do I know if this random customer is an early adopter who I should spend time listening to, or a mainstream customer who won't buy my product for years). That's when I would get that light bulb moment: this problem sounds familiar. Go to your shelf. Get down the book, and be amazed that you are not the first person to tackle this problem in the history of the world.
I have been continually surprised at how many times I could go back to that same well for wisdom and advice. I hope you will be too.