What If You Can’t Find Customers to Develop?

Summary: You’re following the advice of Ash Maurya or Steve Blank and trying to talk to customers but are having trouble finding them.  In this post I offer a way forward: (1) stop and regroup, (2) troubleshoot the source of the problem, (3) pivot based on what you’ve learned, (4) be patient.

In a previous post I introduced a concept called the Customer Development Viral Coefficient (CDVC) and explained how I find potential customers to interview.

Steve Blank pushes his students to interview at least 10 customers per week.1. If you’re talking to this many people you already know that asking for intros, scheduling meetings, compiling feedback, and thanking people is a lot of work. But your CDVC > 1 and you’re getting enough customer feedback to figure out if you have an opporunity.

What if you’re talking to less than 5 people a week? What if you’re asking for introductions and referrals and not getting them?  Your CDVC < 1 and it’s no fun. In this post I’ll describe what not to do and what to do based on my own products.

Don’t Do What I’ve Done

Let me first caution you on what NOT to do.

  • Don’t “take a break” from customer development to focus on the product.
  • Don’t base your product decisions on feedback from a small number of people.
  • Don’t pay people (e.g. offer an Amazon give card and recruit from Craigs List) to give you feedback. 2
  • Don’t ignore cautionary advice from other entrepreneurs.
I’ve made all of these mistakes and just delayed addressing the real issue.  Be smarter than me.

First, Stop What You’re Doing

You’ve got a big problem. Actually you’ve got two big problems.

  1. You’re not getting enough feedback and risk building something nobody wants.
  2. You’re going to face the same problems when you try to sell.

These problems are symptom of a larger issue. You haven’t found a Problem to solve, haven’t found a Channel to reach customers, or customers don’t want a solution from You.

Using Ash Maurya’s Lean Canvas you’ve got an issue with your Problem, Channel, or Unique Value Proposition:

Seriously, stop what you’re doing and regroup.  Most entrepreneurs (including me) don’t appreciate how big these problems are.

Second, Troubleshoot the Source

Although my issues never fit neatly into one of these boxes, the process of trying to figure out the root of the problem allowed me to pivot effectively. Some tactics that have worked for me:

Review your problem/solution interviews and start looking for patterns. What profile of person have I been meeting? What aspects of the problems most resonated with them? How did they regard me (expert, outsider…)? Has anyone used emotional language (I HATE when…)?

Ask people why they didn’t introduce you to anyone else.  You’ll be surprised at what you hear.

Get advice from entrepreneurs working on related problems. Make sure you filter the feedback and look for facts and not opinions.

Write down every possible channel you can think of.  Refocusing on channels is one of the most effective ways to pivot.

Go to a conference related this problem or market. Stop by every exhibit booth during a quiet time and ask for advice. Often exhibit-only tickets are cheaper people are bored out of their minds.

Third, Pivot

Yep, the “P” word. Take what you’ve learned and make the best possible guess at a new direction. Maybe you identified a different Problem. Maybe the Channel itself is actually the customer.  You’ve got more options than you realize and imperfect information.

Pick a new direction and re-start your Problem/Solution interviews.

Finally, Be Patient

If you came here looking for a quick fix, I’m sorry to disappoint you. I wish I had one. What I can do is assure you that the frustration and confusion you are feeling is not unique, we’ve all been there. Moreover, you’re in this position because you’re serious and smart enough to do Customer Development. You’ve smart enough to know that building something nobody wants is a huge waste of time and you’re determine to avoid that mistake.

My only advice – which I don’t take very well myself – is to be patient and not too hard on yourself. This process will take months and could take a year or more.

But if you follow a systematic process of discovery, I promise you that you will get to the truth. There is no guarantee of success, but you’re odds of success will increase dramatically.

Photo Frustrated by Cellar Door Firms, Licensed CC 2.0

  1. In my experience somewhere between 5-10 is optimal. Obviously this is highly dependent on your market, you’ll have to use your own judgment here.
  2. The problem with paying for feedback is that you’ll talk to people who are motivate by a gift card, not by getting a solution to their problem. In this instance I’m not talking about usability feedback or product testing. These are instances where paying for people’s time can be very efficient. I’m speaking specifically of early-stage customer development where you’re looking for feedback from smart people, potential earlyvangelists who have a problem and are looking for a solution. In truth, there are instances where you can learn a lot quickly by giving people gift cards but I’ll expand on that in a future post.

8 Comments

  1. Steve Lawrence November 25, 2012 at 2:02 am #

    Very good post. I worked the streets for about two weeks, taking good notes. I worked from a set of questions I refined at the end on almost every day. After the two weeks, I did stop to focus on the product. I felt I didn’t have a clear picture of my product. I was talking to 2 to 3 people a day which got me to 10 or 11 a week. I was not asking for referrals. I do feel I have a couple early adapters.

    As always, when you pause it’s very hard to re-start. The hardest part is walking into a business, but in 95% the response was good. After all, you are asking them to talk about themselves and their business.

    Thanks for your input.

    • kevindewalt November 25, 2012 at 3:48 am #

      Sounds like you don’t need intros. Is your market SMB? Great feedback.

  2. Shlomo November 27, 2012 at 8:11 pm #

    This is a great post Kevin.

    I started doing my customer development this week. For me the hardest thing now is refining the questions. I’m still not sure I’m asking the right ones, though I do have a pattern of questions already. Also, I hope I don’t lead people to the answers I want, this one is VERY hard to tell.

    Whenever I ask people whether they procrastinate, they smile/lough, saying “Of course!” . This is a good sign I guess.

    • kevindewalt November 27, 2012 at 8:47 pm #

      Often if I just talk about the problem people just vent. Or I don’t learn anything. With something open ended like this you may have to put a solution in front of them.

      You’re not alone, I’m struggling with this right now as well. After a conversation I ask myself, “did I learn anything?” sometimes it takes 50 conversations before I start to see patterns.

      You’re bringing up the right issues. 加油!

  3. Shahidul Hoque November 30, 2012 at 5:18 pm #

    short but some nice points.

  4. Michael Scepaniak April 7, 2013 at 9:45 am #

    Thanks for the write-up on an aspect of Cust Dev that doesn’t get enough mention. And you offer a good list of ideas to troubleshoot the problem. Good work. Much appreciated.

    Mike….

  5. Cheryl Brinkman October 17, 2014 at 3:56 pm #

    I’m facing exactly this problem. I started by stopping people in the streets (or more specifically, in retail stores, which are related to the problem/solution). I have tried reaching out over personal networks and paid (Facebook) advertising. I get very little response, and the few people that have agreed to interview really don’t have the problem I am trying to solve.

    That said – I KNOW that there is a market, because there are competitors in the space with significant customer bases. So, why can’t I find these people!!!

    Also, if you have any advice on finding customers who have used a competitor’s product, it would be very helpful.

    • kevindewalt October 20, 2014 at 7:50 am #

      Cheryl,

      Do these competitor customers organize anywhere? Are there influential people who know them? These are good places to search.

      Another option is to get them to find you by writing educational content on how to use these competing products. For instance, if you’re competing with Mint.com you can create a checklist or hacks on using Mint.com more effectively. Start giving them a reason to come to you, to see you as the trusted advisor who can help them.

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