How to simplify your startup’s TODO list with customer personas

[7/31/2014 Update] – We built a free product called the Helpful Canvas.  You can use it to create and share your personas. Screenshot of “Founder Fran”:

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The real work for Lean Startups begins when we have a few customers. After working so hard to win their trust and $ we try to please all of them – we quickly realize we can’t and we’re forced to make choices.

Creating customer personas can help us prioritize. In this post I’ll talk about why you should use them, how to create them, and share ours so you have an example to copy.

(Photo credit: Andrew Morelli)

“Customer X wants … but Customer Y wants … I think we should …”

Working on new products forces us to make choices. Which customers are most important? What feature should we build next? Why?

These are dangerous times for startups – many die trying to please everyone. Like most founders, I over-react to the latest customer input, behavior that can drive a team nuts. Psychologists call this the “recency effect” – we tend to place place more emphasis on information we most recently received.

Customer personas get us focused on the most important – not the most recent

The solution is to develop customer personas, or caricatures of different groups of customers. At a minimum these personas should tell us:

  1. Basic demographics
  2. Key needs, goals, or fears
  3. Major obstacles or challenges

You probably won’t have a single customer who matches one of your personas – we don’t.  They are generalizations about buyer behaviors based on patterns across dozens of people.

Personas make team communication and decisions easier. Focusing on larger customer problems and trends helps us prioritize the customer features most likely to solve the biggest problems.

SoHelpful’s customer personas

We currently have 3 customer personas:

(these are summaries, you can download the full versions below)

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Founder Fran

Fran is a 29-year-old startup founder in San Francisco. She is working on her 2nd startup, StreetFeet – a CRM tool for real estate agents. After her first startup failed she starting applying Lean Startup practices and now her biggest worry is that she won’t get traction for StreetFeet. She uses SoHelpful to provide 1-on–1 help over Skype with real estate agents worldwide. She does this with the goal of getting insight into how her clients work as part of her Customer Development and to close qualified leads into paying customers. (Photo credit: Dan Finnen)

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Micropreneur Mike

Mike and his wife Song are young professionals living in New York. Both dream of being “digital nomads” who travel and support themselves by selling products and information content. Mike’s biggest challenge is escaping the lifestyle trap of selling his time – to do this he needs an audience. Mike is deeply passionate about personal productivity uses SoHelpful to help people become more efficient over Skype and Hangout. He does this with a goal of building his reputation and getting ideas for blog posts so he can grow his email list.(Photo credit: Ramanathan Kathiresan)

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Mentor Marvin

Marvin is 36, has a family and does management consulting. He started a company 9 years ago but picked a more stable career for family reasons. Marvin helps startups because he enjoys it, does Angel investing and meets potential future clients. His biggest challenge? Meeting more startups and having the time to work with them. Family commitments don’t often give him opportunities to attend weekend startup events and “coffee meetings” – although fun – take too much time. Marvin uses SoHelpful to help startups 1:1 over Skype and Hangout because it saves time, he meets more startups and builds his reputation with testimonials. (Photo credit: Steve wilson)

How to make your personas

Here are the steps we followed, you can download the actual scripts and summaries we used below.

Step 1 – Review your data for assumptions and key questions.

You don’t have to waste time asking customers questions you can find in your database. For instance, we already know how many calls SoHelpful customers have received, why people called them, and how many left them testimonials. Before even talking to customers I tried to develop a mental image of why they are using SoHelpful and how they’re getting value from it.

Step 2 – Interview 20–30 customers for 30 mins each

I start every interview by asking “before we start with what I need, how can I help you?” This was often the best part of the conversation because what they wanted from me was the indication of their real problems. Plus these are my paying customers and I never want to miss an opportunity to prove how much I appreciate their support.

I had a script for the calls but I didn’t use it a lot – mostly I asked clarifying questions and listened. I did it all over Skype or Hangout because we live all over the world.

(I know Steve Blank and others emphasize face-to-face, but we’ve found that Skype and Hangout work just as well and save everyone time)

Step 3 – Summarize after each call

Immediately after the call I spend 10 minutes summarizing the conversation in prose. I do this to help organize my thoughts and so the rest of the team can read a summary and get the major points.

Step 4 – Develop high-level persona drafts

After about 10 calls I started developing draft personas and continued to revise them after each call.

Step 5 – Review drafts with team and revise

I gave Joey and Chiara a presentation of the data and my assumptions. After getting their input we revised them.

How we use the Customer Personas to focus our work

Insight

What was most immediately obvious was that we had a made hugely incorrect assumption about what SoHelpful customers wanted. We assumed that all of them wanted SoHelpful to provide more exposure, to drive more calls. It turns out that this was only a priority for Mentor Marvin – Founder Fran and Micropreneur Mike already had means of driving calls and had other priorities.

Prioritizing Features

Having the personas allowed us to put these type of feature requests in context. We now talk about strategy in terms of “what Fran wants” – not “what customers want” because the latter is too general.

Messaging

Our 3 personas have different problems, different needs. Fran cares about “insight” and “traction”. Mike most cares about “sales”. Marvin cares about “meeting more startups”

We’re now testing specific messaging and offering around these personas to get further insight into the best opportunity for SoHelpful.

Persona limitations

Unfortunately customer personas are not silver bullets for providing instant insight into product strategies. Sometimes customer behaviors are signals of larger trends and it is easy to miss them when making simplifying assumptions.

In the case of SoHelpful almost all of our customers report the personal satisfaction they get from helping people. Others talk about the “thrill” getting notified that someone across the world is contacting them for help.

Are these simply “nice to have” features or an indication that SoHelpful satisfies the same needs for connecting and contributing – a similar need that is driving companies like Kickstarter? Unfortunately I don’t yet have the answer – these are all ideas we’re testing.

Download our persona docs (and my new course)

Here are the actual documents we used – our complete personas, the interview script, and summary I shared with the SoHelpful team. I hope it saves you some time.

You can also sign up for my new free email course, Get Your Startup’s First 100 Customers by being Helpful. Just keep the link checked in the box below or learn more about it here.

7 Comments

  1. Chiara Cokieng July 7, 2014 at 7:58 pm #

    Kevin, it’s so easy to say niche down or die, but so hard in practice!

    What if we alienate all those other people??

    The key assumption is if you understand and communicate according to what one person needs, everybody else will gravitate toward your messaging too.

    Excited to test this out and find out if nicheing down works for real.

    • Simon July 9, 2014 at 4:59 am #

      Chiara, I think it’s more the case that if you niche down and establish yourself as an authority, then it is easier to expand into adjacent niches. This is because firstly you’ve demonstrated you can already “make it” in a similar niche, and secondly you come to the attention of other authorities in that niche, who you can then build a relationship with.

  2. rcauvin July 9, 2014 at 5:19 am #

    What is SoHelpful’s unique value proposition? Does it resonate with all the personas?

    • kevindewalt July 22, 2014 at 7:25 am #

      We’re still figuring that out because (obviously) it’s different for each one. But generally for Fran and Mike it is getting customers/money and for Marvin it is meeting more entrepreneurs.

      • Roger L. Cauvin July 22, 2014 at 6:31 pm #

        Do you see any drawbacks to having a different unique value proposition for each persona?

        The reason I ask is that Ries and Trout, who literally wrote the book on positioning, maintain that a brand can stand for only one thing. When you try to have it stand for different things for different people, it stands for nothing.

        So maybe there’s a singular, overarching UVP for SoHelpful, with perhaps some “corollaries” for the various personas?

        • kevindewalt July 22, 2014 at 6:43 pm #

          We absolutely will focus on 1. The problem is knowing where and what to say. Of course I can sit here and speak great thoughts, but I’m almost definitely going to be wrong.

          Ries and Trout are right. They also work with Fortune 500 companies with millions or billions in revenue.

          That’s not us. Unfortunately hardly anyone gives practical advice for those of us just starting out, trying to figure out these type of issues when you have just a few customers with divergent interests.

          But we are solving it by doing exactly what I try to teach – focusing relentlessly on the customers and helping them solve their problems. These conversations are what is giving us the insight. These personas are less than a month old and are already obsolete.

          http://try.sohelpful.me/course.html

          • Roger L. Cauvin July 22, 2014 at 7:02 pm #

            Thanks for clarifying.

            Do you consider Ries and Trout’s positioning guidelines to be inapplicable to fledgling startups? I wasn’t sure if you were going that far.

            BTW, on page 51 of Ash Maurya’s Running Lean, he strongly recommends Ries and Trout’s classic Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind for guiding the selection of a UVP.

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