The toughest part about practicing customer development is getting started.  You already know that customers are not going to magically find you because you have a great product, work hard and are good looking.  Now that you’ve realized how big the world is and that using a megaphone from your roof top is a poor method of user acquisition, what’s next?

Presumably if you are committed to the principles of customer development, you are already committed to “getting out of the building.”  Before you can interview potential customers, however, you have to find potential customers to interview.  Unfortunately, there are no magic bullets.   This is painstaking work.  Just as with other portions of the customer development model, to find early adopters you make assumptions, test, and iterate.  If you are having trouble getting started, try these steps:

Step 1. Profile your Customer

Write up a description of your ideal mainstream customer.  Are they male or female?  How old are they?  What do they do for a living?  Are you targeting them as a consumer or professional?  Are they online?  Where do they hang out?  Where do they congregate offline?  How do they spend their day?  Describe their personality like?  What are their hotbuttons?  Where do they fit on the technology adoption curve?  What technologies do they use?  Late adopters of social media, for example, may just now be heavy users of e-mail.  Include as much detail you want, letting your creativity guide you.

Re-read your description and remove attributes that are not unique.  In other words, if they are male or female, then their sex is not a differentiating characteristic.

Step 2.  Brainstorm Locale

Brainstorm how to reach these users.  To state the obvious, users who are not active online, are not likely to be reached online.   This is the whole point of “getting out of the building.”  Don’t build an online strategy for reaching offline users.  If your potential users attend networking events, then that’s where you’ll have to go.  You have to be clever about finding them!

Andrew Chen has a great post on using surveys and Craigslist to talk to customers.  Note, however, that posting on Craigslist or buying ads on Facebook won’t work if your potential customers don’t use Craiglist or Facebook.

Don’t consider your method yet, consider where they are.  Have you thought of:

Your network -> Some here may also be biased, but those 2 or 3 degrees away are likely to offer real answers.

Social networks -> For b2b, have you considered LinkedIn groups?

Your blog readers

Networking events

Web surveys

Customer registration cards (ha ha)

Store fronts -> stand out in front of Trader Joe’s with a clipboard!

Talk to your customer’s customers

Database, e.g., Hoover’s or Lead411

Initially, the idea is to cast a wide net, because you really don’t know the best place to find your prospective customers.  There are no wrong methods, if the end result are users who understand the problem you’re trying to solve.  I was speaking with a colleague in Shanghai on the recent Geeks on a Plane tour, who expressed some consternation over the fact that he had found early customers through PR (actually a newspaper interview), which is verboten according to the customer development model.

Models are only that.  There are no rules, only methods to acquiring answers from the customer.  If a magazine article (not, BTW, the result of a PR campaign), puts you in touch with hard-to-reach potential customers (in this case the Chinese government), then that is valid customer development.

Step 3.  Who determines how

Your endgame is an interview.  You want to speak to your customers in order to confirm your assumptions about their need for your product.  You’re not selling, you’re listening.  You are not gathering feature requirements, you are gathering understanding of their pain.  You do not ask leading questions, you ask open questions.  You not to cajole users into contributing to or beta testing your product, you learn what it would take for them to pay you for your product.

The method you use depends on the person.  Surveys are used to provide you a sample, from which you cull early adopters.  Remember, your objective is to interview the early adopters.  Though it may provide you valuable information, the survey is not the endgame.  The interview is what you are getting to.  For potential customers whom you have identified via phone call or through in person networking, you need to setup a meeting, preferably in-person.  Tell them that you would like to conduct an informational interview or you are doing research and that the meeting will only last 15 minutes, and that no selling will be involved.   Be sure to keep yourself honest!

At this point, you are satisfied to be speaking with any potential customer, whether or not they represent early adopters.  Remember, you are testing each of the assumptions comprising your profile.

Profile 1 -> has pain? -> if no, iterate to Profile 2

->Locale 1 -> if yes, I can reach them through Craigslist?  -> if no, iterate to Locale 2

-> if yes, etc.,

You must have a concise set of objectives for the first interview.  Remember, you only have 15 minutes.  You must learn:

  • is problem assumption valid
  • are current solutions insufficient
  • does your solution sound plausible
  • is the person I’m speaking with a potential early adopter

Step 4.  Identifying the early adopters

Simply put, early adopters have these three determining characteristics: they understand the problem you’re trying to solve are passionate about finding a solution, and if your model calls for it, are willing to pay.   They do not have to be passionate about your solution, but recognize that nothing out there today adequately solves a problem that is very important to them.

You learn valuable information from all your interviewees, but are happiest to discover early adopters.  Hopefully you can establish a long term relationship with them, since they will help you build the right product and teach you how to market and sell to them.  More on that later.

Where have you found your early adopters and how did you find them?   Let me know in comments!