I love the work Eric Ries is doing with Lean Startup.  (IMO, coupled with an investment model where funds are predicated on implementation of lean startup principles and achieving specific customer development milestones #leanstartup could revolutionize the start-up and investment landscapes.)

Words are powerful and and the intent of catchy phrases can be lost when removed from their original context.  I brought this up before a few weeks back, when the “Fail Fast” meme was cruising through Twitter and among some cheerleaders, it seems, failing itself had become the best means to success, as if it were the end objective, as if tripping your way to finish line will ensure you are the winner.

So it goes, IMO, with this quote about the customer’s vision:

Early customers are often more visionary than the startup they work with for that product.

I’m not so sure.  So while the initial intent of the phrase is not to misplace ownership of the vision, I fear (perhaps unwarrantedly so) that upon oft-repeats or retweets, that the wrong message emerges.  Not to repeat myself, but one has to treat customer input carefully.

Customers are inherently egocentric and have a limited view.  Their motivation is to solve problems that will increase their market share, increase revenue, or decrease expenses.   They certainly don’t wish to solve their competitor’s problems, though you would be happy to solve both.

“Visionary” customers make up a statistically insignificant portion of your market.

Visionary customers likely understand the problem you’re trying to solve better than you.  They may be working internally to solve the problem.  But the objective of their solution is to solve their internal issues, not achieve your greater market vision. (If they are trying to solve that, they are a competitor, not a customer.)

This is not wordsmithing or semantics, but rather is an important distinction.  The right visionary customers for you are ones who illuminate the path toward achieving your vision.

Is Google’s vision better than Yahoo’s because Google ceded their vision to their customers?

The danger in relying the customer’s vision is that in truth, the customer is not always right.  Their limited perspective and selfish (rightfully so) objectives means they will, if it is in their best interests, change your product to fit their needs.  If you have several customers doing this, and you opportunistically give each customer what they’re asking for, you will face an untenable situation that will prevent you from scaling the business.

Facts Exist Outside the Building, Opinions Reside Within

Your vision.   Your assumptions about your vision.  Test your assumptions.  Validate the vision.  Allow customers to shape your vision.  (This is really tough!  Are speaking with the right customer?)

Non-visionary customers know the features they want.  But customer development is not about gathering feature requirements.  So early on, you must be speaking with early adopters or if you can find them, visionary customers.  As Sean O’Malley says,

[Vision] should be built by triangulating as many inputs as possible.

Here lies the intuitive and creative part of being an entrepreneur.  You are the pied piper, who plays snippets of music you hear customers humming.  You need to select — all through product development, not just at startup time — the minimum features required to keep existing customers satisfied and acquire new ones within your defined segment, while heading toward fulfilling your vision.

Intuit didn’t know that printing checks was going to be the “killer feature” that would win the day (until they talked to customers), but they did envision that a financial management system that made it easy for home computer users to pay bills could be a big winner.

At SuperMac, desktop publishers bought their graphics cards because they solved their application problems.  But Steve Blank had the marketing vision to implement a strategy to target desktop publishers.

Friends & family, employees, partners, customers, investors, analysts & media will all attempt to alter your vision based on their personal experiences and needs.

In The Four Steps to the Epiphany, Steve Blank writes:

[Visionary Customers] are a special breed of customers willing to take a risk on your startup’s product or service because they can actually envision its [your product!] potential to solve a critical and immediate problem]

Your product.  Your vision.  The customer is the expert about their problem.  You may need to shape your vision as you learn more about the problem.

You must skate the fine line between holding onto your vision, while receiving input that helps shape the vision and providing the path toward achieving it.

Comments are welcome!