In this guest blog post, Shawn Parrotte, Marketing Manager at Designli and friend of the Founder Institute, describes what tech startups can do to understand their audience and how to capitalize on their findings.
It’s safe to say many businesses start from the thought: “wouldn’t it be cool if…?”
We’ve all been in that moment. It’s an evening relaxing with some friends, probably over drinks. Someone, in a fit of inspiration, bursts out: “I’ve been thinking, you know, why has no-one ever made...?” (You can fill in the blank with any number of ideas you’ve had over your lifetime.) Everyone follows up, in a fit of excitement, with how amazing the thing would be, how it’s so obvious but no one’s thought of it, and how there has to be millions of dollars to be made with it!
And while most times these “aha moments” never materialize anything, maybe the excitement fades or everyone realizes the idea was really that spectacular to begin with, some do actually commit to making the idea into reality. Commit to building a business, creating a venture, and being an entrepreneur.
The Skill of Entrepreneurship
I think it’s important to never stifle someone’s entrepreneurial spirit, but budding entrepreneurs should remind themselves that entrepreneurship is also a skill that needs to be cultivated and may take time to develop. It’s a deeper way of thinking about the world and the needs of those in it.
Why do I say this? Because there are too many tales of ventures that failed because they didn’t take the necessary time to figure out their product/market fit. They ultimately closed their doors for good because they didn’t understand their users well enough and what their actual needs were. Truly understanding your potential customers is an essential skill that any entrepreneur needs to have to run a sustainable business.
For example, consider Homejoy, a startup that was riding on the “uber-for-x” wave. They offered home cleaning on demand and by 2013 raised $38 million for their rapid expansion to new markets. Their story ended soon after when they closed up shop mid-2015 because they tried to grow too fast without understanding the needs of the market.
It’s very easy to get excited about building the next great app, or pioneering the next innovative business solution, but you get there by responding to real market needs, not ignoring them. You you need to know your users and know them well.
A savvy entrepreneur might challenge this idea quoting Steve Jobs’ infamous “people don't know what they want until you show it to them”, so how do you marry his idea with knowing your users?
Let Your Audience Show You What They Want
There’s a goldmine of customer research right under our noses, where people’s wants and needs are being expressed openly, and you can tap into it by spending the time to find where to look and listening to the conversations with empathy and humility. And you can do it all while conveniently behind your computer screen.
And you’d be surprised how simple it is. All it requires is spending quality time browsing the forums, groups, and other online hangouts that your users frequent.
One strange thing about learning a new skill is that new things become apparent that were always already in front of you the whole time. For instance, if you’re learning about typography, you can be keenly aware of the kerning, x-height, contrast, ascenders, descenders, etc., in the font types around you. The same thing can happen when you’re keenly tuned into the kinds of conversations that your target audience has, by being a fly on the wall in the spaces they naturally habit. You can act as a digital anthropologist deeply studying your potential customers and the motivations behind their conversations, finding out what problems they have that the market isn’t currently solving so you can then solve them in an innovative way.
So instead of mindlessly browsing Reddit like you might do on your work break, go there to deeply study the threads that spark the most intense conversations. Notice when topics are brought up over and over again. Commit to truly understanding them. The answer to what your target audience needs likely won’t be explicitly stated, but if you practice empathy by putting yourself in their shoes, listening to what kinds of emotions and feelings are behind what they’re writing, I bet you can begin to put together some solutions to their problems.
Once you become involved enough in the community, feel free to ask questions in a natural and non-suspicious way. If you get crafty, you may be able to create threads that answer the right questions that could guide your product development. Do this enough and you may be able to find more than a handful of great ideas.
Other venues for doing some serious customer research include Quora, Stack Exchange, Medium, and any of the myriad forums dedicated to all sorts of niche topics. By finding these hang-outs and becoming part of the community you can authentically speak to your audience with exactly what they’re looking for.
Making an App? Create an MVP to Test What You’ve Learned.
Your preliminary research will leave you more knowledgeable than you originally were before, however, you’ll only really be able to know if you’re product works how you intend it by getting it in the hands of the people it’s made for. So why not create a minimal viable product (MVP) to test your product/market fit?
An MVP is your idea at a scaled down, minimal service that allows you test the market to see if your solution resonates with your ideal customer, see how they use your potential solution, and learn if the idea is something they’ll end up shelling out money for at all.
It would be beneficial to talk to a developer and discuss your idea in full. The agency you go with can help you determine the absolute necessary features your MVP will need before you dive into the full release of your product.
Even if you imagine a great idea, a poorly executed plan and design can affect its success. Always do a good amount of research before you get going, and if you suspect there’s enough need for your idea, or discover you need to change your idea to match the market landscape an MVP might be the best way to start.
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