90% of startups fail because they never reach Product-Market Fit (PMF). PMF is a function of a variety of daily, outward-facing activities that occur at an early stage: customer & product development. This represents the basic framework all startups need to find success and to really begin scaling.
I have met, mentored, and seen too many startups and entrepreneurs waste valuable time, effort, and money chasing a problem that doesn’t exist, with a solution that no one wants. Enthusiasm and passion alone don’t cut it. Often, startup failure directly correlated with the lack of these critical development efforts. But you don’t need to take my word for it.
Steve Blank, esteemed Silicon Valley pioneer and author, is a huge champion of the process. His books and research powered a lot of Eric Ries’ thinking in the Lean Startup approach today which is generally the gold standard by which modern tech companies are run. And be sure to check out Marc Andreesen’s famous post on the matter here too.
Customer Development is a formalized process in which the Entrepreneur and his team must “get out of the building” and ultimately communicate with their prospective customer base to identify the key ingredients to a successful startup. It’s a combination of all the “outward-facing” activities (e.g. sales, business development, followed by marketing) that the founding team must engage ideally before they go all-in with the startup.
Steve breaks it down into four steps:
- Customer Discovery – Who’s the customer base? What’s the problem that I’m solving? Talk to 50 potential customers and get to know them. Do this before you invest too much, if any resources, in building the actual product. Revenue should always be aligned behind. There’s enough data to begin developing a Minimally Viable Product (MVP) and core features that begin to help the Client overcome the problem you’re solving for.
- Customer Validation – Is the market reacting positively and buying your solution? Is there some semblance of process and marketing messages that are resonating positively with the customer base? This is the beginning of demand-generation and the production of a marketing message that will further drive demand. The Product is there and new features are being added to the product that will continue to meet the clients’ expectations. The first sales are complete and the organization begins to understand what actions are required to move a buyer down the sales funnel.
- Customer Creation – Can the organization drive repeatable, end-user demand that gets added to the sales funnel? This is where the marketing message matures as more knowledge is acquired about how the clients’ organizations are run. The sales team identifies what the Ideal Customer Profiles (ICP) is, the key decision makers are, buyers, budgets, and processes and how to incorporate those key factors the decision. There are more data points, more customers buying, and more customers lining up to buy. There should be some level of inbound activity and the startup needs to understand and provide material to the customer along their Customer’s Journey. This is where the funnel starts becoming optimized, and the sales and marketing organization is able to provide the customer with resources that answer their relevant questions.
- Company Building – How is the startup going to scale? What departments and leaders need to be hired now to continue growing the organization and repeating the customer development process in a way that will generate successful returns? Are we maintaining relevancy as the market is changing? Is our product still #1?This is once product-market fit is obtained and the organization has crafted a product that is directly solving the clients’ challenges. Recruitment, hiring, HR, diversity, and other internal initiatives become more important.
Each of the above steps needs to be studied, understood, and executed. In theory, if this is done correctly, the entrepreneur confirms and defines the purpose of their organization and can grow into a larger enterprise. It is an iterative process that continues to propel the organization forward.
To close, the common theme you will find here is sales. This team represents the outward facing component of the business gathering new information to bring back to marketing, product, and other organizational leaders. They are key and critical to the company’s success and just as important as the idea itself. An early stage sales hire that understands this is key to the success of that organization – often more so than the founders themselves who are not engaging in sales related activities.
A team can have the best product ever, but without the right customer-interfacing mechanisms for adoption and growth, there is nothing.
In my next post, we’ll take an even deeper dive into the importance of an excellent early stage hire, the rescaling your early stage, startup sales organization.