May 25, 2012
Back when I was single, like most of my single peers, I had a pretty good image in my head of my dream girl. I won’t bother with the specifics, but after working my way through a handful of serious relationships, by my mid-twenties I thought I had a pretty good picture of what worked, what didn’t, and why.
My sense is that most people go through some degree of reflection on this topic – it’s a natural instinct, it seems, to create some idealized composite of what we’re seeking in a partner. And while most of us probably don’t think about it explicitly this way, having an ideal creates an implicit framework through which we can run every date we have. Having a good time but she’s a real mismatch on a couple key elements? Probably time to go back to the well. Find a nearly spot on match? Stop wasting your time and start ring shopping.
I think companies should think the same way about their customers. And so when I meet with companies, one of my most common questions is “Who is your absolute perfect, ideal customer, and why?” This is relevant for b2b or b2c companies alike, and it’s a question I would expect that anyone who has been thoughtful about their market would consider a total softball.
But too often it’s no softball. I am consistently amazed by how frequently I get a response along the lines of “Hmmm. . .that’s an interesting question. . .let me think. . .” When I hear that lack of certainty, I immediately know two things about the company. Number one, they have a product first, not market first strategy. Number two, they lack focus.
Neither of those, ladies and gentlemen, are good things.
There is almost nothing more important for a startup than exceptional product development and management. Most great tech companies are product-driven, be they b2b or b2c. Companies that can inspire “holy sh&# that’s fantastic!” responses from their audience usually win. Salesforce, Intuit, Apple, Google, Uber – they’re all brilliant, product-driven companies.
Being product-driven doesn’t mean that your strategy is product-first, though. The companies above build products that are brilliant in their ability to address real market needs. Their magic lies in the marriage of product design to genuine market need.
Deploy a product-first strategy and there’s a small chance you’ll get lucky enough to meet the market in the right way. Go market-first and all you have to do is execute on product to win (well, it’s not quite that simple, but you get the point).
Even Steve Jobs, famous for his disdain for market research, took a market-first approach. He disliked market research because he thought he intuitively had a much better feel for consumer needs than consumers could ever describe to a researcher. And he was right. But while he ignored research, he was probably more committed to building products that he believed would deliver against real market needs than any product guy in history. Jobs knew just how his products would be used, and why they would delight customers.
As for focus, there are few things more important to a startup. And if you can’t clearly articulate just what you’re focused on, I think you’re lying if you tell me you actually are focused. Sounds obvious, but you’d be amazed how many companies can’t do it. If you can’t describe your ideal customer to me, then how do you know which customers to direct your sales and marketing efforts at?
I recently met with a talented entrepreneur who had developed an interesting product that had applications for both consumer packaged goods companies and the retailers who sold those goods. I thought it was a pretty compelling bit of technology, but I wasn’t sure how he was focusing his go to market strategy, so I asked him, “If you could snap your fingers and have any one customer in the world, who would that be?”
He stumbled a bit, not coming up with an answer. I tried to save him. “Would you rather have Wal-Mart, or Kraft?” He replied, “Boy, I’m not sure. . .they’d probably both be great.”
And right then, I knew he was in for an uphill battle, and that I wouldn’t be fighting that battle with him.
As a startup, you must be able to answer the Dream Girl question. Not because I’m going to ask you, but because the process of answering it will ensure that you are building the right product to meet the market need you’re after, and that you have the relentless focus that is so crucial to the success of every resource-constrained startup.
Start with a clear image of that perfect girl (or guy), then build the right team, the perfect product, and find the ideal channel. Then go get her.