Category Archives: Marketing

How to put together a customer validation framework for your ideas?

Like most people, some days I have a hundred ideas and other times I go for 100 days without a single idea that I think is worth spending time on.

The difficult part of these ideas is that many most of them are practically useless. They are not grounded in real problems, and are likely a means for the mind to play some games where it feels good to have some exercise for that moment.

Over the years, I have put together many frameworks for thinking about problems and ideas and categorizing them –

a) throw it away (meaning dont think about it any more),

b) file for later (meaning document it on my notepad, to review in a few years or so),

c) do some research (document the market findings) or

d) pursue it for validation (talk to people).

There are 5 steps that I take to understand whether the idea is worth pursuing.

The elapsed time for these 5 steps, in my experience lasts from a 4 weeks to 3 months on average.

Customer validation framework and process

Customer validation framework and process

1. The first step almost always is doing secondary research on the web using available resources. I have found that it is fairly easy to get a ton of “expensive paid research reports” by just typing the name of the market, followed by keywords like market, landscape, overview and then filetype:pdf in Google.

There seems to be someone always who has uploaded a recent report from a key investment bank or a analyst report that’s available for free.

During this step I try to document with the intent to publish my learning as a blog post. That’s key, I have found, to ensure that I do as comprehensive a job as possible. It also helps you in steps 2 and 3, as I will share later.

The best way to document is to be honest and write down a bunch of questions you might have about the market, problem etc. Summarize as much as you can, in your own words, instead of cutting and pasting.

2. The second step is actually having a discussion with at least 10+ “industry insiders” to help understand the questions where the data is inconsistent. It is important to have insider discussion before customers only because they will tend to see and know “trends”, whereas customers tend to give you their current problem or their sense of the workarounds, which they seem to think work “fairly well”.

To get to talk to 10+ insiders, you will need to offer them something in exchange for their time. Most insiders are fairly busy and tend to not want to help teach a new person the in’s and out’s of a new market. Here is where you assessment of the market and the 4-5 reports come useful from step 1.

I am consistently surprised at how many insiders have not read (they have head of it, but wont have read) a recent industry report on the space. The fact that I read them in entirety and can provide a Cliff notes summary is very valuable to them.

3. The third step is to get a good sense of the market size. Since most of the research reports will give you a total market estimate, top down, as opposed to an addressable market, bottoms up, number, I find it valuable to do some empirical evidence gathering for the bottoms up analysis.

The best ways I have tried to do this is getting proxies for the market size – Google search volume is a good indicator for certain types of markets, or in other cases, create a series of blog post on LinkedIn and see the traffic volume, try segmentation numbers with Facebook ads etc.

If you are up to spending some money to recruit potential customers and get some email conversations, I’d recommend Google Ads as well.

4. The fourth step in my process is to clarify and crystallize the problem and solution and get primary feedback online – I have found Launch rock for consumer applications work well for this. Create a simple page and drive traffic – either with ads or social and get a sense for interest.

For B2B, just offering your summary of the research on the market as an eBook (from step 1) will suffice to get emails of potential prospects. This also helps you build a target list of customers.

5. The step five is actual customer interviews. This is the most time consuming step and takes a lot of effort, which is why I end up doing it last. I would recommend doing it earlier, if you want to get a quick sense of the market, and maybe you might end up doing it all along, but this is a very intensive process, so I end up breaking it up into chunks and doing it all along while I am going over the steps 1 through 4.

For customer interviews, I try to address the problem question and the adoption question. 

  • Is this a real problem? Is is a big enough problem for them to look for a solution?
  • What will it take for them to adopt a solution? Adopt my solution?
  • How much will they be willing to pay to adopt?

These questions help me address both the solution and the go to market problems of marketing and pricing.

There are some caveats to my process and methodology:

1. This does not have to be a waterfall approach. The agile version will ask you to keep doing these 5 steps in parallel and keep doing them consistently. Just because you are following an agile process though, does not mean you dont have a list of steps to follow.

2. These steps work very well for software. What I found for IoT hardware is that a Kickstarter campaign works better for a hardware idea to supplement step 4.

3. For consumer facing applications and eCommerce companies, there is no substitute for putting a framework page and putting a buy button (instead of LaunchRock, use Shopify – free version).

4. Document, document, document. The more you write the more your thoughts get clarified and you have new insights. Only listening to customers and insiders is useless. Thoughts come, you process them, and you forget more than 50% of the insights.

5. Be very cautious and deliberate when you go from one step to the next. 90% of ideas and problems are really not worth pursuing, unfortunately. You are better off discarding your half baked, insolvent ideas, instead of wasting 6-12 months pursing it, only to realize you dont quite have a real market need.

The 3 most important questions you will need to answer about customer segmentation

Customer segmentation for entrepreneurs is a tool to reduce distractions, focus your product roadmap towards your Minimum Viable product and create personas that can help your marketing, sales and development efforts.

I am often asked 3 questions associated with customer segments, which I thought I’d address in this post. I am going to use an example of a company building a new age mobile Patient Records Management solution (or EMR – Electronic Medical Records) for the tablet as an example.

1. What are the steps to a good segmentation strategy?

The first thing you need to do to ensure a good segmentation approach is to write down your ideal customer attributes. You dont need any framework to do this, just a list of attributes will suffice. Your attributes need to be specific, numerical and descriptive.

(I) Specific means, you will have to outline their environment. What are they using currently? How specific is their problem? Do they have alternatives? If your target is doctors in our above example,. that’s too large a segment. Instead there are different types of doctors:

a) Those that practice independently vs. those that are attached to a hospital

b) Those that are general physicians vs. those that are specialists.

c) Those that see < 10 patients a day vs. those that see more, etc.

(II) Numerical means there has to be a set number of customers that fall into this segment. It has to be a number much less than your entire target market, and not more than 2.5% of 2.5% of your target market. Why 2.5% of 2.5%? That’s usually the second question.

(III) Descriptive means, you have to outline their current day-in-the-life scenario without your product. Explain how they are currently solving the problem (if it does exist) and how they are solving it without your product. It cannot be that they are not solving it. They may be used pen and paper to keep medical records, but a system does exist.

2. How many customers is enough to build a segment for? Is there a minimum number?

Innovators - theory of diffusion

Innovators – theory of diffusion

According to the theory of diffusion, we have 2.5% of customers who are innovators. These are your earliest of early customers and your initial targets. What I have found with most of the startups I am helping is that 2.5% of those innovators are truly the engaged, early influencers who will be willing to have the discretionary time and budget to try truly innovative products and then be willing to evangelize them to the rest of the innovators.

To be clear, you dont need all of the 312 to be your early customers. These are your early segment of potential customers. Typically 10% of them being early customers tends to show “traction” for an investor.

Lets say the total number of doctors in the US is 500K. Then your Innovators are 12.5K. Of them, 2.5% should be the first segment, which is about  312. That’s the ideal target for you to have as a start.

3. What if most of the target customers dont have the pain point or dont want the product? Does that mean the segment is incorrect or there is no market need for this segment?

If you have targeted 312 doctors who are primary physicians (segment by practice type), in the Texas area (segment by location) who work in a multi-use work location (segment by work area) and are currently using paper based medical records (segment by current product usage) theny you now have a segment of customers who you want to go after.

Google Adwords Segments

Google Adwords Segments

A trick that I have seen most people use is to segment based on Google Adwords segments (see diagram above) or segment by Facebook targeting options.

Facebook Targeting Options

Facebook Targeting Options

Once you have your segment at 2.5% of 2.5%, then you are doing a combination of ads, conversions, focus groups and interviews to understand if they have the pain point.

If you end up finding out that customers dont have the pain point or the conversion rates on your ads is low it is indicative of either poor targeting, poor messaging (your message did not resonate), incorrect framing of the problem or lack of the problem in the first place.

What I have found in my experience with over 300 startups is that the number one problem is poor targeting, followed by lack of the problem existing for the prospect in the first place.

What is customer segmentation and why is it important for the #startup #entrepreneur?

One of the first things you will realize as an entrepreneur is that you will need to be absolutely clear about your customer’s problems and envision your product solving their most important pain point. This realization results in an appreciation for the “micro” problem for a “small set of customers” to begin with.

That in essence is customer segmentation.

The discipline of finding the factors that differentiate one set of your potential customers from another based on a set of characteristics.

First, segmentation is a discipline.

The output of that discipline is a) a way to make it easier to identify your customers via a known name or persona b) a means to target them more effectively and c) a language to explain their problems / pain points and d) an ontology to express your solution to help them solve the problem.

Second, you will have to find factors that help you differentiate customers.

The idea behind the factors it to help you focus on those customers who have the highest pain, and hence the most propensity to buy, or the most desire to solve the pain and eliminate (during that period) than those that dont have the need immediately.

Third is to identify and document the characteristics that help you find the patterns or a set of questions to help guide your segmentation.

The best way I have found you can document the characteristics is to write down a set of interview questions that can help you during a discussion with potential customers. Others have used the buyer persona canvas or a simple tool to document thinking, feeling, seeing into maps.

Buyer Persona Canvas

Buyer Persona Canvas

Persona Map VP Sales

Persona Map VP Sales]

The empathy map is more relevant for design, but it can be made very relevant for you to leverage as a founder to understand the sales cycle, buying process, marketing criteria or service design.

Lets take an example. Assume that you are building a CRM system for SMB, to help them track their sales and allow sales reps to directly provide a quote and contract using just their mobile phone.

Most entrepreneur’s state that all SMB are their customers. This is usually done to prove that the market is very large and hence deserves attention.

The goal of the segmentation exercise is to make the market extremely small (a set of customer you can get in front of, collect feedback and test your hypothesis in as short a time as possible).

In most B2B scenarios there are 3 major and many minor characteristics that define segments of customers.

1. Size of the customer: Some people define size by revenues, others by # of employees, still others by # of sales people within the organization, still others by # of quotes the company delivers in a year, etc.

2. Industry vertical: In industries where speed to quoting and contract delivery makes a difference in the sales process, your solution might be more valuable, (e.g. some insurance verticals) than others were the contract process involves multiple rounds of competitive bids.

3. Title of the buyer: Titles (VP of Sales, Director of sales, Sales Manager, etc.) are usually an indicator of spending authority. In our case the VP of sales at a small company in the insurance brokerage is likely to have the ability to try and purchase the solution to help his sales professionals be more productive, than a Sales manager, who, is likely going to focus on trying the solution to offer feedback, but may not have the authority to buy. They will end up being a user, but not the economic buyer.

It used to be that location was the 4th characteristic, but with the Internet, is highly possible that your customers are in a different location (physically) than you are.

For B2C companies, most segmentation is done by demographics or psychographics. The 3 most frequently used characteristics are age, gender and income. There are many others as well, but these are the primary. I will share the B2C example in the next post.

The 5 most important questions to ask before you price your SaaS product

Over the last few weeks I had a chance to review 89 of the companies to understand their free to paid conversion and also a chance to talk to 13 companies. What I learned was that time spent on the pricing page was a key indicator of conversion and you can A/B test your pricing page for colors, position of your highest and lowest prices, number of plans showed, feature listing and your call to action. The names of your pricing plan also has a significant signalling effect on your customer’s perception of your product. I believe the future of SaaS pricing will move from pay-per-usage to pay-for-outcomes.

The most frequent question I get asked about SaaS companies is how to think about pricing for the product. Here are some constructs to think about and 7 questions to ask before you come up with a pricing model or a price for your product.

1. Understanding your customers current solution and options and their “cost per unit of activity” is the most important thing you should do first. For e.g. if you sell a Sales force automation solution, the customer might be using an Excel spreadsheet to track their sales because they dont have too many opportunities. So in their minds the “cost per unit” is zero, since they have already “paid” for Excel.

2. SaaS pricing is a marketing function not finance or operations. If the team that determines the value of your offering to the customer is another them, then it is their responsibility. The reason for this is that value of your product determines how much you can charge, not what customers are willing to pay. Value cannot be determined as a absolute, only relative. Which is why you have to compare it to their current solution.

3. At the early stages (less than 50-100 customers) optimize for more customers and quicker sales cycles not for profit. To get data and buying patterns you need enough data and a meaningful sample size. When you go beyond the early customers, it is time to optimize for LTV and CAC.

Here are the top 7 questions to ask before you come up with a pricing model for your SaaS product.

1. What are the current options for your customer?

Find out how are they solving the problem your product addresses currently and how much does it cost them to do that.

2. What are the different segments of your customers?

Find out if there are different problems your product can solve and the value associated with those problems. That would be the best indicator of

3. What is your goal from your pricing?

It is not always obvious to say that your goal is to get the “most money” or to be the most expensive product. Some companies want to be the 80% functionality at 20% of the cost option. Determine your pricing goal – profitability (after customer acquisition costs), value creation, marketshare, etc.

4. What is your cost of customer acquisition?

For most parts, your cost of development tends to be fixed (if you hire 3 people, you have to pay their salaries regardless of how many features the ship), but the cost of customer acquisition tends to be a variable. So if your costs dont take CAC into account, you will have a model that wont be profitable.

5. What is your sales model?

Linking Sales and Pricing for SaaS

Linking Sales and Pricing for SaaS

I usually use the price and complexity of sales / marketing on two axes to understand the sales strategy for a SaaS company.

If you are a company with a lower price point and low complexity of sales, you will have to rely on customers to try and buy (freemium) the product on their own and work on obtaining customers at a low cost.

If you are a very complex product or have a complex sales process and your product costs a lot, you will have to hire a field sales team to help you sell.

If however, your product is priced high and your complexity is low then you will build an inside (phone) sales team.

If you have a high complexity product and sales model and low price, your company will die.

Use this model to determine where you want to be and price the product appropriately.

From “Pay per usage” to “Pay for Performance” – pricing transitions for #startups

Over the last few weeks I had a chance to review 89 of the companies to understand their free to paid conversion and also a chance to talk to 13 companies. What I learned was that time spent on the pricing page was a key indicator of conversion and you can A/B test your pricing page for colors, position of your highest and lowest prices, number of plans showed, feature listing and your call to action. The names of your pricing plan also has a significant signalling effect on your customer’s perception of your product.

I wanted to showcase today the biggest transition pricing plan pages will have over the next decade.

The move primarily affects B2B companies, but is being driven by consumer Internet companies currently such as Uber with their surge pricing.

There are 3 steps towards the maturity of the pricing model that I foresee.

The first step is the transition from perpetual pricing or “pay unfront” pricing to subscription billing or “pay as you go“.

The second step is the transition from subscription billing and “pay as you go” models to utility billing or “pay for usage“.

The third step is the transition from utility billing or “pay for usage” to outcome billing or “pay for performance“.

Why was perpetual pricing or “pay upfront” popular?

Perpetual pricing was easy to understand, for most accounting and finance teams.

Paying for software and amortizing it over a period of time was easy to register on the financial records. The initial assumption was most of this software was going to be in “perpetuity” or forever. It was over 20 years from 1980 to 2000 that most folks realized this was not true. Software changed constantly, had to be upgraded and the 20% annual maintenance did not pay for the new versions.

Why did we transition to pay as you go?

When finance and accounting teams realized that only a fraction of the software that was purchased, is going to be used, and much of it was “shelfware“, they were loathe to pay for “things that were not being used”.

So, they decided to move from a CapEx (Capital Expenditure) to an OpEx (Operating expenditure) mode. This transition moved the costs of software from the balance sheet to the income statement.

The second problem was the high cost. Perpetual pricing assumes a 4 year fee for the software would be paid “upfront” and so the cost of that software was pretty high. Which meant, most smaller and mid-sized customers were unable to afford it.

Finally, once the sale was done, there was no “skin in the game” for the software provider. The success or lack of the deployment or usage of the software was upto the customer. Obtaining value from the software was also something the customer was on the hook for, not the provider.

Why is there going to be a transition to pay for performance?

While the problems of lack of usage, high upfront cost, and the “skin in the game” can be solved by Software as a Service (SaaS) models, which ensures payment to the software partner once the software is being used and only for the amount it is being used, the problem of “obtaining value from the software” still exists.

The problems with SaaS pricing (usage) are 3 fold:

1. Inability to predict the “constant amount” each month since it is be based on usage, instead of a fixed amount each month.

2. The need to focus on “success” instead of “best effort” for customers. Instead of the provider saying “this is what we will provide” the provider and consumer jointly will have to agree on the “desired outcomes” and the share of value they will each obtain from the transaction.

3. The need for providers to capture more of the “value” associated with the pricing instead of the “cost plus profit” model.

Which is why the next transition will be towards subscription billing or variable pricing not on usage but on “outcomes“.

What are outcomes?

Here is an example that most folks can relate to:

Imagine if you had to go from location A to B for a meeting by 6 pm. You are late and leave at 530, and expect it to take you 45 minutes to get there, but you’d really like to get there by 6 pm. You are willing to “pay extra” to get there on time.

Instead of charging you for the distance, which is what the taxi charges you, the cab instead charges you more for the “desired outcome“, being there on time. That means, for someone who left at 5 pm the cost would be less than for you, even though both of you went the same distance.

Here is another example.

If the desired outcome from a startup joining an accelerator is to A) Get a follow on round of funding and B) get some early customers instead of paying (a percentage of your startup, not an actual amount) a fixed %, startups will transition to paying for those outcomes or not paying at all. Or associating a variable payment based on the level of achievement of that outcome.

I believe the biggest transition that pricing pages will have to reflect over the next decade will be the move from “usage based pricing” to “outcome based pricing”.

How to name your SaaS pricing plans? A primer from 89 examples

There are over 7500 SaaS companies according to angel List. Over the last few weeks I had a chance to review 89 of the companies to understand their free to paid conversion and also a chance to talk to 13 companies. What I learned was that time spent on the pricing page was a key indicator of conversion and you can A/B test your pricing page for colors, position of your highest and lowest prices, number of plans showed, feature listing and your call to action.

I did notice that of the 89 companies, 82 of them gave their pricing plans “names”. Each plan had a name so their customers could associate the name with the plan. Most (over 80%) used standard and conventional names but it was interesting to see the spread. Here is the data from 89 companies and 251 plans.

Names of SaaS Pricing Plans

Names of SaaS Pricing Plans

The most important points you want to take away are the following:

1. Even though SMB and SOHO (Small Office, Home Office) users are the first few to sign up for a SaaS service, 3 of the top 5 names were named Enterprise and Business and Large. I would imagine this has to do more with the inside out naming (the plan is large or enterprise, not the company buying it).

2. The plans named “Small or equivalent” were largely in the bottom quartile of the distribution. Even though over 70% of companies had 3 plans, only 35% of them named the smallest plan as “Startup”, “Starter” or “Lite”. The most common starting plan was named “Standard”.

3. Of the 20% of companies that used “custom” names like Boutique, Tyrannosaurs, or Garden named all their plans uniquely. The surprising element of the companies that used custom names was that most of them had images to convey the “size” of the plan.

There were some other surprising things I learned as well in my discussions.

1. In naming plans, understanding the end customer’s billing and invoicing was key. Most customers got an email invoice (a few sent PDF invoices) and they would either file them or expense those invoices (if < $50) or would send the invoices to an accounting team.

Ensuring that the “accounting” team did not ask any questions was the consistent mention among 3 of the startups with custom names for plans.

2. Naming the plans to support your payment gateway is also critical. Getting too cute with names means the payment gateway will support a higher refund request that were marginal.

3. Many of the companies had to setup standard names so their marketing and product management teams could do better analytics and research on the backend, consistent with their reporting. Surprisingly, if the names were “standard” the companies found it easier to have a conversation to understand conversion rates, pricing options and changes with their finance teams, design teams and other outsourced companies as well.

Time spent on pricing page is the #1 early indicator of your SaaS freemium conversion rate

When I looked at 89 companies to learn how to convert freemium customers to paid, I also reached out to 13 of them to understand what drives the conversion.

Any early indicator to better conversion from viewing the pricing page to signing up for a plan was time spent on the pricing page.

If customers spent very little time (less than any other page) on your pricing page, then they would either not sign up or sign up for the “free plan”.

If customers spent too much time (more than any other page) then they would not sign up at all.

If customers spent time in the “middle zone” of your other pages, they conversion rate to a paid plan was most likely.

This was even if you had a free option prominently featured on your pricing page.

So how do you figure that out. I am assuming most people start out using Google analytics.

Google analytics: Time spent on pages

Google analytics: Time spent on pages

On your Google analytics page you can navigate to All pages and look at the average time spent on page. (see below).

Navigating to Time spent on page in Google Analytics

Navigating to Time spent on page in Google Analytics

So why is this the case? There are 3 major reasons I learned:

1. More time spent usually meant more options and more confusion for customers. When customers were given 3 pricing options (one of them being free) the conversions were higher, than when there were 5 pricing options. Not surprisingly even when the “free plan” was displayed “under the fold”, the conversions were the same. See below for what “Below the Fold” means.

Free plan as an option

Free plan as an option

Free plan below the fold as an option

Free plan below the fold as an option

2. More time spent on the page also indicated customers were reviewing other competitive options on other tabs. While less time meant customers had already made up their mind, so they were more likely to just “sign up and try”, it also meant the customer liked the options enough to try.

3. If the pricing option was the place where customers spent the least amount of time, than other pages, that was an indication that the customers were not ready to sign up and were “window shopping” alone. Either they did not have the pain point that your product addressed, or they were not in as much pain to even try the solution.

There were 2 exceptions that I found consistently among all the marketers I spoke with.

Not surprisingly, if the “referral source” of the customer was a search marketing campaign, and the time spent was the least, then the conversion rates were much higher than the referral sources.

If the referral source, was social and the time spent was more than other pages, then the conversion rates were much higher as well.

You can find referral source on Google analytics and correlate that to the time spent on pages.

Referral Source Google Analytics

Referral Source Google Analytics