Counter Intuitive: To have a successful customer development process startups should qualify out prospects

There are many counter intuitive things that happen during a startup’s life. Many have been out there already – a) initially do things that dont scale b) focus on culture more than skills when recruiting, etc.

When I was in sales early on, I used to get this advice from my manager all the time – the objective initially was to qualify out customers.

That seemed rather bizarre. The whole objective of customer discovery is to find the right customers for your product. Or did we all get it wrong?

Turns out before customer discovery, there is actually a problem discovery step.

Before you find the customers for the problem you are trying to solve, you are trying to find out if the problem really exists.

There are many contours of the problem, and one of the best people I have seen articulate this is Manu Kumar of K9 ventures – he talks about Frequency, Density and Pain

To find a problem worth solving these 3 criteria are important.

So when you do find a problem, your next step is to find the contours of the problem along these dimensions. Are potential customers having this problem, how much of a pain it is and how often is this a problem?

Now the hard part of customer development and qualifying potential problems is that we all have cognitive biases which makes us want to fall in love with our idea. Instead, the best way is to try and find ways that you should not do this (idea) versus something else.

This is why I maintain a to-dont list. (pdf) Apply that to your problem discovery process.

The entire goal of customer development (after problem discovery) is to ensure that you only get those customers who have the 3 qualifying criteria of frequency, pain and density.

You will find initially that to make the problem “solvable”, you will need to focus on one feature or one part of the problem which is the “most painful”. Your potential customers are willing to sacrifice scale, failure, lack of bells and whistles, etc.  because it solves the one piece of the problem which is the most excruciating.

Deciding which is the most excruciating part of the problem is hard and tricky. You will get many head fakes from many of the people you talk to who could be potential customers.

If you are an introvert and don’t like talking to new people (which is most of us), then your initial customer development list is relegated to colleagues, friends, family and acquaintances.

Most of them don’t like to disappoint you, so even if your product is not solving the problem or not solving the real problem they will likely say things to ensure you are not discouraged. Which leads to you thinking that you are actually solving a real problem.

Which comes back to customer discovery and the goal of meeting every potential customer – it should be to qualify them out as a potential early user. The problem you are trying to solve may not be as relevant, as painful, as intense or as immediate as others.

You want to qualify them out. Early, often, quickly and constantly.

That’s very counter intuitive.