March 24, 2016
Dear Founders: Are You Listening?
Founders: Here is a framework for when and how to talk to users about your innovations. You can't just wait for your turn to talk.
Since my last post, “Distribution is 80% of your problem,” I have had the opportunity to speak in-depth with several terrific start-up founders about some of the incredible things they are doing and why things are not going so well. Several of their stories remind me of another big lesson I have learned over the years: We entrepreneurs often mistake “listening” as “waiting to talk,” until it’s too late.
A Little Knowledge (About Your Users) Is a Dangerous Thing
All the stories have a similar theme: We launched our product, and we got 10,000-plus users (or 100-plus small paying customers) using unscalable ways. Now, we are not sure of what to do next.
One founder I communicated with had talked to hundreds of her paying users and managed to convince herself that her market was women who want to make sure their kids don’t get too much unsupervised screen time. We talked to the company’s users and discovered that, in fact, the core group that loved the app were working women who want to keep track of their kids and know they are safe after school. Whenever this start-up had spoken to its user, it heard the answer it wanted to hear, not what the users were saying. The lesson learned here was about waiting to tell users what they “should” be doing with the app.
Another app — one that got to 20,000 users quickly with a small amount of seed money — found, once we dug deep, that fewer than 150 of their users were active weekly. The start-up had no idea who these 150 users were or what, specifically, they were doing with the product. After 20 user interviews, we discovered the start-up’s core use case was far from what the company thought it was and that the product was too hard to use. For far too long, the start-up was convinced its technology would change the world, especially because 20,000 users seemed to be using the product.
A third, B2B-focused start-up I recently spent time with has more than 100 paying users but has stalled growth and usage numbers. When I asked the company to tell me who its users were and what pain point it was solving, I kept getting back a laundry list of features and user personas instead. When the company dug deeper and spoke to users, it found that, of the 27 features, users are using two and that no one had discovered the three the company thinks are the real killer benefits. We realized the company’s model needs to shift away from “my users are using the wrong features and should have discovered the ‘right ones.'” As a start-up, you don’t get to tell users what scenarios and which features they should use your product for; consumers will tell you by using whatever they find useful.
Apple May Not Need to Talk to Users, But the Rest of Us Do
As a founder, you start with a hypothesis. You have all these incredible suppositions on how you will change the world with your product. You may think you can get away with: “My users do not know what they are doing. I will tell them what they should do. It works for Apple (or so goes the myth) so it will work for me — let’s just ignore users.” Believe me, those kinds of companies are black swans. For the rest of us, our users matter—who they are, what they use our products for and what they ignore.
This is for two basic reasons:
- Product/Market Fit: Unless we know and understand our users (or potential users), our incoming hypothesis of the value our product provides is literally that —a hypothesis. Sure, some people may not get it, and some may just dismiss it. But without a group of people who buy into the value we hypothesize that we can provide and who agree to become ecstatic users of our product, we probably did not have a real hypothesis to begin with, just a supposition that is wrong.
- Go-to-market: The more detail we can find out about users, the more we can figure out how to go after them in a tight, focused way. Going after moms who want to limit unsupervised screen time is very different from attracting busy working moms who really want to know where their kids are after school. The two are different products, have different features and have a different go-to-market.
One potential red herring during the early days comes when you manage to attract a chunk of users quickly. You can easily get deluded by the numbers — they’re like inventory, they hide a lot of problems. You convince yourself that what you’re doing can’t be wrong if 20,000 users think you’re right. The fact is that these 20,000 people do not think you are right ; you somehow managed to “get” them, and they experimented with your product hoping to find something of use. 200 of those users might think you are onto something, but you don’t know who those 200 are. If you understood what those 200 really like about your product, you might be able to find the next 20,000 users who are really right for you.
What to Avoid When You Do Decide to Talk to Users
- Don’t defend what you have built and try to convince them you are right;
- Don’t keep coming back to your vision and what will come later or focus on product features they should be using;
- Don’t make a sales pitch about your company and yourself, make it about them and their real reaction to your product—even if it means you have to throw everything away and start over again.
If you do not do these things, you have not really listened to your users—you have just waited for your turn to talk and convinced yourself you understand your users.
A FRAMEWORK FOR WHEN TO LISTEN TO USERS–AND HOW
Here’s a framework I have developed over the years about when and how to listen to users:
The First 500 Users
Those first 500 users are the most important people in your journey. You need to do more than just talk to them, you need to build a solid relationship with them — they are the foundation of your product.
In my previous start-up, a career marketplace, I personally introduced my early adopters to friendly hiring managers at many companies and helped them land a job. A lot of those early customers are now my Facebook friends. Some of them even became our ambassadors and had equity in the company.
Those first users add immense value. They validate your hypothesis, refine your ideas, recruit more users and test new features, on top of a whole lot more. And they are also very forgiving to defects, crashes, bad user experience (UX), everything.
I used to schedule as many phone calls with them as I could. In every conversation, I would first show what we were working on (in detail) and get their feedback. I would then open up and ask about what they were doing with the product, why they chose it over others, how they found it added value, what related issues they had that we could help with, among other questions. I logged every conversation.
Listening Is Hard to Do—For Founders in Particular
Most of the time when we think we’re listening, we are actually just waiting for our turn to talk. Here are three reasons why:
- We are always busy talking — to ourselves. Even when we are obviously talking to someone else, we are also internally talking to ourselves. So listening genuinely — muting your internal conversation and giving someone your full attention — is hard.
- For founders, listening genuinely is harder. Most entrepreneurs have their product, features, ideas and vision so deeply ingrained that, when they talk to users, entrepreneurs are always defending things they find users having problems with . (“But you didn’t see the profile page; the settings let you change this,” “There are so many cool things you can do, didn’t you see this feature?,” “We’ll get to that in Version 3,” “Wait, no, you don’t understand, that’s where the puck is going,” etc.)
- It is not easy for people to articulate what they are thinking. To really understand what users are saying, you have to read between the lines. Even if you lead with your world view, you really have to listen to users’ views carefully — both what is said and what is not.
Talking to users requires real effort . Be aware of that and start focusing on your first 500 users. Treat your early adopters with special respect — make them feel special and take care of them beyond just the product.
Beyond the First 500 Users
Moving forward with your customer base requires using other techniques (in addition to real conversations) that are still important. One such tactic is talking through the product, provoking conversations with product experiments.
An example of this would be radically changing your on-boarding — drop everything and get them in — for a small set of users and seeing what happens. Remove a feature you think is not useful and wait for users to complain. Removing things temporarily is the best way to test if they are really valuable.
It also helps to create ancillary products ( quick prototypes ) to test value outside your core product. As you learn more about your users, you will start to see more value propositions, some that align with your vision and some that don’t.
Until you are truly convinced you have product-market fit, do not be shy about running small experiments on the side to keep testing different ideas. Use conversations to create hypotheses, and experiment quickly.
Another technique is to always ask, “What else would you want this product to do for you?” in every support email. My start-up once introduced a critical defect in our iPhone app that led to hundreds of support emails. Adding that one question uncovered several hundred feature requests, including a lot we had not thought about.
Talking to users as you scale is more than just about having conversations. Lead with a hypothesis, measure, iterate, run side experiments continuously to test.
Dear founder, do not wait to talk to your users until it’s too late.
And when you do, listen. Don’t just wait to talk.