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When should I start talking to customers?

It’s often said that building a great startup is a marathon, not a sprint. I would argue that it more closely resembles a triathlon. It requires swimming through technical execution, a highly disciplined operational team, and an unassailable perception of what the product needs to be and how it presents to customers, and ultimately, land sales. All of these aspects are needed for the business to succeed.

Article by: Pat Martinson, Campus Lead Mentor

Talking to customers is one of the necessary steps to this success. But there seems to be some disagreement around when it makes the most sense to start that process.

In my opinion, it should happen as early as possible—before you even have a product or a development team to build one. But without a fully realized product, how can you start the conversation? Below, I have provided my advice on how to get the triathlon kicked off, answering three key questions:

  • Who should you be having these conversations with?
  • What should you focus on?
  • And how can you use these conversations to bring the product to the finish line?

The Product Inflection Point

In the journey toward Product-Market Fit and a scalable business, every team that I’ve been a part of, or talked to, has had an inflection point in their understanding of the product.

Before this point, there is a lot of guesswork, and many debates among founders. Everyone has opinions and there are few, if any, data points. Compared to afterward, when you have a true North Star to travel toward, and all of the decision-making and justifications from before feel flaky, speculative, or downright amateur.

You want your business to get to this inflection point as fast as possible. There is no startup (that I know of) who has reached this point without first communicating with customers. But before you have a real product, this can be a challenge.

Who should you be having these conversations with?

It may feel amateur to set up a meeting with a customer when you don’t have anything to show them. And yet, you need these customer conversations to truly guide the product’s direction and development. They can teach you a lot about the customer, how they work and think, and where your best guesses are a bit off the mark.

That is why for the first set of customer conversations, I recommend finding warm leads or curious individuals who are open to having an ongoing conversation with you and your team (usually via email). Even if they’re not the highest potential customer. Rarely do first conversations go well, and some never convert into a sale.

These are people who are more likely to keep talking to you, even if there isn’t a way in which you will directly make their job or life better. Some of them may see high potential in what you’re doing, even if it’s not quite the final direction you think the product will go in (these people are usually right just as often as founders).

What should you focus on?

Instead of aiming for a full product or a functional demo, show snippets of your product using mock-ups, Wizard-of-Oz prototypes, pictures of other products, and anything else that can get you 80% of the way to demonstrating a feature. Balsamiq and similar web apps are your friends during this phase. Illustrator and Photoshop (or Inkscape and GIMP) can also be beneficial tools if you have some experience with them.

For physical products, find someone who can sketch really well, or someone who can take your sketches and turn them into computer-generated models. If they can do this as a hobby or a side-hustle, even better.

How can you use these conversations to bring the product to the finish line?

Let’s assume you’re following the above points. You’re having conversations with curious people, you’re showing them mock-ups, painting a great picture with your words, and they’re picking up everything that you’re putting down. You’re gesturing wildly with your hands, saying things like “Right? Exactly!”, and it feels like everything is clicking.

Once the dust has settled from these conversations (as well as the ones that don’t go quite so smoothly), take some time to think about what could be fleshed out more:

  • What was difficult to explain in words?
  • What path or workflow did they misunderstand?
  • What part did they understand, but not agree on?

By focusing on areas of uncertainty, you will build your arsenal of ‘explainers’: the descriptors that best explain your product’s value proposition. They round off the sharp edges and bridge the gaps when people don’t quite follow you. These explainers also help prioritize the key areas that you should be focusing on as a founder.

The general goal is to further flesh out the product, make the case for why it needs to happen and why it needs that person’s support. That support might just be a connection to someone else in the company who has more context or decision-making, or it could be your first booked sale, but it is your job to persuade them to give it to you.

In the early days of your business, things will change from your initial vision of what the product needs to have, how much you can sell it for, and who will actually pay for it. I believe that Paul Graham, Co-founder of Y Combinator, summarizes it best with the following analogy: when you’re trying to optimize your code based on where you think it’s slow, you will usually get this wrong. It’s much more effective to set benchmarks and let the code tell you. When you’re trying to optimize the product, it’s much better to let the customer tell you.