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Why Your Quest for the Perfect Product Will Guarantee Failure

Slow down: Before you have 1,000 customers, figure out how to land customer No. 1.

In our hearts and minds, most of us love building things. We also tend to envision with perfect clarity the hundreds, thousands, or millions of satisfied customers consuming the fruits of our labor.

Herein lies the product fallacy that all too often plagues startup entrepreneurs: If you build it, they may not come.

Field of Dreams clichés aside, moving from product idea to rip-roaring success isn't guaranteed. First, you'll need to translate your product vision from utopian business engine of the future to the present task of finding initial customers.

Said another way, it is really hard to get 1,000 customers without getting the first 10.

I am not the first one to write about this. Yet many of you continue to think you will be the exception to the rule. In fact, as I am writing this, one of the Startup Factory's CEO/founders verified this line of thinking by lamenting the time he wasted in his previous startups because he focused too many resources on product development.

Here's the unvarnished truth: Your product just does not matter--at least not at the level you think it must. What is vital? Spend at least as much time on customer development as you do on product development.

So, how can you break the product fallacy cycle and build in customer development?

1. Bake customer development into your planning sessions. Organize customer development activities and meetings for you and your team. Force the discipline of spending brain time on this issue. As a leader, you set the priorities of the company. Make your actions speak loudly. For example, make every member of your team review customer feedback. Send your operations team or developers out to meet customers. Gather as an entire team (not just the marketing folks) to brainstorm ways to find your target market.

2. Go find customers. In the words of Steve Blank, "GET OUT OF THE OFFICE!" Make finding your first 50 customers your primary goal. Cleaning devices for middle-aged consumers? Go to a couple of the local over-50 community events and get a small focus group going. Need to find 18-year-olds who like social chat around music topics? Run a targeted Facebook campaign based on age and interests that asks them what they want in terms of your idea. Maybe drive them to a Web landing page. You get the idea. But do it as a team so your product guys feel the feedback firsthand.

As your business gets off the ground and you start to develop your product, don’t forget to build in these two lessons, and you will break the product fallacy cycle.


IMAGE: Getty Images
Last updated: May 12, 2014

CHRIS HEIVLY | Managing Director

Chris Heivly was a co-founder of MapQuest (which sold to AOL for $1.2 billion), sole managing director of 77 Capital (a $25 million venture fund), and an executive at five software companies. Currently, he is one of two managing directors of The Startup Factory, a seed investment fund making 10 to 14 new investments per year. A national writer and speaker about startups and startup communities, Heivly is also the founder of the Big Top Job Fair.

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