Know Thy Customer

Be agile, prioritize, pivot, course-correct, iterate...

...and know thy customer!

When I first started this blog, most of my friends said they had started a blog at one point but after about three posts, just grew too busy to continue. "Oh, no, that's not going to be me," I insisted. And yet, lo and behold, three months and three blogs later, the sudden and rapid intensity of my business' growth took away my focus, and I was relegated to a statistic. And if I'm in the business of running a blog, that kind of consumer information is vital and should be figured in to their business metrics.

The very important takeaway is that consumers drive all business, not vice versa. And we need to take the time to understand their attitudes, behavior, needs and wants when we start a business that seeks their participation. As entrepreneurs, addressing a market need with our business, we think we know what the consumer wants. But until we expose our product to those customers, we really don't. The most difficult lesson to learn for most of us is that the idea that really inspired us, and for which we have sacrificed to bring to market, might simply not matter to our customers. This moment of epiphany has become so widely accepted that several terms have come into vogue to describe changing to meet customer needs.

The word "pivot" is often batted around in Silicon Valley circles to indicate a change in direction or business model for a company. Pivot simply means that you have to listen to what the customers say and be ready to adjust to what they want, rather than stubbornly stick with your original concept. Pivoting is also sometimes referred to as "course correct."

Another sexy Silicon Valley term is "agile." Taken from software development, it means create fast, fail fast, then make changes and improve, incrementally, along the way. "Prioritization" refers to the ongoing calibration of what should be released first, second and so on, according to market needs and response.

Because we must be vigilant as to how quickly both customer and market can change, we must always be thinking about pivoting, correcting the course, agility and prioritization.

In some cases, entrepreneurs don't make these adjustments because, ironically, they are viewed as "taking too much time away" from the core business of serving the customer. But a successful business isn't about what we think is perfect. It's what the marketplace thinks is perfect. This premise seems so simple and logical -- yet so many do not do it.

As an EIR at Stanford in Tom Kosnik's Global Entrepreneurial Marketing program last semester, I mentored a few teams who were creating marketing plans for startups. Part of their deliverables were interviews and surveys, to figure out what consumers want in a new product, whether or not they'd pay for it, and if so, how much. It was an eye-opening experience for the students to discover that their customers often wanted to talk about an entirely different facet of the problem than what the product was intending to offer. Failure to acknowledge these nuggets of truth can lead to the downfall of a startup.

Even I, a seasoned entrepreneur, can't avoid listening to my own lessons. I made significant and critical changes in the registration process of my product after doing Beta testing (Silicon-Valley-speak for a small "test" release often to a controlled group) when I received feedback on what customers were looking for as they signed on to the site. The best advice that anyone can give you is to go through this process at the outset, before time and money are spent developing a product that no one but the founder wants to use.

So be agile, prioritize, pivot, course correct, iterate -- and use whatever other new term is in vogue to sound smart, cool or hip. They all carry the same message: research consumer behavior, conduct customer interviews, understand what the people want; if you discover it's not what you're offering, then make a change. And if people change, change with them (and do it quickly!). To create a business, you have to know your consumer, research your consumer, be your consumer... whoever they are or may become.

Inspire, innovate, illuminate,