Do you really know your customer?
12 years ago, when I was working on my first ever product - a fleet management system that had a very narrow and specific niche of customers - my boss used to take me outside to spend entire days sitting next to actual users and watch what they do with our product. We needed to fully immerse ourselves into their daily routine to understand what their working day was like and what potential improvements we could bring them.

I'd also been spending weeks at truck depots in the most depressing areas of the city. I was coming home with dirt under my fingernails and smelling like diesel, but there was nothing to complain about because at the end of the day I learned who my customer was. I knew what a regular truck driver's day was like and exactly what kind of problems he had. Without this I wouldn't have discovered that their fingers are too thick to click the small buttons of my perfectly designed app. Without talking to a truck driver I would have never been able to come up with a solution that works for a truck driver. My initial assumptions would have failed on the first day of use.
Do you know your customer that well?
I'm sure you don't.

This is the first and the most fucking important thing that 99% of startup CEOs and product managers cannot wrap their heads around - on no occasion can you even for a fraction of a millisecond imagine that you represent the market. You represent at best 0.00000000001% of 0.000000001% of it, so your opinion is insignificant.

If you have a product-oriented company and your product is not selling — YOU most likely haven't done your homework. Because you'd be better off selling shit on a stick than launching a product that you didn't bother showing to at least one person in this world.

If I wake you up in the middle of the night, you should at least be able to answer the following questions without a thought:

  • Who are your customers?
  • What is their regular day like without your product?
  • What kind of change does your product bring?
  • Who are your competitors?
  • What makes your product different from the competition?

And many, many more in fact. The sad truth is that most newborn CEOs and product managers hardly ever have any answers to these questions. My typical exchange with them at accelerators goes like this:
- What's the killer feature of your product?
- Mmmh our high-performance sensor is able to capture a 0.000000(1) microshitster change in the electromagnentic field of next generation particle colliders.
- Ok great but how can your customers benefit from it?
- (crickets chirping)
So you have spent X months and Y million developing a product and you still don't know what problem it solves? I am not even asking how exactly it solves the problem — we aren't even that far yet — but how can you possibly create a solution to an unknown problem of an unknown customer?

I can't say how many times I have repeated this phrase but I'll never get tired of it: if you don't know whose problem you are solving, you can never come up with a solution. This simple statement is where most startup failures are hidden.

You have an insane churn rate? You are not break-even after 10 years in business? A competitor that launched 6 months ago already gained a 20% market share? Remember: nobody will buy your product just because you worked very hard on it. If it doesn't solve their problem — you're out. This is the law of the market. Unless you live in a dictatorship with a state-regulated economy and are lucky enough to be the local monopoly, you have to listen to your customers and bring the solution that solves their problem.
Having developed quite a number of products in the past 10 years, making just as many mistakes and failures along the way, I can confirm that there is only one approach that really works: you need to prototype and test. And you are going to repeat this loop until you become 100% confident that you have identified a problem that someone has and solution that solves it. It is also important to accept the fact that you will inevitably have to sacrifice some of the initial requirements (and possibly also introduce a couple of new ones) on the way. This is NORMAL. Because your intuition alone is not enough to create a product that works for everyone. Because you are not everyone. And every time you are ready for the next iteration, you have to get off your ass, contact 2–3 of your most loyal customers, pull up your sleeves and get your hands dirty. You have to go and talk to them to learn who they are and what kind of problems they have before you start developing a solution.
If you did everything right in the previous steps, this is going to be the most time-consuming phase, because you will typically have to perform several iterations before you arrive at a solution that actually works. This is why I wanted to get you to think before - it will take much less time to test an MVP with a limited scope than to test a massive scope just to narrow it down to the same MVP having wasted twice as much time. Now you understand?
The goal of this phase is simple - to develop your product without developing it. Yes, you read that right, even though it sounds like nonsense. As you already know, you need to postpone any kind of R&D activity until the moment you can say with confidence that you know what product you are building, and for whom. But how can you test something that does not yet exist? Thankfully, there are plenty of tools that can assist you with rapid prototyping without requiring any coding skills from your side. To name a few:
Level: beginner
If you are taking your first steps in prototyping, this is the tool to go with. There is virtually no learning curve, you open the app and finish your first wireframe in 5 minutes.
Level: intermediate
Miro is an all-in one tool that goes well beyond creating simple sketches and paper prototypes. Your wireframes will look much more robust and professional but this requires more skill to achieve.
Level: advanced
We usually switch to Figma when we need to prepare high-fidelity designs for a handover to our dev team. It has a pretty steep learning curve but the results will exceed your expectations.
Level: advanced
IMHO this is the closest competitor to Figma that lets you create good looking designs and prototypes. I personally do not find it as convenient but I know many teams that use it as main prototyping tool. So it is fair to place it here to offer an alternative.
Regardless of which tool you choose, you need to remember this important rule: a prototype must be created with the fewest possible resources. Develop fast to fail fast.
Test it with one of your colleagues during the lunch break.
Test it with your friends over a beer.
Test it with a random stranger on your way to work.
Test it with your grandma.
Test it with anyone but yourself because you are your own worst enemy in this situation.

Sorry what did you say? Are you afraid that some guy will steal your idea and make millions off of it? Sorry to disappoint but entrepreneurship is not for you. And this is just one of the many frustrations that await you on this long, masochistic path of never-ending submission and self-humiliation. And just a quick reminder: nobody cares. You have a way too high opinion of something that is not even a product yet. It is nothing more than just a set of features to be tested. If you are still uncomfortable with this thought, then go back and re-read Part 1. At this point you are the only one who believes that something useful can come out of it. You are absolutely safe until you find at least one person on this planet who would be willing to use your product at least for free. And now we reach the key questions you must be able to answer by the end of this phase:

  1. Do users understand your product in the way you understand it?
  2. Would they use your product for free?
  3. (Optional) Would they pay for it? And if yes, how much?

Answers to these 3 questions are the most crucial indicators of whether or not you have done a good job in the previous stages. Do not even attempt to start developing something until you receive a positive answer to the second question. If nobody wants to use your product for free (even if they say it is cool), then you need to go back one step and reconsider the whole thing.
Successful products are always customer-centric. Before jumping into actual development, you have to iterate through the PROTOTYPE<->TEST loop to identify the right customer and to build a product that satisfies their needs. Until then you have nothing more than a feature set.
© Wild Ma-Gässli

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