Real Founder Lesson: Be Skeptical of Customer Feedback in the Idea Stage

Lately, I’ve been been working closely with a group of startup founders in the idea stage.  In other words, they know the space they want to focus on, but don’t have the complete business model ready to validate.

During this stage, customer feedback is always tricky.  I’ll never argue against talking with potential customers – there are few better uses of time.  But it’s impossible to suss out a fully-formed, disruptive business model directly from potential customers.

As the famous Henry Ford quotes goes…

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

With all of this in mind, the best use of customer discussions – either individually or in groups – is usually to focus on their biggest pain points, beliefs and motivations.  They won’t hand you a business model, but (in the aggregate) having enough of these conversations is a critical part of understanding a problem deeply.  And understanding a problem deeply is a necessary ingredient in creating a truly disruptive startup.

Recently I was discussing this topic with Kyle Norton and Christopher Sandman, the founders of Materiall.  They said that being nice is just the default behavior for most people.  You will hear some good and bad, but both will be downplayed.  As Kyle says, “you have to get deep…what do people love about the product, what’s just okay and what (frankly) sucks about it?”  Kyle has learned not to be overly salesy.  “You almost have to beat up the product yourself to give them permission to bad-mouth it…the much more valuable feedback,” Kyle says.materiall-hype-cover-photoChristopher added, “with Materiall we had a vision to create something that didn’t exist.  It was a step-change of how people interact now.  So early customer feedback can only be based on the tools people have today.  If you want to build something truly different, this will always cause friction with direct customer feedback.”

Both agreed that their best ideas never come directly from actual customer feedback.  It’s always the result of connecting the unconnected dots from customers when they both go away and discuss.

As another example, in this podcast (at minute 12:34), the founder of Behance – the leading online platform to showcase & discover creative work – describes how an early focus group told them that this type of platform wasn’t needed at all (despite a laundry list of problems that they had at the time).

At the early stage, you cannot talk with customers enough to help shape your business model, but do not expect customers to hand you a business model on a silver platter.  Like Christopher and Kyle, connecting those dots happens when like-minded founders synthesize customer feedback (and everything else) over many one-on-one founder conversations.

David Payne is a serial entrepreneur and co-founder of Switchyards, a consumer-focused startup hub in downtown Atlanta. You can read more about his startup journey here. Follow him on his blog and Twitter.