Why listening is a startup founder’s superpower.

by | Jul 2023 | Build a Product

We know the excitement and anticipation that come with launching your first venture, but before you jump into designing your product, take a breath. One of the most common errors we see first-time founders make is not speaking to their customers early and thoroughly enough. They build their solution based primarily on gut-feel, then only once it’s built do they try to get someone to use it. At that point, when they realise nobody wants what they’ve created, it’s too late – the money has been spent. That’s why developing a deep understanding of the target market and the needs of your users before you start building is a startup founder’s superpower.

Why are insights so important?

In this post you’ll see that by developing a deeper understanding of your customers’ needs, preferences and desires, you can gain an advantage over your competitors in a number of ways, including:

Connect with people on issues they care about

Imagine you’re building a mobile app to help people manage their personal finances. How do you know what features to include? Do you just build it around your own experience? How do you know your own preferences are typical of what others require, and not an edge-case. Anything built for consumers needs mass scale or it will die on the vine, so you need to make sure that what you’re creating meets the pain points, desires and needs of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of potential users.

Take the example of Mint, a personal finance app that launched in 2006. Founder Aaron Patzer believed that, like him, many people struggled to manage their finances, but he didn’t know exactly how. Before launching he conducted extensive market research. He discovered that, among the many different experiences people were having, a common theme was frustration with the sheer complexity of financial management and the fact that everyone’s circumstances were unique, meaning there was no one-size-fits-all solution. Armed with this understanding, Patzer put simplicity at the heart of Mint’s offering. He provied a user-friendly interface, automated budget tracking, and personalised financial advice based on each user’s unique situation. Mint struck a chord. It quickly gained millions of users before Intuit acquired the company for $170 million after just three years.

In Patzer’s own words:

“I actually didn’t write a line of code until I did about three or four months’ worth of thinking on Mint, which I think is counter to what a lot of people will suggest. A lot of people will say ‘Just get the product out there, just iterate very, very quickly, (and) just make a prototype.’ That works for certain types of things; I think anything that is social…that works. But for finance I wanted to be a little more rigorous…”

Stand out from the crowd

In a crowded marketplace, digging deeply into your customers’ needs, preferences, interests and behaviours can help you identify a unique value proposition, which sets you apart.

Consider the success story of Allbirds, the sustainable footwear brand. The company’s founders, Tim Brown and Joey Zwillinger, recognised a gap in the market for comfortable and eco-friendly shoes. Through market research and customer interactions, they understood that people were seeking shoes made from natural materials without sacrificing style or comfort. Allbirds’ distinct value proposition was born from the intersection of these powerful yet distinct customer requirements and desires, which helped propel the company towards “unicorn” status.

In the words of early Allbirds investor, Dan Leveron:

“Allbirds has always been committed to making better things in a better way. Since their beginning, they’ve done this through an unwavering focus on product development to prove that comfort, great design, and sustainability don’t have to be mutually exclusive. That continues today.”

A second example is Warby Parker. The founders realised that stylish eyewear came with a hefty price tag. By targeting a younger, cost-conscious audience and offering fashionable, affordable glasses, they disrupted the eyewear industry and created a brand that resonated with their target market. Their success was all about identifying an unmet need and underserved segment, then positioning their product specifically for that audience.

Maximise marketing impact, minimise waste

Understanding your audience not only enables you to stand out, it also helps you make smarter marketing decisions. If you truly understand who you’re targeting, it’s easier to make your messages reach the right people at the right time for the lowest possible price.

Let’s take the example of Dollar Shave Club, a startup that disrupted the razor industry with direct shipping and unique, comical flair. Founder Michael Dubin understood that his target market consisted of men who were tired of overpaying for razors and wanted a convenient solution. He believed the best way to resonate with his audience was to combine humour and video to highlight the crazy economics of an industry dominated by a handful of blue-chip incumbents. The video quickly went viral and is still worth watching to this day. By understanding what would resonate with his audience (as well as some truly excellent execution), Dollar Shave Club gained millions of customers before selling to Unilever in 2016 for $1 billion.

Stay relevant and ahead of the curve

Given the pace of change in today’s business world, understanding your target market is essential for staying relevant and ahead of the competition.

Consider Airbnb. Initially, the founders focused on renting out air mattresses in their apartment to help travellers find affordable accommodation. However, by understanding their audience’s desire for unique and authentic travel experiences, they transformed Airbnb into a platform that connects people with a wide variety of unique homes and experiences worldwide. Today AirBnB offers significantly more rooms than any of the world’s largest hotel chains.

AirBnB founder, Brian Chesky, believes in focusing on customers who show “deep love and passion”. Only by listening to the customers who truly appreciate what you do can you understand where to take your company. Chesky ties this strategy back to advice he received from YC founder, Paul Graham:

“He [Paul Graham] said…’Focus on 100 people that love you, rather than getting a million people that kind of like you’. I think that was a profound piece of advice, and may have been the best piece of advice I’ve ever gotten.”

Conclusion

For any startup founder, understanding your target market is a not just a superpower, it is an essential skill required to gain traction and overcome the competition. It’s all about understanding your potential customers, their pain points, desires and needs, and being able to present your offer to them in language that truly resonates. Best of luck on your entrepreneurial journey!


Image credit

– Featured image by Brett Jordan.

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