In the last two months of 2010, I participated in a number of meetings with founders of startups – as an adviser, reviewer or investor. Interestingly in nearly every one of these meetings the same questions kept coming up.
In particular four different companies - two nascent startups and a couple in their early tweens – were facing eerily similar issues. Despite the startups being in very different spaces, the varying ages of their endeavors and having smart and motivated founders – they were all trying to come to grips with the lack of market traction. This despite a great deal of time spent talking to prospective customers, partners, building and launching working prototypes.
I must admit after the first couple of meetings it appeared they were having different problems. In one, a marketplace that was not getting suppliers nor buyers off the starting block, in another focusing on the technology to the exclusion of all else, and yet another having a solution looking for a problem. However by the time the fourth meeting rolled around it was plenty clear, that all of them required a sharp focus on answering the question
“Who is your target customer?”
and more importantly,
“What pain are you trying to solve for them?”
Two years into our own start up, we find ourselves returning to this question with reasonable – some would say troubling – frequency. When we got started on dog-earz, the newsletter tool for the rest of us, we defined our target customers as “marketing & sales folks in SMBs” and the pain we were trying to solve for them was How to keep in meaningful touch with everyone in your Rolodex, even if there wasn’t a deal on the horizon.
Of course it helps, if your target customers actually exist (ours did) and are accessible (a little more difficult) and truly felt this as a problem (not clear). Our solution seemed more a nice-to-have vitamin rather than make-my-pain-go-away Aspirin. We hung in there, as we felt we were target users ourselves. With time it was clear that we’d better solve their pain rather than imagine that they will behave the way we’d. Seems obvious in hindsight, doesn’t it?
Things are not always as evident as we’d like them. I once had an opportunity to talk to Phanindra Sama, founder of redBus.in about his understanding of what pain they are solving for their customers. Phanindra shared his view that the pain his customers felt was not in purchasing bus tickets – as I’d have thought. In fact it might still be more convenient for a traveler to call someone to hold a ticket and pay for it at time of boarding – only one phone call needed, but it is the absence of reliable information – as in how many buses, when and at what price or location will leave from Bangalore to Chennai (or better yet from Jalandhar to New Delhi?) that was the customers’ pain point.
Ask yourself these two questions, repeatedly and validate them by getting out of the office and asking your target customers about their pain points. Once you nail this down it makes, at the very least, decision making a whole lot easier. Knowing this is of course only a good start, but not knowing can kill your business.