Heading an entrepreneurship community with lots of young entrepreneurs, ranging from early-stage startups to unicorn companies, has taught me one lesson:

Successful ventures truly understand their customers.

Creating a product that customers truly want is often referred to as a product-market fit, and the first lesson for achieving it is being able to interview customers well.

The goal of this article is to cover the three most common mistakes in customer discovery and explain what I believe you should do instead.

You Are Talking to the Wrong People

When evaluating an idea, many aspiring entrepreneurs interview people they can easily access. Asking their friends for feedback out of convenience about a consumer idea for example. Alternatively, if you’re ideating about a B2B idea you get feedback from folks you can easily reach and who are somehow relevant for your idea. However, if the people you interview aren’t part of your target audience, their lack of experience with the problem renders their feedback useless. Empathy becomes a challenge when problems differ greatly from your own.

The solution is simple: define a clear target group and conduct 5-10 initial interviews. Consider how to categorise your solution’s users. During these interviews, focus on uncovering their problems rather than pitching your solution, as we’ll explore in the next point.

You Are Talking About Solutions Instead of Problems

Whenever there is a new startup idea, it is natural to talk with people about the potential ‘solution’ one has found. Instead, you should talk about the problems your potential customers are facing.

Rob Fitzpatrick’s book, “The Mom Test,” is a pragmatic guide that addresses this issue head-on. It provides valuable insights and practical advice on how to conduct effective customer interviews that reveal genuine insights, leading to better product development and business success.The most important point of this masterpiece on customer discovery: You should never mention your idea upfront. Instead, full focus on uncovering customers’ pain points – become an expert in “digging for pain”.

Why is that so important? When you present your idea to potential customers, they may feel pressured to be polite or agreeable, leading to feedback that is not genuine. By refraining from discussing your idea initially, you create a space where customers can freely express their problems, needs, and experiences without the influence of your concept. This approach allows you to uncover authentic insights and pain points that can serve as the foundation for building a product that truly addresses customer demands.

You Are Asking For Opinions

Being excited about your idea and asking someone else for their opinion will likely result in them flattering you, as criticising you straight away would be inappropriate.

Moreover, opinions such as “I don’t believe this will work” or “I don’t believe I would use this” are generally worthless. Firstly, they usually don’t provide you with enough context to understand whether your solution has potential. Secondly, even if people provide you with elaborate details attached to their opinion, their opinion still doesn’t reflect their actual behaviour.

Within the area of customer discovery, it’s common knowledge that customers’ behaviour strongly deviates from their opinions. 

When being truly interested in whether your idea works, ask specific questions and drill down as much as you can.

Ask questions like ‘How do you currently solve this problem?’ and drill down after you’ve got your answer: ‘How specifically do you do that?’, ‘What usually happens before you do that?’, and ‘How much does this currently cost you?’. A question that is especially interesting is also: ‘If you haven’t solved this problem so far, why not?’

More often than not, the problem of a customer experience is not big enough for them to actually look for alternative solutions.

Learn More About Customer Discovery

Customer discovery, i.e., the art of understanding customer needs and evaluating how well your solution really fits, is the most effective way of testing your idea before having to build a product or prototype.

Many startups build products before talking to customers and fail when trying to enter the market because no one wants to use these products. You can avoid this by applying the principles from this article. Moreover, the following books are a fantastic resource in case you want to read up:

Customer discovery is not trivial. At EWOR, we developed a curriculum for teaching people proper customer discovery together with industry experts and professors from renowned universities.

All of our alumni currently run successful ventures, and we believe that this is to a great extent due to how well we teach people to understand their customers. Our mission is to empower individuals all over the globe to build impactful organisations and enterprises.

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About the author
Daniel Dippold

I've built Emoti, which measured emotional intelligence based on sound-waves, Unlimitix, an emotionally-savvy AI-coach that helps you lose weight, EWOR, a global school and platform making the process of founding and leading a venture more easy and accessible ar, and Sigma Squared Society, the world's largest community of young entrepreneurs under 26. I consult bigger corporations and (local) governments to harness the power of data and deploy practically useful machine learning and artificial intelligence applications (see https://newnow.group).