Why Startups Shouldn’t Be Their Own Customers

Let’s talk about who your best customer is, because it isn’t you.

Of course, I’m not saying that startups shouldn’t use their own product. We absolutely should. But regardless of how familiar we are with the problem or how experienced we are with the market, when we’re the creator of the solution, we tend to turn into a terrible customer. And our behavior bleeds into the product.

Entrepreneurs invent solutions by making a lot of assumptions about the symptoms and the cause of the problem. When we’re actually building the solution, those assumptions can quickly eclipse reality. Features that are invaluable to us might not be ideal for our target customer. Defects that bug us to no end might not be a big deal to everyone else.

And most dangerous of all, while we’re focused on the specifics of how our product addresses the market, our customers live in that market. They’ll be following trends and adapting to changes that we might be late to pick up on.

So while we should definitely be using our own product, we have to constantly be aware of what makes our usage vastly different than our target customer’s usage.

When we think like a customer and act like a customer, we see flaws and opportunities that we wouldn’t see otherwise. But the perception of those flaws and the value of those opportunities are strictly anecdotal. No matter how many internal people are using the product, their feedback is a lousy metric for prioritization of what’s right and what’s wrong.

A startup can quickly get into a major spiral when we’re subjected to an internal megaphone of constant feedback as to what our problems are and what our product should be. Sales is going to tell us one thing, development is going to tell us another, marketing will clamor for a third. It’s all noise.

And guess who we listen to? The person in our organization with the largest megaphone. Maybe a board member doesn’t like the color scheme of the app. Maybe the color scheme sucks. But that doesn’t tell us if the color scheme is impacting revenue.

Even if we think and act exactly like our target customer, we see the problem and the solution very differently. If we’ve done our homework, we’ve studied the problem inside and out. We know every scenario and every outlier. We know exactly what our product can do, what it can’t do, and what it’s going to be able to do in two weeks, two months, and two years.

Our customers know none of this. They know what their version of the problem is, they know how our product solves it, and they assume our solution will solve their problem the same way in two weeks, two months, or two years.

An example. When Automated Insights created automated fantasy football recaps for Yahoo, Yahoo immediately wanted us to build automated previews as well. We had already been thinking about doing that, so we built a Thursday preview, a Sunday preview, and a Monday preview.

They were great, but we felt like they were completely useless. Each and every one of us concluded that it was much easier just to glance at the stats already on the website to make that relatively rare mid-week lineup change.

We were dead wrong. Our target customer wasn’t looking at football stats 14 hours a day, seven days a week. They didn’t want to do the math that had become second nature to us. They didn’t want to drill down to figure out exactly how “questionable” Alshon Jeffrey was.

We might have revamped, back-burnered, or shelved that hugely successful product, because we were way too close to it.

There’s a distinct love/hate relationship between the entrepreneur and the product. We love it when it’s working and we hate it when it keeps us up at night trying to figure out why it’s not working. This relationship dictates that we’re usually late to see all the product’s flaws and opportunities.

When we make something, whether it’s software or a blog post or a house, we tend to power through each part in an attempt to realize our vision. We’re usually too easy to forgive flaws on the way to a minimum viable product.

That’s OK for software and blog posts, it’s a disaster for houses (that’s why we don’t do minimum viable houses). When we launch our MVP, we’ll go back and fix the flaws and reinforce the individual parts. Invariably, we will miss a few more flaws.

Our customers will find them.

At some point, as any maker of software or blog posts or houses or anything else will tell you, we spend so much time perfecting the product, that eventually all we see are the flaws. While we’re hacking away at the flaws, we tend to miss opportunities.

Our customers will find them.

When we use our own product, we tend to use only our own product, whether that’s out of loyalty or lack of time or just because it works.

When we’re only using our own product to solve the customer problem, we’re limited to a single lens on the problem. We need to know what our competitors are doing right, and what can we learn from them. More importantly, we need to know what our competitors are doing wrong, and what can we learn from them.

I’d suggest using the product from every single competitor that we consider bigger or better than us. Then, from those competitors that aren’t as good as us, pick a handful of those as well. And we need to use those products in real time with real use cases, not side-by-side with our own product. It helps to split up usage across our team and have them report back every so often.

Because the idea and the product came from us, we know how it came to be, how much it cost to build, which corners we cut, and where the weak points are.

When we put ourselves in the shoes of our customers, we’re inclined to discount the value our product because to us, it’s just that thing we work on every day. And not only is our product (usually) free for us, but we (usually) get paid to use it and make it better.

Think about this for a second — Why do we use our own product? Is it because we need it, because we love it, or because we’re building it?

The single biggest reason a product fails is because customers realize they no longer need it or they fall out of love with it. Despite conventional thinking, it is NOT because the product breaks. Products break every day.

We’re compelled to use our own product because we’re building it, and that creates a huge blind spot for us that our customers simply do not have. When our product is no longer maximum useful or the experience is no longer maximum awesome, we’ll keep right on using it because it’s our product.

Our customers won’t do that. They’ll move on.

I’m a multi-exit, multi-failure entrepreneur. Sold ExitEvent. Building TeachingStartup.com & GetSpiffy. Former Automated Insights. More info at joeprocopio.com

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