When should I start talking to customers?

Talking to customers is a necessary step in building a great product and a great business. But there seems to be some disagreement around when it makes the most sense to start that process.

In my opinion, it should happen as early as possible — before you even have a product or a development team to build one. But without a fully realized product, how can you start the conversation? In short:

It’s often said that building a great startup is a marathon, not a sprint. I would argue that it more closely resembles a triathlon. It requires ingenuitive technical execution, a highly disciplined operational team, and a tireless perception into what the product needs to be, how it presents to customers, and ultimately how you’ll land sales. All of these aspects are needed for the business to succeed, and you really need these skills to be in-house, not outsourced.

Second, in the journey toward Product-Market Fit and a scalable business, every team I’ve been part of or talked to had an inflection point in their understanding of the product. Before this point there was a lot of guess-work, and many debates among founders. Everyone has opinions, and there are few (if any) data points. After this point you have a true North Star to travel toward, and all of the decision-making and justifications from before will feel flaky, speculative, or downright amateur.

You want your business to get to this inflection point as fast as possible, and there is no startup that I know of who reached this point before they were regularly talking to customers.

Taking these together: You need to be training for all parts of the triathlon today.

But before you have a real product, this is hard. It can feel amateur to set up a meeting with a customer when you don’t have anything to show them. In the moment, I suspect that this feels more amateur than getting all the founders together to talk about what they think the market will want, and that’s why we see these internal debates happen so much more frequently. And yet you need these customer conversations to truly guide the product’s direction & development.

Have your first conversations with warm leads or genuinely curious folks, even if they’re not the highest potential. These are people who are much more likely to keep talking to you even if there isn’t an obvious way you’ll make their job or life better. Some of them may see high potential in what you’re doing, even if it’s not quite the final direction you think the product will go in (these people are usually right as often as the founders are). The main focus in these first 5–10 conversations should be on finding people who are open to having an ongoing conversation (usually by email) even if you didn’t knock that first conversation out of the park. Rarely do first conversations go that well, and some never convert into a sale. But they can teach you a lot about the customer, how they work & think, and where your best-guesses are a bit off the mark.

Instead of aiming for a full product or a functional demo, show snippets of your product using mockups, Wizard-of-Oz prototypes, pictures of other products, and anything else that can get you 80% of the way to demonstrating a feature. Balsamiq and similar web apps are your friend here. Illustrator and Photoshop (or Inkscape and GIMP) can also be hugely beneficial tools if you have some experience with them. For physical products, find someone who can sketch really well, or someone who can take your sketches and turn them into really fast computer-generated models. If they can do this as a hobby or a side-hustle, so much the better.

Let’s assume you’re following the above points. You’re having conversations with curious/excitable people, you’re showing them mockups, painting a great picture with your words, and they’re picking up everything that you’re putting down. You’re gesturing wildly with your hands, saying things like “Right? Exactly!”, and it feels like everything is clicking.

Once the dust has settled from these conversations (and the ones that don’t go quite so smoothly), take some time to think about what could be fleshed out more:

Focusing on areas of uncertainty is how you build out your arsenal of ‘explainers’: the descriptors that best explain your product’s value proposition. They round off the sharp edges and bridge the gaps when people don’t quite follow you. These explainers also help prioritize the key areas that you should be focusing on as a founder.

The general goal is to further flesh out the product, make the case for why it needs to happen and why it needs that person’s support. That support might just be a connection to someone else in the company who has more context or decision-making, or it could be your first booked sale, but it is your job to persuade them to give it to you.

Despite the best efforts of planning, the early days of a startup resemble a speedboat, not a cruise ship. Things will change from your initial vision of what the product needs to have, how much you can sell it for, and who will actually pay for it. Paul Graham summarizes this with a great analogy: when you’re trying to optimize your code based on where you think it’s slow, you will usually get this wrong. It’s much more effective to set benchmarks and let the code tell you. When you’re trying to optimize the product, it’s much better to let the customer tell you.

When should I start talking to customers?

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