Arguably, the most popular and dangerous thing you can believe as a startup founder is the saying “build it, and they will come”. The statement claims that if your product is good enough, it would spread in one way or another and it will find its market.
As all over-generalizations, of course, this is partially true. Yes, if your offering provides users with a lot of value, then they would be happy to tell their friends and acquaintances and eventually draw new users. If each customer draws at least one new customer on average, you will get organic growth. And if you amplify this traditional word-of-mouth process with modern social media virility, you can get exponential growth. However, in order to get a wildfire, you need the right conditions.
1. You Need To Know What To Build
And how would you unless you speak with your customers?
As a startup, you are trying to think of an innovative solution to a problem that the market doesn’t currently address well enough. You can only understand the problem by speaking to the people that experience it, and you can judge the effectiveness (and desirability) of the solution only by testing it against the market – i.e. by running the so-called validation tests.
And since you will be iterating on your offering often in the early startup stages, you need continuous feedback. Of course, pestering people with questionnaires over and over again isn’t going to yield great results. Instead, it’s much better to develop a genuine relationship with your first customers and to have conversations with them continuously.
If your first customers feel that you care about their problems and opinion and that you genuinely are trying to help make their lives better, then they would be more than happy to give you the necessary feedback.
This process will help you reach product-market fit faster, but it would have important secondary effects:
2. You Need Your First Customers To Be Active Promoters
Your early adopters, with whom you have a personal relationship, would feel heavily invested in the project. Since they are not only using your product but also personally influencing how it develops, they would be much more likely to talk about your product and their involvement in their social circle and they would most likely genuinely wish you success.
The net promoter score is a commonly used indicator of how likely your customers are to promote your product. Put bluntly, people who like you are going to score higher, and people are much more likely to like you if you have a real person-to-person relationship with them.
3. You Need A Critical Mass – An Early-Adopter Community
Word of mouth is a multiplicative process – you can reach a thousand customers organically by starting from 1 promoter and by starting from 100 promoters. However, the first option would require a lot more time.
If your burn rate requires you to have 1000 customers to become profitable, how fast you achieve this becomes a matter of survival – as a startup your main battle is against time.
So, building your solution and not trying to build your initial community of activated super-fans is a deadly mistake. Your offering could be great, but it could simply be spreading too slowly to allow you to reach profitability fast enough.
Consequently, in the early startup stages, it makes a lot of sense to try to engage personally with each person who shows interest in your product. Try to understand their case and to involve them in an active community of early adopters just like them.
Of course, paying personal attention to each new customer is not a saleable strategy. However, doing things that don’t scale is crucial for success in the early startup stages.
In summary – don’t build behind closed doors, and don’t rely on impersonal promotional methods in the early startup stages. Instead, build real human relationships with your first customers in order to increase your chances of success.