When building a business, efficiency is everything. Whether self funded or flush with VC cash, speed is critical and waste is fatal.

This is the concept of the Lean Startup – quickly and inexpensively testing business ideas with a MVP or minimum viable product.

And though we all heard and even espoused the dogmas, like all things saying and doing are drastically different.

A Brief Lean Startup Rundown

In the simplest sense of the word, a startup is an experiment. Your goal as the entrepreneur is methodical testing and tweaking until the secret formula is found or experiment abandoned.

Rather than test tubes and laboratories, founders find themselves in the real world performing customer discovery, questioning prospects and eventually pitching proposed solutions. And each interaction provides potentially powerful information to improve, change or focus your business on a better solution to a customer’s problem.

This system works well and is designed for fast paced, iterative improvements.

The Customer is Always Right…Right?

The great auto industrialist Henry Ford once famously said:

“If I had asked my customers what they wanted they would have said a faster horse.”

And while history cannot dispute this, the evidence is apparent. Consumers by and large do not what they want – this complicates things.

How can entrepreneurs test ideas and uncover gems when the individuals cannot even express what it is they want?

We didn’t want iPads, cars were confusing, 24/7 news would never work…

Most innovations are outlandish until they aren’t. To overcome preconceptions during customer questioning, never propose a solution, not even a hint. Instead of pitching a product or selling an idea, seek to understand pain points – the true drivers of buying behavior.

Early Customer Understanding

Speaking with potential customers early in the business lifecycle pays massive dividends down the line. It is only as a relatively neutral observer in the early stages that one is able to take in and grasp all that is said without underlying biases clouding the mind.

Take for instance the founder of XYZ biking company. Every time he attends a seminar, joins a meetup or even stops to chat on the trail, he is thinking about his business. Rather than actively engaging in conversations and trying to understand existing issues, his brain bends problems to the context of his company.

“…our product would be great for that” or “…it’s already been done before”

This puts you in a productive rather than creative frame of mind. Problems are black and white and it becomes almost impossible not to pitch.

Contrast this with an upstart entrepreneur. There are no notions, no biases, no hidden agendas in sight. Rather than fitting square pegs in round holes, these individuals often see things other don’t. So come into conversations open-minded and avoid steering as much as possible.

Important Questions to Consider

  1. What is the source the pain?
  2. Why hasn’t it been dealt with?
  3. How often does this come up?
  4. Is the pain self-inflicted?
  5. Are solutions or quick fixes easily available?

Then shut up and follow up with “tell me more…” and “what makes you say that…” as needed.

From Product to Perfect

One of the goals of any business is to improve – bottomlines, revenues, retention, satisfaction etc…

Part of incremental improvement is feedback from customers and backers. These folks are vested in the product and often offer the best advice on changes and growth for the business.

But once you’ve entered the market or created a prototype, how does customer feedback sway your actions.

Well your startup is your baby, your brainchild – the thing you’re constantly focused on. It can be hard to hear it knocked. And unfortunately, not everyone is going to love and appreciate what you are working as much as you do.

This is true of apps, inventions and everything in-between.

It’s your job as the entrepreneur to understand and accept that. By trying to please everyone, you please no one. Plus it’s a headache.

So who the hell matters and how do you know?

The Three Types of Feedback

People are lazy. Most won’t go out of their way for something they are not passionate about. Unfortunately this means most feedback that backers and buyers leave will be skewed to the extremes – people hating and loving the product. Ad the vast, silent majority will fall in the middle.

So when dealing with the 1-10% who actively engage with the brand, how do you react?

This is hard and something I’m struggling with now on my Amazon business. Most say incredible things but there’s always a few bad apples.

But wait, read that last sentence again. If you found yourself nodding then there is a problem. Constructive negative feedback is NEVER bad, it is the most powerful tool possible to improve. Without knowing and acknowledging what customers think, both positive and negative, how can you ever effectively make decisions or improve? It is not negative reviews or critiques which can capsize a company but negligence. This is the fatal flaw that plagues companies like Microsoft, Kodak and Compaq and which drive leaders to obscurity.

That said, enthusiastic endorsements are informative as well. The features, benefits and stories backers routinely bring up are the highlights driving success. These should be the focus of your sales and marketing efforts and help show customers why your company rocks.

Both of these types of feedback are awesome.

But of course there are trolls and haters, any business will encounter these. Read complaints and avoid responding at all costs, most excessively inflamed public reviews are done for personal issues and not at all reflective of your company.

Evolving the Product

But while listening and changing with customer desires is important, it is not always necessary. As we said before, it’s impossible to please everyone.

This raises a very important and challenging question: when to heed advice. Is a single issue a source of future pain or a statistical anomaly? Can customer complaints be easily and inexpensively solved or is an overhaul in order?

These kinds of questions are highly personal and will depend upon your business. Never lose sight of the target customer though, these are your bread and butter. When they speak, you listen. Not act necessarily, but acknowledge and dig deeper. Who knows where those breadcrumbs may lead…