Five Major Mistakes Startups Make Doing Customer Validation

Most startups fail. Not because they don’t have great products, but rather because they don’t have enough customers to sustain their business. While customer validation can help reduce the likelihood of failure, doing it wrongly can be just as bad as not doing it at all. If you watched the season finale of HBO’s Silicon…

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Most startups fail. Not because they don’t have great products, but rather because they don’t have enough customers to sustain their business. While customer validation can help reduce the likelihood of failure, doing it wrongly can be just as bad as not doing it at all.

If you watched the season finale of HBO’s Silicon Valley (I highly recommend the show!), the main characters’ startup has their back against the wall and is considering a pivot. In an effort to figure out the ‘right’ pivot, one of the characters embarks upon the customer validation process. It’s hilarious. And it highlights several things most startups get wrong.

The purpose of customer validation

The purpose of customer validation is to understand the fit between your ideal customer and the real value your startup can offer. Fundamentally, it is about learning – learning who your customer is, learning their needs, and learning about who and what your startup needs to be.

The following common mistakes preclude that learning, which, at best, slows down your rate of success, and, at worst, forces you to invest time, effort, and money in the wrong endeavor.

Confirmation Bias

In psychology, confirmation bias refers to our natural tendency to favor information that corroborates what we already believe. We see this reflected often in the media, for instance when one network refers to study x about global warming and another one refers to study y. Which study gets referenced is often a function of that network’s ideology.

A way to avoid confirmation bias is to ask the question – what would have to be true for my belief to be false? Then, go and see if you can find that information.

Leading the Witness

Leading the witness refers to asking questions in a way that implies the answer. While these are wonderful for enhancing your confirmation bias, they don’t help you learn more about your customer or value.

An example of a leading question would be something like, “When you do x, don’t you find that…” The question presumes that the person you’re talking to does x and primes them to agree with the outcome you’re presenting them.

Instead, root your questions in observations and empirical evidence. For example, “I noticed you doing x, can you tell me about that?” Or, “I’ve heard from other customers that x is a problem, can you help me to understand why they’d say that?”

Asking Binary Questions

Binary questions are yes/no or true/false questions. For example, “Is x an important feature to you”, is a binary question.

Not only do these questions not help you learn much, they also prevent you from understanding the context in which the question occurs.

Instead, ask open-ended questions, rooted in concrete observations or evidence. For example, “I noticed you never use x when you work. Why is that?”

Making Questions Too Open Ended

If binary questions are unhelpful because they’re too narrow, open ended questions can be unhelpful because they allow room for too much exaggeration. For example, asking the question, “How often do you work out” often yields a different question than “How many times did you work out last week?” Scoping the question often yields more helpful insight.

Bad Question A Better Question Justification
Is x an important feature to you? I noticed you never use x when you work. Why is that? People often overstate how important something is to them. Observing their actual behavior and askign them about it will yield more insightful responses
How often do you do x? How many times yesterday did you do x? People aren’t generally good estimators. By making the reference concrete, you’ll get a more useful answer.
How much/big/little/etc is x? How much/big/little/etc is x relative to y? Absolute units usually don’t tell us anything. By comparing x to something else, you’ll get a clearer sense of what’s important.

Speaking, Instead of Listening

Finally, the main thing I’ve seen most people get wrong when doing customer validation is speaking when they should be listening.

Granted, there can be a fine line between customer validation and selling a product. As entrepreneurs, we feel connected to our vision or our product, and it’s tempting to sell it. We want others to feel as passionately as we do. We need them to.

In practice, though, we will be more likely to accomplish that goal if we shut up, listen, and let our customers tell us what they need. After all, they’re the ones fueling our businesses.

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