You don’t need a business plan yet: 7 ideas for Customer Development

You’re thinking of starting a business? Hooray! Cool idea, and good luck. There are a few things that you can do to get started, and the first ought to be something counter-intuitive: don’t build your business plan. Yet.

The first thing you’ll need to do before you decide to really go for it is to figure out who your customers are and to learn more about what they need.

Then, try out your ideas on them.

Prepare a Pitch

What would someone like to know about your business in a very short piece of information? When someone says “What is ….” if you can respond with [my widget or service] is … and make it short, compelling, and interesting then you’ve gained their interest in having a larger conversation. Here are a few tips.

Go Practice

If you think your pitch is good right now and you’ve never delivered it before, you’re probably wrong. A great way to find the holes in your customer pitch is to tell about 40 people about your idea. You can use friends, family, or a coffee shop to get going. A particularly good place to do this is at an industry event or “speed networking” night.

Make a Survey Based on What You Learn

Now that you’ve tested your idea, make a survey (a short one will work better – people hate long surveys) and try to get answers to the 5-10 questions that will help you to move forward. There are great tools to help you to do this, including Google Docs, Wufoo and Survey Monkey. Get at least 30 people to answer your survey and you’ll be on your way to getting some actionable data.

Build an “Up and Stumbling” Prototype

When you think you have a better idea of what to build, go ahead and build a prototype – it doesn’t need to work but it does need to share the essence of your idea quickly (if you’re a business person, code in index cards or code in Powerpoint. If you’re a dev, build in whatever language you like that’s fast.) Balsamiq is a cool tool for this purpose, giving you enough information to show what you want to do, but not limiting you by creating an enormous prototyping framework.

Talk to Customers and Get Their Best 1 Piece of Feedback

People love to talk about your idea when you get a chance to ask them what they think. Because that feedback doesn’t always cost them anything, they might not focus on the one thing that matters to them about your product or service. So ask customers for their best 1 piece of feedback, not every piece of feedback they have – this will challenge them to refine their advice and you’ll have a better shot and finding out what really engages or bothers them about your idea.

Now, think about your Business Plan

Once you define your customer, pitch your idea, learn and build a prototype, and get some feedback, you’ll be a lot further along in the information you’ll need to build your business plan. Steve Blank lists some great tools for startups that will help you in this effort.


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