How to understand your customer as a startup


Learn how to better understand what your prospective customers want by understanding who they are as complete people first.
The customer is always right, and your business needs customers. So, you should listen to them, right? Well, they may not always know exactly what they want, so your job is to get to know your customer deeply so that you can listen, sometimes between the lines, to what they’re really saying. 

In this guide, we’ll cover:
  • The Five Whys to understand what your customers really want
  • How to ‘follow the source’ of your customers
  • Demographics and psychographics of your customers
  • Visualizing your customers

What does your customer really want? 

Once you’ve identified the problem that your business is solving, start (and keep) talking to people. This is the beginning of your ongoing customer research process. 

The work doesn’t stop there. You need to go deeper to understand the root of the problem, and to answer the question: is this what they really want?

Five Whys

Five Whys is an iterative interrogative technique developed for Toyota to dissect a problem and reveal its underlying causes. 

“The basis of Toyota’s scientific approach is to ask why five times whenever we find a problem … By repeating why five times, the nature of the problem as well as its solution becomes clear.“ Taiichi Ohno

Five Whys in action: Your customer says they want better analytics. Why?

Because what they’re using right now isn’t working. Why?
Because they’ve been paying for it for months but haven’t used it. Why?
Because it takes too much time and is difficult to onboard. Why?
Because it’s tailored to large corporations and they need something simpler. Why?
Because they’re a small team doing it themselves without dedicated analytics staff. 

And there you go. (If you can keep going, then keep going. Five is just a number.) Now you have a much better understanding of what the real problem is, as well as insights on their decision-making processes and what the real problems and challenges are from their lens. You’ll use this information to shape and build your product/business, as well as market to them in a way that resonates with what they want, not what you think they want.

Keep this in your back pocket any time you conduct customer research, whether it’s as big as what your business does to something more granular like a UX feature on your website.

Remember: Problems don’t pay for solutions

The basic tenet of starting a business is that you need to have paying customers. So instead of hyper-focusing on the problem you’re solving, hone in on your customer and ask them what their problems are (and keep asking). That makes it much easier to pivot when the problem—aka the entire basis of your business—changes.

Problems don’t pay for solutions; people do.

Learning more about your customer

Are you your own customer? That may be the most efficient path to starting a business. Just ask the social network that was created to solve the personal problem of a college student who wanted to rank his fellow college students (Facebook), or the browser extension acquired for $4B that was created because a dad wanted to order pizza for his kids online and was looking for a coupon (Honey).

But it’s not the only path: many businesses aren’t based on their founders’ own problems. There are ways to learn more about your customer if it isn’t you.

Consider demographics and psychographics

Before you dive deeper into conducting customer research, you should have a basic understanding of what drives your customer. It’s easiest to group people according to measurable demographics (like their age, where they live, their gender, income level), and that’s where we often start. But demographics don’t paint a clear and full picture.

Psychographics help you get into the mindset of your customer by focusing on things like:
  • Values
  • Desires
  • Goals
  • Interests
  • Lifestyle 
  • Personality
Creating an accurate profile of your customer is about painting a picture of who they are and what drives their behaviors. And it’ll also help you find out where they are, too.

Follow the source

There are plenty of online communities that do a lot of the work in bringing together people with similar interests and values. And if you don’t know where to find those, you can always start broad and then get deep. Go to the known sources (Google, Reddit, Product Hunt, etc.), then find niche communities through degrees of separation: from articles written by experts, to the people they follow on social media. Let’s dig deeper.

Online influencers in the space you’re looking at can be great for learning more about the space in general, as well connecting to other people who have the same interests. There are influencers and experts for all kinds of products and businesses, and they may not always be the most obvious. For example, an influencer for a product in the enterprise project management tool space won’t be an “enterprise project management tool” expert. They may be in the B2B founder community, leading a business with 100 employees.

You can also use social media. As a general guideline, influencers and conversations for B2B and tech products can often be found happening on Twitter and LinkedIn. For B2C and businesses that are less about work and more about ways that people like to spend their leisure time, Instagram is the big player. These are extremely general because there are smaller, niche networks that blur the lines between web 1 forums, web 2 social media, and web 3 communities: Discord is big in the crypto space, Reddit is a great starting point for practically any kind of community, and niche forums exist in almost every corner of the internet. 

Don’t be afraid to take conversations further and offline, too. In-person conferences are a great way to connect with people in niche communities, especially in tech and technology-adjacent spaces. 

Once you find where your customers are hanging out, start to learn more about them. Make their environment your environment. This is your space now. 

Visualize your customer

Once you get to designing and developing your product, you may end up having to create a customer persona, and that often includes a visual reference of who your customer is. (Marketers use these, too.) This is something you can get a head start on now while you’re still in the early stages of learning more about your customer. It’s a great way of “making them real”, helping you get into their shoes and develop empathy. Having empathy for your customer is a business superpower and allows you to better understand their needs.

You won’t have just one customer profile, but start by diving deep and getting to know this one person. They’ll be the driving force of your business. Throughout your business building process, and at every single step, look to this person and ask yourself: What are they thinking? How are they feeling? And yes, is this what they really want?

Your checklist to honing in on your startup customer:
  • Work through the Five Whys
  • Go searching; online forums, social media, events—anywhere your customers could be. This is your home now.
  • Outline demographics and psychographics
  • Visualize your customer with an actual customer persona. Give them a name. 
Your checklist to honing in on your startup customer:
  • Work through the Five Whys
  • Go searching; online forums, social media, events—anywhere your customers could be. This is your home now.
  • Outline demographics and psychographics
  • Visualize your customer with an actual customer persona. Give them a name. 
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