Distractions are a constant in business, yet entrepreneurs are constantly told
not to take their eye off the ball.
But where exactly is that ball? Where should you be spending most of your
Hint: The ball is not in your court or office, nor should you be.
The best place for entrepreneurs to spend their day is out on the frontlines
with customers, watching them interact with your products, listening to feedback
and asking how else you can help them. This is the art of customer
New York entrepreneur, venture capitalist and author Bob Dorf was in Toronto
recently to lead a “Startup Grind” workshop on the art of customer development.
Dorf is the co-author, along with colleague Steve Blank, of The Startup
Owner’s Manual: The Step-By-Step-Guide to Building a Great Company. The
centrepiece of this 2012 tome is “The Customer Development Manifesto,” 14 points
that govern successful customer discovery and sustained growth.
You can dive into this manifesto as deeply as you want, into the murky world
of business model canvases, market types and cycle time. But the essence is
inescapable: you have to get out of the office.
Dorf aims his advice mainly at technology startups, on the theory that most
new applications and services need significant re-tweaking before they can
become vital products and services that consumers will pay for. Blank and Dorf
retooled the famous phrase of German military strategist Helmuth von Moltke, “No
battle plan survives contact with the enemy,” into a business mantra: “No
business plan survives first contact with customers.”
But this concept isn’t just for startups. In every business, until you know
exactly what your customers’ needs are, all your business plans are only
guesses. This isn’t just about customer relations: it’s strategic planning,
product development, continuous improvement, and even risk management, rolled
into one consistent priority. Never assume that that customer survey you did
three years ago has a longer shelf life than sliced bread.
How many customer appointments do you have scheduled today? If you dropped a
few committee posts (it’s called delegating), would anyone notice?
Particularly if it gave you more time to spend with the people who ultimately
pay everyone’s salaries.
Better still, instill this customer imperative in all your staff. Sales alone
shouldn’t own the customer relationship. Your product-development people,
customer-service leaders, advisors and directors should all be on a first-name
basis with clients. You don’t want to be that guy telling your staff what the
customers think — you want to spark robust discussions about customers’ pain
points so that you dig more deeply into their motivations and create new product
ideas no competitor has ever thought of.
And if your team staff doesn’t want to follow Dorf’s lead, a laid-back,
jeans-wearing millionaire U.S. author, you can always quote a billionaire
Canadian entrepreneur. At a speech in Toronto a few years ago, Terry Matthews, a
co-founder of Mitel, March Networks, Newbridge, Celtic House and 60-odd other
firms shared the secrets of his success: “You must be bold. You must work hard.
You must be enthusiastic, be passionate. And absolutely, you must go visit the
Adopting a customer-development mindset isn’t something you tack on to an
existing business. It changes everything — in a good way. Bureaucrats will no
longer determine what products your company sells; artificial deadlines will
give way to meeting customer needs now. Employee engagement will grow as your
team realizes that at the other end of their job are real people depending on
Here are a few of the pearls Dorf shared to get you started:
Have a customer archetype in mind: What does your ideal customer look
like? Who are they, what do they do, what do they wear, what do they drive? Even
in writing The Startup Owner’s Manual, Dorf and Blank created a
target-market type: “We decided we were writing for a 25-year-old engineer who
has technology vision but doesn’t have sales or marketing experience.”
Make any excuse you can to visit customers. “I’d love to see your new
office.” “Let me drop that part off myself.” “Why don’t I buy you a coffee?”
“Can I pick your brain for a few minutes?” There’s no one way to get to know
customers; invent every opportunity you can.
If you are looking for capital to grow your business, focus on customers
first: “Do everything humanly possible to delay your funding as long as
humanly possible,” says Dorf. “So when you are talking to investors you are
talking about a company that has objective indications of traction.”
The longer you delay that conversation, he says, the more likely you’ll land
the funds you need. “You want to be able to tell investors, ‘Here are the 42
risks we’ve already taken out of the company on your behalf.’ “
Prioritize customers over other forms of personal or professional
development: As Dorf said, “Why go to class when you can learn so much more
getting your head beaten in by the market?”