For Mad Men and Startup Junkies – Customer Insights rule

Sometimes it takes a lot less effort to validate assumptions about your product-market fit than one might think. You can come by customer feedback earlier and with less effort using Lean Startup methodologies.

That’s what I learned last weekend, as my career came full circle last weekend during an intensive “Customer Development” workshop lead by a new entrepreneur-education focused startup called Lean Startup Machine. When I say full circle, I mean back to focusing on consumer insights.

Nearly 14 years ago I started working at Ogilvy as an Account Planner. Account Planning (in the US at least) was then a novel, but increasingly important part of an ad agency’s structure and workflow. In short, an Account Planner (also called Strategic Planner or Strategist in some agencies) represents the voice/interests/perspectives of the consumer and is responsible for bringing the target audience to life during the creative development process. It was in many ways a recipe that helped agencies live up to Harry McCann (of McCann Erickson) 1912 mantra that good advertising is simply “Truth Well Told”.

Over the last decade I’ve found myself in early start-up environments where marketing (positioning, messaging, creative, media) and the product development process has been one and the same. It’s all about finding a product-market fit and communicating that fit to the target audience. From the get-go that requires a deep understanding the customer.

I’ve typically enjoyed the start-up product development process more than just marketing. In my experience, marketing (and advertising) sometimes comes down to making a product nobody needs look desirable to whoever can pay for it. Wouldn’t it be better to build a product that people need in the first place? (This sentiment is echoed in Seth Godin’s book, Purple Cow, where he says that marketing remarkable products is ‘easy’ as they already have the marketing built into them.)

The “Lean Startup Machine” workshop was a great way to get re-focused on the customer when you’re in a startup environment. As an ex-Account Planner and with plenty of scars from startup adventures, the premise of this workshop was close to my heart. However, what I did learn was that sometimes it takes a lot less to validate assumptions about your target audience (i.e. how much they actually would need or appreciate your product/service) that one might think. I realized that on occasion I’ve spent resources on building technologies (proof of concepts, minimally viable products) unnecessarily, because I could have come by customer feedback earlier with less effort.

So whether you’re an Account Planner or a startup product manager, you already know you should be listening to your customers and prospects. If you’re curious as to how you might gain customer insights sooner and cheaper than you may think, check out the next class of the Lean Startup Machine or this retrospective post from one of the workshop’s mentors, Kelly Boyd.