Funding Basics: Customer Development

Entrepreneurs take note. More startups fail from a lack of customers than from a failure of product development. That’s why I believe strongly that every new product company should have a methodology for developing customers.

I’m a proponent of Steve Blank’s startup stack methodology for customer development, which features the following steps:

  • Customer Discovery – Begin with a business model canvas, a summary of how you’re going to serve customers and earn money

  • Customer Validation – Make assumptions, then test them to develop a repeatable and scalable sales process

  • Execution –  Fine tune your model to get to a market fit that is tight and profitable; pivot, as needed

As an Alchemist Accelerator mentor, I recently had an opportunity to share some perspective about the customer development process and how to maximize success. The first thing I told the group in front of me—a large percentage of whom were engineers—was that they should focus everything on finding the right customer segment, rather than building or modifying a new product concept to fit initial discussions. I think I heard a collective sigh of relief before I began my presentation.

Completing Your Canvas

Research has proven effective customer discovery begins with a business model canvas, so the first part of our discussion, framed in that context was designed for them to hear one thing: You are making a best-guess at first. There will be plenty of time for refinement, when you know more.

A strategic management and lean startup template, your canvas should reflect initial assumptions. To begin, you must understand the market you’re targeting—total addressable, served available, and/or target market. You’ll also need to define the type of market you’re hoping to penetrate. Is it existing with incumbents, but a known problem; new with no competition, but steep education requirements; re-segmented where you’re offering a lower cost or niche alternative; or are you cloning a concept from somewhere else?

Your canvas should also identify key value propositions. What is the job your customers are hiring you to do? How will you do it, and most important, what one-to-three benefits will customers get from using your product or service?

In the customer relationships section of your canvas, you’ll need to outline how you plan to

  • Get customers

  • Keep customers

  • Grow customers

In addition, your canvas should highlight any other key activities, resources (e.g. required equipment), partners and costs (fixed and variable), as well as your anticipated revenue model (e.g., one-time scale, subscription, etc.).

Finding Your Fit

A completed business model canvas ensures your team has fully immersed itself in the customer problem. As such, it can serve as a foundation as you define tests for customer validation.

Testing can begin once you’ve identified subjects. Who are they—end users, influencers, recommenders, decision makers, or others? What do they do all day, and can you create an organizational or influencer map around them? Plus, don’t forget to acknowledge any saboteurs because they have no interest in your success.   

Next, only founders should conduct customer validation meetings, and they should be face-to-face for added visual cues. Don’t outsource the job. Ask open-ended questions and avoid trying to convince someone he or she needs your solution. Test your theories to determine if you’re on the right track. If you don’t get a good signal, reframe the problem. Test again.

In general, ask questions that help you learn more. Lead with

  • Tell me more about…

  • What do you mean by…

  • How so…

  • Why is that…

  • What are your thoughts on…

  • How would you quantify…

  • How did you measure…

  • How did you come up with that…

  • What was your thinking behind…

The goal of every customer validation meeting should be the same: To understand the problem space and the current solutions available.

Pivoting and Execution

During customer validation, your team may uncover some startling truths. Your product doesn’t fit the market it was intended to serve. Prospects already have a solution for x, but have you considered this other opportunity, y? Do not panic.

Instead, apply your development methodology to your customer discovery process. Be agile. Don’t build a new product. Find a new set of customers. Pivot into a new space and test again.

By following a customer development process, you have a tremendous opportunity to deliver what people will pay for, improving your product along the way. Moreover, you’ll have high-quality data to answer the question “who is your customer?” when potential investors ask.

About Alan Chiu

Alan Chiu is a Partner at XSeed Capital, with a strong background in enterprise software startups. His investment areas include mobile enterprise applications, data analytics platforms, enterprise infrastructure, and fintech startups. He serves on the Board of Directors of Breakaway and previously served on the board of StackStorm (acquired by Brocade – NASDAQ:BRCD). He has provided support to other portfolio companies including Lex Machina (acquired by LexisNexis of the RELX Group – NYSE:RELX), AtScale, Dispatcher, Teapot (acquired by Stripe), Pixlee, SIPX (acquired by ProQuest), Zooz, BrainofT,, Inklo, and My90. Alan is currently Co-President for Stanford Angels & Entrepreneurs, an alumni association that seeks to strengthen Stanford’s startup community by fostering relationships among entrepreneurs and alumni investors.

About the Alchemist Accelerator

Alchemist is a venture-backed initiative focused on accelerating the development of seed-stage ventures that monetize from enterprises (not consumers). The accelerator’s primary screening criteria is on teams, with primacy placed on having distinctive technical co-founders. We give companies around $36K, and run them through a structured 6-month program heavily focused on sales, customer development, and fundraising. Our backers include many of the top corporate and VC funds in the Valley -- including Khosla Ventures, DFJ, Cisco, and Salesforce, among others. CB Insights has rated Alchemist the top program based on median funding rates of its grads (YC was #2), and Alchemist is perennially in the top of various Accelerator rankings. The accelerator seeds around 75 enterprise-monetizing ventures / year. Learn more about applying today.

This blog is the second in a financing series with topics designed to help entrepreneurs be better prepared for venture capital conversations.