Airbnb nearly failed several times before it finally found its stride. The founders almost gave up and resorted to selling overpriced novelty cereal just to pay off credit card debt to keep the company afloat for a while longer.
But what really saved their business was a deep understanding of their users at a time when they had very few. So few, in fact, they could knock on doors to talk to each of them and see their spaces and watch most of them use Airbnb live.
This type of understanding is obviously invaluable to products and companies. For example, the Airbnb team realized that many of their hosts didn’t have the ability to take good photos, which was really problematic to the site and for guests. So they started doing it for them.
The founders of Airbnb took all of this information to improve the product and company for both hosts and guests, and eventually scale massively. The company is worth over $86bn as of May 2022.
In the book we reviewed in our last post, The Startup Owner’s Manual, the authors make the important point about knowing your customers:
“Know the customer you’re pursuing so deeply they think you’re one of them”
One of Us
This advice is incredibly important for startups. As a startup, you are venturing into the unknown, so you must familiarize yourself with every aspect of your market and potential customers.
But it is equally true for existing companies. As product teams building established products, we also need to fully understand our customers and users. But we can’t stop with existing users and customers, because that is only part of the market. Like startups, we have to understand our potential customers. Those who aren’t using our product now but could, and those customers who we may not even have a product for now but may in the future.
The book goes on:
Tactically, it is equally important to “become a customer”…To do so, start to act like a customer:
Participate in their culture, Read their websites and publications, watch their favorite videos, movies and TV shows, and share as many customer experiences as possible
Get to know real live customers, not just in focus groups but in the places where they really spend time. Observe when they’re online and when they’re off and what they’re doing each time they pick up their handheld: what app are they using, who are they texting or talking to, why did they choose this minute to play game A instead of game B, and how did they learn about Games A and B in the first place?
Play the games they play, use the apps they use, participate in their social networks and regularly visit the sites they regularly visit. You can internalize the customer experience by observing it in depth and understanding his behavior and motivation
The goal is to “become the customer.”
Beyond Your App
It’s easy to focus on how customers are using your app. And certainly important. You can’t improve the experience if you don’t see a user suffering with your navigation or struggling with your buttons.
But your customers spend a fraction of their time using your product. It is a means to an end. It may not even register in their consciousness much of the time. So what else do they care about what? What does their life look like? What do they spend their time doing?
This can be some of the most important research you do as a founder or product manager.
As I built out the new assessment platform for an online university, I spent a significant amount of time learning about our users and students. Not just how they used our applications and platform, but how they lived their lives. This was critical for how we built and designed, because it informed everything we did.
For example, our users were often not highly technical. They often lived in much more rural settings and commuted long distances for work and other activities. This cut down on the time they had for us. But it also meant they rarely had reliable internet at home and would have to rely on the internet at other locations for studying and testing—an important consideration.
Without understanding the life of our users, especially outside of our application, we couldn’t have created it as effectively.
How to Learn
So how can you learn about your customers? How can you “become one of them?”
Talk to them
First and foremost, you should talk to your customers and potential users. There is no substitute for conversations with people.
Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, learned this when he built IMVU (a virtual avatar app for instant messaging). They premised much of their initial app on working directly with existing instant messaging platforms, and adding directly to them so that users wouldn’t need to add more. But that wasn’t necessarily the right approach. He wrote:
Eventually, out of desperation, we began bringing people into our office for in-person interviews and usability tests.
And they'd say, "Do you have any idea how many IM programs I already run?"
"No," we'd say. "One or two, maybe?" That's how many each of us used. To which the teenager would say, "Duh! I run eight." It started to dawn on us that our concept was flawed.
We can’t understand our users if we don’t talk to them about their lives and how our product fits into it.
When I was working as a product manager in the money market industry, we were in a sea of constant change. At one point, the SEC issued 1000 pages of new regulations. Our team spent the next day reading and highlighting. And the subsequent weeks reading lots of articles and opinions about how the new regulations would change our industry.
Fortunately, most industries aren’t as prone to massive regulatory shifts as financial markets. But deep reading is still a powerful too. I’ve recently moved into product in the construction industry, and am knee deep into Construction Management Jumpstart, a large book about the industry. I’m also reading industry blogs and news. Anything I can find to help me understand our customers and users.
Participate in the Culture
Finally, participate in the culture of your customers.
You can’t be removed from the culture and understand it. You need to speak the language, understand the memes, get the references, etc.
This has been my experience as I’ve worked more and more in the crypto and NFT space recently. Much of it was new to me as I took on my first projects, and I had a lot to learn. So I talked with people, read a lot, listened to podcasts, followed people on Twitter, and participated in the culture more. I’m still early in my journey, but I’m more of an active participant and have gained a better understanding of the space.
All of us need to do the same, no matter what product we are creating. We can’t take part from a distance. We need to be up close to what we’re working on.
There is an old axiom that you are not your customer. And it’s true, you are not your customer. But you should be. Or at least be indistinguishable from your customer and potential customers because you know them so well.
Other Good Links
Pros versus Cons of Quality-Quality Writing (article) - This is the debate I have with myself frequently, and had a while ago as well as I moved this newsletter to a less frequent cadence. The quality argument won out for me, and continues to win out, though I try to produce a decent amount of quantity as well. I watch as many people write all the time, but I often shake my head as I’d be ashamed if I produced some of the articles I find online. I believe quality should win out, at the expense of quantity. If you can produce lots of quantity while maintaining quality, you’re elite. But few are that.
Innovating with accessibility in mind - This gave me the feels for real. I love everything about the ad, about the product, about all of it. My brother is visually impaired, and we as a society do not do enough to design for those who are differently abled than most of us. So these minor design changes that make the world more inclusive make me incredibly happy as a product person and as a human.
Apple Lost Its Soul. But Who Cares (article) - “Something happens to companies when they get to be a few billion dollars,” he told me. “They sort of turn into vanilla companies. They add a lot of layers of management. They get really into process rather than results, rather than products. Their soul goes away. And that’s the biggest thing that John Scully and myself will get measured on five years from now, six years … Were we able to grow into a $10 billion company that didn’t lose its soul?”