Approaching Customer Discovery, Part 3

Penpot Co-founder Pablo Ruiz-Múzquiz puts listening at the center

After Adobe acquired Figma, the collaborative interface design tool, Penpot co-founder Pablo Ruiz-Múzquiz saw a huge spike in sign-ups for his company’s services. Penpot was the first Open Source design and prototyping platform for product teams, and the increase in sign-ups had Ruiz-Múzquiz feeling cautiously optimistic. Cautious because, with acquisition numbers going up, he wanted to make sure all these new users were actually the types of users Penpot was seeking for its product.

So, like the other leaders in this three-part series, Ruiz-Múzquiz engaged with these new users. How did he approach it?

Surveys, interviews, and a lot of listening

He started by sending a series of short surveys. As new customers were validated through the surveys, they were put into a beta program that provided them with access to the tool in exchange for feedback. Often, that feedback was delivered in interview form. As the Penpot team ramped up its product development efforts to meet this new demand, they maintained a regular cadence of 30 customer interviews a week. They had to ensure that they were meeting the needs of these new users, and focusing directly on their core target audience, while not straying away from their core vision and mission.

As a result of these efforts, every new feature Penpot puts in their roadmap comes with validated customer insight to back it up. When the team starts building new ideas, they put them back in front of those same customers to see if they’ve met the need.

As Ruiz-Múzquíz puts it, “An interview gives you the chance to pitch your vision more informally and get an unfiltered reaction to it. Sometimes that reaction is quite bland [or] . . . you get a sequence of ‘wows’ and ‘ahas!’” To be clear, the team at Penpot doesn’t ask customers “what they want” from the product. Instead, they listen for unmet needs and then pitch solutions their customers may have never imagined. It’s a mix of vision and customer-driven insight.

You will be wrong

No matter how confident you are in the product you’re building or the problem you’re solving, at some point you are going to be wrong. You’ll choose the wrong target audience. You’ll prioritize the wrong feature. You’ll pivot into a space that doesn’t have the growth potential you anticipated. Perhaps you’re trying to address a problem that is decreasingly urgent for users, or maybe your value proposition is just too complicated for your audience to understand. The sooner you can learn where you’re right and where you’re not, the sooner you can redirect your efforts in a more productive direction.

Just because a sector is crowded doesn’t mean there’s no room for new tools and services to exist. Without understanding where the gaps are, though, it becomes increasingly difficult to determine how to position your offering. Launching a product will tell you, quickly, if you’ve found product market fit. It will also bankrupt your startup equally as fast. Building a practice and cadence of regular customer conversations—and listening intently to the feedback—is a much cheaper way to learn the same thing with a tiny fraction of the investment. But it will require patience.

There is no substitute for customer conversations

In the end the closest thing we have to a magic wand to drive the success of our startups is talking to customers. It’s cheap, fast and effective. It doesn’t require extensive training and is an activity anyone in the company can and should do. Making an intentional, concerted investment in the development of your teams’ customer empathy ensures that the work they do will always benefit the customer. It plants the seeds of customer-centricity early in the company culture and establishes it as a core part of your business even, and perhaps especially, as the business grows and evolves. As with anything in a startup, if it matters to the founder, it will matter to everyone else. Leading this effort by modeling the behavior ensures you’ll see it in your teams for years to come.

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