What is the fuel that propels a startup from idea to launch to a sustainable success? Is it a killer idea? Funding? Revenue? Attracting the best talent? A visionary leader?
The correct answer is customer feedback — lots and lots of customer feedback that you, as the founder of your startup, can leverage in order to develop a great product for which users will go crazy.
Feedback for Every Stage of Your Startup
There are several distinct phases of a startup: the idea phase, pre-launch phase, early traction phase and (hopefully) a long period of growth and longevity. Customer feedback plays a central role in all of these.
Feedback can and should be gathered in a number of ways. Most feedback will come through direct conversations with your customers in a variety of channels, but you can also gather feedback simply through observation.
It’s important that you don’t rely only on one method, such as email (although email can still be very effective). You’ll find that customers respond differently depending on which phase you’re in; pre-launch beta users tend to be more engaged than casual post-launch trial users. You might also find that some customers prefer email, others prefer chat and some people will give you better feedback over the phone or in person.
The bottom line is that you must keep the lines of communication open at all times — from the idea phase through launch and beyond.
Feedback on Your Idea
So you’ve come up with what you think is a brilliant idea for your startup. Should you drop everything, lock yourself in your office and start coding the first version? Of course not.
Your very first step — before you do anything else — should be to start talking to people. Tell people about your idea, and don't worry about them stealing it. There is greater risk in not talking to people than the risk that someone might take your idea. There is greater risk in not talking to people than the risk that someone might take your idea. You want to avoid investing a lot of time and money on an idea that nobody cares about, so you should start talking to people now to see if this idea is worthwhile.
You’re probably so excited about this concept that you want to tell a few friends about it, and that’s a good start. See if this concept even remotely makes sense to anyone but yourself, but don’t spend too much time talking to friends. They’ll tend to give you positive feedback just because they’re your friends (even if you ask them to be critical). More importantly, your friends are not necessarily your target customers.
Your next step should be seek out between five and 10 people who you would consider to be your target customers and start some conversations. Don’t be shy. Have an idea to help clothing retail store owners sell more clothes? Walk into a mall and meet a few store owners. Want to build a tool to help programmers optimize their code? Introduce yourself on programming forums and local developer meetups.
Your goal at this stage is to identify the pain point, or the problem your product aims to solve. You might have this problem yourself, and that might have led to the idea in the first place, but it's important that you validate the fact that others have this same problem, or some variation of it.
Ask open-ended questions, like:
"How do you currently handle X, Y or Z?"
"What frustrates you about that?"
"What else?" Dig deeper and get them to tell you more.
Don't go straight into your pitch; start by asking a lot of questions. Your only objective at this point is to gain a solid understanding of each individual person, what their frustrations and pain points are, and learn what they value most.
Feedback Leading Up to Launch
Once you've validated the pain point with target customers, it's time to dig deeper. You need customer feedback to validate the concept of your product, and whether or not it's something worth customers' money.
At this stage, you should have some kind of landing page on your website to collect email addresses. There are a variety of ways to go about this: Some startups have a simple "coming soon" page, while others offer educational or otherwise valuable content in exchange for a visitor's email address.
SEE ALSO: 7 Marketing Tips for Bootstrapped Startups
However you choose to build your pre-launch list, it is imperative that you reach out and personally contact each and every subscriber. Strike up a conversation over email and try to schedule a phone call.
Now your job is to conduct in-depth interviews to get an even clearer understanding of customer's pain points, values and how your product might benefit them. Unlike your first round of interviews, in which you reached out to potential target customers, you’re now having conversations with customers who expressed interest in what you’re doing. That makes this stage of customer feedback even more valuable.
Feedback on Your Content
A smart way to build an audience, both before and after your launch, is to put out a lot of valuable content. Start blogging, put out YouTube videos, send email newsletters or give away a free ebook.
Your goal as you produce and release content should be twofold: It's a great way to build your list and drive traffic to your website, but more importantly, it's another vehicle for soliciting feedback.
Include a call-to-action at the end of your blog articles, or at the end of your email newsletter, asking readers to respond with questions and comments. Monitor which articles are being shared and talked about the most.
Gathering feedback on your content is a great way to learn what the most common questions, challenges and goals of your audience are. You can use this feedback to create and release even more valuable content. You can also use it to inform your copywriting and marketing messages — every bit helps.
Early Traction Feedback
The big day has arrived! You’ve launched your startup, or at least opened the doors to beta customers, and hopefully you're still collecting feedback.
Of course, the first feedback you're looking for is whether or not customers are pulling out their wallets and entering their credit card information. If this is not happening (within a reasonable timeframe), you might need to circle back to those conversations you had earlier. Ask for follow-up conversations with those early customers to see how their views might have changed since you launched.
Are you offering a free trial period? Use a tool like Intercom.io to monitor activity in your app and see which areas might be causing friction for customers. Reach out to those trial users to help with the onboarding process. Beyond helping them use your app, ask them questions, including:
"How did you find us?"
"What made you decide to start your trial?"
"What’s the biggest thing holding you back from upgrading to a paid account?"
Use this feedback to help you improve your sales funnel. Promote the benefits — as described by your customers — on your marketing website. Smooth out the onboarding process, based on what you learned by helping trial users. Make the necessary tweaks to overcome the biggest objections users have to upgrading.
Ongoing Customer Feedback
Customer feedback isn't just for the pre-launch and early traction phase of your startup. It's critical that you prioritize customer feedback on an ongoing basis.
Your cancellation form is one place where you should always gather feedback. Customer cancellations are a fact of life for every startup. No founder likes seeing customers leave, but cancellations present a valuable opportunity to learn what is causing dissatisfaction with your product. Add a required text input where customers must fill in their reason for canceling, and then look for patterns and plug those holes to lower your cancellation rate.
Customer support is another great place to process valuable feedback, and it's why founders should be the ones manning the customer support requests for as long as possible before outsourcing it.
Don't look at customer support as just a place for getting customer's questions answered. Look for common areas where customers are running into trouble. Look for common areas where customers are running into trouble. Look for commonly asked questions. Make notes for ways to improve your product and website copy. This won't only reduce repeat support questions, but it will also make your product even easier to use, making for a delightful experience that customers will happily recommend to others.
Customer feedback will also help you determine which new features to prioritize. Stay in constant contact with your most active customers, and get their feedback on early prototypes of new features. See how customers react to introductions of new features.
Sometimes, it could be beneficial to remove a feature from your product. Perhaps it's causing too much confusion, or it's difficult to maintain. Of course, you should only do this if you're confident that few, if any, customers are using this feature. Try removing it and see if anybody complains. In this case, if you’re getting little or no customer feedback, that’s a good thing.
For all you bosses out there, you know that it can be the best of times and the worst of times all on a single day – all in a single hour. It is a constant weight of responsibility on so many levels, and because you are not dealing with robots that simply need to be programmed and away they go to complete the tasks, but rather humans who have different ways of seeing the world with complex personalities and sensitivities, you’ve got your work cut out for you pretty much 100% of the time.
Bosses are often held up as the primary reason for why employees either love or hate their jobs, and a recent survey by US careers website Glassdoor found that two-thirds of people felt their boss had a direct impact on their career. Around half of those stated that the impact was a positive one, while 20% claimed a current or former boss had actually harmed their career prospects.
It highlights the responsibility that every boss has. It’s not just about the results of your company or division, but about your responsibility towards all of those under your command. You are of course there to guide and lead and develop those who report to you for the betterment of your company or division, but you are also there to help them with their own development. Do those two things together and you will see good results.
20% of people felt their boss or former boss had actually harmed their career prospects.
But how exactly to do this? And what exactly does it mean to be a good boss? There are as usual endless potential considerations, but in this article I take a look at some of the top things that I believe have had a positive impact in helping me be a better boss over the years (I’ll be clear, though, that I am always still learning, as I don’t think there is an end to this journey).
Set an example
When I think about how to become a better boss, I am reminded of the famous drawings of a team of workers trying to pull a large slab of concrete. In one version is the image of the boss, sitting up high on top of the concrete, pointing forward and telling his team exactly what they need to do, while the other has him standing at the front, helping to pull the concrete along and get the job done.
The obvious point to convey here is that a boss can be a better boss by getting more involved at times. Roll up your sleeves and lead the charge. Aside from the obvious benefit of motivating your team and winning their respect, there is an even more important advantage to this approach that is often overlooked.
Boss or lead
Namely, it keeps you tuned into the challenges. In other words, being involved helps you identify where things need to be improved on and how to improve them. It is very hard to get this picture when you are too detached – sitting up there on that big slab of concrete – and that can result in poor leadership decisions.
I will caution that there is a fine line to tread here. You’ll want to find the right balance that sees you working closely enough with employees to be a source of help and inspiration, but you do not want to crowd your team and rob them of their independence. Lead by example, impart knowledge, encourage, coach, and support, but do not micromanage, enforce, or suffocate.
Compassion goes further
It would be nice to think that this particular entry would go without saying, but unfortunately there is still an all-too-common school of thought that putting on a tough exterior and ramping up pressure to the point of discomfort is a way to get results. Being clear on objectives and goals is important, and measuring and monitoring results is a must, but I am not in favour of communicating this in a threatening or intimidating manner.
A recent paper in the Harvard Business Review found that the only thing that increases from a hard-line managerial stance is employee stress – not employee productivity – and far from bringing out the best in employees, this type of pressure actually leads to higher staff turnover, and potentially even an increase in workplace healthcare costs.
In actual fact, connecting with employees as human first and a boss second – displaying warmth, compassion and understanding – is far more likely to bring out the best in your team. The Harvard Business Review report goes on to conclude that employees work far more efficiently when their boss trusts them, and this trust comes in large part with how things are communicated.
A recent paper in the Harvard Business Review found that the only thing that increases from a hard-line managerial stance is employee stress, and that productivity actually suffers.
Help your team members achieve work-life balance
Of course you will always want the undivided attention of your employees while they’re at work, but not allowing them to unwind outside of office hours can actually have a detrimental effect on performance levels.
A recent study by Bowling Green State University in Ohio looked into work-life balance and found that psychological detachment from work during non-work times was vital to employee recovery and health, noting that not taking the time to unplug makes it harder for employees to relax and focus at work the following day. In other words, performance is negatively affected.
And the reason why employees struggle to switch off? I’m afraid to say it’s fear of the big bad boss. Surveys reveal that the majority of employees worry that if they are not seen to be always available they are more likely to be overlooked for promotions and pay rises.
It is therefore down to a good boss to help team members achieve that work-life balance. Dispel the fear that not working around the clock will result in missed opportunities, and develop a sensitivity with respect to the actual workload of your team. They should not have to constantly be working overtime to get their job done, as that kills the work-life balance outright, leading to a vicious circle that ultimately results in poor productivity – which in turn directly impacts the company performance.
Communicate clearly what you want
This one is much harder than it sounds. The truth is that many bosses struggle with communicating clear objectives because they are not so sure what to communicate, and this stems mainly from not being sure what the objectives and goals are or how to achieve them.
This final point on my list is in fact the big one, as it goes beyond just being a good boss and touches on one of the main challenges of being an entrepreneur. While many of us assume that the business greats all have a very clear vision all the time, in reality that is not always the case, and when that clarity is not there, it is very hard to be the boss – and virtually impossible to lead.
Bosses need to research, they need to consider the opinions and feedback and ideas of their team members, and they then need to sit quietly and develop their plans. If you do this, you will be in a position to communicate clearly what you want, because you will genuinely know what you want – or, rather, know what the objectives are and how to achieve them. That’s down to the fact that when someone knows what they want or what they are doing, it shows, and people get on board very quickly. The flipside, however, is that few things are more transparent than lack of confidence and insecurity, and no one wants to follow the insecure leader.
It’s never going to be easy. If you one day wake up and tell yourself that you have mastered the art of being a boss, take another look, because you are doing it wrong. Working with others is one thing, but leading others is an entirely different thing, and whether you’re overseeing a single marketing intern or you’re CEO of a large company with a number of senior executives reporting to you, you’ll always be facing your share of challenges that are part and parcel of this unique hierarchical relationship.
So take what you will from the above but always remember that there is no textbook method for achieving success as a boss or leader. Over time you will want to find your own way, and keep in mind that you will have to adopt different styles for dealing with different people and situations. It’s a constantly evolving challenge that you’ll do well to remember is never easy for anyone.