It’s not you, it’s me: Learning from your consumer

A classic mistake of a startup – especially a product-oriented concept – is assuming that your (or your team’s) behavior and preferences can be extrapolated to the broader market.

And why not? Presumably you have some domain expertise that led you to this core idea in the first place, and you’re a savvy entrepreneur with a finger on the pulse of the latest trends. You read TechCrunch, Wired, and Re/code daily. What else is there?

There are people out there – beyond the offices on Sand Hill road and across the river from Silicon Alley – who are real, and who are not you. I learned this first-hand at an e-commerce startup in San Francisco. For example I was thrilled with some of the premium brands we showcased, and the innovative features in our app. But I was thrown for a loop when I first dipped into the market.

Key to understanding your consumers – current as well as target – is leveraging both quantitative and qualitative sources. I started with an online survey to our customers, pulling data on their likes and dislikes. I followed up with more in-depth phone interviews to get more qualitative information – what was their user flow like, what features delighted them, were they aware of some of our offerings. Lastly, I pulled data from our app events themselves – app opens, brand opens, click-through rates, conversion rates – segmented in a myriad of ways.

What we realized is that our target / archetype shopper was not ‘Audrey’, a 30-something city-dweller, but actually ‘Wendy’ a 40-something woman from middle America. She used our app because she didn’t have easy access to malls. She preferred small niche brands with unique items over those flashy premium brands I was excited about. And her discovery-based browsing pattern was very different than the targeted search-and-find flow I had anticipated.

From that point on, “Wendy’s” input colored every aspect of the business – from the development of which sectors and brands we would partner with, to customer acquisition marketing tactics, to the design and development of the app itself. We were rigorous with data – at one point my daily dashboard was pulling data from over a dozen sources – and used it to help quantify our users. But it was key to not forget the qualitative – we continued with periodic interviews, and used resources like not only to see how people navigated through the app but also test potential features before rolling them out.

All marketing, all design – all entrepreneurship, really – is a mix of art and science. By leveraging both to understand who you serve, and who you want to serve, you will save yourself endless iterations and hone in much more quickly on the key success factor of product-market fit for your burgeoning business.

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