Build Rapport Before You Build a Better Mousetrap

Yesterday I had the privilege of being on a virtual panel that spoke to about 50 early entrepreneurs. The session was full of entrepreneurs with great ideas. I found it energizing and insightful. At the end there was a Q&A session. We were peppered with tons of great questions, but one stood out to me:

How do I find early customers?

I’m sorry to have to tell people that there’s no secret group that will unlock the door to early customers. Entrepreneurs have to hustle to find them. In my opinion, the right strategy can make it easier (though not easy). I’ve noticed that finding early customers is many times harder when founders do things in the wrong order, which is VERY common. Bob thinks the world needs product X because he experienced a problem or noticed it would be helpful to others. He decides to build it. What has he done? Created a solution without understanding the problem from the perspective of potential customers. He’s done a ton of work based on what he thinks about the problem, which is worthless. Why? Because Bob isn’t the customer. He won’t pay for the solution. Bob may be right—what he built is missing and pretty cool. That doesn’t mean customers will pay for it.

Ideally, entrepreneurs should build rapport with potential customers before the solution is ready. Sounds hard, but it’s not if approached correctly. The key is to do customer discovery before you start building. Find people who are experiencing the problem you see. Ask them about it. Why is it such a problem for them? How are they working around it now? Have they looked for a solution? There’s a great book that explains how to go about doing this.

People love talking about themselves and their problems. By listening to understand (not to inject your opinions), you’ll develop rapport with them. These conversations should help you build a better solution to the problem. When it’s ready, people you’ve nurtured a relationship with will probably be open to trying it. If it solves the problem (it may take time to get there), they’re likely to refer you to people they know who have the same problem.

In other words, making the effort to deeply understand the problem early on will benefit you in two ways: you’ll have a better idea of how to solve it and you’ll have potential customers already waiting for it when it’s ready.  

Entrepreneurs see an opportunity where others see a problem and sometimes stubbornly cling to their vision of the opportunity. There’s nothing wrong with having conviction, but great entrepreneurs take the time to understand the “why” behind the opportunity they see.