How to Go From Targeting a Market to Finding the Buyers


Startups are often selling too low… they get to people who live the pain they solve, get lots of feedback, but the people they try to sell to don’t understand the needs of the whole department and don’t end up buying. Try to target top down or middle out.Jeff Ernst, SlapFive Co-Founder and CEO

Target markets are good, but they don’t tell you whom you should speak with first.

Even if it remains just a hypothesis, you must narrow down the kind of customers or buyers you want by defining an ideal customer profile; you can’t just talk to anybody in the organization.

You have to identify the customers you’d like to sell to, approach them and take it from there.

The ideal customer is someone that:

  • Has a problem;
  • Is aware of the existence of the problem;
  • Has already tried to solve the problem;
  • Is unhappy with the current solution to the problem;
  • Has a budget to get the problem fixed.

But, how do you find your ideal customers?

Steve Jobs famously said that people don’t know what they want until you show it to them. But, if no one knew what they wanted until others started using it, how would new solutions get traction in the first place?

In 1991, Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm introduced marketers to the five customer groups that constitute any market. Although Steve Jobs was right in saying that most customers won’t know what they want until it becomes popular, two of these groups will.

Crossing the Chasm

Early adopters and innovators know what they’re looking for. They can see the value in an incomplete solution and have the potential to help you find product opportunities in the enterprise.

As leaders, early adopters have a great understanding of the technology landscape both inside and outside of their company. They also have a higher tolerance for risk and a greater ability to see the potential of new technology than most of their colleagues.

Working with the right early adopters can substantially reduce the effort needed to sign your first customers, get case studies and convince other companies to follow.

This is why early adopters are your first lead into finding the buyers in an organization.

This is Why I Wrote Lean B2B: Build Products Businesses Want

At the time my ex-business partner and I started working on the company that would eventually become HireVoice, I had already been through the ups and downs of a startup with Flagback and two other companies.


Flagback Demo

I had experienced business success and failure, and had a wide network of talent and mentors. My professional background in user experience made validating with real customers from day one a given.

With HireVoice, we were building a platform to help businesses understand how the market perceives them as employers (employer brand monitoring). We started with the right mindset and the newly released Lean Startup was going to give us an edge.

We started validating solutions with prospects in the first few weeks of business startup.

For the first few months, we were only getting positive feedback. This feedback gave us the nod to start building the first (of six) module of our solution.

We released our first version to pilot customers. It was high commitment from the start. It took months for any of our pilot customers to run surveys. Nevertheless, people were excited about the potential of HireVoice.

After our first few modules failed to capture engagement with prospects, we realized that we had been fooling ourselves into thinking that employer brand perception was an important problem (or that it was a valid starting premise). It was a problem, but it didn’t hurt enough for companies to pay for our solutions

We had a clear picture of our target end user and target customer (not the same in this case), we were following the right process and we did a lot of good things. Yet, we failed. We were able to experience first-hand the limitations of the Lean Startup in B2B.

Although the book was on everyone’s lips, we were already familiar with serial entrepreneur Steve Blank’s The Four Steps to the Epiphany — the book that started the Lean Startup movement and created the customer development process at the heart of this book.

Customer development was born out of B2B enterprise selling; yet the body of knowledge available outside of The Four Steps to the Epiphany was small to non-existent.

We struggled to answer any questions that fell beyond the scope of Blank’s book. The small everyday questions were killing us. We burned contacts, lost face in meetings, got stuck in political dead ends and had prospects mistrust us for withholding key information — all mistakes that could have easily been avoided.

We got better around the time that we joined the MIT Entrepreneurship mentorship program, which gave us a structured way to look at validation. However, what really helped us was receiving the mentorship of Claude Guay, a sales veteran and a two-time startup CEO (iPerceptions and Accovia).

Claude didn’t change our validation process, but he was there to answer all of the small questions we had:

  • Should you show prices in a pitch deck?
  • At what point should you start asking for money?
  • How should you re-engage prospects after the first meeting?
  • How can you get businesses to honestly tell you about their spend?
  • How can you reward interview candidates?

In the end, we failed to build a sustainable business, but succeeded in in-validating a startup. It was a successful validation with a negative outcome.

It took us six months to in-validate our first two products, but only three months to in-validate the last three. Inappropriate B2B customer development cost us four months of runway.

I wrote Lean B2B to help entrepreneurs save those four months.

After interviewing more than 30 successful entrepreneurs for the book, I can tell you that others have already made a lot of the mistakes you might be making.

Time to Product-Market Fit (TTPMF) is key when you’re a small startup. This is why you need books like Lean B2B: Build Products Businesses Want.

How to Make the Most of Every Problem Interview

If you don’t want to lose a ton of money and time, your ideas should be guilty until proven innocent.Trevor Owens, Lean Startup Machine CEO

You were able to schedule meetings with early adopters all through next week; great opportunity to start selling, right?

The worst thing you can do with problem interviews is to try to sell. You don’t know what your prospects want, you have no idea what the solution could be, and you don’t even know if the people you’re meeting are people you would like to sell to. You have to find a jury and a problem to tackle before thinking about sales.

Setting the right context to the interview is paramount.

If the meeting is too much about sales, then you’re really narrowing the conversation by asking prospects to react to a solution to a problem. The meeting is no longer around finding the best opportunity possible for your startup, it’s about convincing the prospect that your value proposition makes sense.

You don’t learn through sales calls, it’s not customer validation.Jason Cohen, WPEngine Founder

If the meeting is too much about the product, then the prospect is completely separated from their job and the context becomes the product. The meeting is no longer about whether that prospect is considering solving that problem, it’s about helping you add features to a product for someone else.

To be successful, you have to shift the context to learning. In a learning context, the customer does most of the talking and you don’t have to know all the answers. You’re not trying to knock down the barriers; you’re trying to find out what they are in the first place.

The early adopter must remember the meeting as a validation meeting, not a sales pitch. In the first few meetings you shouldn’t mention your solution. You’re there to talk about their problems, not your solution.

Can a Game Help Entrepreneurs Build Better Businesses?

Earlier this week, I launched the Control Alt Deceit game on Indiegogo.

It all started with this game on Tesla and Edison. It got me thinking about luck in entrepreneurship, how the best companies don’t always win the market and how cruel competition can be.

Working in a tech startup, I kept thinking that everything we do (raise money, expand markets, build new products, outdo competitors, etc) feels like game dynamics.

The ups and downs of startups would make for a great game.

Come January, I had the urge to build something new.

Creating a game was not the least risky project (think Lean Startup!) I could have taken on, but it was the funnest.

Introducing Control Alt Deceit

The game really took shape in March when I started working with a game designer friend based in Hong Kong. In just a few weeks, we were able to get a prototype ready for testing.

Early card designs

The art wasn’t there. The game had no rhythm. But we had something to work with.

10 play tests and 6 versions later, the game started to take shape. Enough to get designers involved. Suddenly, simple black and white cards…

Early card designs

Turned into something else…

Designed Control Alt Deceit cards

I had become fascinated with the tech wars of the ’80s (Beta vs VHS, Apple vs Microsoft, Sega vs Nintendo), the early days of Silicon Valley and the sometimes questionable strategies employed by early tech businesses to carve our market space.

Everything was possible in the ’80s. It was also an era of strong aesthetics.

Nintendo ad

Setting the game story in the ’80s created a strong visual signature.

All that was missing was an equally strong name to communicate the tech/business theme of the game. After 2 weeks of brainstorms and mounting pressure from designers wanting to finalize the design, we selected Control Alt Deceit, a name that probably has two, three or four meanings.

Putting it all together

The Indiegogo campaign and video came together in the last few weeks. It was a lot of work, but the results are quite impressive:

The game is currently funding on Indiegogo. I would love your support.

Thanks for helping make Control Alt Deceit a reality.

Do You Have Product-Market Fit? Here’s How to Tell…

The life of any startup can be divided into two parts – before product/market fit and after product/market fit.Marc Andreessen, Andreessen Horowitz General Partner and Serial Entrepreneur

You were able to make some sales, get a few case studies and learn about the value of your solution — does that mean you have Product-Market fit? Does that mean that if you do more of the same your business will grow?

Unfortunately, your first few sales don’t automatically mean that you have P-M fit. P-M fit has more to do with the way in which you convinced your first few validating customers to sign on rather than with the outcome — the sale.

In the same way that selling dozens of products that never get used is not P-M fit, selling a product that doesn’t move the needle is not real success.

Now, is your business model scalable? Is it repeatable?

If you’re selling to customers in different market segments, the sales and marketing processes will not be repeatable. You will need different sales tactics, different techniques to counter objections, different product features and different assumptions about who the partners and system integrators are in the industry.

Ask yourself:

  • Was I able to consistently add value for customers in a single market segment?
  • Did the clients pay after the pilot was over or did they churn (move on)?
  • How engaged and satisfied were the clients with the product?
  • Did they refer our solution to other prospects?

If you have P-M fit, congratulations, you’re no longer searching for a business model. You were able to create a business.

Take a day off to celebrate, but don’t celebrate too long. There’s still a lot of work to do. You’re only at the Chasm.

How to Make the Most of Every Solution Interview With Prospects

The solution interview phase is another opportunity to deepen your relationship with early adopters.

With sometimes as little as 30 minutes per meeting, you want to spend the bulk of your time exploring the solution (your product) and testing the pricing model.

Since you know their pain, meetings with prospects that you already met will be more straightforward, while meetings with new prospects will be more exploratory.

To maximize learning opportunities, solution interviews should follow a structure similar to that of problem interviews:

  1. Greetings (two minutes): Small talk to deepen the relationship and make the prospect feel comfortable.
  2. Problem qualification (three minutes): Validate that the pain that your solution removes is a pain they have or have visibility on.
  3. Telling a compelling story (five minutes): Explain what was learned on the industry, your approach and what makes your solution unique.
  4. Solution exploration and demo (15 minutes): Show your solution Minimum Viable Product (MVP) and evaluate the match with the expectations and the value sought.
  5. Closing (five minutes): Share the pricing and close the prospect on a pilot or another meeting.

You have to learn and adapt with every pitch until you find a model that works and that clicks with your prospects.

The key here is to try and close the prospect on another meeting, a pilot project or a sale if the purchase makes sense for all parties. Don’t waste anyone’s time if you’re not ready to close.

How to Know How Much Prospects Will Pay for Your Product?

Let’s suppose that we could build this and it was that cheap… you could put it on your credit card. Would you buy it?Jason Cohen, WP Engine Founder

The goal with closing during solution interviews in customer development is to find out if your prospects are willing to pay and also how much they would be willing to pay. Is it a $50 or a $50,000 per month solution?

Unfortunately, it’s not just a matter of asking how much the prospects would want to pay for the solution (prospects won’t know and will always say the minimum).

You will get a better idea by asking them, as market experts, how much another company would be willing to pay for the solution or by submitting a range of prices and seeing how they react.

To close, you have to convince the prospect that their pain is urgent and requires action, give a price and wait for a yes/no answer. Stick to your pricing hypothesis and bluntly ask, “Will you buy?” then listen.

As you remain silent, notice the body language and reactions of your prospects. Do they have objections? Do they hesitate? Their questions and hesitations are highly valuable; they are the truest form of Product-Market validation.

Did they buy?

Serial entrepreneur and author Steve Blank’s technique to determine price sensitivity (how much a prospect would be willing to pay) is to push for an extreme.

  • Blank: “If it were free, how many would you get?”
  • Prospect: “I don’t know.”
  • Blank: “It’s one million dollars.”
  • Prospect: “You’re insane… I would never pay more than $1000 for this.”

It takes a lot of nerve to pull off this technique, but it’s a good way to figure out the maximum amount a prospect would be willing to pay for your product.