It’s brutal but 9 out of 10 startups are destined to fail.
20% of small businesses don’t even make it through their first year.
“How do I make sure that I’m one of the 10%?” is a question the industry’s finest minds have tried to answer, each giving different answers based on their own experiences and outcomes.
From our personal experience, you’re much more likely to succeed as a startup if you’ve taken the time scope and validate your product/market fit. The best way to do that is to carry out customer interviews.
Before we get to customer interviews, what is product/market fit?
Product/market fit is the concept of building a product which is perfect for its target market and serves a specific need that people are motivated by.
This sounds fairly basic, however, Fortune reported that 42% of startups fail because of lack of ability to gain this critical learning. So, whilst most founders instinctively believe that they have it, the reality is that a good portion don’t.
Product/market fit is about having a financially viable market opportunity, learning which unserved needs are causing pain, and meeting those needs with a product that removes the pain.
“Product/market fit means being in a good market with a product that can satisfy that market“
Why is product/market fit important?
Without finding product/market fit, your business will struggle to activate your target market.
This is something we have seen from the companies that we meet and advise on a day to day basis. Many of them are facing growth challenges that are attributable to this problem:
- Struggling to move from early adopters to mass market
- Sales cycles that drag on for ages without any particular client motivation to move forward
- Never getting sales decisions
- Poor sales conversion rates
- High churn rates based on low product adoption
- Growth is super slow
Many of the businesses we meet believe that the solution to their problem can be found in more people knowing about them.
This is a mistake.
When there are product/market fit issues, campaigns won’t fix the problem. In this instance, fixing the product/market fit is what’s imperative.
How do customer interviews help with product/market fit?
Is your business idea guaranteed to remove your audience’s pain points? Unless you reach out and ask your potential customers, you will never fully know what impact you’ll have until its too late.
Asking the right questions through customer interviews can give you valuable insights into the problems and ongoing issues an audience may be experiencing. This is your chance to dig below the surface and challenge your assumptions.
It’s good to talk.
Customer interviews could reveal that the problem you thought your idea would solve doesn’t exist. In which case, back to the drawing board.
Or you could learn that the audience you thought had this problem aren’t desperate for what you’re looking to offer. As nice as it would be to receive a standing ovation from everyone you interview, learning what you need to rethink early on will help find your product/market fit faster. Spending a few hours to work on customer interviewing will, therefore, save you a lot of time and potential crushing disappointment later on.
Trust us, we’ve seen it too many times.
The first step to executing the perfect customer interviews is to define the questions that will give you the most valuable responses.
OK, I’m convinced but where should I start with my customer interview questions?
To ensure you’re as prepared as possible before sharing your product or service with the world, a templated set of customer interview questions will enable you to structure and analyse the feedback you receive. Formatting your questions will also ensure you don’t change the wording from interviewee to interviewee based on what you want to hear or what mood you’re in.
Creating a template for your questions will give you control over the information you gather, allowing you to identify trends which can impact how you approach product/market fit later. Making a video or audio recording of each interview will also mean you can go back to your customer interviews again and again for every juicy detail, in super slow motion.
Only until you start carrying out customer interviews, will you be able to establish which questions provide you with the most insightful responses. We, therefore, recommended you readdress your questions every 10 interviews. This will guarantee the information you’re getting back is as clear as you need it to be to draw correlations between answers. These new question iterations could include more probing follow up questions, changing the order or simply changing the total number of questions in your interview.
Iterate, iterate, iterate.
When should I be carrying out customer interviews?
It’s easy to see why asking real-life potential users what they think of a brand new product or service is a no-brainer. However, in the whirlwind of hitting the ground running with your startup, this vital step is often skipped. Depending on who your friends and family are, you can’t always rely on them for the brutal, honest feedback you need.
Customer interviews are like checking your parachute for holes before jumping out of a plane. The earlier you carry out customer interviews the better, but it’s also never too late. As you’ll see in the flow chart below, no matter where you are in your startup journey, you can incorporate customer interviews to optimise your product/market fit.
Even if you already have an established service or product and you’re looking to expand your client base into a new demographic or industry, you owe it to your new idea to validate it. Placing your product or service in a new context can change everything, so you’ll need to clarify whether your ideas have the growth potential you expect.
If your gut tells you your idea has sticking power, that idea deserves to be properly validated through customer interviews. You owe it to your idea.
The next step to executing the perfect customer interviews and reaching product/market fit is knowing what to ask.
Leave your assumptions at the door and go in with an open mind.
Customer Interview Questions
What questions should I ask in my customer interviews?
Now for the good stuff.
Your questions can be split into many categories, for the sake of simplicity, below we’ll stick to 5, and include examples of questions in each category. All you need to do is fill in the gaps to directly address your audience and the product or service you’re looking to offer them.
Putting your own stamp on how these questions are shaped and ordered will be the key to getting valuable insights from your interviews.
Remember, the whole point is to test your assumptions.
“I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”
Problem Discovery Questions
A good place to start your interview is by establishing where your interviewees pain points are in relation to your idea. Does the problem you’re hoping to fix really exist?
Can you start by giving me an overview of your __________________?
What are the main things you’re focusing on right now with _______________?
Is there anything that you’re struggling with?
Want more problem discovery question ideas? Here’s a great resource
Problem Validation Questions
It’s possible that your interviewees may be reluctant to dive into all their problems straight from the kick-off. Problem validation questions give you the change to dig deeper into their initial responses and gain more context around their struggles.
You mentioned ____________, could you tell me more about that?
Tell me about the last time you did ____________, how did that go?
Have you tried to solve _________? What did you like about it and what did you not like about it?
What would happen if _________ was left as it is?
Product Discovery Questions
Once you’ve clarified whether or not your interviewee has a problem that you can feasibly solve, it’s important you understand how they would currently go about solving it. It may be at this point you discover your business idea doesn’t improve this process at all or that you have the potential to remove more friction than you initially thought.
When you have a question about ________, where do you look for answers?
What have you tried in the past to fix this?
Product Validation Questions
Depending on the answers you receive to the questions above, at this point, you will be either sitting proud or slumped into your chair. Product validation questions allow you to present elements of your business idea in its current state and get direct feedback.
Would a system/product that _________ be useful to you? (be careful with this one, we don’t want to taint the answer with a solution and only get yes answers)
How much time do you think you’d save if _________?
If (problem was solved), how many more (desired goal) do you think you’d achieve?
How much a system that ________ be worth to you? Would you pay for it?
Product Optimisation Questions
Now the scary part is over, you can return to how your interviewee feels about how they currently approach solving their struggles related to your business idea. Make sure you scrutinise their experience with potential competitors. These insights are invaluable when approaching your product/market fit and standing out from the crowd.
You said you currently use ________, what doesn’t it do very well?
What would you change about (current operating practice)?
If you were to start all over again, what would you do differently?
With a lot to get through, the interview process can feel quite intense so it’s worth giving your interviewee some breathing room. Turning the tables and letting them ask you a few things may feel counterproductive but this can potentially fill in some gaps you’ve missed.
Is there anything else about ____________ that I should have asked?
Do you have any questions about anything I asked today?
Do you think I missed anything?
Bonus Questions: The better way to ask “why?”
Just asking “why?” when you’re looking for more detail can feel like the quickest way to get what you want, but in customer interview settings you need to give more clarity through your questioning. The clearer you communicate what info you need, the clearer the answers you’ll get in return.
Also repeatedly asking “why?” can add pressure on your interviewee which may stop them from really opening up. Interviewees are giving up their time to provide you with the insights you need, so you want to make them as comfortable with the process as possible.
So why not make “why?” better?
It’s all about reframing your initial question and being more conversational. Here’s a few of our go to’s:
When you said _________, how did that make you feel?
Let me just get this correct, (summarise their main point), am I missing anything?
It’s interesting you said_________, could you tell me more about that?
What made you choose to do ___________?
All of these questions are aimed at summarising or recounting something your interviewee has said. This is no accident as it forces you to listen. If in any doubt, double-checking the feedback you receive will help you to recount your interviewees’ issues when you incorporate them into your product/market fit.
Extra Bonus Tip: Silence
Suggesting you ask nothing at all may go against all our advice above, but allowing for a few pauses in your interviews can provide some interesting unexpected insights. No one likes uncomfortable silences, so if you pause, your interviewees will often start filling the gaps with more useful information.
What questions shouldn’t I ask?
As you start structuring your customer interview questions based on our suggestions, some will start to look more attractive and relevant than others. Wait to try them all in a real customer interview setting before taking too many out. Some may turn out to be the wrong questions for you and you’ll gain nothing from them. Or worse, you get false positives that start leading you down the wrong path.
This is why we recommended you readdress your questions every 10 interviews.
How do I remove questions that I learn nothing from?
You ask, “Do you think this is a good idea to ______?” and your interviewee says “yes”. Deep down they may think it’s a terrible idea but they say yes because they don’t want to hurt your feelings.
If this happens, you’ve learnt nothing. You have a false positive on your hands.
In our list of problem discovery questions, we suggested – “Tell me about your problems with _______?”
Depending on who your interviewee is, this could provide the perfect opportunity for them to lay out everything you need to do to find your product/market fit. Depending on the scale and complexity of your interviewee’s problems, this question can also just create an opportunity for them to vent.
Allowing your interviewees to vent won’t help you. Getting to the specific triggers behind your interviewees’ issues will allow you to understand and empathise with the problems you can actually solve with your business idea.
How do I minimise false positives?
As we mentioned previously, your interviewees aren’t going to want to tell you directly that your ideas have no hope. Because you will naturally be willing positive feedback, without knowing, you can easily project the type of response you want to hear through your tone of voice and body language.
As hard as it may be to reign in your enthusiasm and excitement for your ideas, you don’t want to create the chance for your interviewees to send you down the wrong path just to hear what you want to hear.
Another cause of receiving false positives is when your interviewee feels pressured to give a certain answer because they believe its the normal or common way of solving a certain problem.
For example, if you were to ask:
“Would you use a website to discover new places to go on holiday?”
The most likely answer to this question is obviously “yes”. The way the question is worded perfectly sets up your interviewee to tell you exactly what they think you will expect to hear.
A better question would be to allow your interviewee to walk you through their thought process and drop bigger hints as to what it is they actually need. For example.
“How do you discover new places to go on holiday?”
Giving away as little as possible about the specifics of your product or service idea through the wording of your questions will keep the focus on your interviewee’s personal experiences. There will be plenty of time to shout about your idea when you reach product/market fit.
Is there anything else I should be doing during the interviews?
You’re there to ask questions and listen. Let the person you’re interviewing do all the talking. If they go off on a tangent, wait for them to finish and ask a new question which clarifies the information you were looking for. You’re not there to sell so don’t interrupt or challenge your interviewee’s answers. If you’re recording video or audio of your interviews, you won’t have to furiously take notes and potentially miss getting the best possible answers.
Don’t forget the silence trick. Sometimes slowing down and pausing for silence might be what you need to get your interviewee to really open up.
So now you have your questions, you know why you need to ask them, you know how to ask them, all you need to do is find your interviewees.
Who should I include in my customer interviews?
The type of people you want to be interviewing should be representative of a larger demographic you’re looking to drill down to.
Let’s say you’re looking to find out what are the problems of hiring managers for tech startups.
You may get some great feedback from just targeting this specific group, but to get the broadest possible feedback, you could break your interviewees into two categories. Speaking with hiring managers across industries will give you broader insights into the problems and solutions that could impact your product/market fit. For a different perspective, your second demographic category could, therefore, be senior people in tech startups.
With feedback from both hiring managers in general and senior people in tech startups, you can better identify trends in your feedback and more accurately test your assumptions on how your business idea could impact the problems faced by hiring managers in tech startups.
Once you identify your categories of potential customers to interview, you will give yourself a better chance of tapping into existing communities and networks. Narrowing down the exact types of people that may engage with your business will reduce the time you spend trying to hunt them down.
Now to reach its time to reach out.
Customer interview outreach
How should I contact interviewees?
Finding the right people to interview will depend on the audience categories you’ve identified. Putting the time into researching where the people you want to reach are accessible is a fundamental part of the whole process.
Searching for groups on social media and online community forums are great resources for finding people who relate to the market you want to explore based on their values, location, profession, circumstance or interests. Contacting people in these groups will involve joining a few yourself. This way you will be able to see who the most active members are, message people directly or learn about events where you can meet and ask people in person.
When engaging with online communities, strolling in just to mine for interviewees will not go down well. Take a few days to answer people’s questions, post a few of your own and to connect with the group by sharing your own related experiences. Sharing your personal story related to the core struggle of the specific audience category is far more likely to encourage people to want to help you with your research.
Here are a few top tips for gaining trust before reaching out about your customer interviews:
- Engaging doesn’t just mean giving likes, upvotes or really short comments to other people’s posts
- 2-3 sentence comments and replies are far more likely to spark a genuine conversation
- If your own posting flops, don’t worry. Try again the next day with a different style post, or try another group if you have identified different options.
Engaging with groups before asking for help in this way will allow you to reach out in a more natural way. Once you’ve identified someone you’d like to interview, always give them a heads up that you’re interested in talking further:
“I’d love to ask a few more questions, I’ll send you a DM with some details.”
“You raise an interesting point, I’d appreciate it if I could take 10mins of your time to go through it a little further? I’ll DM you the details.”
Then you’re ready to ask the all-important question:
I’m carrying out some research into _________ system/products.
I hoped I could ask you some questions about your experiences.
Does [time 1] on [day 1] or [time 2] on [day 2] work for you?
Over explaining your objectives in your initial message could come across as if you are trying to sell something. Rather than asking the recipient to suggest any time in the near future to talk, giving two clear options will show you’re serious and will stop you getting into a long game of scheduling ping pong.
20-30% of the time, your suggested slots won’t work but most people will suggest an alternate time in their reply. You may get a reply asking for more information, but if this happens at least you’ve already captured their interest.
Once the replies start pouring in, do not let any email or message go more than 24 hours without a reply. No exceptions. No one is going to want to help you if you don’t seem bothered about speaking to them. The longer you leave a reply, the more likely they’ll change their mind.
And now you’re off. One step closer to finding your product/market fit.
Final Bonus tip: One last question
You’ve finished your interview, you have a hundred new ideas to incorporate into your product or service, and you’ve made a friend for life.
Ask your interviewee if they can introduce you to more people like them. Maybe they can suggest a different social platform, online community or event to attend that you haven’t discovered yet. Actively tapping into your interviewee’s connections will increase your chance of finding willing interviewees that cover a cross-section of the audience you want to validate your ideas against.
If you have any questions about customer development interviews that you’d like to ask us or if you have any top tips of your own, please get in touch!