Staying Lean Vs Getting Your First Customers

There's a lot of buzz around the practice of staying lean and saying NO to the many feature requests that you will inevitably face on your journey of building a product. However, as a startup begins to build traction it can be very difficult to balance the lean approach while getting your first customers onboard.

To start building traction, you'll need to target a list of influential customers who will help market your product, but quite often these customers will have a number of requests or needs and sometimes these may be very unique. So, how do you make them feel special and get them using your product, without saying yes to lots of features that aren't on your roadmap? Do you simply turn down requests, in the spirit of remaining lean?

While keeping the product lean is important, it's more important to have people using it. In the early days of a startup it's inevitable you will have to build features that you probably never even considered and sometimes these may be very bespoke.

It's a fine balance of weighing up the extra complexity you'll add to the product with the potential growth value. If the customer can deliver value to your business by creating credibility or promoting your service to a wider audience, then it's a good idea to compromise your lean approach to get them onboard. The objective is to make these customers feel special, get them bought into your product and your customer experience and then convert them into evangelists. Saying no to their requests isn't a great start down this path.

However, before you simply begin saying yes to everything, it's important to consider alternative solutions to specific problems. Every customer feature request at Get Invited is initially handled by developing a proper understanding of the problem they're trying to solve. In some cases, we've been able to solve problems by suggesting solutions that utilise current features in a creative way, in other cases we've had to build something for the customer that wasn't on our roadmap.

In some instances, we've built very bespoke features and made them accessible to only a single customer (to avoid over-complicating the UI for other users). This is completely against the methodology of lean, but turning down influential, high value customers in the early growth stages because you don't want to build unvalidated features doesn't make good business sense. A startup isn't just about building a great product, it's about building a sustainable business and the two must be balanced.

I'm not advocating that you build every single feature request, but you should be prepared to be flexible when it comes to getting those big customers onboard, especially if you're competing with established competitors which offer every feature under the sun. We generally follow the 37 Signals rule of not keeping a written feature request list, the important features are the ones in the forefront of our minds because customers repeatedly ask us for them on a regular basis. However, we do have to make exceptions to the rule.

Using Customer Input to Build Your Product

It's also important to see the value in customer driven development. From experience, it can be easy to get sucked into a vacuum and build a product under your own delusions of what you think is best. However, in almost every case, your users are always right.

Having customer input throughout the development process can be hugely beneficial and will also save you time and money. When we started building our Italian invoicing system at Get Invited, we knew nothing about the accounting and tax laws in Italy so we got a few customers onboard (Luca and Rocco at From the Front – who we owe a huge thanks to for their continued support) and built these features for them. They explained to us exactly how the taxation, invoicing and accounting should work in their country. They got the features they needed, and we got all the knowledge and information we needed to roll our service out in Italy.

We could easily have paid a lot of money to do this, but by simply talking to a customer, we we're able to do it for free.

Going Outside the Box

Sometimes, going the extra mile and building unusual requests can help promote your business by creating interesting stories while developing positive customer relationships.

When we were working with Craig Lockwood to get The Web Is set up on Get Invited, he provided us with the most unique request we've ever had. He required a very bespoke feature that would enable him to build an electronic ticket counter for his event using an Arduino; which would provide a live feed of his ticket sales and ring a bell every time he sold a ticket.

Well, it would have been crazy of us to say no –

In Closing

While the lean product approach is an important discipline, it's important to also keep your business hat on and be prepared to be flexible, especially in the early days as you begin to build traction. It's inevitable you'll have to build unvalidated features and in some cases build very bespoke or unusual features to get the right customers onboard.