Attention, Startups: Here’s How to Get Real Product Feedback from Your Customers

If you get accepted into an accelerator it becomes easy to be distracted by seemingly important tasks.

You’ll be finding leads for your next raise, getting feedback from mentors about market position, and practice pitching your company so many times you’ll get sick of your own idea.

However, at some point, you’ll actually need to create a product that is going to delight your customers. 

One of the areas where an accelerator can really distinguish itself from the others is by helping you with your product. That may sound trivial but it’s actually really hard to find people who have successfully launched an innovative tech product into the marketplace. There are plenty of lawyers, HR people, marketers, and investors attached to an accelerator, but your customers don’t care about your VC pitch, your org chart, or your go-to-market strategy; they care about your product and more specifically how your product solves a problem they have.

One of the core tenants of the lean startup model is getting out of the building, getting product feedback, and rapidly integrating it into your product. When you have a more steady stream of users you can do quantitative things like A/B tests, but until you have a statistically significant amount of usage you’ll have to resort to more qualitative means of getting feedback.

This means showing your product to people and getting direct feedback while not becoming defensive. However, the tricky part about getting product feedback is getting the “real” feedback. By which I mean getting actionable feedback from a customer who is being completely honest with you. 

If you have a consumer-oriented product, your first inclination may be to show it to friends but your friends are actually a bad source of product feedback. If your friends actually like you, they will pull punches and only give positive feedback (honest or not) because they won’t want to do anything to soil your dreams. Your friends saying “I’m sure there’s a market for this!” is a nice way of saying “I probably won’t use this once your back is turned.” I figure the bad pitches on Dragon’s Den and Shark Tank are just a parade of people who have friends that think they’re too weak to take harsh feedback.

However, if you are really sneaky, you can take your product, rebrand it to some fake company, and tell your friends that this is your competitor’s product and that you need their help in finding its weaknesses. This gives your friends permission to give some hard hitting real feedback.

Another way to get the “real” feedback from people is to ask for $20 for the product right then and there. This can be hard to do up front if your product is free but If you are pitching your product to someone you should ask for $20 to see a reaction. The next words that come out of her mouth is going to be real feedback along the lines of “Gee, for $20, I’d want it to do X.” Getting someone to pry open their wallet is an extremely hard thing to do and when you ask for cash it stops being about the idea you are pitching and more about whether they need the product enough to justify the cost.

In this vein, if you have more of a business-to-business product, don’t make your betas free to your trial customers. If an initial customer isn’t willing to pay for a half-baked solution then they don’t have the problem deep enough to be the kind of customer you want.

You want to find out if you’re making a product for a market nobody cares about sooner rather than later. Also, if someone isn’t paying for a product then they aren’t going to be committed to its development and you’ll find your meetings and emails are a low priority for the customer.

The other simple thing you can do while you’re working your way from qualitative feedback to quantitative feedback is to email your first 1,000 users. As in, personally email them. Their feedback is going to be very valuable and will dictate the crucial early direction of your product.  It may turn out that they’re using it to solve a problem you hadn’t thought of.

At its core, your product has to delight at least a small group of people. A few times, we’ve made the mistake of having a product iteration that a lot of people found “interesting,” but in the tech startup world you need a few early adopters to scream at the top of their lungs that your product is the best thing ever.

Originally published in March 2013.