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Why it pays to ask customers what they really want

By listening to their clients, these Canadian entrepreneurs were able to build better products — and speed up their company’s growth.

“Fail fast” is a popular adage in the startup world. But blindly following that principle, can be costly if not downright catastrophic. It’s one thing to quickly release a new product, gauge the response and then make improvements; however, failing fast can end in … well, failure without the right approach. While it’s essential to collect feedback, gathering insights through market research may be prohibitively expensive — especially for companies that are just starting out. And given the economic challenges of soaring inflation and restrained venture capital funding, many startup founders are choosing a more direct route: talking to customers directly.

Here, entrepreneurs share lessons on asking the hard questions, testing assumptions and pivoting.

Determine which problems customers are actually facing

When Jenny Lemieux co-founded Vivid Machines with Jonathan Binas three years ago, the two didn’t have a defined product strategy or even a target market. “We were just curious to see what problems we could solve using machine learning,” she says. Lemieux, who grew up in a farming community outside of London, Ont., had watched her uncle and grandfather face challenges in managing their crops and was interested to see if there might be new applications for machine learning in agriculture.

She talked to farmers, greenhouse managers and other producers before zeroing in on a specific issue that apple growers face: crop load management. Fruit farmers must monitor the development of dozens of varieties of fruit species, which can be hard to track using traditional aerial imaging technology. “It’s hard to visualize what’s happening on a farm until you go out there and do some of the things the farmers are doing,” says Lemieux. “Seeing the problem up close and talking directly with the growers gives you a robust product roadmap — we won’t run out of things to build.” Vivid Machines’ sensor technology — which involves a combination of imaging and AI — helps fruit farmers monitor and manage the health of their crops in real time, from spring buds to harvest. The company tested its technology with clients throughout the summer growing season and is now looking to expand into other fruit.

Watch out for pain points

As an entrepreneur, it’s easy to think you have all the answers. “We may think we know how it should be done,” says Rick Huijbregts, who heads up education operations at Toronto-based cybersecurity firm Protexxa. “But frankly, there’s nothing better than exposing our thoughts and our products to clients to get real feedback.”

In developing Protexxa’s software platform, Huijbregts led a series of tests and workshops, which revealed that prospective users weren’t behaving as the company anticipated they would. (For instance, the platform initially only accepted work email addresses as log-ins, but not everyone opted to use company credentials when they signed onto the platform.) “What we thought was a secure way of keeping communities together didn’t always work with how people used their emails,” says Huijbregts. “So we had to adjust to meet different needs.” The feedback also helped Protexxa redesign its dashboard — where clients can see if their information has been leaked or breached — to ensure that the information is presented in a user-friendly way. By testing early and often, the company was able to quickly refine its product and is gearing up for a launch later this fall.

Stress-test ideas — the earlier, the better

As Huijbregts found, entrepreneurs don’t need to have a polished product to start collecting feedback. In fact, the earlier they can engage with their customers, the better. Rob Ostfield is the co-founder of WeeL, a mobile platform that connects car owners with vetted mobile mechanics. But that wasn’t WeeL’s original premise. As a teen, Ostfield worked in the service department at a car dealership and eventually became the go-to person when his friends and family needed car repair and maintenance advice. He started the company to provide roadside assistance and connections to service partners.

By talking to prospective customers, however, he “learned some very hard lessons.” Many drivers already had roadside assistance from their car manufacturer and were apprehensive about additional services that weren’t covered. Plus, there were well-established players already in the market. But through those conversations, Ostfield also learned that drivers were finding it difficult to find trusted mechanics who didn’t charge exorbitant prices. He used that insight to pivot, transforming his business into a curated auto repair and maintenance marketplace that connects customers with service providers who make house calls. (Close to 80 percent of repairs and maintenance, Ostfield notes, can be done in someone’s driveway.) Without talking to drivers early on, Ostfield says he would not have been able to bring WeeL to the stage it’s at now. Earlier this year, the company completed its first fundraise and is now developing a new automated platform with real-time pricing.

Find fresh perspectives

For founders who don’t know where or how to start crowdsourcing feedback, there are platforms that can help. After working in product management for a decade, Pativet Sathiensamrit noticed what he describes as a troubling “empathy gap between what companies think customers want and what they actually want.” Since customer experience is often the domain of marketing teams, product developers were working with second-hand information. Sathiensamrit started Lightster in 2021 to make it easier for companies to connect with end users and gather consistent feedback. That data can sometimes lead to surprising insights. For instance, one of the companies Lightster worked with discovered that its customers cared far more about the experience level of its service providers than they did about receiving incentives. This finding, Sathiensamrit said, helped the company refocus its priorities.

Nurture relationships with early adopters

The relationships companies build with pilot customers are incredibly valuable, says Huijbregts, and should be nurtured throughout the product development process and beyond. In refining its platform, Protexxa reached out to organizations who were already familiar with the company, and potential clients to whom they had been warmly introduced. That connection is key, says Huijbregts, as those pilot customers understand the platform is still in its pilot stage and there is a mutual willingness to collaborate. “Starting small, and working with and listening to trusted customers is essential to ultimately create a product that solves a real problem they are facing.” If your early customers value what you’ve built and have been involved throughout the product development process, their loyalty — and referrals — will outweigh any money your startup puts toward marketing.

And as Sathiensamirt points out, consumers are increasingly interested in far more than just buying a product. “Oftentimes, we may look at buying a product as a transaction, but in this day and age, customers buy what you’re selling because they are affiliated with you in more ways than just the product itself,” says Sathiensamrit. “They believe in your brand, they believe in the story behind your brand, and that’s why they’re buying from you.” If entrepreneurs are able to invest in building loyalty early on, it will pay dividends.

On average, MaRS-supported ventures generate more revenue and create more jobs than the rest of the economy. We call this the “unfair MaRS advantage” — see how we make it happen.

Illustration: Monica Guan; Images: Unsplash

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