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How do high-functioning startups deal with this problem? Insights from our conversations with 50+ founders and leaders at customer-obssessed companies.
Paul Graham wrote an essay on the importance of doing things that don’t scale in the early stages of a startup. Listening to customers is one of those things that teams should continue to do in a non-scalable manner for as long as possible. It has many benefits: keeps teams close to customer problems, and for even companies who have product-market fit, helps you find a second inflection point of growth. Segment CEO Peter Reinhardt talks about how they’ve discovered multiple inflection points of growth by continuing to closely listen to their users even beyond product-market fit.
It’s not easy getting users to be forthcoming about their feelings and motivations. The ground reality is that there is a dearth of feedback — and most teams will only get feedback from a self-selected set of users. However, a higher volume of user feedback can be generated by nurturing it consistently. It is important to get the basics right: responding quickly to user feedback (showing equal effort in response as they did in their request), fix broadly-impacting bugs quickly, and for things that can’t be done immediately, it is critical to keep customers in the loop when you actually make progress on a solution. When you earn users’ trust by responding diligently to their feedback, tracking it, and centering your development process around it, they’ll provide you with more feedback in a virtuous cycle that keeps on giving.
Talking to users and diligently tracking their feedback also has additional benefits:
- Helps you qualify the user’s pain better—is it a must-have or a nice-to-have. Approaches taken by larger companies with public voting boards are not an appropriate tool for startups to listen to their users. These boards let anyone vote for a problem or idea without qualification of their pain. Users easily “+1” ideas they think would be “cool”. You’ll get a lot of feedback, but lot of it will be unqualified.
- If and when your company has to change it’s strategy slightly, i.e., change the definition of qualified feedback, you can still get value out of feedback that was recorded previously. In fact, due to this, your team can even run small-scale experiments on appeasing different personas and seeing what impact it makes on growth or engagement.
In order to be data-driven about user feedback, software teams need to adopt a process that encourages and promotes it. In this section, we summarize the key components of a data-driven approach to user feedback, as practiced by some of the world’s best software startups like Brex, Notion, Tandem, and more. The diagram below describes this four-stage process:
Diligently capture all your user feedback. This will pay dividends as you iterate. We describe the mechanics of capturing feedback in the most efficient manner.
"Listen closely to some customers." Pick the user segments that matter most to your business and double down on their problems.
Optimize your planning to solve problems that will satisfy the highest number of qualified customers. We describe how teams can quantify how well they listen to customers.
Don't treat user feedback as a one-way street. Keep customers engaged in your team's progress as you solve one of their problems.