How to approach customer discovery as an early-stage startup (and beyond)

Throughout my various stints as a CIO, I’ve had a number of opportunities to assist sales teams as they worked to land or close significant deals. But even more frequently, I was brought in to help with discovery — essentially determining whether a prospective customer was a good fit for our product.

In my experience, the sales teams that are most successful have a complete and well-established discovery playbook that allows them to determine whether a potential customer is the right customer for the organization to have at its current stage.

For fledgling startups, this is especially critical. New technologies are inherently fluid, and they require customers willing to make a long-term bet. Startups also have to move quickly and efficiently. The discovery process can’t be long and protracted, so its foundations must be sound.

Whether you’re pursuing customer number five, 50 or 500, the process of determining if there’s a fit remains largely the same. Here are some tips for approaching discovery in the early days and as your organization scales.

Start with key questions to determine fit

Determining whether your solution or technology is right for a prospective customer is critical. But it’s just as important to know whether that customer is a good fit for you. Questions to ask yourself might include:

Whether you’re pursuing customer number five, 50 or 500, the process of determining if there’s a fit remains largely the same.

  • Is your tech displacing an existing product? If so, there’s at least a logical fit from a solutions standpoint.
  • When was the last time they purchased new technology? As a startup, you don’t want to spend months going back and forth before deployment. You want your product in use and generating feedback.
  • Are they forward-looking? Some customers truly want to invest in cutting-edge technologies. Some are just going through the motions because it’s what their bosses expect. Others are just trying to learn or plan for the future. Figure this out early on.
  • Do they care enough about getting it right to spend the time and money required? New technologies necessitate ongoing investment and two-way participation to improve and evolve over time. Get a sense of how effective they would be as collaborators.
  • Have they been burned in the past? Some companies have a tremendous appetite for new technologies but have simply tried too many that haven’t worked. Find out what other technologies they’ve tested, what worked and what didn’t.
  • Are they the type of customer you’d want other prospects speaking to as a reference? If not, they’re not the ideal early customer.
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