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What Most Startup Entrepreneurs Get Wrong

As seen on Forbes.

Another one bites the dust.

Sometimes we entrepreneurs get so caught up in our “grand vision”.  Riding high on the wave of our “big idea” — falsely believing every human being on earth will one day use our product.

So we spend countless hours locked in our own version of David Packards’ garage.  Acting like mad scientists mostly.  Cut off from society.

And what are we doing there?

Desperately designing, building and perfecting our killer product to save the world.  Laser focused.  Nothing going to stop us.  Trudging ahead on what every person on the planet needs.

Except we’ve made a huge mistake….

We forgot to check with them first.


You wouldn’t believe the heart wrenching stories I hear.  Well meaning entrepreneurs.  Stepping out and taking the plunge.  Starting their own business and cashing in their 401k to do it.  Definitely all-in on their dreams.

Only to lose everything in crushing defeat.

So what happened?  How did their dream die a quick death?  What is the main reason for their failure?

Simply this:  They seriously forgot who they were fighting for.  Yes — the “who” being their customer.

Call it “customer validation”.  Call it “persona clarity”.  Call it whatever you want.  But in the end; this truth is as hardcore as gravity.  Mess with it — and you’re going down hard.

Entrepreneurs will never succeed without having an intimate understanding of the people they are trying to serve.

In other words — KNOW THY CUSTOMER!

In theory; a ton of ways to go about this “knowing thy customer” business.   But I subscribe to these 4 steps which are tattooed on my forehead.

Step 1:  You Must Find Them

First; before you dare spend one dime building anything; get out there and find your customers.  Do you know who your ideal customer is?  Do you have a clue on who would be the best user of your product idea?  Do you even care?

Well, you better.  The key here is to get out of your holy garage and go in search of your customers before you start building anything.  They’re out there.  Walking the streets.  Trolling the Internet.  Hanging out everywhere you look.

And please don’t say to yourself “yes, I will do this once I have something built to show them.”  This is a mistake.  If this is you — please consider a mind shift.  You’ll find many top gurus like Steven Blank; Eric Ries and others beating this mantra like a drum.  An entrepreneur needs to really understand how important customer development is.

And yes, before you build anything — go find your customer and hang out with them.

Step 2:  You Must Engage Them

Once you’ve found them and are starting to hang out; don’t just sit there.  Start engaging them.  Start the conversation.

And I don’t mean whipping out your 4-color glossy brochure to talk about your product idea to save the world.  No.  Have a real conversation.  You know, like “hey, how’s it going?  What are you working on?  What’s up in your life?”

Too many entrepreneurs who agree to do Step #1 — get it wrong on Step #2.   They immediately start honing their pitch.  They practice in front of the mirror.  And go out to their target market with an agenda.

What’s the agenda?  Trying as hard as possible to get validation on their pre-conceived idea.

This is not engagement.  This is pushing an agenda before you even know what the customer truly needs.

Markets are conversations.  Engaging conversations.  Friendly, trusting conversations.

So stick your agenda in the corner of your garage.  Leave home without it.  And go out and engage your audience.  Believe me — you’ll start learning something if you do.

Step 3:  You Must Learn From Them

Yes, the premise of conversations with potential customers is to learn from them.  Ask some open-ended questions and then close that mouth so you can listen.  Really hear what they are saying.

One of my favorite questions to ask?  “What keeps you up at night in a cold sweat as a business owner?”  You wouldn’t believe the answers I get.  Stories to blow your mind.

Oh, but wait:  You’re targeting stay at home moms; single men in their 20’s; or rocket scientists working at NASA.   Doesn’t matter.  Just slip your target’s gig at the end of the sentence above.  You know, like: “What keeps you up at night in a cold sweat as a rocket scientist from NASA?

Get ready to discover pure pain.  Rolling thunder of words poured out with unmasked emotion.

And why is this good?  Because figuring out a way to cure their pain is like finding the golden ticket in the Wonka Bar.  Pure utopia.

Step 4:  You Must Serve Them

Once you know the pain of your customer; and it becomes pretty clear the same pain is common among many; it’s time to serve.

And not like you think.  Don’t run back to that garage of yours, shut the doors behind you and hunker down for 2 years building what you think will cure their pain.

No.  If your customers have skinned knees?  Start small.  Be practical.  Get them a band-aid.

Eric Ries calls it a MVP or minimum viable product in his book “The Lean Startup”.  Again, call it whatever you want.  But the point here is to start serving your target customer in small ways; and sometimes at no cost to them.

Start a blog.  Begin sharing helpful content to solve their pain.  Start feeding toned down versions of products they might buy.  Stick some things out there and see what works.  Test different things.  Measure the results.

Man — I don’t need to re-write the book here on this stuff.  Each one of these steps is covered by a million articles and a thousand books.

So why don’t more entrepreneurs follow this simple strategy?  I’m not sure.  But boy is it painful when they don’t.

Have you figured it out yet?  Do you know what most startup entrepreneurs get wrong?

Yes — it’s the customer silly.

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About the Author: Eric T. Wagner is a husband, father and life-long entrepreneur. After starting multiple businesses, Eric is now focused on helping other entrepreneurs find the path to success in business and life. You can also catch his gig on Forbes or connect with him on Google+.


  1. Michael J. Stelmakh says:

    Great post Eric!
    I agree with You that first You must know what people need. And then to think about how You can combine their needs with Your ideas, and then to develop something based on this combination. And when this step is finished, I think that the excellent way to gain more attention among people is to giveaway something for free (just to mention, today I saw one campaign on the internet that gained 300’000+ people in less than 20 minutes).
    Thanks for sharing, Eric :)

    • Eric T. Wagner says:

      Thanks Michael. Customers are the key my friend…. no matter how great our ideas are… :-)

      • just a startup at the moment, read several of your articles Eric, agree for the most part, pertaining to friends,family,etc, in general,people like us think out of the box–therefore most of the others look at us like we are crazy,lost our mind etc. now to the customer, my customer can be anyone that feels like they fall into this catagory, trying to build a brand & products, etc. Culture & history put the decendents of Scotts & Irish & hillbilly & rednecks all in one basket & then the latter day media twisted into a negative connotation. What my mission is to do, is to bring back the pride of the original culture, educating that these were not originally, illiterate, backwoods people. ALong with this, give them ( the customer) the opportunity to follow the website, interact, purchase products for personal use & go from there. Saying all that, my ears are open, and appreciate any info/ideas that are dancing around your mind at the moment, cause I know that people in this line of work ,never stop thinking!! Have a grand day

        • Eric T. Wagner says:

          Thanks for sharing Donna. Appreciate it. Just stay focused on your customer and their pain points. This will allow you to start figuring out unique ways to cure their pain in a profitable way. It’s pretty simple — but this is the essence of business.

          Thank you Donna.

  2. Thanks for sharing this great post Eric.

    I really think that this post is must read for anyone thinking of starting a new venture.

    I have peronsonally come across lots of entrepreneurs who fell so madly in love with their business idea that they completely forgot to listen to the voice of the customer. After failing in my first business, I made it a point to spend considerable amount of time validating my idea before spending any time, effort and money on an untested concept.


    • Eric T. Wagner says:

      Hi Anant.

      Smart move. Having a clear understanding of customers is a key for any business. Period.

      Thanks for sharing Anant.

  3. Bruno A. Pradal says:

    Hi Eric!

    I’m Bruno (a 5 months rookie entrepreneur/35 years old psychologist).

    I was reading an article in Forbes and came across with your catchy introduction*. Although I had already hear about this painful mistake, yours is the best explanation I have read:

    “Markets are conversations. Engaging conversations. Friendly, trusting conversations.”

    This is so true, that here we are: talking.

    *And that’s why I’ll connect with you after posting this comment.

    • Eric T. Wagner says:

      Thanks Bruno.

      The concept of “markets are conversations” comes from a well written book called “The Cluetrain Manifesto”. The really great thing is — the book was written 10 years ago.

      But this phrase is more relevant today than ever, in my opinion.

      Thanks for sharing Bruno. Appreciate it.

  4. You don’t need to re-write the book, do you? The philosophy is as old as Aristotle and he would have agreed, rather, did agree with you, “Know thyself.” Really, all of our pain comes from the same place and is the same, only in a different package. I am a start up business using energy medicine as a tool for life coaching. I learned awhile back that in some way or another I could absolutely relate to the pain of every one of my clients. I have also learned you don’t tell them that right away. The key as you said is to listen. I have then found that often times sharing my own experience is the zinger that releases the pain. So, knowing yourself is of utmost importance if you want to know your customer. It seems the deeper you go to unmask the emotions the deeper goes the rabbit hole. It takes a lot of courage and focus toward the light. By the way, I love your quote, “Know thy customer.” I am sure I will be using it many times. :)

    When you are in the garage, getting out feels like the biggest block, yes. I still deal with this. Pain is not easy to confront and once you realize that is what you are out there looking for sometimes it is easy to take a second look. The miracle comes as you experience the principle “as you give help to another, you also receive help.” I see and experience this over and over.

    My block also comes in the form of finding people who really are honest (willingness to unmask their emotions) and then work with it. Many just want to keep faking it. How do you get them to the point of realizing they will never get to where they want to go as long as they keep faking it? I know the benefits of honesty begins with self first, but have a difficult time leading people to saying yes to taking off the mask. Maybe I have not yet truly taken off my own mask?

    • Eric T. Wagner says:

      Thanks Bonnie. Great insight. As far as helping people get real with themselves and taking off the mask — you can only do so much. In the end; it comes down to their own personal decision. We are each accountable and responsible for our own decisions.

      Thanks for sharing here Bonnie.


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