In a lean startup, we like to say that it is better to pick the customer you want to serve and figure out what problems they have than to come up with a solution and then figure out who needs it. Entrepreneurs following this advice often ask me how they should decide which customer to choose and whether they should worry about targeting something too narrow. Specificity is good. Picking a small segment (e.g., parents of grade school aged children in the Washington, DC area) so that you can get enough penetration to start seeing network effects is usually better than biting off a segment that is too large for you to have any real impact (e.g., parents). With regard to what segment to choose, there are a few different approaches:
- market sizing,
- customer development, and
I’m going to lay them out from most to least traditional, ending with my favorite method.
This is your traditional business school approach. Find some research on the sizes of various markets, maybe take a look at which ones already have similar offerings floating around, and pick whichever market has the best combination of size and untapped potential. As a baseline, this is not a bad way to go, but I prefer focusing on either customer development or passion as a way to pick your market.
Form a hypothesis about which market has the biggest problem doing whatever you’re good at doing. For instance, if you’re offering an online service to help customer find places to buy widgets, ask yourself who has trouble finding information about local stores, catalogs, and places to shop. Then, before building anything, go talk to some customers in that segment and ask them about how they currently find the information that you hope to offer, and whether that method satisfies them. Don’t tell them about your solution; just see if they actually have a problem with their current solution. If they don’t, you’re going to have a hard time getting them to use your option. If your first hunch about a market doesn’t pan out, try a few more and see which one yields the most frustrated customers. Start with that market, because it will be easier to attract your early adopters if they are actively looking for a solution.
See also: The Ideal Profile of an Early Adopter
The third school of thought, and the one I most often favor, is a variant of following your passion. Let’s take as a given that, barring lottery-like success, you will be working hard on this startup for 5-10 years before you see real returns. If that’s the case, who do you want to spend that time with? Which customer segment is the one you want to spend 5-10 years talking to, learning about, and empathizing with? When you pick a customer whom you like, you’re much more likely to stick with the startup long enough to find the right formula. If, for example, you hate sculptors but love musicians, you probably already know who you want your customers to be.
This post was adapted from an answer I wrote to a user’s question on Quora.