Today’s Startup Landscape is more exciting, innovative, and yet more volatile than ever. The market is literally birthing new companies and organizations from both the successes and ashes of the startups that have come before them.
One thing is clear in the current startup ecosystem…This is a fast moving current and companies that have the ability to quickly innovate, prototype, and test new solutions in the market are leading the way. This isn’t just 2-man startups in garages anymore…this applies to multi-billion dollar companies who have innovation teams that operate like well-funded Silicon Valley startups and are tasked with creating the “Next Great Thing” for their organization.
As we automate and focus on Agile and Iterative development one simple rule of business can never be forgotten or overlooked, the value of the “first customer.” In fact, in this world of Iterative design and development, one might argue that the “first customer” step is repeated for each and every iteration your product.
Certainly the first customer represents many valuable outcomes from positive cash flow to measurable traction in the market. In this post, I would like to focus on the internal company value of customers and how they help companies grow and evolve. We’ll discuss external value another day…specifically the value of a customer for investors and other stakeholders.
Here at Bowtie.io, we’ve built our company on the many cycles of gaining our “first” customer and extrapolating information from each experience to continue our growth. You always hear the saying “Drink your own Kool-Aid” or “Eat your own dog food,” well as the Co-Founders of Bowtie.io we had our hearts set on that before we ever got started. The “Kool-Aid” only existed because we wanted it ourselves.
To share just a small portion of our story…We are a group of intelligent techies and at any given time there is no shortage of “great” ideas, all of which had distinct opportunities to be successful. I think back to our early days and our amazing whiteboard sessions of innovation. We had so many ideas and as we continued our whiteboard brain dump our CTO, James Kassemi, took one look and said, “This is going to be a lot of work!” We knew years of work were ahead of us no matter what, but then he had what some might call an “Ah-Ha” moment. We needed a tool that would help us build and execute new ideas, something that could help us minimize the time that it takes to get from a whiteboard sketch to MVP (Minimum Viable Product). We wanted something that was not only a Prototyping or Proof of Concept (POC) solution…we needed something that would help us to create an MVP that we could scale based on adoption. Something that would allow us to quickly build and vet new ideas…thus was born Bowtie.io!
Now finding our first customer was simple…we were in the room. A tangible MVP or POC is like a call sign for customers, just as Gotham needed the Bat-Signal to call on their hero, every company needs an attractor to draw in their customers. Customers are the cornerstone of our growth and evolution so we focus on several key strategies to repeat the process of gaining our first customer as we scale and continue to create our product.
I am a big believer that the best way to gain market share is to truly focus on becoming a part of the community that you serve, the tighter your community the more powerful your Bat-Signal. We were three innovators, developers, and engineers in a room trying to solve this problem…we knew we were not in a special situation. There had to be developers in every corner of the globe facing the same “Oh Crap” whiteboard moment that we experienced. That was our community…those were our friends, they just didn’t know it yet. The worst thing an entrepreneur can do is have tunnel vision when building a product or solution. We couldn’t just sit in our office and build a solution that three guys believed in, we had to shine our signal out to the world and draw in our community.
We went to hackathons, community events, user groups, you name it. Wherever our community was, we were there. Not telling them they needed to try our product, but talking to them about what problems they were trying to solve and what projects they were involved in. Obviously we were talking to them about our solution but from a visionary perspective with a collaborative approach of… “We are building this amazing tool that is focused on helping developers build, test, and scale all of these awesome ideas in only a fraction of the time that it currently takes. What do you think about that?”
We had to get our community speaking our language, they had to know what it meant when we were ready to shine our bat-signal. If you talk to anyone experienced in teaching or learning foreign languages, you will hear a universal answer for the most effective method. IMMERSION is a method of teaching a foreign language by the exclusive use of that language. You immerse yourself in an environment where you have no other option but to learn a new language or else you won’t be able to eat, catch a taxi, make a purchase…basically, you won’t survive. Isn’t that the world we live in as startup founders every day? If we can not get a community, “our community,” speaking our language we won’t survive. We needed developers saying, “Let’s Bowtie that” or “That’s a Bowtie Project.” Every company doesn’t have a name that can become part of a sentence, but that is exactly what we are accomplishing.
As you build your community these people are your future customers, advisors, and much more. They become our Maven’s, our voice to continue to grow our following. The first customer shouldn’t be taken literally… it’s the description of a phase in your business, a very important phase in your business.
That first moment when someone puts their money where their mouth is and buys your product is a euphoric experience. As founders, you always have to be confident in your solutions but anyone who tells you they don’t have their moments of “are we building the right thing or are we crazy” is lying! But when people start to pay, it is a sense of validation that the people are starting to believe in your Bat-Signal! Now comes the hard but fun part! I’m a scientist and actually got my first degree in Genetics and Cellular Biology. You must translate this “first customer phase”, your product and endless research into something tangible, to validate your business hypothesis. I’m going to dig really, really deep into my background of highly scientific terms, paying customers are your new research subjects…ok, so maybe it wasn’t that scientific, but many companies don’t look at customers that way. Customers are much more than people who just send you checks…the value is much greater than that.
You need a strategy to turn a qualitative theory of users into a quantitative collection of users. Every research project gains accuracy as you add more and more test cases and data sources. This lets you better define your process and identify any meaningful gaps that can be addressed with more iteration and testing, turning theoretical product features into a prioritized strategic plan for new features and releases based on customer feedback.
You can begin to test your marketing, messaging, and strategy. Much like A/B testing, you take your current solution and existing offerings and turn them into processes and strategies that increase engagement and advance your monetization strategy. This establishes a foundation on which to erect your framework. It enables you to understand why customers bought your product, how long it took them to buy it, what they are saying about it, how much they are using it, and finally, how can we entice future users?
Customers are the most valuable thing your company will ever have, but too many companies don’t understand the true meaning of, or the true value of the first customer(s).
As the founders of Bowtie.io we love the process of gaining our first customer again and again. They may not have been the perfect customers or even the customers that we originally envisioned, but they were perfect for our early stage needs. They bring an external perspective of creativeness, adventure, and a meaningfully smart and vested interest in your solution. They were our Batman—maybe not the hero we envisioned, but definitely the hero we needed. Every great company has that moment where they need first customers to show them the way. Let BowTie be your Bat-Signal!