Starting a Startup Pt. 3: Identifying Customer Problems and Needs

These series of posts are based on my recent experience with starting a startup, and how I went about it with my partner to get us both on the same page for us to develop a strategy we both believe in and can execute on.


Previously, we spoke about how to nail down your target audience and as a next step to do some customer development/interviewing to understand if your profile was accurate, and start understanding their problems and their needs.

Why not jump into building some solution if we know who are customers are? Our customers have hundreds and hundreds of problems, and so to ensure we don’t spend our time solving the wrong problem, we need to spend some time doing customer interviews to learn and validate their most significant problems, and then build a product around those problems and needs.

Such a focus will help increase your product’s chance of success.

Now that you have spoken to 10-15 customers about their lives and problems, you should have a decent list of issues. Here’s what we want to do now:


Step 1: Identify themes

We want to group similar problems together to start identifying problems. To do this:

  1. Write each problem a customer mentioned on a separate sticky. If you interviewed ten customers and each identified five problems, you should have fifty stickies.
  2. Put each stickie up on a wall and group any similar stickies together
  3. Look at each cluster and identify the common theme between all the stickies in that cluster

Grouping your stickies to identify themes

Using stickies allows you to visualize your data quickly and determine pattens such as problem importance, which would be based on the number of stickies in each cluster.

All the problems you see on the wall will represent your customer’s “top-of-mind” problems, which are problems that your customer knows about and is thinking about.

Side note: Eventually, you’ll need to start identifying the other important problems: the “not-in-my-mind-but-is-a-major-problem-that-I-didn’t-know-about” problems. You can do this in two ways: interviewing customers and being very inquisitive about every detail, and studying their behavior.


Step 2: Get Customers to Prioritize

Now that we have a list of the most common problems/themes, we need to understand how important they are to our customers. But wait, shouldn’t the size of the cluster tell us this? Not necessarily! As I mentioned before, customers usually will tell you their “top-of-mind” problems, but not all their problems.

When you back to your customers, get them to prioritize these themes to help you understand the importance of each theme, how they rank against each other, and why each one is important or not important to them. The more customers you can do this with, the better; you’ll get to start understanding their perspective and gather valuable insights.

Use card sorting or something similar for this exercise.


Step 3: Synthesize your Learnings

With the customer prioritization exercises now complete, you’ll need to aggregate all the data together and be able to answer the following questions:

  1. Which 3-5 themes are consistently ranked as the most important ones? These are the themes you want your solution to nail to a certain degree.
  2. Were there any themes that your customers didn’t previously think about but now are aware of how important they are from this exercise? These are themes that if you solve could make for great marketing material as they’ll show you know their industry/domain very well.
  3. What themes can you throw out or defer to later? These are the themes that you can work on incorporating later once your initial product has found success.


With a solid understanding of your customers, their problems, and their needs, we can finally start investigating what value prop we can deliver and the corresponding solution.




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