Startups: On Being Your Own Customer

Written By: Dharmesh Shah August 24, 2006

Many of the successful startups I’ve known or been associated with were originally started because the founder was looking to meet her own needs and requirements.  

The story is quite simple and goes something like this: 
  1. Technology person has some need (either personal or within her current employer)
  2. Looks to find a solution to this need
  3. Doesn’t find anything that’s quite right out there
  4. Develops software that fulfills the need
  5. Creates a startup/business around the software

So, what happens when this story starts to unfold is that the founder becomes her own first customer.  She’s defining the business requirements, designing the product and testing it.  Sometimes, all within her head.  Though this is a highly efficient way to do this (and overcomes many of the challenges of translating a user’s needs into a working software product), it has a few challenges. Some are obvious, others aren’t.  So, here are some thoughts on the pros and cons of being your own customer.

Thoughts On Being Your Own Customer
  1.  Solving A Real Problem: There likely really is a problem (i.e. it is not imagined).  I can’t tell you how many startups I’ve met that try to solve a problem that is later determined to either be non-existent or not of sufficient magnitude for anyone to pay anything to have it solved. 

  1. Passion For The Problem:  If you’re solving your own problem, particularly if it’s acute enough, chances are you’ll be more passionate about devising a solution.  Passion is a very important ingredient in the startup adventure as it will help get you through the tough times.  Most of the time, if you’re working on a problem you actually care about, even the long days won’t seem quite as long.

  1. Extrapolating From A Single Data Point:  When you are your own first customer, the tendency is to assume that many people have the same problem you do and that they need it solved in a similar way.  This is not always the case.  If you’re not careful, what can end up happening is the same trap that many consulting companies that want to be software companies fall into:  They build a product that works in a very specialized situation, but cannot be leveraged easily for multiple customers.  So, even if you are your first customer, it’s highly recommended to get some other customers as early as possible so you’re getting more than one perspective.

  1. No Loss In Translation:  One of the challenges in developing software is extracting from the end user/customer what the actual needs are (and developing a design around these needs).  Unless you have a lot of experience with this, it is easy to make mistakes as the customer is not used to describing his problem and things can get lost in translation.  By being your own customer, most of the early conversations are with yourself (and occur in your head).  This circumvents this problem.

  1. Undue Product Influence:  Once you start bringing on additional customers (other than just yourself), it may become hard to balance the requests from “real” customers vs. yourself.  There’s a tendency to work on the features you want instead of the ones that will please other customers.  It’s easy to rationalize this by thoughts along the lines of:  “The other users are simply not understanding this yet, but once I develop the feature, they’ll think it’s really, really cool!”.  

Example:  I am my own customer for my startup, HubSpot.  The site is run entirely on HubSpot.  As such, I often have new features I would like to see added to the platform.  In a “normal” environment, I’d have to convince the supplier of the software that my feature was important and would be of interest to many of their other customers.  But, since I’m my own customer, I don’t have to go through this rationalization and I can just “go do it”.  This is both good and bad.  Good, because I get what I want.  Bad, because it’s not always what the remaining customers care about.  
  1. No Pricing Feedback:  An obvious downside of being your own customer is that your perception of the value of the product is not relevant.  Simply because you think you would have paid X amount of money for your product is usually not sufficient evidence that others will share your point of view.  

What about you?  Have you ever been your own customer?  If so, what did you learn from the experience?  Leave your thoughts and ideas in the comments area.

Related Posts