How To Reach Your Target Customer: Getting Up Close and Personal

Early customer validation can’t be hacked – it has to be earned.

September 26th, 2017   |    By: The Startups Team    |    Tags: Growth, Customers, Customer Acquisition

During last week’s wide-ranging conversation about evaluating your ideas, we touched on the idea of “niching”: paring down your target audience until you find the exact set of people you want to help.

So once you’ve taken that step of committing to a core audience and decided who you’re for (and who you’re not), the next question becomes: how do you get in front of those target customers? And, more importantly: how do you figure out what they want from your product?

“[It’s about] lots and lots and lots of living with the customer. Live and breathe the customer – they will show you the right path.”

The dream, of course, is to put together a quick survey, send it out to a mailing list of 10,000 of your ideal users, and come back to find your inbox full of perfectly clear, data-driven answers.

But the reality, at least in the early stages, is much scrappier than that. Early customer validation can’t be hacked – it has to be earned. And the only way to earn it is by doing the work, and getting up close and personal with your customers.

For this session, startup advisor Tara Gowland and Storyhackers founder Ritika Puri joined us for a conversation about getting to know your target customer. The main takeaways: get the right teammates, live where your customers live, get personal – and do the work.

How To Reach Your Target Customer

IT Really is About WHO YOU KNOW

Rule #1 of getting to know your customers: make sure you have someone on your team who knows them. If you aren’t your target customer – and, contrary to the popular myth, plenty of founders aren’t –  make sure you have someone on your team who is.

“Find the right team with the right Rolodex into your customer base,” advises Tara Gowland. “This is why I love startups with a founder or first employee who either works for the partner or customer base you’re after.”

Not only can that person with deep industry experience bring you insight about your audience, their pain points, and what’s meaningful to them – they also bring the contacts to match. And that can be invaluable when it comes to getting your foot in the door with would-be customers.


One thing the whole Startups Live crew agreed on when it comes to getting to know customers: it’s about putting in the time, and really committing to seeing the world from your customers’ point of view.  “[It’s about] lots and lots and lots of living with the customer,” Tara Gowland says. “Live and breathe the customer – they will show you the right path.”

One simple but often-overlooked way to “live with your customer”: find out where they live online – and make sure you’re living there too. Somewhere on the Internet, your customers are talking to each other. And if the problem you’re claiming to solve really is a problem, chances are they are talking about things that can be useful to you as you’re developing your product.

Whether it’s an an industry-related subreddit, a Facebook group, or a handful of Twitter influencers, find your audience’s “digital watercoolers,” and listen in on the conversations people are having. From there, you may even be able to put yourself into the conversation and start asking the questions and getting the feedback you need to move your product forward.


Once you have your foot in the door with target customers, it’s time to go deep, and spend some time really digging in with customers and what they’re looking for.

In other words: it’s time to talk to people.

As Tara Gowland reminds us, “Target market and product fit are all about asking and offering and seeing what sticks. Testing, testing, asking, asking – and never assuming.” Having direct conversations with your customer is where that process of asking and offering begins.

Ritika Puri is a huge proponent of having qualitative conversations with your customers. In fact, she’s been doing quite a bit of it lately, as her company Storyhackers works toward developing their product for three different customer verticals.

“We interviewed 100 people in the span of 2 weeks, testing product prototypes on our 3 customer bases and listened to their questions,” Ritika explains. “We went through a qualitative research exercise, comparing the differences between our 3 markets and are now creating 3 versions of the product for stronger product/market fit.”

“Target market and product fit are all about asking and offering and seeing what sticks. Testing, testing, asking, asking – and never assuming.”

If the Storyhackers approach sounds pretty analog, that’s because it is. “Process-wise, we get on the phone with people and listen to their problems,” Ritika explains. The only tools the Storyhackers team used were Zoom video conferencing – and a VA to type out a transcript. Then: “We read the transcriptions until we see patterns. Then we compare similarities and differences between patterns identified with each group.”

Qualitative research like this gets a bum rap in an environment that prizes data above all. But one-on-one conversations with your customers will get you something no quantitative survey can: real, deep psychological insight into your audience, their mindset, and what they want from you.


Want to really get to know your target customers? Try working for them.

The Startups Live crew all agreed that building out a services branch to your business can be an invaluable tool for getting to know customers. Think of a services business as market research that you get paid for. It gives you a chance to put in  more cycles with clients, and really understand their needs.

Michael Kassing has seen the value in providing services as he and his team work to build out their SaaS solution for the insurance industry. “It has really helped with how we attack problems because we understand the client’s pain points so much better,” he says.

“[Providing services] has really helped with how we attack problems, because we understand the client’s pain points so much better.”

Providing services not only gives you a chance to test your product with your ideal audience – it gives you an opportunity to build relationships with those customers. In providing services, you’re proving your value and your expertise in a real, measurable way.

Sure, it’s a higher-touch, more time-intensive approach to customer acquisition than, say, a sales email or a couple of blog posts. But everything you lose in scalability, you make up for in quality. Think of the relationships you build with services customers as investments. They can pay dividends in the long run, particularly if you can turn those customers into evangelists for you and your product.

A final note on services-as-customer-acquisition: while providing services is a great a way to get up close and personal with customers and their challenges, its value as a revenue-generating approach can’t be underscored enough.

Finding product-market fit is a marathon, not a sprint. As a founder, it’s your job to make sure your business is around for the long haul. And that means finding a way to keep money coming in the door while you and your team continue the long grind of getting your product right and ready to go.

A services business may not be as sexy as the slick SaaS product that lives in your brain – but it keeps the lights on long enough for you to get the slick SaaS product built and launched. Which is better than being sexy.


As with so much in the startup universe, the easy answer to early customer validation is that there is no easy answer. You have to get involved, you have to get hands-on – and you have to be willing to invest the time with would-be customers that you want them to invest with you.

“Living with the customer can be exhausting,” observes Tara Gowland. “But in so many ways, it improves your probability of success.”

An important thing to keep in mind: these ultra-personalized, individualized tactics won’t last forever. As your audience scales and changes, so will the techniques you use to connect with and learn from them. But the deep, hard-won experience you earn with customers in the early days never goes away. It becomes the foundation on which everything else gets built. It becomes the authority you speak with when someone asks, “Why should I listen to you?”

Got It. What’s Next?

Want a deeper understanding of what it takes to build your audience?
Check out Steve Blank’s approach to Customer Development.

Want to learn more about how user acquisition tactics shift with scale?
Devour growth hacker Morgan Brown’s lesson on Growth from User 0.

About the Author

The Startups Team

Startups is the world's largest startup platform, helping over 1 million startup companies find customers, funding, mentors, and world-class education.

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