It’s no secret that being a successful startup founder requires a broad range of skills, from fundraising to marketing to communications. With so much work to be done getting a company off the ground, it can certainly be difficult to focus and prioritise around the most important question when running a startup. But founders ignore this at their own peril.
While one could argue that the most important question a founder needs to answer is entirely subjective, many experts, authors, and veterans of the industry often point to the same one: Who is this startup for?
Ryan Holiday is a best-selling author and former marketing strategists. In his most recently published book, he writes how confounding it is when the people he worked with seemed to have put so little thought into just who was using the products or companies they were working on: “Over the years, my firm Brass Check has worked with many hundreds of startups, writers and makers. I’ve asked clients this very question many times. As a writer myself, I’m always shocked at the answer. Because these people have spent hundreds of hours working on something without ever stopping to ask who the hell they are making it for. If they had, they wouldn’t give me answers like: “Everyone,” “You know, smart people,” “Malcolm Gladwell fans,” “Myself.””
Holiday goes on to write that these answers are problematic for many reasons, not least of which is because they are incredibly vague: “Successful products know who they are for–not generally, but specifically.”
Holiday obviously isn’t the only expert who feels that specificity around this question is a key tenet of any successful startup. On his seminal list of 18 mistakes that kill startups—which was written over a decade ago but is still relevant—blogger Paul Graham includes having no specific user in mind among other mistakes like having a single founder and launching too early. He writes that if you’re building a startup to solve a problem for a demographic that is not you, you have to do a lot of work to know that demographic intimately and not rely on your own assumptions: “When designing for other people you have to be empirical. You can no longer guess what will work; you have to find users and measure their responses. So if you’re going to make something for teenagers or “business” users or some other group that doesn’t include you, you have to be able to talk some specific ones into using what you’re making. If you can’t, you’re on the wrong track.”
Of course, the practice of developing buyer personas is nothing new, and have long been a part of any successful business strategy. But in the startup world, it’s even more crucial as the pace, hubris and blind faith that is often associated with founding a company makes it an even higher-risk endeavor. Instead of painstakingly crafting a business plan around a customer, founders often believe in the resonance of their idea at face value, and begin attracting investment without doing the requisite legwork beforehand.
This is ironic given that some of the most successful tech companies that many are trying to emulate didn’t happen in this way. Facebook, after all, started small. Zuckerberg knew the hearts and minds of his fellow students at Harvard and built his product specifically for them. It was a long time before he created a product that would eventually go on to appeal to millions and billions of people.
In other words, figuring out who it’s for, and why they might want it, should influence how you build your product or service from the beginning. That is why, as Holiday writes: “The single most important consideration a creator can make with their project is to sit down and think about who its for. Not after they’re finished and they’re trying to market it, but right now, before they’ve even begun.”