This post is the second in a five part series celebrating Test Double’s five-year run on the Inc. 5000 list of fastest growing companies:

  1. Widen the Goalposts for Success
  2. The Customer is Usually Right (this post)
  3. Profits are Good, Actually
  4. Do Right by Everyone
  5. Find your Leading Indicators

Let’s talk about designing your products and services, establishing product-market fit, and iterating in response to your company’s successes and failures.

Popular culture portrays entrepreneurs as brilliant inventors with big ideas for products that customers weren’t smart enough to know they wanted. In this mythology, the solution to every problem a startup faces comes from within, requiring some combination of secret knowledge, unearned confidence, and (most importantly) hustle. This mythos may well describe a dozen-or-so success stories, but it is so far removed from Economics 101 that it also seems to invite a fair bit of fraud. Even the CEO of a well-funded fraud prevention startup was just brought up on fraud charges.

But good news! It is still viable to run a simple, old-fashioned business that earns honest money by selling products and providing services that solve well understood, straightforward problems. Many talk about this distinction as if it hinges on whether a company is venture-backed or bootstrapped, but at a more fundamental level it’s about how central the customer is in the design of the business.

In my previous post about defining your own terms for success, I already hit my quota for Steve Jobs quotes, so instead I’ll lean on two quotes he often used to portray Apple’s product design philosophy: Gretzky’s “skate to where the puck is going to be,” and Ford’s “if I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Aphorisms like these are catchy in business circles, because they turn on its head the idea that the customer is always right, and they prop up the myth that nobody is more brilliant than a savvy business leader. It’s as if the underlying ideology says good companies serve customers, but great companies outwit them.

But most companies aren’t Apple. And I hope I don’t have to be the one tell you that your company won’t be the next Apple. [Note: if you prove me wrong on this, please remember me and that time I gave you all this free advice about growing a business.]

The truth is, it’s surprisingly hard to sell people things that they don’t want. Even if you’re a certified genius, or have a wealth of experience, or have done a tremendous amount of market analysis, getting into business to sell people a solution to a problem they don’t acknowledge is a risky proposition. And having been on a lot of sales calls, I can tell you that informing a customer they should pay a lot of money for something they don’t think they need rarely results in a closed deal.

You know what’s a lot easier to sell? Listening to potential customers, striving to understand what they need, and attempting to solve their stated problems. That’s it. Super simple.

The hardest part of this “listen to people” strategy (other than the fact I’m a terrible listener) is getting a prospective customer talking in the first place. That’s why it’s typically up to you to show up and start the conversation. Here are a few things that have worked for us:

  • Share provocative opinions and find out what resonates with people. This is one of the only parts about growing a business that comes naturally to me; I’ve been emitting overly-confident takes on Twitter daily for over a decade now. But it’s easy to forget that the meaning of “provocative” is “to provoke” a response, and the primary benefit I’ve derived from Twitter is to understand from people’s responses what our target buyer cares about. And as market research goes, firing off a tweet about monads and seeing whether it gets traction is a much cheaper experiment than building an expensive advertising campaign that might not go anywhere
  • If some number of prospective customers could be helped by a blog post, screencast, free tool, or consultation on a certain topic, then give it to them! There’s no better way to establish credibility than demonstrating your competence. And there’s no way to make a potential customer more eager to help you than finding a way to help them first. One of my favorite things about Test Double is that it has created a strong financial incentive for us to give away high-quality educational content and innovative software tools for free
  • It takes years, but as your products and services become more clearly defined, so too will your ability to succinctly pitch what you do in terms of how it benefits your customers. Few engineering managers want a calendar invite about how to hire more contractors, but they might be willing to take a call on how to ensure they hit this quarter’s project deadline, or on finding a way to onboard less-experienced developers without slowing down the rest of the team, or on finally tackling that major framework upgrade they’ve struggled to find time for (coincidentally, we do all these things! Talk to us!)

But listening to customers is about more than just finding a way to convince them to buy from you, it’s an opportunity to learn how you can improve. Every prospect that decides not to do business with you had a reason for turning you down. If they’re kind enough to share why they didn’t buy your service or product, you might find an opportunity to improve what you’re offering and how you’re presenting it. And there’s no reason your listening campaign should be limited to sales leads: current customers are generally easier to get ahold of and will gladly tell you what they think you should be doing differently.

Plus, listening is scalable! You can decide to be a company that values actively soliciting and empathetically incorporating feedback by simply modeling that behavior. With a little care, one might imagine an organization whose staff listen and share what they hear with their managers, who in turn trust executives to base decisions on data derived from actual customer feedback.

Alternatively, you could be the next Apple by simply assuming that you know best, even if it derails one of your most important product lines for over half a decade. Don’t overthink it: the easiest way to know if people will want your product or service, to verify that it’s valuable to them, and to learn how you can improve is to just listen to and believe what your customers are telling you.

[Continue to part 3: Profits are Good, Actually]

Justin Searls

Hash An icon of a hash sign Code Name
Agent 002
Location An icon of a map marker Location
Columbus, OH