It is important to start talking to customers early on and throughout the lifetime of a company. They will help provide insight into the problem that company is solving which should inform product development (see Decision-Making Criteria on New Features). Don’t make the mistake of building in isolation.
Potential customers don’t buy because of features, so determining and prioritizing most the needs of the heaviest users in informing on product development will help to provide solutions that best address the most important problems for customers (see https://opencoreventures.com/blog/2023-03-dont-listen-last-requirement/).
A better understanding of how to solve those problems will require iteration on how to best meet customer needs.
The communities around the open source software projects associated with open core businesses may help identify the heaviest users and potential customers in companies leveraging that open source software.
In building brand awareness for a business, active participation in discussions around the market (in Hacker News, LinkedIn, Reddit, or other communities) may highlight who potential customers and heavy users may be. Engaging in those communities and directly with individuals will help better understand problems and how to solve them.
Doing things that don’t scale in engaging users directly will help founders more deeply understand their customers’ motivations and get honest feedback.
Advertising efforts will not directly provide the essential insights that come from proactive sales in informing strategy for early stage companies.
Taking the understanding founders have developed and refined by talking to potential customers throughout the lifetime of a business and continually refining that hypothesis to address the problems potential customers are facing will help position companies to meet their needs.
Outreach to potential customers should be proactive and focused on understanding their problems, not showcasing ideas which are not direct solutions.
Some of the questions founders should be asking customers in refining their understanding of how to approach their problems may resemble the following:
- Can you tell me how you are doing/using [open source software project, substitute for product, similar processes] today?
- What is the hardest thing about that? Why is that hard? How often do you have to do this?
- Why is it important to solve this problem? How do you solve this problem now?
Asking follow up questions will help provide additional understanding (e.g. can you tell me more about that?, what do you mean by that?).
Suggested reading: Talking to Humans