Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.
If you were unaware, the How I Built This podcast hosted by Guy Raz is excellent. The episode with Susan Tynan could be a case study on understanding customers.
Before we jump into Tynan’s comments, here’s what other people have said about customer focus:
David Ogilvy’s early career experience selling Aga Cookers door-to-door led him to conclude, “Find out all you can about your prospects before you call on them; their general living conditions, wealth, profession, hobbies, friends, and so on. Every hour spent in this kind of research will help you and impress your prospect…Learn to recognize vegetarians on sight.”
Ali Hamed said that the best products are built with empathy at their core. “That empathy translates to features and functions that understand the seemly non-pragmatic nuances of a given industry.” The IDEO team calls these latent needs.
Jack Ma said this while building Alibaba, “We should not design our products for the investors, we should design our products for the customers. What do the customers need? What do the customers want?”
Susan Tynan explained the experiences which led to her adopting this view too. After earning her MBA, Tynan got a job at Living Social. Her focus there was on family and home deals. Calls, emails, posts, requests, and feedback were all bits of data about what customers did, or didn’t want. “I sold a lot of framing deals so I knew customers were looking for a deal in this category.”
But, Living Social’s cardiac existence and it wasn’t for her. She wanted “a business I could touch and feel.” This idea for frames was planted after a trip and was taking root.
“The idea originated eight or nine years ago. On annual hiking trips with my sister, I had bought national parks posters and I took them to a local frame store to be framed. It was a terrible experience. It was really intimidating and really expensive…I had these feeling when I picked them up, ‘how did that just happen to me?'”
As Hamed said, the best founders “understand the problem as the first party.” It’s how Soulcycle, Gimlet, and Harry’s started too.
Unlike failed startups, Tynan talked to others.
“I started talking to everybody about it. Imagine me at a cocktail party or a friend’s baseball game talking to people about it and I kept hearing the same stories about six-hundred dollars worth of framing and I couldn’t believe it.”
But why her? Tynan guessed:
“It required someone out of the industry to plot it from the consumer’s viewpoint.”
But centralized framing is expensive. Tynan needed to raise money. She met with one Ventrue Capitalist who told here, ‘I was just searching for this service last week.’ Tynan raised enough to invest in equipment, a facility, and people.
At first, sales were slow. “One or two degrees of separation.” Then “we started to send out frames to people in the press and the first couple of months we got big hits from Architectural Digest and In Style.”
They didn’t send random things, that’s not understanding your customer. They were customized. “We asked, what exactly what would this editor at this magazine like? What’s something about their life can we figure out?”
Even now that the company has grown, “I can’t help myself. I do always want to be skimming customer support tickets and things like that.”
Susan Tynan has succeeded – so far – thanks to hard work and (mostly) good luck. While frame assembly may be physically demanding, it’s her customer focus that too many businesses find difficult.
Clayton Christensen said that understanding the job the customer is hiring you to do is the critical unit of analysis.
Marcus Lemonis said his trick is to “turn my mind into a consumer and not a business owner. I think ‘Would I buy that? Would I pay for that?’ and I really work hard at it.”
Yvon Chouinard wrote “We knew what we wanted. I heard someone say that if you wait for the customer to tell you what to do you’re too late. We were our own customer. I think that was the secret to coming out with products.”
Thanks for reading.
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