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I’ve been speaking a lot at events, in articles and in conversations about customer validation. The point of customer validation is to understand exactly who your customers are, and what they want your product to do and achieve for them.

So it’s fairly ironic that I did close to zero customer validation with my own recent startup, the employee six question pulse survey system, called 6Q.

In my defense, we were building it for ourselves first, with the hope that someone else may want to use it. The very first vision was pretty well just that; built something we would use and find useful, and maybe others will dig it too.

Hence the lack of customer validation.

Sure, I asked a few other business owners I knew if they would use it, and sure enough, they all said yes. That’s all I needed to do, right?

Well, it turns out there were a number of assumptions I made, which turned out to be totally wrong. That’s the fun thing with tech startups; changing the product, or pivoting entirely if you have to.

So, rather than another article on the web about some great idea and then sudden fame and fortune, I want to share with you a few of our failings, to drive home the need for customer validation no matter what you’re building.

Where 6Q came from

First, let me paint a picture for you. The main business I’m in as a digital agency based in Perth. I founded Bam Creative back in 2002 with a napkin sized business plan. It pretty well said;

  1. Have work/life balance
  2. Make money
  3. If you hire, be a good boss

So, in keeping with point three, I’ve spent the last 14 years building the right kind of culture with the team. We’re 14 people in an open plan office, who are professional yet transparent with each other and our clients.

So transparent, in fact, that I often get given feedback that I should be unhappy about. I’m not though; it’s important to know how the team are feeling, so we can address it.

One of the things we do is have a weekly face to face individually. The managers (two of us) meet each team member, and find out what’s going on with them; how their productivity is, what their happiness is like and how we can help them hit their goals.

So this is where 6Q is borne from; the idea of scaling a weekly face to face with a team of dozens makes this an impossible feat; perhaps a survey tool could emulate much of this (it’s impossible to replace the body language, etc with a survey though).

So, knowing all this, and assuming this was typical in most Australian businesses, we set out to build 6Q. There were three assumptions out of the many we made, that totally didn’t hit the mark. On reflection, we should have known, but our lack of customer development meant we believed these to be true;

  1. We assume our main customer base will be small to medium companies
  2. We expect most customers to be Australian
  3. We assume most employees will be happy to complete non-anonymous pulse surveys

So, how are they wrong? Let’s look at each of these assumptions, and show what was wrong about them, and what we’ve done to adapt.

Assumption 1: We assume our main customer base will be small to medium companies.

Small to medium organisations care more about their employee happiness and feedback, right? The big companies already have their enterprise 100 question heavyweight survey systems, and don’t need ours.

Turns out that’s wrong. Whilst SME’s do care about employees, the big guys do as equally. In fact, the majority of signups for 6Q have been in the hundreds or thousands of employees, and they see 6Q as a compliment to their other surveys.

How we fixed this

Our original plans and pricing page, had various plans running from 20 employees to 200. We quickly adapted, by changing the ‘Enterprise’ plan name to company, and adding plans for 500 – 3,000 employees, and a message if you have more employees, contact us for custom pricing.

We never had any form of team segmentation; the system just showed all employees. That’s great up to 50, however more than that, it became burdensome. We since launched segments, so they can break organisations down to location or teams, and added employee search and pagination, so you see 20 employees per screen.

We expect most customers to be Australian

We have contacts and clients mostly in Australia, so why would someone on the other side of the world be interested in our humble startup? Wrong.

We did a soft launch to gather some customers in small amounts, before opening to a wider audience. The first 100 customers rolled in within a fortnight, and represented 25 countries. In fact, Australia came in as fifth most common place.

How we fixed this

We made sure we tweaked the messages throughout the UI and emails, to not include Australian slang or local terms, and we did a lot of navel gazing if we should change our system and blog from British English to American English (British English eventually won, because we’re proud to be based in Australia).

We also more recently added the ability to use other languages. Turns out, English of any variant, is only the third most popular language, with 5.52% of the globe speaking it natively. Mandarin (14.1% of global population) and Spanish (5.85%) are much bigger.

We assume most employees will be happy to complete non-anonymous pulse surveys

This was the biggest assumption of ours, which drove the product. I enjoy an open honest workplace, so surely everyone else does too, right? It’s just common sense.

I was very, very wrong.

Sure, managers and leaders in every country believe their employees will speak up, because they asked them to. It’s far from it though; without the right culture, employees are reluctant to speak openly. Our culture works, many others don’t.

How we fixed this

We added an option within days of launching last March, to choose between individually identifiable responses, and anonymous. To further the aim of protecting employees, we also added a message on the first screen of the survey, to highlight if the survey is anonymous or individual, and we won’t share any identifiable information, should the survey be set to anonymous.

Conclusion

No matter how many assumptions you make, do your best to test them all in your customer validation stage. Ask prospective customers exactly what features they want, and explain how you imagine your product working, and ask for brutal feedback.

Be prepared to shift with the customer needs. If we hadn’t done the changes required, to overturn my idealistic assumptions above, we would have had a tough time selling our product to anyone.

Most of all, learn from your lessons, and share them with others. This is what I’m doing in this article – I would be keen to see your mistakes and lessons learned as well, as I’m sure many other founders would be.

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About the Author

This article was written by Miles Burke of IdeaHoist, a website with the aim of building a community that can learn from each other’s experiences and promote each other’s ideas. Miles is the Co-founder and Managing Director at 6Q – a Perth based startup creating tools to empower organisations across the globe to improve communications across their team and their team culture through simple 6 question polls.

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