How to identify “ideal” early customers

October 24, 2015

So you have a solid idea, team, and market analysis under your belt, now it's time to accelerate the validation process. It's time to start selling.

At this point you've made some noise with a set of friends that — let's be honest — are mostly there to support you. As long as you don't charge too much (or annoy them too much), they will likely be your customers. But, they are not the early customers that matter.

Your ideal early customers will be (i.e. should be) friends and acquaintances further away from the center of your social graph. They are the people one or two connections away that want what you are offering and are willing to buy it and/or meaningfully engage with it.

But who are these people, exactly?

In the business world, there is no end to literature about developing your Ideal Customer Profile (ICP), but in the end, it comes down to empathy.

We all make decisions from the emotional part of our brains, so that's precisely where you need to connect. Depending on your business model, the process of developing empathy with your early customers is nuanced differently:

Target influencers

When you put this process into practice you and your team will be conflicted. You'll have a bunch of competing theories about your ideal customer profile, and you'll tend to be biased after conversations with “lots of people” (i.e. like 4) who seem to confirm your theory. I'll talk about the specific nuances of surveys and interviews in my next post (subscribe to my newsletter for updates), but at this point you shouldn't let a small number of conversations unjustly influence your hypothesis about your ideal customer profile. Listen to your team and “go with your gut” for your first draft.

That being said, a smart strategy at this point is to target people of influence. If you land the leaders, you also land their followers.

Specific Examples

Again, a key thing to note about these profiles is that if you successfully reach them, you are also reaching people they influence as well.

Ideal != Real

Finally, at the end of the day, your ideal customer profiles will always change and will rarely end up describing your actual customers. That's OK. The practice of writing down your hypothesis and relentlessly revising as you go is the most important part. The real people who make decisions to buy/engage with what you're selling will be a complex group, but honing in early on your customer segments and profiles will help you build and market a product that people actually want.

Author's note: this post, which originally appeared on my personal site here, is part of a series of articles outlining an operational framework for building and launching a web product. Feel free to subscribe to my newsletter and I'll let you know when I publish new content. Thanks!

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