The Power of Knowing Who We Are Building for

Written on 17 October 2021

We all now know how the moon looks like.

But in 1963, nobody knew. Is the lunar surface soft like powder, spiky like needles, or rocky like the mountains? Yet the team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) had to build an unmanned machine to land on the moon.

Scientists came up with a few theories on how the moon was formed but given that nobody knew how the moon actually looks like, the engineers had a hard time creating designs for their machine.

Eventually, Phyllis Buwalda came up with a model of the lunar surface that enabled the engineers to design a machine that landed well on the moon.

How did Buwalda know?

She didn't.

She assumed the lunar surface would be similar to the smoother parts of the earth if they stay away from the mountains.

When questioned why she wrote that specification when she had no idea what the surface is like, she replied, "the engineers can't work without a specification. If it turns out to be a lot more difficult than this, we aren't going to be spending much time on the moon anyway."

She didn't know the truth. But she knew a sensible solution to get the project moving.

We can draw lessons from this for building and marketing our products.

Who are our customers?

Like the JPL engineers trying to build a lander for the moon, we at startups are building and improving our products for our customers.

But who exactly are we building for? How do they look like? What do they want?

Finding out who our customers are is definitely not as hard as figuring out how the surface of the moon is like. But unlike the lunar surface, we often have many different types of customers. At ReferralCandy, our customers include founders of huge and small brands, marketing managers of big teams, and solo marketers.

The universal advice of talking to customers can help us discover who our customers are. But I feel it is missing another step.

How do we translate that information into a specification so that we know what to build?

Common solutions include stating a target customer or coming up with personas (semi-made-up characters that describe our customers). On one hand, many startups' target customers are too vague. For example, every other startup seems to be targeting small businesses. On the other hand, others create too many different personas, trying to represent every type of customer. Neither is useful for product teams to build the right product or for marketing teams to reach the right people.

I think it's better to focus on just one ideal persona that covers a big portion of the customer base. Yes, it will not represent every type of customer we have. But it will give product and marketing teams a clear direction to work towards.

Nathan Barry, the founder of ConvertKit, wrote about how choosing a niche was a key factor for their growth.

When you don’t have traction, it feels like choosing a niche will exclude the few people who are coming in the door. In reality when we chose “email marketing for professional bloggers” everything changed.

Messaging became clear, the product roadmap was trimmed, and the prospect lists practically wrote itself.

Without that change—without excluding everyone who didn’t fit into the blogger bucket—it would have been incredibly hard to get off the ground.

We eventually expanded to “email marketing for creators,” which now includes podcasters, actors, YouTubers, authors, artists, musicians, and so many more. Even with growing into that larger audience we are still so much more focused than our competitors who target all small-businesses.

While ConvertKit has been building for creators, I have also seen non-creators, such as brands or communities, use ConvertKit. But that doesn't mean ConvertKit should be building for them too. I believe ConvertKit wouldn't have been as successful if they had tried building for everyone that would use their product.

But what about the successful companies that have been building for multiple personas? My hunch is those are bigger companies with multiple products and product teams. Even Stripe started with developers before expanding to startups and then enterprises. And they have more than 4,000 employees. (I admit I don't really know because I have not worked at bigger companies before. Please correct me if I'm wrong!)

How to create that one persona?

As mentioned above, talking to customers is a good first step.

Marketing teams can be a great help here because they are often talking to your ideal customers (or at least they should be).

Fortunate for me, many of Buffer and ReferralCandy's ideal customers are often talking about their work on Twitter, Facebook groups, and Slack communities. I have been able to understand them a little by looking at what they share and ask. Several have been kind enough to chat with me. On top of that, they are marketers, just like me. I enjoy making friends with marketers and chat marketing. So that has given me many insights. I even started selling through a Shopify store to understand ecommerce merchants and marketers better.

What about dissecting and analyzing our data to see which types of customers are the most valuable? If you already have that data, great! But in reality, most startups don't have that granular data or data scientists. And spending a ton of time to build the infrastructure to get that data likely isn't the best use of a startup's time.

Then distilling all these insights into a single persona is a mix of analyses, intuition, and executive decisions. Why was the company founded? Who do we want to serve? Who seems to get the most value from using our product? Who's shouting about our product online? Who does our brand resonates with? For Buffer, all these questions point to small brands that want to be on multiple social media platforms. (This isn't that niche but Buffer is already a $20m ARR business with multiple product teams.) It's nice to see the latest product, Start Page, match that persona, unlike most link-in-bio tools, which position themselves for creators.

A simpler problem

This lunar surface specification absorbed much of the ambiguity in the situation, passing on to the designers a simpler problem. Not a problem easily solved, or to which a solution already existed, but a problem that was solvable. It would take time and effort, but we know that we could build a machine to land on Phyllis's moon.

— Richard Rumelt, Good Strategy/Bad Strategy

For startups, not knowing who we are building for is a dangerous thing. We wouldn't know how to prioritize features or what marketing to do.

Talking to customers or digging into data is helpful. But ultimately, that needs to be distilled down into a persona or specification that product managers, designers, engineers, and marketers can use.

The story about the lunar surface is from Good Strategy/Bad Strategy, which I wrote about a few weeks back.