Point your startup in the right direction by asking the right questions


Mark Altosaar

Carefully interviewing your potential market can lead to valuable insights that can really help your product to stand out

Create Something Remarkable

The purpose of any startup is to create something remarkable. I believe that it’s very easy to create something remarkable – all you need to do is bring happiness to your customers. Customer happiness isn’t a nebulous concept. The simplest way to bring happiness to your customers is to solve a valuable problem for them. The challenge lies with knowing that you’re solving a valuable problem For that, you need to make sure that you’re asking your potential customers the right questions. Once you have identified the problems, pains and frustrations that your potential customers face, your life as a startup gets easier. You can save time and effort by only focusing on the features that are valued by customers. You’ll start to find that your team is more passionate, dedicated and excited about their mission and, in time, you’ll be able to start attracting people to join your cause. Many startups begin life chasing a perceived business opportunity, but I believe that what gets people really excited is the prospect of innovating and creating a solution; providing a practical resolution to problems and improving people’s lives.

Solutions need to fit into lives

If you’re in the business of solving problems for people, it’s crucial to develop a deep understanding of their lives. No products are ever used in isolation. You need to be able to frame your solution so that it fits in the larger context of their lives. The way to get this information is to go out, find your users, observe them and interview them in person.

The one, [OK, two,] question to rule them all

While a customer interview might cover many topics, I suggest starting with these two open-ended questions. “As a _______, what keeps you up at night?” For example, you might ask: “As a single-parent, what keeps you up at night?” This type of question works well, no matter who your potential customers might be. By asking this question, the potential customer will describe, in their own words, what their biggest worries are. The responses can be surprising and can lead to a great number of insights. If they have talked about an interesting area, you can say; “tell me more about that,” or “I’m not sure I totally understand, can you describe that in more detail?” Asking a potential customer what keeps them up at night is a great question; and can give you real understanding of their lives and the context in which to frame your potential solution. The next crucial question that I ask: “What are your biggest frustrations or challenges when trying to accomplish ______?” For example, you might ask, “What are your biggest frustrations when trying to give directions to a friend who is meeting you at a new restaurant that has just opened up in your neighborhood?” With this question, you’ll find out their pain points related to the task they want to accomplish. As with the earlier question, it’s a good idea to use it as a start and dive deeper into what they tell you. Why I also like these questions is that they are not asking the potential customer to think about a solution. (That’s your job!) These questions and their answers are providing you with the raw data from which you can create insights.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

The process of discovering your customer’s pain points through in-person interviewing is continual throughout the life and growth of your startup. After each interview session, share the knowledge with the team. When the team knows that they are solving a valuable problem, this empowers them to participate with a deeper sense of meaning. As you go through the cycle of interviewing, developing, launching and learning; you’ll find that starting each cycle with a deep understanding of your customer’s problems helps guide and focus the work. You and your team will be inspired to create something remarkable, that people will truly value and appreciate. And isn’t that what keeps startups up at night?

About the author: Mark is happiest when he’s leading the creation of products and services that improve the lives of people. He’s managed the product and user experience strategy for websites and software used by millions around the world. www.markaltosaar.com

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