While on my current business trip, I had a chance to spend time with one of my founding customers. Today they are a fast growing technology company nearing an IPO; two and a half years ago they were a much smaller company with dreams of being a market leader. I found them by chance via a referral from my former CEO, and cold called them as part of a Lean experiment to sell my early product to a customer. My expectation was they would reject me, but that in the process of being rejected I would learn what I needed to make them purchase. But they didn’t reject me. Instead they bought my product, and gave me a chance to prove I could fulfill the vision.
This founding customer has not always been easy on me or my company. They have pushed us, told us when we we fell short of their expectations, and been very clear that continuous collaboration and innovation were essential to our partnership. But they have helped shape our product in a way that few other customers have done, and as they told me today: “our fingerprints are all over your product.”
Here are the top 5 attributes that make for a successful founding customer.
#5: They Understand the Problem as Deeply As You Do
What makes a founding customer see your product potential is simple: they have been thinking about the problem you solve as much if not more than you. The reason is simple: the pain associated with the problem is so great for them, that they have put in place their own internal solution. In the process of creating that solution, they have likely acquired expertise that makes them uniquely suited to understand your proposed product vision.
#4: They Are (Were) Building Your Product
A founding customer likely has some equivalent of your product already working internally. It might be crude, hard to use, and severely limited in functionality, but it solves at least a part of the problem. They also recognize that while the problem they are trying to solve may be important to the success of their business, it is not a problem that is strategic to their business, and thus they would prefer to have the solution provided by an outside vendor. Unfortunately until you showed up, there was no outside vendor.
#3: They Know They Are Investing In You
A great founding customer is fully cognizant they are buying into a partially complete product that has aspirations to be a great one. They are likely innovators themselves, who have successfully invested in early products more than once. They know they are taking a chance on you, and doing it because they saw something - e.g. a ready solution for part of their problem, the potential of the vision, the passion of the founder. Make no mistake about it: they are not buying into hype. They know exactly what you have and do not have. What they are buying into is what you could be.
#2: They Have High Expectations & Hold You To Them
No one can be harder on you than a founding customer. It can at times feel like a parent-child relationship, where you are the child aspiring not to disappoint. It is not that a great founding customer feels entitled to special treatment - but that their unique experiences and knowledge make it so they know you should be listening to them. They will tell you when you are wrong, challenge your assumptions, and hold you to the high standard you set when you pitched the product and vision.
#1: They Promote You
Founding customers want to be part of enabling the success of your company and product. They will often be references to other customers, refer you to their network, mention you in their public presentations, and be available for due diligence calls from potential investors. In short, they act like investors in your company, knowing that your success will enable their success. They also often take pride in your progression as a company, knowing that they were a key part of enabling your success.
Unfortunately there is no Craigslist for finding great founding customers. Sometimes your personal network will lead you to them, and other times you need to kiss a lot of frogs to find your prince. But the good news is, you almost always know a great founding customer when you find them. They will be the one talking about the problem with the same passion and depth that you do. The only difference between you and them is: the problem you propose solving is one that is just one of many impediments to their business - but not their business.