Why Startups don’t do market research (but should)

Startups are great at coming up with innovative ideas, but why don’t they ever do market research?

“A startup is a human institution designed to create a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty”, said Eric Ries in The Lean Startup. Extreme uncertainty is a defining feature of the startup experience. Uncertainty about the product, the supply chain, the customer, the business model. Two key success factors are experimentation and customer orientation. They enable the startup to achieve product-market fit and to creative a product that can eventually be commercialized.

Getting input from target customers is essential in developing a great offering. Yet, when I talk to startups about conducting market research, many dismiss the idea.

Often, startup founders believe market research is only for large multi-nationals, or that it comes later in the evolution of a company, when a company is established and has multiple successful product lines. Some think it is too expensive or they don’t fully understand the ROI. In addition, many founders tell me that they already have all the customer information that they want.

Let’s look at how startups typically gain information about their market, and what they are missing out on by not conducting market research:

1. At the early stage, founders’ market research typically consists of talking to ‘friendly individuals’ who are willing to give some feedback on the startup idea. The problem here is that the selection of individuals is very likely biased towards people who have a positive affinity to the founder and/or to the product to begin with. It is simply easiest to reach out to your existing network. How objective is the feedback of these individuals going to be?

In addition, we tend to connect with people who are similar to us – similar in age, in gender, in ethnic background, in social status – as it lets us stay in our social comfort zone. How representative are these people for potential users of your product? Particularly if a startup is developing a health-related product or service, potential users are likely very different from the twenty-something healthy males who tend to populate the startup community.

Plus, the ecosystem within which founders operate tends to be highly tech savvy. Getting feedback only within their own ecosystem gives founders a rather poor idea of how regular people would see their product. Granted, tech savviness is going to increase in the future. But do you really have enough time (and cash reserves) to wait for fifteen or twenty years until the majority of the population has caught up with you?

Opportunity missed: Conducting market research early on may help a startup discard an idea more quickly that won’t be popular outside their immediate circle of friends and like-minded acquaintances (‘fail early, fail fast’). Real market research means soliciting feedback from individuals that are not personally connected to you, and who belong to the intended market segment for your product.

Many startups use Kickstarter/Indiegogo as a means to assess if there is really a market out there for their product. While it is comforting to know that two thousand people are backing your campaign and are willing to pay good money now for something great to materialize in the future, this is not enough to build a successful company on. Also, let me tell you a little secret as a market researcher and anthropologist who is in touch with the ‘common man/woman’: Many people have never heard of Kickstarter or Indiegogo.

2. As startups mature, products typically go through many iterations and user experience is incorporated in a continuous feedback loop in the product development process. The UX lead will bring in users, expose them to the latest version of the product and propose adjustments accordingly. In addition, the product itself, assuming that it has a digital component, sends back usage data, which allows the startup to assess how well certain features are performing and conduct A/B tests.

Having a mountain of data that streams back through the device or app makes founders confident in their ability to optimize the product. While this is certainly the case, at times it is hard to ‘see the forest for the trees’. As startup guru Steve Blank said, you need to ‘get out of the building’ to understand your potential market and to learn about your potential customers.

Usability research and user experience research are essential for product development from a technical standpoint and from a design standpoint. In contrast, market research helps you understand the broader picture, beyond your immediate product to prospective customers and their evolving needs and pain points for which your product (along with many others) may provide a solution.

Some methods employed for market research are similar to user research, and some are different. Market research consists of the full gamut of large-scale, quantitative surveys, mobile quick check-ins, trade-off exercises, ad tests, focus groups, location-based research, ethnography, online discussion boards, co-creation labs, in-depth one-on-one interviews and many more.

Opportunity missed: User research looks at, well, users. Market research looks beyond. Only input from a wider target audience will help your startup understand where your product is missing the mark in a fundamental way.

You should also engage in market research as a ‘disaster check’ before going to market. While your product may be delightful and great in terms of functionality, perhaps you are not communicating something that you think is trivial, but that consumers want to know. Safety in wearable devices is a good example. It may be obvious to you that devices have to undergo rigorous safety testing before you are allowed to sell them to people, but the regular person may not be aware of this. If you launch a new wearable without a footnote on safety in your communications, you may be impacting your sales in a significant way. While safety may not be the reason people want to buy your device (unless it is a safety device) they want to be reassured that it is not going to harm them.

Then, after a successful product launch, your startup will only be able to continue expanding its market if you find out what non-users need and want, and if you understand their perceptions of the competition. A successful product fulfills a need better than other products. To find out what target customers need and how your product stacks up against others in addressing that need, you have to engage in market research.

Market research enables startups to step out of their comfort zone, go beyond speaking to the ‘enthusiasts’ and ‘evangelists’ and build an offering that resonates with a larger audience. Do not miss out on this opportunity to critically examine the appeal of your idea and to lay the foundation for exponential growth.

Market research for startups has clear ROI in the following areas:

  • Establish the size of your potential market (ROI: A key talking point when you approach investors at your next funding round)
  • Determine size of different segments within your market and prioritize them in terms of their potential for your product (ROI: Don’t waste money and effort on marketing to a segment that you have personal affinity to but that is tiny or less likely to buy your product)
  • Uncover needs and pain points of potential customers (ROI: Allows you to pivot early, and conserve precious early funding, if your product misses the mark)
  • Validate and refine user personas (ROI: Supports better product-market fit and sets you on a growth trajectory beyond current users to potential future users)
  • Optimize marketing and communications to focus on the product benefits that potential customers most care about (ROI: More bang for your advertising buck)
  • Get an understanding of competitive offerings, how your product stacks up and how to position your product for success (ROI: Stay ahead of the competition and get a bigger share of the pie)
  • …and last but not least: Obtain unbiased feedback on what people really think about your product (priceless 🙂 )

Some questions that startups may have about market research: Is it expensive? Can I do it myself? How do I go about it? There are many reasonably priced ways to conduct market research. Some components can easily be done by the startup itself. However, it is important to get expert advice on methodology and on the design of the research questions, to ensure your research is representative and unbiased.

If you’d like to get more information on what market research can do for your startup, please contact me. I am happy to give you an initial consultation free of charge. You can reach me at: barbara@creativeresearchdesigns.com

Also published on Medium