“Does your product or service satisfy real customer needs?”

This is one of the first questions I ask (in my head) when I hear about someone’s business venture. Frequently followed by “How do we find out?”

I don’t fall into the trap of thinking that “everything that can be invented has been invented” (frequently attributed to Charles H. Duell, then Commissioner of the US Patent Office) – and I try to keep in mind lessons I’ve learned from companies that didn’t define themselves appropriately (like railroad companies not seeing themselves as in the business of transportation when alternative competitors arose).

Ultimately, I find a few questions work really well to help me understand what someone is trying to do with a business, and how I might help them.  The first thing that comes to mind is “Does this satisfy a real customer need?”  And while I might see that it does (usually because it solves a need for me), I try not to assume it will therefore solve a need for others.  And so “How do we find out?” always comes into play.

Conveniently, the answer to that question is simple and consistent – Ask them.

At the recent Business First Editorial Forum: The State of VC and Funding in Central Ohio, one of the panelists remarked that a lot of entrepreneurs go after money first, when really they should be talking with customers first – so his advice was to talk with customers first.  It certainly resonated with me because of my first and second questions.

Finally, even if you’ve established your business, talking with your customers and hearing them keeps you current – and may even open new doors for you.  One of the companies I reference (perhaps too) frequently is Holstee. When they started their T-shirt company, they wrote an engaging About Us page on their website called The Holstee Manifesto.  Their entire business model today is based on that manifesto – they don’t sell any T-shirts at all – because they listened when their manifest got more love than their products.

Someone I once worked with often said “feedback is a gift.”  Asking your customers for feedback is a gift that can help you start, or keep you, in business.  The call to action for you today is clear – validate that your product or service addresses a genuine customer need by talking with customers.

I’ll start – what do you think of this article?  Does the call to action help you?  If not, what would?  If so, what did you learn?