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Don't Just Know Your Customer, Be Your Customer

Eric Shapiro
Eric Shapiro

To understand who your target customer is and what they want, you must be your customer.

There are a lot of reasons startups fail. It may be a lack of funding or a lack of talent. Or sometimes a startup simply can't execute on the products or services they are trying to build. But the number one reason? Most would agree that it's a lack of understanding about the actual customer we want to buy our product.

Anyone who tries to start a business inherently knows that it is a fundamental requirement to understand the target customers, their needs and their motivations. But sometimes we entrepreneurs are so blinded by the brilliance of our own ideas that we believe "if we build it, they will come." Other times, we consider paying for expensive or time-consuming market research but ultimately pass on it. And so, we take shortcuts when it comes to understanding the customer.

Recently, a group of high schoolers reminded me that there is one indisputable way to truly know your customer: Be your customer.

5 great ideas with a common thread

A few weeks ago, a group of 15 students from The Rivers School in Weston, Massachusetts, came to the San Francisco Bay Area to meet with some Silicon Valley leaders who had attended the school. Given the important role the school played in preparing me for my future, I was happy to host them.

So, I gathered some of our experts at my app development company, ArcTouch, and we put on a two-day hackathon. We challenged the student teams to define an app idea, build the business case for it and create interactive prototypes to demonstrate some of the functionality. The event culminated in a "Shark Tank"-style presentation, which we dubbed ArcTank, where the teams presented their ideas as if they were pitching investors.

The presentations were remarkably polished, considering the short timeframe the students were given. Their app ideas included:

  • A homework management app: To help students manage their entire workload across all classes, and offer teachers and parents visibility on their progress.
  • A classroom roll-call app: For students to self-check-in to class using their phones, allowing teachers to spend more time teaching and less time taking attendance.
  • Uber for tutors app: To deliver a tutor when a student needs one the most – even at 1 a.m. on the day before their math final.
  • A student app store: To centralize all school-approved apps, and make it easier for teachers and students alike to find them.
  • Sneaker-sharing app: For teens to get access to the newest stomps. Think Turo for sneakers.

I spotted a common thread in all the presentations: The students were building products for themselves. They were their own customers.

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4 ways being your own customer can help your business succeed

There are a lot of great stories about startups that begin when founders solved problems they were experiencing. While attending a conference in Paris in 2008, Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp couldn't get a cab – which reportedly served as the inspiration for Uber. And when Nick Swinmurn couldn't find the Airwalk desert boots he wanted in the local mall, he got the idea for an online shoe store and started Zappos

And as the founder of an app development company that has helped build over 400 products in 10 years, I've seen firsthand that the most successful ones are those that have a clear understanding of the customer. Many times, the inspiration for those products was born out of personal experience. Even ArcTouch itself was originally inspired by Apple's introduction of the App Store, as my business partner Adam Fingerman and I were intrinsically motivated to create great iPhone apps that we would personally enjoy.

Here are four ways that being your own customer can help entrepreneurs:

  1. You'll save on market research. One way to understand a target customer is through market research – such as one-on-one interviews, focus groups and quantitative surveys. These can be immensely valuable, but also immensely costly. And while there's always a lot of insight to be gained, it can't replace knowing, inherently, what your customer needs because you are your own customer.
  1. You'll be a better salesperson. Any startup founder will tell you that you need great sales skills for your business to have any chance of success. You have to sell your idea to investors, team members (to acquire talent), business partners and eventually customers. And to do that, you need unwavering confidence and authenticity. Building a product that you know you'd buy will give you confidence you can't acquire any other way. And your founder story will be authentic because it's really your story.
  1. You'll be more resilient. You'll need passion to go along with confidence, to sell your business idea to different audiences. But you'll also need resilience to fuel your perseverance. In any startup, you'll encounter challenges and roadblocks – and resilience will help you push through any resistance. Naturally, your resilience will be stronger if your idea is grounded in your own authentic personal experiences.
  1. You're more invested in the future success of your business. I'm a firm believer that startup founders need both financial and sweat equity to build a successful business. Meaning, they need to put up some money but also invest a lot of time and energy into solving the problem they are trying to solve. If your business idea is coming from your own experiences, you've already invested some of that sweat equity. It's pre-existing. That doesn't mean you can coast your way into business success, but it does mean you're way ahead of someone who is simply starting with a perceived market opportunity.

Steve Jobs built the iPod for himself

Given our company's history in mobile, Steve Jobs comes up often. He was legendary for his laser focus on building what he personally believed were great products.

My favorite example of a product that Jobs built for himself was the iPod and its companion digital music store, iTunes. As Walter Isaacson detailed in the Steve Jobs biography, Jobs was a huge music aficionado. He was frustrated by the difficulty of creating and managing digital music collections, as was caused by poorly designed first-generation MP3 players, flaky software, and complicated DRM technology. So, he built the iPod and iTunes, a combination that many credit with springboarding Apple into the tech titan it is today.

Jobs relied on his own instincts, which were built upon his own experiences. He was, in many ways, his own customer. And, likewise, the next generation of entrepreneurs, represented by the high school students at The Rivers School, envisioned products that would make their own lives better and easier.

Image Credit: Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock
Eric Shapiro
Eric Shapiro Member
With his first computer program written in 1978 and his first software company making a profit before he could vote, Eric Shapiro has a proven track record of entrepreneurial success. After working as a product manager and evangelist at Apple, he founded Zero G software, which was purchased by Rovi. Imagination Technologies claimed his next company, and then he founded ArcTouch, his third company, with Adam Fingerman. Eric knows a well designed and implemented app is magic. Once installed, an app transforms your device into a special purpose instrument for just about anything — from predicting the weather to reuniting relatives. It’s this wide-open potential for each project that inspires Eric’s invigorating insight. Education: Tufts (BS) and Cornell MBA