Whether you’re a new kid on the block or a seasoned products company, making products people will buy necessitates talking to them, knowing their needs and getting a good feel for their likes and dislikes. If you’ve been in the game for a while and have survived, you’re likely to have advantages over the new guys. Firstly, you have a pot of money called the marketing budget along with somebody on your payroll with sole responsibility of stretching that budget as far as it would go. Secondly, you have built a relationship with your customers and if you’ve done it right, you’ve established mechanisms of collecting user feedback and channelling it through to your product development.

All those are luxuries a startup can only dream of. Here at Valletta Ventures (VV), we have faced the market research challenges that every products startup does and we’ve had to be innovative to devise the cheapest possible ways to carry out our research. Indeed, writing cheques out is something we don’t like doing, we cannot afford to do it and therefore, we don’t do it. In this blog, I will share some of those lessons with other fledgling startups and hope to learn something for ourselves in the process.

As a software startup, you’re likely to be on a shoestring. Starting a software business is cheap if all you have to do is write software – I bought my copy of Xcode for 5 pounds sterling to get me going. Sadly, making things is not enough if nobody knows about them. You need initial customers that can inform your product development as early in the lifecycle as possible. Getting the word out to potential customers requires investing money you don’t yet have. So what do you do? Well, at VV, the central pillar of our strategy has been not to wait forever in hope of adding all the possible bells and whistles to a product, but to release early with a good baseline that captures and highlights the key features of the product (USPs if you will). We can’t underestimate the crucial hand that the Mac App Store has lent us in getting this plan off the ground. Releasing the apps through the store meant little time and money was needed to be spent upfront on setting up a snazzy website, both of which could be used to work on the products themselves. New apps also enjoy a valuable period of visibility that may be hard to achieve through your own site.

Secondly, we proactively seek and make use of the customer feedback to iterate to the next version of a product. From the moment we released our first app, we have received streams of emails praising our efforts, egging us on and most importantly highlighting the shortcomings of the products. Luckily we are in the business of making tools of trade for people that they care deeply about. If there’s something they do not like, they let us know, warts and all. We make a point of replying to them even when most of those who write have already paid for the apps and in the App Store model, will not be paying again. We do so because that for us is the only way of knowing if our products are hitting the mark. We take every bit of that feedback seriously, log it on to our roadmap, fix the reported bugs and implement all reasonable features. As soon as a bug is fixed or a requested feature is implemented, we notify individual customers of the updates in the App Store. As companies grow, they fall victims to their own success by losing that personal touch they had as small shops. By getting into a good discipline early, we hope to maintain that level of personal service as long as we’re in business. Looking after the customers who take time to get in touch also means they spread the word – a valuable marketing tool that every startup can use. Of course, there are the standard tools of researching the product requirements – online forums, user groups and physical get meetups, but I cannot stress enough the need to look after those customers who get in touch.

The trickiest thing is to deal with feature requests that may take the product in directions you hadn’t originally anticipated, or even desired. Having been rubbed the wrong way over the years by disruptive updates to many a product I once loved and subsequently stopped using, it’s been paramount to avoid the same pitfalls. So when a feature request comes in, we pass it through the sieve of our own design philosophy. Sifting carefully and debating the merits of each, we select and implement new features with as much care as we took when we wireframed the initial design. The result we hope are products that are evolving in line with their original design principles. Our users can tell if we have succeeded so far.

So in summary, (a) start with a good baseline and release early, (b) actively seek customer feedback and be responsive – writing back a month later may only be marginally better than not replying at all, © don’t break things while trying to improve them. In other words, do not work in the dark but iterate, iterate and iterate your way to a better product. Customer service is not a marketing buzz word, it is poor man’s market research and the most important tool to shape your products.