How to Get Startup Ideas by Interviewing Customers


startup interview

“By far the most common mistake startups make is to solve problems no one has.” – Paul Graham

The first step in building a product people love is to identify a problem that some group of people have. Solutions to clearly solve customers’ pains make for the most compelling propositions. You don’t need to begin with a “startup idea.” By learning what problems people have you can begin to formulate solutions.

“Why do so many founders build things no one wants? Because they begin by trying to think of startup ideas.” – Paul Graham

This post outlines a process for identifying problems and getting your customers to give you startup ideas.

Start with a customer segment

Starting with a customer segment you want to serve, as opposed to a specific product idea, has both strategic and personal advantages. Here’s how starting with a customer segment can be helpful:

1.  Building relationships to test startup ideas can be as hard as generating ideas.

Cycling through solution ideas is faster than finding customers and meeting new people. Your time will not be wasted if you focus on figuring out how you can help a given customer segment. When you do develop while focusing on a certain customer group, you increase your chances of eventually being able to find something that works.

2. Customer development takes a long time and building a successful business can take a really long time.

In growing a company you will inevitably be spending a lot of time with your customers. If you don’t like the customers that you’re spending a lot of time with, you’re probably not going to be very happy. Conversely, if you enjoy the time spent with your customers, you will probably feel more impassioned and energized. Being more impassioned and energized can lead to higher productivity and effectiveness.

Below is some advice on how to decide on a target customer you want to serve.

How to choose a customer segment

There are a few factors to consider when deciding which customers you want to target.

1. Relationships and access

If you have existing relationships, or at least access, with your customers, finding people for customer development interviews will be a lot easier. When the time is right, customer acquisition will also be a lot easier. If you don’t have access to the customer segment you want to serve, starting and building your business will take longer, and potentially cost more, because you’re going to need access to consumers first.

2. Passion

The more you enjoy spending time with your target customer, the more enjoyable your business will be. I also believe having more passion will make you more successful.

3. Propensity to buy

Some customer groups are less likely to adopt new technologies than others. For a business to business product, some industries are more likely than others to adopt new technologies. Some customer groups have higher budgets than others. Some customer groups take longer to decide and actually purchase than others, which can mean longer sales cycles.

4. Market opportunity

If you goal is to build a massive company, you’ll want to be in a large market. Consider what your growth goals are to help decide which market to serve.

Identify a problem: Ask the right questions

By asking the right questions and listening effectively, you can learn about customer issues and generate startup ideas to solve those problems. Focus on asking open-ended questions that get customers talking about their problems as much as possible.

Examples of questions you can ask to get customers to tell you about their problem include:

  • What are the top 3 challenges you face in your job?
  • What are some unmet needs you have?
  • What’s the hardest part about being a [demographic you’re serving]?
  • What tasks take up the most time during your day?
  • What product or service do you wish you had that doesn’t exist yet?
  • What could be done to improve your experience as a [demographic you’re serving]?

One way to learn about problems worth solving, is simply to be observant to what people complain about. Wiley Cerilli, Founder of SinglePlatform used this technique to get the startup idea for SinglePlatform. Be observant of your own behaviors and processes and be conscious of what’s hard or time-consuming. You can also look for solutions that people are “hacking together” themselves. If they’ve taken the effort to make something themselves, such as a spreadsheet, it’s a sign that it’s an important problem for them.


You don’t need to start with an idea to start a business. With the right customer development tactics, you can learn what problems people have and how you can solve them. Beginning with a customer group can be a highly effective way to start a business. Customer development is commonly used to test startup ideas, but it can also be used to generate startup ideas.

Mike Fishbein helps startups through mid-size companies with capital raising, mergers and acquisitions and strategy. He also teaches a Skillshare class on capital raising.

Reprinted by permission.

Image credit: CC by gmilldrum

About the author: Under30CEO

Under30CEO is the leading media property for entrepreneurs, inspiring the world’s next generation of business leaders. Under30CEO features direct interviews with the most successful young people on the planet, profiles twenty-something startups, provides advice from those who have done it before, and publishes cutting edge news for the young entrepreneur.

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