Startups need to focus. The best way to focus is to develop a powerful vision, and anchor back to the current moment to find your first customer to propel you to that vision.
Start with the customer segment that has the most unique, discrete pain, and make sure the value proposition solves for that pain.
The starting customer segment is more likely to pay attention to a message, a phone call, or an Instagram ad if they are constantly reminded of their pain.
If you find yourself in a hospital, you may have encountered the pain scale:
The pain scale helps nurses and doctors focus. The pain scale also increases compassion for the patient and a holistic sense of the human body. It aligns the entire care team to ask the patient to describe their problem, in their words, and in their context.
The Customer Pain Hierarchy can help you focus where to start your Minimum Viable Product.
The Customer Pain Scale, Explained
Use this scale to rank pains on a continuum when searching for unsolved problems in a customer’s world. The higher and more painful, the better for the company. Follow me on a tour of the ads in my search, email, and social feeds, and I’ll critique the accuracy of the pain diagnosis and learn how to use the Customer Pain Scale.
1/ There’s No Pain Here
Startup founders are often guilty of focusing on the tech first, then the customer later. The number one reason startups fail is because they realized there was no need.
But big companies often suffer this fate as well.
Here’s a clearcut example from IBM:
IBM does not even bother to describe what my pain or problem might be. It’s a classic solution-focused ad, using industry jargon, dropped right into my Facebook timeline of kid birthdays and Welsh Terriers. This simply won’t do- IBM Watson has to figure out a pain, and figure out if and how I am in pain, and not use concepts like “B2B architecture.”
The best way to test for need is to try to find out if the customer is in pain, and if the solution solves for that pain. If there is no pain, there is no need for the solution, no need for this so-called “B2B architecture.” Time to start again, IBM.
2/ You May Think I’m in Pain, But I Don’t Think So
Direct conversation with customers is so crucial to get out of your head and into the mind of the customer, because the customer may disagree with your diagnosis, or just not care.
For example, Smile Direct Club, the invisible braces at-home solution.
Dear Smile Direct Club. Yes, I have a slight misalignment in my lower teeth. It’s a wee bit crooked. But you know what, I don’t care. Smile direct offers me 70% less, straightening at home, and fewer visits to the orthodontist. Nope, still don’t care.
3/ I’ll Be in Pain in the Future, Not Today
Consumer finance companies often get caught in the future pain trap. We all need to rebalance my 401k. But today, we are busy.
Let’s look at Ellevest, who is worried about the financial future of women.
First, they try flattery:
Then they try to convince women that they do not have the right financial plan. Apparently typical financial planning methods focus on the shorter lifespan of men and don’t take into account “career breaks” and the gender pay gap.
But is this enough of a reason to act today? Where’s the message of the future in terms I can understand, right now?
4/ I’m Subconsciously in Pain, But I Don’t Know It
We humans are not fully aware of our thoughts. 80-90% of what we know lies in our subconscious mind. Innovators often want to tackle wicked problems that are deep and systemic. The challenge is that many of our surface level societal problems like obesity, diabetes, depression, and drug addiction have root causes that are deeply hidden in our culture.
The Culture Map
When you start a company trying to tackle a big issue, you have to learn how to meet people where they are. Communicate in words that describe what they see, that they are willing to talk about.
Let’s take depression, anxiety and mental health.
Here’s an ad from Talkspace to try some text-based therapy sessions.
But what if I think you I don’t need therapy?
Instead, meditation app Headspace describes a socially acceptable pain: exhaustion.
Granted, Headspace and Talkspace are different solutions. Different “spaces.” If I know I need a therapist and the real pain is spending the time to find one in my busy schedule, Talkspace speaks to that pain. But if I don’t know I need help slowing down in the first place, Headspace meets me where I am.
5/ I’m Going to Grin and Bear it.
Customers can be stoic and have a high tolerance for pain
Fitz’s closet organizing solution is a good example.
I have a messy closet. I am like this woman in the photo, rooting through clothes on the floor to find my shoes. It is painful every morning, and costs me time. I admire the Pinterest boards of perfectly organized capsule wardrobes and celebrate The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. But, I do nothing.
I have learned to live with my messy closet ways. No amount of solution will get met to address what I see as a bearable pain.
6/ That’s a Pain for Others but Not For Me
Searching for pain is difficult, but sometimes there are the magic words: “I don’t have that pain but I know someone who does.” In fact, it’s a great question to ask at the end of a failed customer interview, “Do you know someone who has this problem?” Then do the hopefully obvious follow up – get their names and contact info and figure out if they have one of these bigger pains.
Even when you launch, you may benefit from social marketing to folks who you think might have the pain, but who only know people who do.
I’m a huge Warby Parker fan, but I do not wear contact lenses. I do know many people though who struggle with the annoyance of prescriptions and cost of lenses. So, I may very well share and forward this sponsored post to people I know are in pain.
If you find you’re hearing that’s “someone else’s problem” – don’t stop – keep moving until you find your target customer and figure out the size and shape of the pain.
7/ I’m in Pain. It Keeps Me Up at Night
The standard interview guide for startup founders often leads to this question: “What keeps you up at night?” ‘If you find you can get in that list of top 2-3 things that keep the person up at night – then jackpot, you’ve hit the bonus.
Just a few nights ago, I couldn’t sleep. I could barely read my news apps and thought sadly about my diminishing vision.
Then squinting I saw this email message pop up from Warby Parker:
Warby Parker hasn’t read my mind. They’ve just sent me a digital version of the postcard I get from my dentist. But now I know it’s time to face facts, accept my declining vision, and get a new prescription.
8/ I’ve Had Enough, I’m Looking for a Solution
Once you find a customer in pain so big it is keeping her up at night, test to see if she is motivated to search for a new solution.
I need to establish a workout routine. But ever since my daughter was born, I find it hard to choose. I find though that I am not willing to give up time with my daughter and family to run to a class or gym. So all of the ads for fancy Equinox clubs and boxing gyms don’t do it for me – I would rather hang out with my family.
I’m starting to search for a solution that does both- working out with my kid.
I shouldn’t be surprised that I can hire a personal trainer for my child in Manhattan. But that’s not the solution I was looking for. That takes us to #9.
9/ I’m in Pain, I’ve Looked and There is No Solution
If you’ve found someone in pain who has already looked for a solution, but not found it yet, act fast.
Brooklinen sells affordable luxury sheets. Just a few summers ago they were in the NYU Summer Launchpad accelerator conducting customer discovery. One of the founders experienced the joy of high quality hotel bed sheets, but was disappointed to learn that he couldn’t purchase his own set anywhere affordably.
When the founders got out of the building and talked to customers, they found a consistent pain point: customers suffering from scratchy sheets that make you feel like you’re still in a dorm room. Their customers were actively searching for high quality linen, but overwhelmed with choice and horrified by the price. Brooklinen learned how to supply high quality sheets direct to their customer through digital channels, and they hit the magic growth curve of pain-solution fit. This year they are at a $50 MM and on a path to further customer-lead growth.
Pro Tip: #9 is tricky if your customer has already started to build a solution of their own. For Brooklinen, they found no customers trying to source their own sheets – it was a fairly complex endeavor. In business software, however, this kind of home brew solution pops up all of the time. Say you are focused on project management pain points, and you discover that your potential customer has initiated an internal effort to build a custom solution. Beware! She may not want to give up her tinkering, it’s her pride and joy. In these cases, keep probing to test whether the temporary solution is tolerated.
10/ My Hair’s On Fire
At the top is a hair-on-fire problem: a problem so big and so painful the customer may actually take a risk and try your tiny startup they’ve never heard of before to douse the flames. They may even pay you handsomely for your solution.
When Airbnb started in San Francisco, they languished a bit. They tell the origin story of their company – learning how to use their innate design skills to photograph and stage apartments and turn the sleepy home rental industry into the fastest growing hospitality company of all time.
Airbnb knew they had a pain point on the guest side of their 2-sided marketplace. Hotel prices in NYC during high volume weeks can start at $500 for a small dark mildewy room in midtown. That’s hair on fire pain for many people. At the same time, while the rest of the US was struggling in a real estate crisis NYC’s rents were still rising. By showing hosts how to market their apartments on Airbnb, they solved a major pain point – helping to cover the rising costs of rent.
If you trace the true origin story of any large revenue-generating startup, you’ll find a pain point.
In sum, the Customer Pain Scale tells you that the higher up the pain ladder, the more the market will pull your solution forward without a heavy lift. The lower down the pain ladder, the more you’ll have to spend to sell, educate, and market your product.
So go talk to your customers before you build your next feature. Move beyond the narrow range of problems that your current solution may solve. Better yet, dig in the depths of our bigger problems hidden beneath the surface culture, but make sure you understand how we’d talk about that pain in everyday language. Have genuine interest in the problems customers face in life, and meet customers in the words and language they use to describe their pain.