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How to Know if You Are Building with or Building for Customers

Ryan Frederick | July 19th, 2022

Building for customers instead of with customers is a very different approach. This might seem like semantics initially, but it isn’t. Building for customers implies empathy that, on the surface, seems admirable. A servant product and service perspective, just as servant leadership has developed in recent years. For customers implies customers are in control with products and services being created and performed at customers’ request. After all, building something for someone can never be bad, right?

Building things for customers don’t often remain as well-intentioned as it starts. When building something for someone, we risk assuming they know what they want or that we know what they want. The mindset of building for provides an unspoken ability to make assumptions based on our knowledge of what the customer wants and needs. Building something for someone creates an environment of representation.

I’ve written previously about why voice of customer initiatives don’t work and why personas can be dangerous. Both voice of customer initiatives and personas can create representation environments rather than actuality. Building for customers can make us lazy.

The underlying premise of building for a customer would seem to prevent this, but it doesn’t, just as the voice of customer and personas don’t. Building for easily turns into building because of and then into ourselves. Even the evolution from for to because of is important to note. Building because of is a degradation from for because of only means we’re doing something for a catalyst. Because of can also precede building for, an initial catalyst to build something can be of tremendous value and inspiration. Still, it will wane if it doesn’t evolve into a dynamic of with.

Building products with customers keeps the elements of for and because and adds the iterative value, feedback, and accountability aspects critical to any product build. Building with customers takes more time and effort from product builders and customers, but it is worth it.

Builders and customers who work together to create a new product become true partners in the effort instead of one serving the other. In an ideal scenario, product teams aren’t serving customers to the detriment of their work and the product; they collaborate with customers for a mutually beneficial outcome. As I write in my book The Founders Manual and when I give talks, my definition of a successful product provides value equally to customers and the company behind the product.

I don’t believe you can predictably accomplish customer and company value without creating a product with customers. Building for customers is riskier than building with customers. Yes, there are examples of visionaries creating products because they can see what people will want before people know they want it. We need these moonshot visionaries, companies, and products, but these are rare people and products. If you want to increase your odds of a product being successful, don’t act like a visionary and like a neophyte.

Building products with customers compels us to keep our egos in check and forces us to verify as part of creating. Most of us are not that great at keeping our egos out of the creation process and left to our instincts; we unknowingly start to become the nucleus of a product and transition into a customer mindset instead of with. This transition from creating with to for customers happens unconsciously and easily. It happens so easily it feels natural and right. It lures us into thinking we are visionary and can create a product without customers intimately involved.

By the time we realize we have transitioned to for instead of with customers, we are too far removed from customers, and the product is already on a path to being unsuccessful. To maintain a perspective of not knowing enough about a problem, what a product should do, and how the product should be of value to customers is one of the greatest fights product builders have to encounter.

The fight to protect the sanctity of with vs. for is even more important than the fight for a product’s design or development aspects. If you are part of a capable product team, you will likely build something beautiful and usable. The valuable element is often absent from beautiful and functional products that fail. Is the product valuable to customers? You can’t determine value building products for customers nearly as well as building products with customers.

Building with customers is harder. It takes longer and is more expensive. And yes, people can be complicated and messy. Customers will give you misinformation, false positives, and even flake out. Dealing with people around building something new for them is hard, but that is why it is so important and valuable. If we could easily and quickly build products for people, the success rate of new products and companies would be astronomically higher, but we can’t.

The product creators who dig in with customers still don’t have overwhelming favorable odds of their product being successful, which indicates how hard all of this is, but they at least have increased their odds of success. Building with customers is a grind. There is no sugarcoating it. It just is. Building with customers isn’t sexy.

While building with customers, you will be tempted to switch to building for customers when you see others building things faster and all the articles about them coming out of all the media outlets covering the new, cool stuff. Building with customers is like boot camp of military service and the ongoing preparedness training. It is the ugly grind that no one wants to do but is required to have any chance at success and, in some cases, mere survival.

Building a product is creative, but the customer value part isn’t. The customer value aspect of a product is a matter of fact. Customers either validate they receive enough value from a product by agreeing to use it and pay for it, or they don’t. Anything short of customers using and paying for a product doesn’t matter and is a failure.

The best way to validate a customer’s use and willingness to pay for the use of a product is to create the product with them. Truly with them. They are in the kitchen tasting the soup as you make it and providing immediate feedback.

Olympic athletes don’t show up and produce medal-winning performances when the games happen. They work the daily grind to prepare to perform well. The daily grind for product creators to create successful products is doing so with customers. Building with customers helps product creators in more ways than just getting the features of a product right.

Building with customers helps product creators to learn how to market, sell, and support their product. Customers that agree to build a product with you will share their overall product experience, not just the features it should have and how they should work. You can’t get these non-feature insights creating a product for customers. The grind of working with customers to build a product produces dividends that can’t be produced as well in any other way.

Product creators that build with customers learn how customers buy, implement, and use the product. Build with customers share the language and signals they pay attention to around a product that helps the creators to connect and resonate with other customers.

The first and best step to product-led growth is to build with and not for customers. The time invested early with customers rewards product creators later by unlocking important aspects of commercializing a product. Building with customers helps to take the guesswork out of bringing a product to market and adequately supporting it.

There is a lot of talk these days about building in public. Most of the talk is in comparison to building in stealth. I get the premise of this debate but will make the case that either is fine as long it is with customers. Building in public or stealth matters less than building with customers as part of the process. I’ve seen too many stealth products launch with great fanfare only to flame out as quickly as they appeared.

Building a product with many eyes on it or few doesn’t matter as much as the right eyes — the eyes of customers. Public or stealth isn’t the proper debate. If you’ve read this far, you also know that I don’t believe with or without customers is a debate. With customers is the only manner in which most products should get built.

The more niche a product is, the more critical it is to be created with customers. If a product is broad and could serve many different types of customers, product creators are better off focusing on an initial niche to build it with a narrow set of customers. Building with customers matters so much that product creators should initially narrow their focus to a specific type of customer to help get the early product as right as possible. Building a product for a broad market almost always means the product creators are building for customers and not with. Building a general product for a broad set of customers is the least productive and successful way to do it.

Many proponents of design thinking will tout it as a way to learn about a problem and to elicit customer perspectives. This can be true, but in my experience, building effectively with customers doesn’t require a specific methodology. The promise of Agile was to have product creators build with customers, but that fundamental tenant gets overlooked and bastardized all the time.

A methodology doesn’t equate to building with customers as it seems like it might on the surface. All product design and development methodologies account for the customer in some way. Heck, even waterfall depends on requirements that have been elicited from customers. However, accounting for customers isn’t the same as building with, and most methodologies end up being a crutch for product creators to think they are building with customers when they aren’t.

So how do you know if you are building with or for customers? I’m going to share three brief, personal examples of products I was a part of creating. These were the core products of three startups I was involved. We built with customers in two examples and mostly got it right. In the third example, we built for customers and couldn’t have gotten more wrong. The sad part is the third example came after the first two. A reminder that creating products with customers is harder than it appears.

The first example is a product we created for companies that consistently hired a large volume of team members. The product was focused on large retailers to help team members to apply for positions faster and easier. We formed a customer advisory board of seven large retailers to help us get the product right. We engaged with the retailers every week. Yes, it was a significant investment for them, but if we got the product right, it would be of substantial value to them. We must have done okay because we sold the product in 18 months.

The second example is with a product in a highly regulated and conservative industry. We partnered with a customer to create the product in a significant way. We gave them a revenue share of initial product sales for their subject matter expertise. Oh, they also funded the initial product design and development. We worked daily with team members from the customer, many days being in person. Yes, building with customers takes a major commitment from both sides. The product gained immediate traction after its release with other customers because we had spent too much time building it with the initial customer. The company was later sold at a nice multiple.

The third example is hard to write about because we got so much wrong. We created a product in the gig economy space, and the product did what the competitor’s products did in matching freelancers with projects. But in our initial stupidity decided the freelancers and project owners would not be able to connect directly.

We injected a human into the equation and hired a bunch of local managers to facilitate in-person meetings with the freelancers and project owners. This was incredibly time-consuming, expensive, and inefficient. It sucked. No one liked or wanted our approach to solving the problem. We had created a product for customers that we imagined they wanted. We were wrong, and we paid the price by burning through millions of dollars before it was too late, and we shut the whole thing down.

The technology consulting firm I am now a Principal at, AWH, engages with companies of all types and sizes to create new products. The clients who see the best product success aren’t the most accomplished, largest, or best funded. The companies that create the most successful products are the ones that create them with customers. This is no surprise to me, but it often is with clients. We have even begun asking clients the extent to which internal or external customers will be involved. If a client says not at all or very little, we will pass on engaging with them.

I and we feel that strongly about the value of building with customers. We recommend clients form a formal customer advisory board when creating a new product. A customer advisory board helps ensure the client starts and remains in a customer mindset throughout the product build process.