Customer Driven Development

The Mailing Company provides automated direct mail for (post) modern marketing

Don't find customers for your product. Find products for your customers

Seth Godin

Customer driven development had landed me ironically perched on top of a dune beneath the clifftop where, on the 12 December 1901, Thomas Barron sent the first wireless signal to Marconi in Newfoundland. Barron succeeded, but I was struggling to get signal on my thousand-pound telecommunicator.

Our first big client had made it clear to me earlier in the week that they wanted to send today. No exceptions. I had to make it happen, even though I barely had a bar of reception, zero internet and none of my gear.  I was pretty sure we were good, but still needed to check every detail.

Snatching a chance when 3G reappeared for a moment I called the delivery company contact to make sure everything was ticking along in my plan. It wasn’t. Damn. I’d gone over everything and stayed up all night to watch the automation system run; the logs scroll by. She must be wrong.

No launch is without a blindside attack on your existence

Customer Driven Development

“There’s no return address on the artwork? There has to be a return address, or we can’t send anything?” she interrupted my confusion with a rising inflexion. Being of the entrepreneur mindset, I thought she had it in for me, and I knee-jerked that she was wrong. I knew she was right. “OK, I’ll check and get back to you” I muttered and hung up.

Shit. I’d missed it in the spec weeks ago. No time to feel bad for the operator, I would apologise later. We had three hours. No way to re-create anything from where I was. My kids wanted to go for a surf and were approaching ready to drag me to the ocean. 

I called Debbie, one of our first print partners. “Don’t worry; I’ll mock it up and send it to her. Stand by.” She hung up. Debbie would fix things; she’s battle-hardened from years of dealing with inexperienced print buyers and the Adobe Suite from its earliest beginnings. She’s one of life’s do-ers.

The kids got the better of me and we went to the surf. About an hour later, I used the cover of getting hot drinks from the shop to grab some phone signal and called back. 

“Where were you?” asked exasperated Debbie. “We’ve finally sorted placement, but I don’t know where you want me to send this stuff?” I apologised and gave the address. “We’re cutting it fine, but we can get this run again in time for pickup. You’re gonna have to pay though!”

She’d done it. The inaugural transmission was a success.

Earlier, where we learn to balance on a tightrope with marketing on one end and development on the other:

Rewind to the weeks before this, when I’d dreamed up the basic idea of The Mailing Co as a potential solution to a marketing challenge on another business.

It seemed obvious, and we threw some functioning wireframes and an administration system together. I’ve always found that people find it hard to visualise an idea before product launch without something to see – even if it does nothing. I took our embryonic control panel and my jazz hands to London, managing to score a poster client in meeting number one.

That’s when the fun started.

The Marketing Director silently stared at my Macbook screen when my caffeinated hyper-speak finally halted. I noticed a bit of croissant stuck in the gap between the W and E keys and told myself it wouldn’t kill the deal if he saw it. Calm.

“I love it. I get it. Let’s do it. I need to be able to … ” And suddenly reams of feature ideas came flooding from his mouth. Some were dealbreakers if we couldn’t deliver, some were dumb, some were terrific thoughts and simply had to be in our official product launch.

Up until then, I’d always built the best product I could think of within the bubble of our team, second-guessing what the market would want. That moment was an epiphany. Handing over our unfinished product had forced our new champion to finish it in his head. He became one of us. Customer driven development could be interesting.

Eager to see what would happen if we repeated the show, we interrupted our way into more C suites and presented the most basic offer we had, purposely leaving off any feature requests and sticking to our “We do this one thing” guns.

Our “plan” worked.

Every single time we heard “This is awesome – can we do XYZ?” Only one guy, who didn’t bother to show up for his meeting, sent a message via an uninterested underling that “post isn’t on brand for our marketing”. Whatever. We had nine others in a month and a feature list driven by the market as long as your arm.

We had to stop selling. I hated it, but as a bootstrapped startup, we had to carefully direct resources. I switched our resource focus from sales to dev and set about integrating as much as possible from our lessons in the field. If we didn’t deliver – our sales work would be wasted and reputation damaged. Customer driven development needs to go at breakneck speed – our clients don’t know how difficult it is to “just do blah blah”, they think it’s easy.

Six weeks later, that’s where I found myself on that beach. Our first client had reached irritation level 7 and wanted action. I could tell she was being convivial and giving us slack for being a startup, but she might quickly change tune if we missed the deadline we had set. We’d spent way too long acquiescing to customer demands and now we were late.

Almost…

In retrospect – our mistake was selling too successfully without the resource to back us up. Going to the market to design our product for us was an accidental masterstroke and is the only way I’ll work in the future, but next time will be more careful to iterate as we go rather than waiting for a giant Venn Diagram to tell us the way. The balancing act between development and delivery is one of the toughest things to manage. Too fast and your product sucks; too slow and your organisation sucks.

To this day, I remain eternally grateful to the suppliers who saved us that day. I’d tried to keep them aware of everything we were doing to give them some ownership. My mantra had always been “We’re going to be a huge pain in the ass for now, but in a year this could be interesting”. Maybe that worked, more likely they were just jolly decent people.

Whatever the reason as I relaxed with ice creams all round and happy shivering kids, I didn’t care much. We’d launched with something the market wanted; selling would be easy from this point forward.

Customer Driven Development : Find what the market needs, sprinkle on what they want and then deliver it, but do it quickly. Repeat.

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