Speak to your customers

There is no substitute for speaking with customers one-on-one. Speaking to individual users feels slow and wasteful, but it is the fastest way to gain deep market insight. Customer obsession, over time, becomes a  deep competitive moat.


  • Even if you are a founder or executive, resist the urge to outsource customer conversations to others within the team (or, God forbid, to outsiders). If you are the decision maker on how to care for your customers, then you benefit from direct first-hand customer interactions, to make those decisions.
  • A great place to quickly get more customer interactions is to get more involved with sales efforts and customer support. Do anything you can, to seek out more 1:1 conversations with customers.
  • When speaking to customers, it’s hard to both sell a product and simultaneously objectively listen to their needs. It is better to split conversations into either understanding their pains and needs, or trying to sell them something. Make it a priority to understand your customer, before you try to sell them anything.
  • Henry Ford said that if he would have asked people what they wanted, they would have said “faster horses”, rather than “a car”. Don’t ask customers what your product should be, but rather ask them what their pains, problems and frustrations are.
  • Direct customer input is also valuable for other people in the team. It is nowadays trivial to record meetings, so that everyone can listen back. Once you have the recording, get it transcribed for even easier access to the golden nuggets.

In Practice

Craigslist founder Craig Newmark still handles customer support despite the platform's global scale. He spends hours daily in the forums answering questions and listening to users.

This habit provides invaluable insight. Newmark uses feedback to continually refine the famously barebones UX. He resists calls for features that would complicate Craigslist's simplicity.

His rationale? "Listen to your constituents, but don't let them design the product."

This balancing act of incorporating user input while staying true to his minimalist vision is enabled by Newmark's direct customer access. He has an innate sense for what features align with Craigslist's ethos because suggestions pass through him firsthand. His presence also fosters goodwill and trust in the brand. Buyers value connection with real founders, especially for community platforms.

Engaging directly with customers is not just the right thing to do, but smart for business, too. Customer empathy gained from thousands of individual conversations keeps Craigslist aligned with user needs - without compromising his core product principles. Hands-on customer dialog sustains Craigslist's simplicity and cult status. A great example of why there's no substitute for founders speaking to users themselves.

Pair with

  • Book: Running Lean
  • Do things that don’t scale (Paul Graham)
Test early, test often