Why starting early dialogues with potential customers is the key to success

By Ajay Batra

As the Director of an incubator, and as a mentor to startups, I hear dozens of pitches each week. Of late, I have noticed that my initial questions to startup founders, and their responses, are pretty much the same. Was I getting jaded and repetitive, or was the world not changing as fast as I thought?

The question hit home particularly hard as I witnessed the top-5 pitches of a national fintech challenge in Delhi this past winter. Most of the startups were in their early stages of maturity (post-ideation, pre-revenue, developing their MVPs) hence it was difficult to predict how far they will go. I was singularly impressed with the founders” passion and commitment. Most of them knew the larger fin-tech ecosystem in India quite well and were quite up-to-speed on the latest technologies needed to develop smart AI-based fin-tech solutions.

The thing that bothered me was that such smart founders were working hard in somewhat of a vacuum – they were building their ventures with so many untested assumptions about their customers’ context and choices. I received lukewarm answers to questions such as: Who is your sharply defined customer? How does your proposed solution fit in the customers’ lives? How will the customers’ lives be better with your product/service? How much do the potential customers really care about your solutions?

As I discussed the situation with my team, it was obvious that something that was so obvious to us, unfortunately, was not so for most young founders (especially the technology-inclined ones). Startup principles embodied in approaches like Lean Startups, Business Model Canvas and the Startup Maturity Model, had not steeped in the mindsets of these founders. A lot still needs to be done to educate our new breed of startup leaders on the fundamentals of building robust businesses.

Of all the principles of building robust startups and enduring organizations, we believe that the one that promotes customer-centricity is the key. This upfront investment saves much heartache and wrong turns that a business can take. Also, most founders do not realize that the beauty of starting early dialogues with potential customers makes the forthcoming journey of marketing, sales, business modeling and customer relationship management so much easier.

Hence over the last few months, we have developed, piloted and successfully implemented a simple-yet-powerful framework that gets startups to truly “empathize” with their customers (and not just use the design thinking buzzword) It is designed to get them out the in the field and not just stay in the comfort of their cool co-working spaces.

The framework is called “KNOW” – with obvious implications of it being an opportunity to get to know one’s customer really well. The framework has four phases, each supported by a few questions. The formula of success with KNOW lies in answering the questions through dialogue and engagement with real potential customers and not by second-guessing their responses. At our incubator, we insist that all new startups take a few weeks, or even months, to complete the KNOW exercise even before a single line of code is written for their app (or a similar building block of their product/service) is developed.

We share the four phases of KNOW below with illustrative questions that are asked of the potential customers during personal interviews/group discussions at their homes and offices – from a large mobile phone maker, which is using the framework to launch on internal startup to develop the next generation of mobile phones with 10X batter power. About 100 potential customers were asked these questions and such was the power of the insights from these interactions that the company pivoted from developing a phone with ultra-long battery life to researching on ultra-fasting battery chargers.

Prior to applying the framework, the company had identified a well-defined segment (working professionals in the 25-40 age group working in tier-1 cities of India) for their new product.

Know your customers

Contextual knowledge

a. Are the identified customers direct (they buy our product/service and pay us for them), indirect (they buy our product/service from someone else and pay them) or free users (they use our product/service but don’t pay anyone for them)?

b. What are the demographics of the target customer segment [usually acquired through past data or secondary market research]?

c. What is a typical day (this could also be re-phrased as week/month) for you?

d. Which is the best part of the day for you? The hardest?

e. What are your personal/professional aspirations?

f. How tech-savvy are you?

g. How often do you socialize?

h. How often do you travel for business/leisure?


a. How important is it for you to have a phone with an ultra-long battery life?

b. What are you able to achieve professionally with such a phone?

c. What does this phone let you do in your personal life?

d. How would you feel emotionally about having a phone with an ultra-long battery life?

e. How would a cell phone with an ultra-long battery life affect your social life?

f. What could you do with such a phone- that you can’t currently?


a. What are your current problems related to the battery life of your phone?

b. How do you feel about similar solutions in the market?

c. Where would you go looking for a new/better solution to your problem?

d. How eager would you be to try a new phone with an ultra-long battery life?


a. If you had a magic wand to solve your phone’s low battery woes, what kind of a solution would you develop?

b. What would be the features of an ideal phone with ultra-long battery life?

c. How much would you be willing to pay for a phone with ultra-long battery life?

Customer-centricity is as much a belief, as it a practiced approach for startups as well as established enterprises. KNOW certainly gets Startups started on a path to a successful launch, but for long-term effectiveness, such an approach needs to become the organization’s DNA as the venture acquires and services a larger base of diversified customers.

The writer is Director, Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Bennett University and author of “Startups and Beyond – Building Enduring Organizations”

Disclaimer – Bennett University is a part of Times Group.