Customer Development - What it is and Why it Matters
Product Development

Customer Development - What it is and Why it Matters

Martin Bell
Martin Bell
7 min read.

Customer development is the cornerstone of any successful startup. It should never be overlooked. It goes beyond simply meeting the needs of your target market. It involves a comprehensive and ongoing strategy of identifying, understanding, and refining your product based on the evolving requirements of your customers.

This article will explore the essence of customer development, offering practical insights and guidance to help you effectively integrate these strategies into your lean startup strategy.

Entrepreneur at laptop with speech bubbles of customer feedback

What Is Customer Development?

Customer development is a process of understanding and addressing the needs of your target customers through continuous feedback loops and continuous iterations. It involves identifying customer problems, developing solutions, validating those solutions, and building a customer base.

The customer development concept was popularized by Steve Blank and Eric Ries in their books "The Four Steps to the Epiphany" and "The Lean Startup" respectively. Customer development is a key component of the lean startup methodology, which focuses on rapidly developing and testing products with customer input to reduce waste and increase chances of success.

Why Is Customer Development Important?

Person examining graphs with a giant magnifying glass

For startups, customer development is crucial as it helps entrepreneurs steer clear of the pitfalls of creating unwanted products. It fosters a profound understanding of the target market, encompassing their needs, preferences, and pain points.

This, in turn, drives the development of tailored offerings that elevate customer satisfaction and foster loyalty. Additionally, it mitigates the risk of failure by providing a platform to test ideas and assumptions before committing substantial resources.

Overview of Stages in Customer Development

Customer development is not a one-and-done process; it involves a series of stages that a startup must navigate to ensure they are building a product desk solution, or service that truly meets their customers' needs. The four stages of customer acquisition are:

Customer Discovery

In the early stage, startups aim to comprehend their customers and their needs. This involves validating if the addressed problem concerns the target audience. Surveys, interviews, and market research assist in achieving this.

Customer Validation

Once you have a product idea and identified your target customers and their needs, the next step is to validate your solution. Startups should test their minimum viable product (MVP) with a small group of customers to determine if it effectively solves the problem and meets customer needs.

Product testing with a small customer group

Customer Creation

After validating your product or service, the next step in a scalable sales process is customer creation. This involves building a user base, scaling operations, and implementing various marketing channels, and sales strategies to attract and convert potential customers.

Company Building

In the final stage of customer development, the focus shifts to scaling up the company. This includes expanding the sales team further, refining business operations, and building a company culture aligned with your mission and values. The goal pair customer development is to scale your company sustainably while maintaining the value and quality of your product or service.

How to Implement Customer Development Processes

Implementing customer development processes effectively requires a strategic approach and commitment to continual learning and adjustment. Here are steps to guide you through the agile development process:

Define Your Customer Base

Start by defining your target audience. Understand their demographic characteristics, needs, problems, and preferences. This can be achieved through various market research strategies such as online surveys, interviews, focus groups, and competitive analysis.

Build and Test Your MVP

Develop a minimum viable product (MVP) that serves as a solution to the problem you've identified. The MVP should include the basic features that solve the problem. Once the MVP is ready, share it with a group of early adopters for testing. Gather feedback and use it to refine your product.

Validate Your Product

Use the feedback from your early adopters to validate whether your product meets their needs. If the feedback is positive, it's an indication that you're on the right track. If not, use the feedback to make necessary adjustments.

Fictional 100 Tasks product validation example with early adopter feedback

Create Your Customer Base

Develop a marketing and sales strategy to attract and convert potential new customers first. This might involve content marketing, social media marketing, SEO, email marketing, and other strategies that effectively reach your target audience.

Scale Your Business

Once your product has been validated by a significant number of paying customers, it's time to scale your business. This may involve hiring more employees, expanding into new markets, or increasing production capacity.

Customer Development Terminology

Customer Development Terminology Book

Understanding the terminology associated with Customer Development can empower businesses to effectively implement this strategy. Here's a brief rundown of some key terms:

Customer Discovery

The ongoing process of learning about your potential customers, their needs, and how your business model design and product could meet those needs. This is generally the first stage of the Customer Development process.

Customer Validation

This entails confirming that your Business Model can be replicated by successful companies and on a larger scale. Validation is achieved when customers acknowledge that your business model or product solves their problem and are willing to pay for it.

Minimum Viable Product (MVP)

The simplest version of your product can still solve a problem for your target customer. The MVP is used to test hypotheses about your product and market.


A fundamental shift in strategy that results from learning that your current approach is not meeting your business goals or customer needs. It's an essential component of the iterative nature of the Customer Development model.

Customer Segmentation

The process of dividing your customer base into distinct groups based on common characteristics, such as needs, behaviors, or demographics. This allows businesses to tailor their marketing and product development efforts to different types of customers.

Practical Tips on How to Implement the Customer Development Process

Image of a small focus group discussion

Although the fundamentals of the Customer Development approach may appear simple, executing this strategy effectively necessitates meticulous planning project execution, and implementation.

Below are the essential steps previously mentioned in the Customer Development process, accompanied by practical tips to enhance its execution:

1. Customer Discovery Process

The Customer Discovery process involves a combination of qualitative and quantitative research methods. These could include surveys, interviews, focus groups, or observational studies. The objective is to understand the problems and needs of your target customer base, their purchasing behavior, and the market conditions.

Practical Tips:

Always ensure your sample size is representative of your target market. Be open-minded during the customer discovery phase and decision-making process and avoid bias. Your assumptions may not always align with reality, and it's essential to adapt your strategy based on customer feedback.

2. Customer Validation Process

Customer Validation involves a series of tests and metrics to evaluate the viability of your business model. This could involve A/B testing, tracking user engagement, churn rate, and customer retention. This step allows businesses to validate their product's market fit.

Practical Tips:

Observe and analyze customer behavior, not just their feedback. The goal is to see if customers find real value in your product and whether they are willing to pay more money for it.

3. Customer Creation Process

Customer Creation involves strategies related to marketing and sales. This could include content marketing, social marketing channels, media campaigns, search engine optimization (SEO), public relations, or sales promotions.

Practical Tips:

In this step, it's crucial to align your marketing and sales strategies with the value proposition and customer segments identified in the previous stages.

4. Company Building Process

Company Building involves processes related to scaling and growth. This could include hiring and training new employees, developing a corporate culture, setting up systems and procedures, and refining the business model.

Practical Tips:

Maintain a customer-centric approach to customer development manifesto even as your company grows. Regularly revisit and refine your customer development strategy based on evolving customer needs and market conditions. Also, focus on building strong relationships with your customers to encourage loyalty and advocacy.

Real-world Examples and Case Studies


Dropbox, a cloud storage service, exemplifies this customer development method. Instead of entering a crowded market, Dropbox began with a simple yet functional product. A video demonstrating its functionality resonated with their target customers - tech early adopters. This validated the product's necessity and feedback received during this phase helped refine it to its current popularity.


Groove, a support software provider, is a compelling customer development success story. Initially facing great customer development examples and challenges with product-market fit, Groove successfully pivoted by listening to their customers instead of guessing their needs.

By incorporating customer feedback into their product development process, they achieved precise alignment of potential solutions with user needs and a strong product-market fit.

Benefits of Implementing Customer Development

Customer development has been proven time and again as an effective way to build a successful startup. Here are some key benefits of implementing a customer development framework in your business strategy:

Decision-making Insights

An effective customer development strategy offers valuable insights for decision-making. Interacting directly with customers helps understand their needs, preferences, and pain points, guiding strategic decisions like product development, pricing, and marketing. This customer-centric approach ensures that fast decision-making every step is based on real-world customer input, increasing the chances of success.

Data Reliability

The customer development process involves gathering data directly from consumers, making it a reliable source to guide business strategy. Instead of relying on assumptions or industry averages, decisions are based on first-hand insights. This "ground truth" data is a powerful tool for predicting customer behavior and tailoring offerings to their needs.


Customer development is a time-consuming process, but it's cost-effective compared to the risk of launching a product without market fit. Iterating based on customer feedback minimizes failure risk. Early customer development expenses are small compared to potential losses from launching a product that doesn't yet meet customer or market needs.

Entrepreneur waving with a dollar bill, showcasing cost-effective customer development

Final Thoughts

Implementing customer development in your business strategy can give you a competitive advantage by ensuring your offerings meet your target market's needs. Gain valuable insights from direct interactions with customers to make informed decisions, increase data reliability, and minimize financial risks.

In today's competitive landscape, successful customer development is essential for startups and thriving businesses. Engage with customers, use their feedback, and prioritize customer development for long-term success and growth.

About Martin Bell

Martin Bell (Founder & CEO of Bell Ventures) is the visionary and driving force behind the hyper-successful 100 Tasks Startup System which has driven the growth of 20,000+ startups including Zalando and Delivery Hero.

At Rocket Internet, he pioneered the 100-Day-Launch process and led 120+ private and public sector venture-building projects.

Now Martin aims to democratize entrepreneurship by sharing his invaluable practical knowledge and tools to empower aspiring entrepreneurs just like you. Does that sound like you? Then make sure to learn more below ...

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