We focus far too often on the product--and forget that customers define what's good and what's not.

When Customers Are Ignoring You: 4 Ways to Get More Attention

We focus far too often on the product--and forget that customers define what's good and what's not.

Staff Writer

My heart was in my throat recently as I coached a major university alumna who sought me out for startup advice. Six months post launch, her new online “jobfinder” website had clearly “flatlined.”

The results: 100 or so visitors a month, virtually no revenue and no “bright lights” to be seen anywhere. I quickly saw three recurring problems to watch out for.

Here they are, in a nutshell:

First, a small, self-funded startup struggling to find traction in the well-developed, massively-cluttered online employment arena. Alexa reports finding 804 job and employment websites (and I believe they’re likely missing a zero).

I held my tongue and declined to ask why the world needed yet another one, especially with such massive, successful competitors as Monster, Indeed, Dice, and Glassdoor (four of the biggest) before you even get to Craigslist.com and many aggregators who “scrape” and sort jobs from scores of sites.

Second, I couldn’t get the founder to crystallize her site’s value proposition, also sometimes called a “unique selling proposition.” As a coach, I strive never to discourage an entrepreneur–the day-to-day challenges are often challenging enough.

Pushed to describe her “unique value proposition,” the entrepreneur was literally all over the place, offering five or six different, dischordant value propositions in the first few minutes of our conversation. Value propositions ranged from “we help people find their first job, post-college,” or “…part-time and weekend work while in college,” or “…temp work close to home,” plus a few more along the way.

Most of the prospective value propositions had long since been adopted by scores if not hundreds of websites, many with multimillion-dollar ad budgets, and more than a few claiming “more than a million job seekers served.”

Third, as is often the case, the bright, energetic entrepreneur was totally, maniacally focused on “the product,” having invested significant perspiration and (hopefully less significant) cash on sophisticated AI technology, repeated design iterations, and more–without focusing much if any energy at all on customer discovery or acquisition.

Passionate startup founders make this deadly mistake often, in my experience, spending months and money building the product before giving any thought to, “Will the dogs eat the dog food?”

What’s a founder to do?

It’s often the sign of an indistinct value proposition. Why would a customer risk his or her career on an unknown website with very few jobs to offer? And what employer would solicit new hires from a job site with unmeasurably low traffic?

“Make it smaller” is only part of the equation, which often includes one or more of the following:

1. Focus on a far narrower customer segment. I often encourage startups to first identify the 20 or 30 customers who desperately want what the site provides. Even though many of these niches are already taken, might the target segment be narrowed to “returning moms,” “speakers fluent in Arabic,” “hacker jobs” or perhaps “reallyhardwork.com.”

Find an audience target big enough to support the startup, andbegin building traction in the niche, moving quickly to expand the segment by adding–for example–“speakers fluent in Greek” and “…in Polish” once traction begins.

2. Narrow the value proposition. “Jobs here” is about as broad and indistinct as a claim might possibly be, as in “boiling the ocean…” trying to do it all, yet offering candidates little reason to choose you over many large, established–and well-advertised–services.

The “narrowing” or focusing of a value proposition must recognize that “platform” sites are “two-sided,” with employees on one side, employers on the other. A successful platform succeeds only when it attracts steadily-increasing volumes of both.

Think of “your first job, for example (already taken @www.firstjob.com and @www.collegegrad.com, plus others). Consider smaller niches like www.walkalotjobs.comor www.returningmomjobs.com and www.mathwhizjobs.com to name a few. Employers needing these specific traits might beat a path to your door. Then expand by adding more niches as traction builds.

3. Narrow the geography. It’s hard for even the largest job boards to cover the entire US or New York geography. A quick search for (NYC outer borough) “Bronx jobs” turned up lots of derivative links like www.monster.com/jobs/bronx, but barely any dedicated websites.

4. Talk to Your Prospective Customers. As a leading author, disciple, and teacher of thecustomer development process, I’m required by a blood oath to end here! Your customers know what they want, what they have already, and–more important–what they don’t want. Nobody can better help you figure out to sell than the people whose money you’re hoping to attract.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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