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Find your first customers by surveying stakeholders

It’s easy to believe that everyone thinks about problems and solutions the same way you do. Not so. When you take the time to understand how other people perceive a problem, you will validate some of your own assumptions and disprove others. The fastest and least expensive methods to collect feedback are through surveys and interviews.

When done well, these will reveal new problems, different solutions, patterns and opportunities. They will tell you what your target customer actually looks like. And, you will have useful data to help you better understand how much time and money prospective customers are willing to spend. Most importantly, this process will help you to identify and cultivate your first paying customers.

More than 95% of my time spent with founders during office hours is teaching them about some part of the customer development process. Whenever I ask founders if they have collected market information - 100% said yes. When asked simple follow up questions, it quickly becomes clear  that: they did not formally survey and interview stakeholders, they did not collect data that will inform the first major decision made about going to market, and they did not have information that would convince investors that the company is worth investing in.

Did you know that one of the most common reasons that startups fail is because the founder didn't understand what potential customers really want before going to market? Sad but true. 

First-time founders typically don’t know that there are some very simple and free things to do that while helping to de-risk the startup. So they skip it, waste time, money, and effort, then ultimately dissolve. 

Before launching a new business, data is more important than gut instinct. Taking some time to properly survey and interview stakeholders before going to market will increase the likelihood of success.

Before spending a penny on things like a logo design, website, legal documents, accounting or office space - you have to determine if your idea for a business is viable. That means validating  if there is a market that wants, needs and is willing to buy your product or service - with money! The great thing about this stage in the startup process is that the only cost to the founder is time. 

Surveying and interviewing stakeholders will help you discover if there is a market for your solution. These three important steps in the startup process will allow you to:

  1. Validate and invalidate assumptions you have about the problem, your solution, and the market.

  2. Determine if there is a group of people who want, need, and are willing to pay for your product or service. 

  3. Identify who your first paying customers will be.

During the data collection phase, also known as “customer development,” the job of the founder is to understand the perspective of: stakeholders. Stakeholders are your prospective customers, and collaborative partners like: decision makers with signature authority, influencers and people who will help you get your product/service into the hands of your customers. 

Pull don't Push!

—> Data collection is about extracting information, not pushing your idea. 

There isn’t any need to convince survey respondents and interviewees about how great your new concept is because you could bias the answers. Biased answers will not help to sell the product or service once in the marketplace. Truth, experience, and patterns inform how the first version of the product or service will be introduced to the market. 

Goal of surveying and interviewing stakeholders: identify your first customers!

When you share your business idea with friends and family they will instantly be excited for you and tell you what a great idea you have. That’s very loving and feels really good at the moment, however that will not help you sell the product or service. 

Honest feedback from people who will pay for the product/service is key to understanding their thoughts and behaviors related to your concept. Through this process you will make them aware of your business, build trust, increase curiosity, and hopefully get some folks excited about purchasing your product/service once launched.

Step 1: Identify stakeholders.

To get started, think about who your key stakeholders are and get their contact information into a spreadsheet. Let’s use deodorant/antiperspirant as the case study. This example is a product that is commonly used, easy to understand, and on a major growth trajectory. 

“Deodorant Market size was valued at USD 69.28 billion in 2021 and is poised to grow from USD 73.15 billion in 2022 to USD 119.24 billion by 2030, growing at a CAGR of 5.58% in the forecast period (2023-2030).”  (

The stakeholders in this case would be: customer, retail buyers, and channel partners/distributors. If a founder wants to successfully take a new type of deodorant to market, she needs to understand a combination of buyer, retailer, and distributor behaviors to gauge whether her product will be viable.

Make your list of key stakeholders. You will want to talk with leaders, experts and industry insiders. By involving them early in the development process, you build relationships with them. And they often become your first customers. 

Create a spreadsheet with the following columns: 

  • First name

  • Last name

  • Title

  • Company

  • Email

  • Phone (if available)

—> Who are all of your stakeholders?

Step 2: Budget the time it will take to survey your stakeholders.

Plan to spend a few weeknights and weekends developing these lists. Ask your friends, colleagues, and professional groups if they know anyone in the relevant industry and see if they would be willing to make an introduction for you. Explaining that you are collecting feedback will encourage people to help you because there is no cost and everyone has an opinion.

Step 3: Create the survey

What will you learn from Survey data? When you begin with the end in mind, it helps you write the questions you need answers to. Surveying stakeholders accurately will provide you with the following intel: 

  • How do stakeholders currently experience the “problem” - if at all?

  • How much money do stakeholders spend addressing the problem?

  • How much time do stakeholders spend addressing the problem?

  • What do stakeholders think the ideal solution should be?

  • Who do stakeholders think would benefit from a better solution?

  • Who do stakeholders think the people would be to help get the solution into the hands of those who need it?

Sample survey questions

We’ll use the fictitious deodorant/antiperspirant concept for this case study. Below are two sets of sample questions based on the stakeholder type.

—> Stakeholder 1: Deodorant user

  1. Name

  2. Email

  3. Age range (select: 21-24, 25-34, 35-44, 45-54, 55-64, 65-74, 80+)

  4. Do you use deodorant? (yes/no)

  5. Does your deodorant have an antiperspirant in it?

  6. What kind of deodorant do you use: (solid, roll-on, gel, cream, rock, powder, wipe, rock)

  7. What is your ideal delivery method: (solid, roll-on, gel, cream, rock, powder, wipe, rock, other _____________________)

  8. What brand of deodorant do you use?

  9. Do you like your brand of deodorant?

  10. Do you like the scent of your current deodorant?

  11. What scents do you like in a deodorant?

  12. How many times a day do you apply deodorant?

  13. Where do you purchase deodorant?

  14. How often do you purchase deodorant?

  15. Do you prefer a deodorant: (a -  with fragrance or b - fragrance free)

  16. What type of fragrance do you prefer?

  17. How much money do you spend per deodorant? (ranges)

  18. What would your ideal deodorant/antiperspirant be for you?

  19. What kind of packaging would you prefer?

  20. Any last thoughts about what you do or don’t like about the deodorant/antiperspirant that you use?

  21. Would you be open to discussing some of your answers in more detail in a short discussion via Zoom?

—> Stakeholder 2: Industry Experts (retail buyers, channel distributors)

  1. Name

  2. Email

  3. Title

  4. Company

  5. What is your fiscal year? (Calendar, other/define)

  6. How do you evaluate new deodorant brands?

  7. How many new deodorant brands did you add to your shelves last year?

  8. How many units do you typically purchase at a time?

  9. What is your internal process for purchasing deodorant?

  10. What is the price range deodorants need to be in order for you to carry them?

  11. What type of packaging is required?

  12. What is the preferred delivery method?

  13. When are the deodorant providers paid in the process? (on delivery, 30 days after delivery, 50% up front, etc.)

  14. Do you have a primary contact within your company who makes these purchases?

  15. What is the title of that person?

  16. How does a new founder connect with the internal buyer?

  17. What should a founder know about working with your company?

  18. Would you be open to discussing some of your answers in a short discussion via Zoom?

Step 4: Send the survey

You want to shoot for a minimum of 200 surveys to be completed. Keep in mind, you are not doing this to just collect market data, you are doing this to identify your first customers. The more surveys you send out, the more likely you are to identify your first paying customers. 

Expect a 10-15% response rate. If you want 200 completed surveys, you'll need to get the survey in front of about 2,000 sets of eyeballs.

If you don’t have a sales background, be aware that it takes several reminders to get people to fill out a survey. It’s not that people don’t care, they are busy and have other priorities, just like you. So, it’s your responsibility to keep reminding them in positive ways to fill out the information.

Plan on sending out several emails and making several posts in groups to remind people.  Each time you email or post, tell them about your progress and let them know you just need a few more people to fill out the survey. If you can give them a realistic number, they may be driven to want to help you achieve a simple goal. It’s like when you see someone has 99 likes on a post and you just want them to get to 100!

—> Sample email to share a survey:

Dear X,

My name is X and I am the founder of X. My startup is on a fact finding mission to better understand the customer’s/buyer’s experience with X. You/your organization is an expert in X. I was hoping you would be kind enough to provide feedback through this survey. It will only take a few minutes. 

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me at x.

With sincere thanks,


Step 5: Review the survey and analyze the data

Patterns will emerge, some will jump off the pages. Look for patterns that both validate and invalidate the assumptions you have about your perception of the problem and what you think should be the ideal solution. 

—> Analyze the data:

  1. Refine the problem that the market communicated through the survey

  2. Define the solution the market wants, needs, and is willing to pay for.

  3. Identify people who could be potential customers and interview them.

Survey Checklist:

_____  1.  Identify stakeholders and add their contact information to a spreadsheet.

_____  2.  Identify individuals and organizations who can help you get your survey into the 

                 hands of prospective stakeholders. Utilize your network of contacts and professional  

                 and trade organizations, industry focused groups on Facebook and LinkedIn.

_____  3.  Create a free survey using Google Forms.

_____  4.  Email the survey to stakeholders and provide a due date.

_____  5.  Remind stakeholders to fill out the survey (remind 3-5 times until hitting the goal).

_____  6.  Review and analyze the data from the survey. Look for patterns.

_____ 7.  Identify survey respondents to interview.


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