Businesses are still built one customer at a time

I don’t care what horseshit advice you get from some startup guru that says you can create customers by the thousands (and yes, I do swear on this blog, so beware of the occasional blue language) … any and every business – whether it’s located in a home, in an office building, behind a store front, on the Internet or on the Moon – is still built one customer at a time. Of course this is a “no-duh” statement, but the frightening thing is that many of us often lose track of this in our hurried effort to grow our businesses.

I’m as guilty of this as the next person, and what makes it especially difficult for me is the fact that I run a few Web-based businesses in which I never see most of my customers. Yes, I do trade emails with many of them and even chat with some of them on the phone on occasion, but there’s something about that tactile experience of seeing someone’s face and their expressions that is still inimitable.

So that makes it challenging – if not impossible – to fully experience the “presence” of online customers (although click tracking software like ClickTale can certainly help you see how they experience your online product). Juxtapose this to the ease in which the owner of a flower shop can experience the harried guy plodding through his door and exclaiming that he missed his wife’s birthday and needs big help to start making up for it (as dollar bills roll up the florist’s eyes like those in a Bugs Bunny cartoon), and you can understand better what I’m saying.

We just launched our project management software Planning Pod a month ago, and launches are always a mixed bag. You are thrilled that your product is finally out there, but you also realize that most of the work still lies ahead of you. However, the real blessing is those first customers that visit your site and poke around and actually sign up to try it out. After months of building something, to have even just a couple people sign up is a huge rush and a bit of affirmation that you’ve made something that people will want and use. But it also makes you value those people, too, and really want to do right by them. They tried you out when you were young and without a track record, and that kind of loyalty and willingness to give us a shot is both humbling and inspiring.

I was recently sitting in a Firestone dealership, waiting for new tires to be put on my wife’s car, reading an article in Inc. magazine about the struggles of turntable.fm, an awesome site where you can join a “room” where you and your “roomates” can play songs for each other and DJ till dawn (which I have done on a few occasions with some friends). It talked about how the site gained 360,000 users in the first three months but has lost users and “floundered” somewhat since then and is looking for the magic recipe to garner millions of users (and billions of dollars, presumably). And it got me thinking about our crazy expectations for growth – both as Americans and for Internet businesses – and how in the drive forward we often forget about the individual user who is having a personal, intimate experience with our products.

So, to keep myself centered and focused on each customer and their experience, every morning I have been looking at the names of the users who signed up the previous day and quietly thanking them and thinking of them individually. And I encourage you, in whatever business you run, to slow yourself down every day so you can enjoy the people walking through your real or virtual doors. Because they are the reason you are able to pursue your dreams.

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Oh, and as an ongoing thing, I’m going to list the musical artist to whom I was listening when I was writing the post. Tonight, I penned this listening to the Congolese guitarist Franco, the master of the rumba and one of the progenitors of Congolese modern music. Wonderfully flowing, vibrant, strummy music, almost jazzlike in its solo structure but entirely African in its rhythms, vocals and spirit.