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When it comes to building a product that people will love and actually pay money to buy, you have to know your customer inside and out.

Unfortunately too many entrepreneurs and startups are ignoring this very basic truth because they believe it costs too much money to gather market research.

Others are ignoring it because they believe they’ve got the perfect product. But just because you have the ability to build a product doesn’t mean you have the ability to satisfy a market need.

Ignoring market research can set you back time and money and even kill your startup. Take the time to gather valuable customer intelligence with the following unique and inexpensive research tools.

Create the Minimum Viable Product [MVP] That Doesn’t Exist

Too often entrepreneurs think the MVP is an actual product in which you use, like a physical object that you can hold or an app stripped to its essentials.

That’s not true.

Drew Houston’s Dropbox MVP was nothing more than a four minute video that he shared with an audience. There was no code he had to write or engineers to pay. Just a screencast of an idea he had:

Foursquare collected customer data via Google Docs. And, early on, Groupon used an applescript to send their coupons as PDFs to customers.

Of course in some industries you do need to create a physical product. But how, if you are in an industry like the airlines, do you create an MVP? Easy, you fly one plane along one route to see if you get user acceptance. Virgin Air did, and as interest grew they expanded.

But how does an MVP gather customer intelligence? When it’s just a wireframe, sketch or screencast, you can do really simple usability tests to see if it’s intuitive. Or you can use these simple ideas to measure interest via getting people to sign up for an email invite list.

Host a DIY Customer Panel

A customer panel is like a focus group, except you and other members of management are in the room with the customers. It’s a great way to gather customer intelligence and create a culture in your organization that keeps the customer’s voice front and center.

Here’s a quick rundown on how to pull off a customer panel:

  1. Establish the purpose of your panel – You need to bring all of your principles together and determine what you are trying to accomplish. Are you looking for whether customer expectations are being met with competitor products? Do you want to know the minimum level of features they will accept in a product?
  2. Choose customers to participate – Look to have about 12 people in your panel over a 2 hour period. Make the list twice as big in case you have people who can’t make it. Send out invitations and place the standouts on a reservation list.
  3. Make arrangements – Next, figure out where you are going to hold this panel. It could be in a conference room at your local book store or hotel. No matter where you host it, make sure it’s in a comfortable and pleasant place…and don’t forget to provide snacks and drinks!
  4. Conduct the panel – To get started all you have to do is ask the group one question like “What does the product do well?” Give them time to write their answers down on a piece of paper and submit those answers. When everyone is done, repeat the process with a new question.
  5. Gather results – Once you’ve completed the panel, gather all of the answers and group them into categories based upon the questions you asked.
  6. Document and discuss the results – Research intelligence is worthless if you don’t do anything with it. So take the time to record all the answers in a database everyone can access. Also plan a meeting in which you discuss the results with employees, partners and investors so you can decide what you need to do next.

Run a Viral Public Opinion Poll

The standard method to gathering marketing intelligence is to take a survey. The Internet and tools like my company’s KISSinsights or Survey Monkey have allowed us to lower the time and cost involved with your typical questionnaire survey.

But those are static surveys, and, if not done correctly, can lead to predictable outcomes.

What would happen, however, if you opened up the questionnaire to the people you were actually polling? You’d probably get 100 times the interaction. That’s at least what the founders of Urtak believe.

Urtak is an application you embed on your website or blog that allows you to poll people.  It’s pretty basic in that those who you survey only have to answer “Yes. No. Don’t Care.” If you think about it, that takes a huge mental load off of those being surveyed, allowing you to ask more questions.

But here’s the kicker. Urtak allows your customers to ask questions, too. That means you can craft eleven questions on topics you want to gather intelligence on…and then let your readers craft the others!

What’s interesting about this is your readers will naturally ask questions you may have never thought of as they try to get to know the other people in the community.

For example, on the Urtak blog they mention an experiment that Andrew Sullivan at the Daily Dish ran using Urtak. Sullivan didn’t have a budget, but his readers created a creative explosion. The results are nothing short of amazing.

Typical top-down research polls usually end up telling you things you already know. A bottom-up approach like Urtak will tell you exactly what customers are thinking because they are the ones asking the questions.

Test Your Product Against the 5-Second Rule

Remember when I said that your MVP doesn’t actually have to be a product…that it could be a video or even a wireframe? The following marketing research tactic is not only free to run, but it will give you immediate feedback on your MVP.

Imagine you are building a product like Spool that allows you to bookmark videos to watch on your phone offline. And you are trying to build a landing page to generate email sign ups in order to receive a beta.

Well, that mock-up of that landing page is your MVP. But how can you tweak it to make sure that it will do exactly what you want it to do?

Say you want it to do three things: host an introductory video, embed a sign up form for invites and offer a download for a white paper. However, let’s say your number one stated goal is to get email sign ups.

So what you do is build the wireframe and then upload it to  Within minutes the community at will start to give you feedback. Through a chart like the one below you will see what people think is the number one stated goals:

If it’s not what you thought it should be, change the wireframe and upload it again. You can run 5-second tests as many times as you like, and as a bootsrapping entrepreneur, the price is right, too: it’s free.


With cheap, DIY tools like the customer panel and exist, you no longer have an excuse for not performing marketing research.

So, what other inexpensive and unique ways to you gather market research?

Neil Patel is the co-founder of KISSmetrics, an analytics provider that helps companies make better business decisions.

More from Neil Patel on GeekWireSeven signs that you might just be an entrepreneur Eleven things every entrepreneur should know about innovation… 17 things I wish I’d known when starting my first business

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