The Five Whys and Three-Minute Rule for Startups


Over the course of the last few weeks, I’ve come across some great “rules” and “methodologies” for customer development and understanding your customers.

The Five Whys

The Five Whys, which has its origins in the Toyota Production System, believes that the root of every problem (including technical problems) is actually a human problem. As demonstrated by Eric Reis on the HBR Blog, here is The Five Whys applied to a startup:

  1. A new release broke a key feature for customers. Why? Because a particular server failed.
  2. Why did the server fail? Because an obscure subsystem was used in the wrong way.
  3. Why was it used in the wrong way? The engineer who used it didn’t know how to use it properly.
  4. Why didn’t he know? Because he was never trained.
  5. Why wasn’t he trained? Because his manager doesn’t believe in training new engineers, because they are “too busy.”

The Three-Minute Rule

This rule can and should be used to better understand your customers. The Three-Minute Rule should be used to better understand the broader context around how your customers are using your product (and what other features may make sense, given their typical use cases). If you’re a CEO or a Product Manager, chances are you are living and breathing the product. Typically, surveys and focus groups can tell you a lot about your customers, but sometimes other approaches can be much more valuable. Enter, the Three-Minute Rule: call up a customer and ask them what they are generally doing three minutes immediately before using your product and three minutes immediately after using your product. Having them run through this scenario allows you to better understand their challenges and complexities; you may learn new sales techniques, develop new insights for potential product features or identify a cross-selling opportunity with another product/service that your company already offers. Anthony Tjan offers some additional insights on this at HBR.

Choosing Product Features


Today I came across the question of how to best choose product features throughout the course of development of a product.

Of course, there are several approaches that you can take to figure this out. In fact, I’d love to hear feedback from others below. At the onset of determining your feature set, it helps to have a good understanding of what your users want. However, please keep in-mind that the features your business chooses to develop must also fit the long-term vision for your product. If you stay short-sighted for too long (i.e. fulfill immediate needs of your customers), you may fall into a habit of being reactive as opposed to proactive in developing new and innovative feature sets.

One method that I like to use is taking a holistic view of each feature that would be under consideration for development and figure out its net business value ROI, where [Return = (measured) Business Value] and [Investment = Development Time spent (on a given feature)]:

Step 1. Approximate how long it would take to develop/integrate each feature into your product.

Step 2. Measure the Business Value that each feature would add. Business Value could be things like increase user retention, increase monetization, increase viral or other distribution, increase engagement or any other metric that you find adds value to your business. You may need to approximate a business value here. Choose a scale that works for your metrics and try to stick to it.

Step 3. Work our your ROI = (Business Value / Development Time) for each feature. You will begin to see which features are going to be big payoffs in the long-run.

Most recently, I have been using SCRUM processes to manage products. Do you use SCRUM? If so, what tweaks have you made to the SCRUM process that you’ve found improved teamwork, decreased iteration time and led to better product-wide planning?

The Importance of Customer Acquisition Costs for Startups


I recently came across the blog of David Skok of Matrix Partners and was inspired to write this post by an article on customer acquisition costs. If you have not yet read through his blog’s vast resources for entrepreneurs, I suggest you do so – particularly if you plan to pitch your startup to VCs anytime soon.

After being pitched countless times by startups, as a VC I’d like to identify a common misconception that web-based startups often have about their own growth potential and the costs associated with their plans. Management of web services companies, SaaS companies and mobile (web-based) applications commonly believe that because they are situated online, customers will come across their service, submit a purchase order (or subscribe) and notify friends or other companies to use the service as well. Although this may happen from time to time, it is very rare for any company to experience sustained viral growth.

Many companies don’t understand the difference between viral marketing and viral growth. Viral marketing is essentially “word of mouth” or “person-to-person distribution” and is the latest buzzword. Viral growth implies a K-factor greater than 1 (i.e. for each new person who tries a product/service, they will each invite more than 1 registered user of the product on average). Since true viral growth is so hard to achieve in practice, many companies miscalculate the actual costs it will incur to acquire customers. As David points out in his article, the majority of startup pitches lack detail/emphasis on how much it will cost to acquire customers. I second this statement entirely.

Business Model Viability
For a business to be profitable on each new customer, startups must balance two variables: (1) Cost to Acquire Customers (CAC); and (2) Lifetime Value of a Customer (LTV).

CAC can be calculated by taking the business’s entire cost of sales and marketing over a given period (including salaries and other employee expenses) and divide it by the number of customers that the business acquired in that period.

LTV can be calculated by looking at the Average Revenue Per User/Customer (ARPU) over the lifetime of a business’s relationship with a customer.

As Steve Blank mentioned in his recent post, an early indication that a business has found the right business model is when the cost of acquiring customers becomes less than the revenues generated from the customer. “For web startups, this is when the cost of customer acquisition is less than the lifetime value of that customer. For biotech startups, it’s when the cost of the R&D required to find and clinically test a drug is less than the market demand for that drug.”


Credit: David Skok.

Zynga is a great example of a company that has managed to decipher the business model of online social gaming. After thousands of A/B tests and experiments, Zynga finally found a business model where CAC was less than LTV. Once they cracked the nut, the company spent so much on customer acquisition that it was rumored that they accounted for upwards of 30% of Facebook’s revenue in 2009 though its aggressive social ad buying strategies. Similar business models and opportunities exist in virtual worlds, massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) and many other online businesses. Many social games, such as those created by Zynga, leverage virtual currency, micro-transactions, emotional response mechanisms and social influence to promote the sale of decorative and functional virtual goods.

Before investing in a web-centric startup, good VCs will look deep into a company’s business model and know to look for CAC and LTV metrics. In fact, Trident Capital recently held a meeting with their online advertising and ecommerce companies to help exchange best practices for customer acquisition and improving LTV. My advice to startups: prove out your business model and you will have a much better shot at raising VC dollars. Skok suggests that two key equations be followed by web startups:

  • CAC < LTV (3x appears to be a rough minimum for SaaS businesses)
  • CAC should be recovered in < 12 months (for subscription businesses)

Startups, if you’ve already figured out your business model and how to make CAC < LTV, stay very quiet and add as much fuel to the fire as you can afford. Your competitors will likely try to hone-in on your tactics and fight back for their share of the market.


Credit: Steve Blank.

Leverage Startup Metrics
Startups are different from larger companies and therefore need different metrics than larger companies. Metrics will give startups a lens into how well the search for the business model is going and help to identify when to scale the company. Besides CAC and LTV, some essential metrics that startups should be familiar with include Viral Coefficient (K-factor)  and Customer Lifecycle. Dave McClure from Founders Fund recently updated his Startup Metrics for Pirates presentation for web sales pipelines. Take a look!

Questions to my Readers
Please consider the following questions and share your perspectives with my other readers and the tech community at large.

  1. What metrics do you consider the most valuable?
  2. Do you use any tools to help measure specific metrics for your business?
  3. What mistakes have you made (and corrected) that can help others succeed?