Yesterday I was talking to a friend who is considering applying for a job here at Tailwind. He asked me why I took the job of Director of Marketing and Growth back in July, and among the many things I told him was this….
Nearly every day somebody from Tailwind’s product development team talks at considerable length with one of our members, all of these conversations get written up, shared with the whole team on Slack (our instant messaging system), and they help us decide what features to build. Around the office we call these “cust dev calls”, short for customer development calls, and they’re constant.
Why fight over what you think customers want?
My friend was impressed. At his last job decisions about what features to build were considered too important to be made by anybody but the CEO, based on his considerable knowledge of the market. In fact that was one of my friend’s biggest frustrations working there – that his ideas were never taken very seriously because his CEO always knew better than he did. Or he thought he knew better. The product my friend built there hasn’t found success yet.
Of course there are a group of people who know what your customers want even better than you or your well-informed CEO do, and those people are your customers. So why not cut out the middleman, ask them what their biggest frustrations are, see what ideas they have to solve them; think carefully about the best product you could build to overcome those frustrations, and then build what it is your customers really want.
That’s what we try to do at Tailwind every day, and the effect that one discipline has had on our product over the years, on how our customers feel about us, and on our culture is flat-out remarkable.
A listening culture
I remember the first customer development call that I sat in on with our User Experience Analyst, Stephen Siu. I was taken aback by how little he talked and how intently he listened, by how nearly everything he said was a sincere question, a clarifying question, or a repeat question asked in a different way to probe deeper.
I was as just as impressed by what Stephen didn’t do in that call as by what he did do. He never once got defensive, tried to justify a decision we’d made, or change a customer’s mind about something – no mean feat since we make a special effort to talk to users who leave Tailwind. Nor did he judge them for what they said. If they didn’t understand something in the tool, it was simply an opportunity for us to clarify it.
I was also impressed by the team’s response to Stephen’s copious notes: other developers, other teams, and the founders all weighed in to discuss the details. EVERYONE was listening to our members just as intently as he was.
“None of us at Tailwind are professional bloggers or run businesses or agencies like our members do,” Stephen told me when I asked him why cust dev calls are so important, “Yet they depend on our product every day to build their business online. Ultimately, we are working for our members so understanding their mindset goes a long way to informing both the big-picture and everyday decisions we make.”
For Tailwind customer development calls are a safe space (almost a sacred one) where people can tell us the truth about how we’re doing and where we could do better. This kind of feedback can be hard to hear, and you definitely have to check your ego at the door, but if you can do that then customer development calls can be an incredibly useful tool in helping any business to improve their product, whatever that product may be.
What does it take to run a successful cust dev call?
Stephen suggests the following:
- Before you setup the call, know exactly who you want to talk to and what you want to know
- Assume you know nothing about why or how someone does something
- Listen more than you talk
- Ask the same open ended question 3 different ways; you’d be surprised how much new information comes out
- Empathize and be genuinely interested in what they have to say
There are books you can read for a more thorough take on customer development and other fascinating startup tools. “The Four Steps to the Epiphany” by Steve Blank (Step 1 is Customer Development), and The Entrepreneurs Guide to Customer Development come highly recommended by our co-founder and head of product, Alex Topiler.
Inclusion that extends all the way out to our members
Tailwind’s founders Danny Maloney and Alex Topiler actually met at a Lean Startup meetup. So it’s no accident that as a company we’re so committed to listening to our members. Since the beginning our founders have espoused the principle of “validated learning” on which the Lean Startup movement is based. In short – always be testing your hypotheses. That means both listening to what customers say and watching how they behave and where they spend their money.
One of Tailwind’s cultural values is Inclusion. In one of our cultural documents Danny says of Inclusion, “We are friends. We have each others’ back. We build things that empower the many. We believe everyone should be welcomed, regardless of what they look like, where they come from, who they love or what they believe.”
That inclusion extends to Tailwind members. In cust dev calls our members are treated more like collaborators than customers: their opinion is valid and valued no matter what it is; we’re all working together to make the Tailwind product as good as it can be.
And it feels great. I got our Product and Software Engineer Frankie Nwafili tell me about his experience with cust dev calls and learned that in one exceptional case we received a feature request from a member, built it, and told them it was live all in the same day!
Solving the big frustrations
At its core, customer development is more than just listening to your customers wishes and building what they think we should build. When it comes down to it, what we really strive for the conversations to reveal, and what we’re trying to understand more deeply than anything else is: what are the biggest problems and frustrations our members are dealing with on a day-to-day basis? Why are these things frustrating? Why do they put themselves through these frustration? And what would it enable them to do if those problems didn’t exist?
As our other co-founder put it, “If people are willing to go to great lengths for something, it must be important. And the real key is understanding what they’re actually chasing after. Often times, the most pronounced frustrations and most time-consuming tasks are the biggest opportunities to create products that actually make the biggest difference in people’s lives. When someone is willing to put themselves through so much pain to achieve something, think about how important that payoff is for them! Imagine having a 2-hour commute to work each day through horrible traffic. Now imagine someone offering you an 8-minute helicopter ride instead. That’s the kind of opportunities and results we’re on the lookout for in every conversation.”
How customers feel when you really understand them
The feel-goods aren’t just reserved for our engineers. Being listened to does wonderful things to our customers too. I hear it time and again from them – that they told us how our product could be better, we listened, we made the change, and then, more often than not, they say the “love” word. Which we can’t get enough of hearing!
Here’s how Tailwind member Tracy van Overbeek from thisgrandmaisfun.com put it:
“One of the things I struggled with was I wanted to see just Pins from one person in my Tailwind Communities feed and it was hard to do that, there wasn’t a way. And that was a change that you put in. I loved that. It speaks volumes about a company who values its customers and our opinions. It creates a real feeling of loyalty with me. The fact that you guys do that is outstanding.“
Over the past six months, she’s seen all three of the requests that she made to improve Tailwind Communities get implemented. (In case you’re wondering she asked for: filtering for Pins from one Tailwind Community Member, not showing Pins in a Community that she’s already Pinned, and bringing back share counts for Community Admins).
“I’ve noticed sometimes you haven’t been able to make the changes, but communicated back and forth, you’ve explained why and the benefit of doing it vs. not doing it so that I get it, I understand. A lot of times I’ll hear – its not something we can do now. I’ve actually seen items like that that you did get to later though. It showed up down the road. You didn’t just listen and then forget about it. I think that’s rare. That’s a big plus to being a Tailwind customer.”
The birth of Tailwind’s Marketing Customer Development Calls
And where did I pull that last quote from? From the notes of a marketing cust dev call of course! I’ve been so impressed with the process that I’ve started conducting cust dev calls myself. I talk to our members about how we’re doing with our marketing, what conferences we should attend and what content they’d like to see us make for our blog and social media.
We got the idea for our successful “What to Pin When” series of blog posts and Facebook Lives from a marketing customer development call. Here’s the note I made during that call with Cerys Parker from rainydaymum.co.uk. I’d asked her what content she’d like to see Tailwind produce:
“What you should be Pinning if you niche is whatever, travel say. What topics are coming up, what is popular, what sizes of Pin are popular, what keywords etc.”
It was a request that was echoed by Kim Vij in a later call. She said:
“Every once in a while Pinterest talks about what’s popular on Pinterest at the moment. Do more of that because they don’t do it enough of it.”
In that spirit I’d love to hear from you in the comments about what content and marketing of ours you like, what you don’t like, and what you’d like us to blog about in the future.
Tacos and Kudos
At Tailwind we like to thank teammates as publicly as possible when they do something awesome.
I thought it might give you a fun peak into what it’s like to work at Tailwind if I shared some chatter from our “kudos” Slack channel. I’d just gotten off the phone with Tracy Van Overbeek (see her comments above) and I wanted to let our developers know how amazing I think they are by showering them in tacos (rewards anyone on the team can give out which can be redeemed for lunch dates with colleagues. You can only give out five a day, so I ran out before I could give one to every developer).
Warning – I do swear at the start of this – sorry! I wasn’t thinking the world would see it…
And then later I clarified a little:
Yup – I know. They’re a fun bunch. Tacos and pineapples flying all over the place.
Join the debate
Comment below, or check out some of the great discussion this blog generated on HackerNews
Join the Tailwind Team
If you’re interested in joining the Tailwind team in New York City, Oklahoma City, or remote, check out our open positions now.
David is Tailwind’s Director of Marketing and Growth. He is a former journalist who wrote for The Times and The Financial Times, a marketing agency co-founder, founder of Confluence digital marketing conference, father of two, and early morning writer. He grew up on The Isle of Wight in England and lives in Oklahoma City.