Market research, in the context of startups, refers to the process of systematically
examining the viability of the startup idea. Market research helps in understanding
the customers, competitors, and the market. It also assists the entrepreneur in
creating a business plan, launching new products/services, fine tuning the existing
products/services, and expanding into new markets. Thorough market research helps
the entrepreneurs and the investors in assessing the risk of startup ideas. Entrepreneurs
can raise a bigger investment round by researching the market and demonstrating
that the startup is associated with a lesser risk. Ideally, most investors would
like to fund startups only after extensive market research.
Although traditional marketing research techniques such as focus groups, surveys,
customer interviews, etc. are useful to conceptualize a product, they typically
cannot sufficiently address the complexities of high-tech markets. High-tech environments
are associated with risks and uncertainty. Customers do not necessarily know what
they want unless they are properly educated. They cannot envision how new technologies
can solve their problems innovatively. For example, a person who does not know about
computer cannot visualize how handicapped s/he is without one. A focus group comprising
of such people will not generate any useful information if marketers wanted to test
the market potential for computers. Therefore, standard marketing research tools
are ineffective in high-tech markets, where customers are generally unfamiliar with
the product being researched.
Over the years, business theoreticians have proposed four new market researching
techniques by enhancing some of the existing techniques. Entrepreneurs are highly
recommended to use these techniques to research their market before approaching
investors. The four market researching techniques are as follows:
- Concept Testing
- Empathic Design
- Lead Users/Early adaptors
- Quality Function Deployment (QFD)
Concept testing is the method of gathering information about the business viability
of a startup idea by taking feedback from customers and domain experts. Unfortunately,
as described above, they might not fully understand the business idea even though
the entrepreneur goes to great lengths to explain the idea. Under such situations
it is easier for the entrepreneur to convey his/her idea by demonstrating prototypes
of the idea rather than tutoring target audiences. Prototypes should mimic real
world scenarios and clearly demonstrate how the idea solves a real world business
problem. As the saying goes “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Customers can
instantly understand the entrepreneur’s vision by watching the prototype demonstration.
Once the audience gets the idea, they can then help the entrepreneur in sizing the
For example, let’s examine Segway. When Dean Kamen first explained his idea of a
“self balancing two wheeled personal transporter,” no one understood what he was
talking about. However, the scenario changed when Kamen unveiled his first prototype.
Everyone understood it and started talking about the problems it solved and the
market potential. As a matter of fact, potential customers and various technology
enthusiasts later helped Kamen in defining the market potential.
The process empathic design is based on the thesis that observing what a customer
does is often more useful in developing novel insights than listening to how customers
respond to more direct questions.
Generally, users may not be able to articulate their needs clearly. Users unknowingly
develop “workarounds” to practical usage situations. These workarounds might not
be convenient, but users are so habitual that they are not even conscious of inconveniencies.
Under such situations, if an entrepreneur tries to examine the market potential
for his business idea that eradicates the need for an inconvenient workaround, customers
hardly appreciate the entrepreneur’s vision. Customers tend to get so used to the
workarounds that they have a natural resistance to change to a new idea. Under such
situations, it is better for the entrepreneur to observe the customer and assess
the market potential for his business idea than to hypothesize based on customer
For example, Intuit’s officials observed that many small business owners were using
Quicken as a work around to keep their books. Intuit marketing officials immediately
conceptualized a new product called QuickBooks and tried to do a market research.
Most small business owners told Intuit officials that they were satisfied with Quicken
and that they did not need QuickBooks. However, when Intuit launched QuickBooks,
the application quickly took hold as the market leader in small business accounting
It is therefore always important to observe the customer keeping in mind that the
customer does not always know what s/he wants.
Lead Users/Early adaptors
Lead users or early adaptors are the customers who disputatively need innovative
solutions months or years before the bulk of the market needs it. Lead users are
generally associated with emerging trends in the market. If the entrepreneurs can
relate their business ideas when the emerging trends appear, they should meet the
lead users and assess the viability of their business ideas.
For example, non-photovoltaic based solar power generation is becoming a major emerging
trend. If an entrepreneur envisions a new business idea that is based on this technology,
s/he should consult the lead users to that technology to get an idea about the market
Lead users can be visualized as a miniaturized version of the complete market. The
lead users can assist the entrepreneur in hypothesizing the commercial viability
of the startup idea. Therefore, it is important for the entrepreneur to get feedback
from lead users.
Quality Function Deployment (QFD)
Quality Function Deployment is an engineering tool that contains two phases. First,
identify what the customer wants through concept testing, empathic design, working
with lead users, etc. Second, map the customer requirements onto the product design
process. The idea behind the QFD is to use the customers’ requirements to propose
product specifications. This process ensures that all the design decisions tightly
map to the design requirement from the customer’s perspective. The final result
is a new product that offers value to the market place via a customer-informed design
team. It is easy to articulate the market potential because the product is something
that the customer actually needs.
Although this process is as simple as it sounds, it is by far the most complicated
of the market researching techniques primarily because understanding the customer
is a Herculean task. It requires close collaboration between marketing, engineering,
It is imperative that entrepreneurs research the market potential for their business
ideas before they establish their businesses. All the market researching techniques
explained above assist the entrepreneur in assessing the commercial viability of
his/her business idea.