How to define your ideal customer

business learning & development marketing product/market Dec 17, 2022

A lot of times, entrepreneurs and startups who are just kicking things off are so excited to bring their product or service to market, they jump at the chance to land customers — any customers. Instead of their ideal customer.

I have frequent conversations where, when I ask about their ideal customer, startups answer, “We can help EVERYONE.” 

I’m not going to mince words here — that is the worst possible answer. 

Sure, it can be awfully tempting to try and cast as wide a net as possible when you’re a startup. After all, land as many customers as possible, find financial success. Isn’t that how it goes? 

I’m afraid not. 

Among the many decisions, priorities and challenges that startups are tasked with addressing, defining your ideal customer should rank near the top. 

Here are two big reasons why: 

  1. All of your branding, messaging and marketing should be targeting your ideal customer. Your company, and your product or service, exist to solve a problem for your customers. Without defining that customer and the problem you can solve, your messaging will ring hollow. You’ll be throwing out a message that sounds nice, but doesn’t resonate. Or put more bluntly, doesn’t make you any money. 
  2. Niches are “in.” Hey, this might sound like a buzzword or something trendy, but it’s really just strong business sense. Right now, startups that are super niche tend to A) earn funding, and B) find success. Boil down that ideal customer as far as you can. Then you can really harness the power of the branding, etcetera I just mentioned to hit one out of the park.

Now what? The realities of defining your ideal customer

Okay, so you’re ready to make defining your ideal customer a priority. It’s time to get started. 

You can hire someone to help you with this, or you can take advantage of the resources you have in place. That’s you, and any advisors or members of your team who have helped you at any point in the development of your startup.

There are two exercises that can be especially helpful here: 

1. Tell me a story

If you could sit in front of just one person and sell that person your product or service, who would that be? 

Sounds pretty vague, I know. To start, focus on the most important element of your target customer:

The problem that you’re going to solve for them. 

Then, really start to flesh out their story and dig deeper to understand your customer, and turn that problem into a fully-realized person. 

Here are some elements to think of:

What else stresses this person out? 

What makes him or her happy? 

What are some things that would make life easier for this person? 

What type of job does this person have?

Do they use other products or services that solve the same problems you solve? What do they like about them? What do they hate about them? 

How old is this person (for example, buying decisions for Boomers will vary from say, Millennials)?

Really get in there and think about this person as if you were writing a biography. The better you can get inside the head of your customer, the more likely you are to craft messaging and refine your product so that it meets his or her needs perfectly. And of course, that’s much more likely to help your business succeed.

2. Talk to your prospects

The above exercise can be extremely helpful for entrepreneurs and startups to humanize their customers, and align toward making their lives easier or better. Then, the low-hanging (albeit powerful) fruit is to actually get out there and talk to your prospects. 

Sure, you’ll be selling. But you should be listening even more. What are their pain points? What are their objections? Who else is talking to them? While in the previous exercise, you can make some educated guesses, you’ll be able to refine them (and make them much more powerful) by having strong conversations with your prospects. 

You may even discover that some of the prospects you’ve been engaging don’t fit the profile of your ideal customer. That’s okay! It’s up to you whether to continue pursuing that company (risking a poor fit) or let them go before spending more time and energy there. 

Learn from the mistakes of others

I’ve seen a lot of startups excel at this task, while others struggle. Here are some of the most common mistakes I’ve seen:

  • Setting it and forgetting it. Your ideal customer is going to evolve over time. If you’re not evolving to meet their needs, you’ve signed your death warrant. 
  • Going too broad. Remember what I said earlier — “everyone” is not your ideal customer, and you shouldn’t try to solve all of their problems at once.  Not even a step or two below “everyone”, or a handful of problems. It’s important to really narrow it down — identifying the #1 problem you solve and answering those sample questions will get you off to a good start. 
  • Getting distracted. It’s a fine line between narrowing down your ideal customer and getting bogged down by the details. Remember, your ideal customer is going to evolve over time. Put in your best effort as early in the process as possible. Then, go back regularly to refine and apply anything you’ve learned along the way. 

What will resonate with your ideal customer?

When you define your ideal customer, critical components of your growth like branding, messaging and marketing are much more likely to succeed. To better understand how this ties into branding and its potential impact on your overall success, check out my interview with Ish Jindal on the Hardwired for Growth podcast. Ish was driven from the beginning to really execute and solve a specific problem for a specific type of customer. They mastered this before expanding into other areas and addressing additional customer problems throughout their journeys. This led to extremely powerful results. 

And if you haven’t already, I invite you to subscribe to my email newsletter for consistent, actionable advice for every stage of your business growth.