Startup From Scratch V: Understanding Your Customer Persona

Startups create jobs, new products and disruption. Agreed. We all love startups and we know that many in Iraq work hard to make ideas ‘happen’, with stories of Iraqi entrepreneurs inspiring us everyday. At the same time, around the world and particularly in Iraq, the process is far from easy.

Our Startup from Scratch articles are a new series written for entrepreneurs looking to start a venture or for those already in the process of building one. We will be summarising resources and providing food for thought in the hope of being a part of your startup learning journey. We’re far from knowing all the answers but we know that this series will provoke thinking on important aspects of your business and help avoid obstacles. A work in progress, we’re always curious to know your thoughts and experiences too, what you find helpful or what you may simply disagree with.

We last spoke about value propositions or the promise a startup makes of performance and benefits about the offer to customers. Here, we discussed understanding why a customer would be willing to pay for your product or service. This may seem simple but it is actually a complex process that shouldn’t be rushed so that it truly resonates with potential customers. So how can we get to understanding what resonates with potential customers? Today’s piece will discuss understanding your customer persona and how we can try to get closer to really nailing what will get customers coming and more importantly, staying.

Developing a Customer Persona Means Seeing the World Through Their Eyes

There are currently over 40 million people in Iraq and over 30 million internet users, but only a few will become your startup’s loyal customers. You can give out leaflets in Mansour Mall or post a graphic advertising your business on every Facebook group out there, but how can you target customers that are actually looking for what your startup is offering? How are you tailoring your offer to them and reducing the time and resources needed to promote to irrelevant groups? The answer lies in putting together specific customer personas and ensuring that you understand how they see the world.

startup customer journey map
Courtesy of Bill Aulet’s Disciplined Entrepreneurship book

Customer personas are semi-fictional representations of your startup’s ideal customers that help you imagine and relate to your customers as real people. A great example of imagining a customer’s journey is the experience wheel created by LEGO that draws a fictional character, Richard, and his flight out of London Heathrow Airport to New York City. 

startup customer experience wheel
The LEGO Experience Wheel

What’s great about this experience wheel is that it goes through each step of Richard’s journey. It takes into account specific challenges that Richard may face that will make or break his experience, such as whether the plane seat is wide and comfortable enough. Moreover, it draws out Richard’s feelings at each step of the journey, helping to relate to Richard and understand what part of the journey will ensure that he comes back again, or even better, tell others about his positive experience.

Think about how many times you’ve done it. How many times have you walked out of a product or service experience and told the first friend you meet about what you loved or hated? The LEGO experience wheel is a very cool concept, but really, any startup can draw this up, it’s all about asking your potential customers the right questions.

Understanding your Customer Persona Involves Communicating with a Homogenous Group of Potential Customers

As much as you may want to cover different customer groups when marketing your product, the best way to start is to think about and focus on one customer group that is most likely to need and/or want your offer. Let’s say you’ve started a ride-hailing app that employs female drivers and targets female passengers (we’re giving this example based on an awesome concept developed by Shahd Mohammed for LadyGo). Now let’s imagine who would need such a service. 

Meet Laila, a 25-year-old accountant who works for the Baghdad office of an international auditing firm. Laila lives with her parents and three siblings in Ziyouna and her commute to work can take up to an hour because of traffic and security checkpoints.

Relying on taxis has been unreliable and unpredictable. Some trips have been comfortable, whilst other trips were in a broken-down car with air conditioning that conveniently emits hot air on summer mornings. Her parents have weekly panic attacks about how late she comes home and have struggled to find someone trustworthy who can commit to taking her to work and back on a daily basis. She cannot imagine driving herself to work in the crazy traffic, and she looks forward to reading books or playing Candy Crush during her commute. 

building startup customer persona
Building Laila’s Customer Persona: Picture courtesy of NetAffinity

Two things are worth noting here:

  1. Laila isn’t necessarily a real person but is a representation of potential customers who face similar struggles and fit more or less similar profiles in terms of preferences, interests, and routines.
  2. This information hasn’t come out of thin air but should be drawn up as a result of continuous communication with a select group of potential customers that fit a certain age group, have a similar employment status, and reside in a specific location.

Yes, I can also think of a 50-year-old woman in Baghdad who wishes she had a reliable taxi driver to take her for her weekly shopping, but that would mean thinking of too many different groups of people with different interests and pain points at the same time. As a result, I would not be able to truly understand the pain points of one group of customers in detail and address these effectively. It is important to establish this information before moving on to the next group of potential customers. 

Understanding your Customer Persona Means Developing and Testing your Assumptions

Developing and testing your assumptions can only be achieved by interviewing potential or existing customers. Interviewing means asking the right questions, but these questions should not ask people what they want. Firstly, because they may say what they think they want you to hear. Secondly, many of us don’t always know what we want (Henry Ford is known to have said that if he asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses!).

Instead, prompt customers by asking open-ended questions. Ask them what frustrates them on a daily basis? What do they feel when they use competitor services? What do/don’t they love? How did they find out about your competitor’s services? 

Hear something you didn’t expect? Make them elaborate on it! “That’s interesting, tell me more”. Sometimes, it’s even worth doing this as people are in their element. Next time you’re at dinner or standing in line, keep listening. When people start moaning or volunteer to tell you their life story, take note of their emotions, pain points, or ideas. You won’t necessarily find what they want, but you’ll know what problem they need you to solve. 

Special thanks and shoutout to Dr. Nettra Pan, entrepreneurship researcher and educator, for her help in providing input and ideas for this series!

Khamael Al Safi

Khamael is passionate about understanding the work of startups and the stories of entrepreneurs, particularly those in Iraq. She is also passionate about helping young people build employability skills for the job market and has taught subjects in entrepreneurship, organisational behaviour and psychology to undergrad and postgrad students in London and Dubai. Having worked in consulting for both the private and public sector in the Middle East, she has been involved in training and advisory on corporate governance and accountability, as well as building open, trustworthy data ecosystems.

Related Posts

© 2021 Iraqi Innovators. All rights reserved