Developing Personas for your Startup Venture.

One of the most important things for any startup to do is to develop personas — descriptions of fictional people who represent typical customers for your venture. Some founders think this is a marketing exercise that some intern can do later, after the product is built. Those founders are probably now broke and looking for a job. Don’t be one of those.

Everything we know about successful product development is that it should be customer-centric in every way. Great products are developed by teams who really understand customers, empathize with the problems they have, understand the ways customers currently solve those problems, and obsess on how our product can solve them better. Writing personas is a critical part of this product development (and later on, personas will also be a big part of the successful marketing of that product).

Let’s take a look at a very simple example. Let’s say our new venture is an on-demand service delivering healthy breakfasts. We will likely have a few different customer segments, but let’s start by writing personas on just two of them:

  • Single Sam is 25, lives alone, and hates cooking. Sometimes in the evening he’ll use DoorDash to get some dinner, but in the mornings he usually just skips breakfast. A hot cup of coffee is all he needs to get him going. He’s got a busy professional life so he tends to just get up in the morning and jump right into work. He knows his mom says that breakfast is important, but who’s got time for that?
  • Mary the Mom Warrior is 36 and has two kids, 6 and 8. She’s all about the healthy living — she doesn’t let her kids drink soda, she forces them to eat their vegetables, and definitely has a no-candy rule. But breakfast is a struggle. She’s a working mom, so between getting the kids up and ready for school and getting herself ready for work, there just isn’t much time for preparing a healthy fresh breakfast for the family.

The point is to bring to the surface the fact that different customer segments care about slightly different things. In this example, Single Sam just really cares about time and not wanting to cook, whereas Mary the Mom Warrior is very much driven by wanting healthy meals for her kids.

Over time, you’ll develop these further, add demographic and income data for each persona, add cute little illustrated portraits for each one, and more. If you Google “persona template” you will find many detailed examples of the ways to do this.

But for me, it starts by just writing a paragraph on each which you can then expand and iterate upon. Keep your personas in a shared doc where everyone on the team can refer to them. Most importantly, update them regularly as you continue to learn more about your customers and what they care about.

Like everything else in building a successful startup, it’s about being customer-centric and iterating regularly based on what you learn. Start that process early, by developing personas and referring to them obsessively.

That’s how great products are developed and how great ventures are built.



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Bret Waters

Bret Waters

Silicon Valley guy. I teach entrepreneurship at Stanford, run the 4thly Startup Accelerator, and coach startup CEO’s at Miller Center. Also, I love fish tacos.