Lessons from Silicon Valley: Do you really understand your users?

by Roy Law

In 2014, after receiving investment from notable US startup accelerator Y Combinator, a group of six from TeamNote was given a four-month training opportunity in Silicon Valley. Prior to the YC training, each team member was given a T-shirt with “Make Something People Want” printed on it. That is YC’s motto and its first commandment on starting a business. However, this golden rule seems to have been left behind by many startuppers during the era of global entrepreneurial craze.

If you Google search “Startup Failure Reason”, you will learn that the number one killer for startups is “No Market Need” – a product no one wants. Many young people who wish to start their own business have a conceptual mistake – that you can run a startup as long as you have an idea. Though YC constantly reminded us that “Idea is very cheap”. Because entrepreneurship is about creating a product that happens to meet market needs of that moment. Put simply, it’s about being at the right place at the right time. In the words of Xiaomi’s CEO Lei Jun, “Even a pig can fly if it stands at the centre of a whirlwind.” In contrast, if you miss that opportunity, you could easily fall flat. The difference between success and failure depends on how well you know your users.

The best way to understand your users is to interact with them more and listen to their feedback. Before developing TeamNote, my company designs internal communication platforms for our corporate clients very often. We have designed a mobile application for a charity organization where cleaning workers can use it to search for jobs. Through speaking to these cleaning workers, I learnt that they felt our application was easy to use.

Such feedback undoubtedly gave us a confidence boost. We used the platform as a prototype for TeamNote before we had it separated into an independent company. Though, I understand a lot of entrepreneurs work behind closed doors and won’t even open a social media page for fear of receiving negative feedback from users. From my viewpoint, even negative comments are better than zero feedback. Developers should be happy if their users could point out any product deficiencies. That should give them better directions on how to improve products to meet the users’ needs.

How far would you go to collect user feedback? Are you going to do a sloppy job and casually rope in a few colleagues to do a simple survey? Or are you going to obtain first-hand information directly from users?   

There was an example happened a few years ago. Mainland mobile gaming company Lakoo targets their products at factory workers. To better understand how these workers live, Lakoo’s founder Mr. Gao Chongjiang and his staff went working in a factory for a week. I find the story surprising yet and truly admirable. I also reminded myself that as the CEO of a startup, I should personally meet and listen to my users’ needs, instead of leaving this job to someone else.

“Make Something People Want” and “Listen to Users” are the principles of entrepreneurship but often neglected by entrepreneurs. Since returning to Hong Kong, I have become a firm believer that we should be clear-minded, stick to the basics, and follow the golden rules.

About the Author

Mr. Roy Law is a serial entrepreneur and Investor with more than 20 years of experience in Information Technology. Graduated from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology in Mechanical Engineering and University of London in Computing & Information System, Roy was the first engineer of JobsDB, Asia-Pacific’s biggest recruitment portal which was acquired for over 
HK$2.8 billion in 2010. Roy reinvested all his dividend to fund his own first startup AppTask in the same year. In 2014, under the leadership of Roy, AppTask launched its mobile productivity platform - TeamNote in San Francisco. After spinning off from AppTask, TeamNote was backed by the top-notch VC Y Combinator in Silicon Valley.