Knowing who your product or service is for is almost as important as knowing what it is. Most startups we speak to have a rough idea of their audience, but few actually lay out in depth customer personas early enough in the startup process.

“People buy for many different reasons and in business it’s no different. What’s more, you have the complexity of multiple buyers that you need to convince with your marketing activity. They all have different a rationale and all need the information presenting in a different way.”
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Personas inform every step of your product journey. Here’s how…

They influence business strategy

How will your business work? If you haven’t thought about your audience you might have missed a potential obstacle to the delivery of your product.

UX consultant and founder of UX Review, Chris Mears, sums it up nicely in this blog post about the role of personas in business strategy….

“Personas and user journeys allow you to do visualise a strategy in an easily understandable way. By creating a picture of a current employee/customer and their common tasks the client will be more easily able to identify where the major impacts will be due to any new strategy.”

Personas can influence your entire business model. If you’re not thinking about them, you’re probably not thinking about your business holistically.

They allow you to design the product your audience want

If you know your target audience are fans of sleek design, you can design a product to suit them. If you know you’re designing for teenagers, maybe native functionality like camera and swiping will be more suitable. If you don’t know who you’re targeting, you’re going to end up trying to create a product for everyone and it’s not going to appeal to anyone.

They help you make sales

You’ve created and tested your MVP, you’ve got some funding and you’re hiring a sales team. Now what? Are you just going to give them the product and hope for the best? Of course not. Before you can sell efficiently and maximise value, you need a target to sell to. Your product might very well be universally appealing one day, but for now, you need to target.

What’s in a persona?

A persona should include information about your potential customers that will enable you to make decisions about the future of your product and ultimately, your business.

Personas should include some basic information such as age, job title, location etc, as well as the following detail:

  • Characteristics – what is your ideal audience like? Are they lazy? Time poor? Ambitious? Adventurous? Shy? Technophobic?
  • Relationships – who does your prospective buyer report to? What is their relationship with their team / family / friends / whoever your product affects?
  • Motivations – why do they need your product? What problems do they have and what motivates them to solve them?
  • Personal needs – what pressures do they face? What areas of their lives could be easier or more enjoyable?
  • Where are they? – where do they hang out online? What kind of events do they go to?

The problem with personas

The best way to get this information would be directly from your customers. However in depth research and interviews are time consuming, can cost a lot of money and for startups especially, will never be true.

Adrian Howard gave a talk at ProductTank in 2014 about “lean personas” in which he describes a persona methodology that is especially suited to startups.

Lean Personas by Adrian Howard from Mind the Product on Vimeo.

Adrian points out a number of problems with research based personas:

  • They’re presented as truth: As a startup with few or no customers, these personas are speculative and are likely to change.
  • There’s a large investments: In depth market research requires time, money and people that will be difficult for startups to get.
  • They need a good grasp of the target market: Most startups will not have had much of a chance to get down with their target market yet. It’s also likely that this audience will shift after launch.
  • The tendency to “set and forget”: The market moves quickly but personas may not get updated.
  • Persona descriptions aren’t really personas: The real person behind the persona description is in researcher’s heads. The descriptions are brief shorthand. They’re useful but they don’t get everything across.

When we first created Contactzilla – a simple shared contact management solution – we knew it would be useful for teams/departments within companies. The shared address books would be useful for teams to collaborate on contact details meaning everyone was up to date and there’d be no more interrupting people to ask for phone numbers and email addresses etc.

What we didn’t know was exactly what teams would be using Contactzilla. We expected it would be HR managers and small business owners who did not need a full CRM. Once the product was in the market, we found it was incredibly popular with sales teams, estate agents and Heads of IT looking for new systems to improve workflows. If we had spent all our budget creating personas before launch based on research alone, we would likely have missed a lot of this information.

Lean personas

So how can we create personas that are actually useful for startups? Adrian Howard recommends a technique of buyer personas for lean startups that he calls “lean persona”.

The methodology is as follows:

Step 1: Define

Instead of market research, get everyone who has any contact with customers or potential customers (or even potential customers themselves!) into a room and discuss the different kinds of people who will use the product. In the early days this will likely be you, a co-founder and whoever else you can rope in for some extra insight.

Write down every characteristic, trait, motivation, need and relationship you can think of for these potential customer. These will not be based on research but based on what you think at the time. They could be wrong.

Next, write all the “facts” on post it notes and apply what Adrian refers to as the “scale of truthiness”. Stick the post its on a wall, scaling them from stuff that is definitely made up to stuff you’re fairly confident is true (based on analytics, feedback etc). There will be lots of interesting discussion around that and that discussion is an important part of the process.

Step 2: Refine

Now you know what is most likely true, what is entirely speculative and what lies in the middle, you need to add some structure. Some people will put this in a table, some will keep colour coded post it notes on the wall. Whatever you decide, dropping characteristics into “buckets” will help you understand what you do and don’t know.

Step 3: Define rules

As you find out more about your customers, you might be able to prove some of your speculations true. Some of what you thought was true might be less clear. As your understanding of your target audience shifts, you’ll need to move characteristics around in the structure you’ve created.

In order to maintain structure, Adrian recommends defining rules around how to move things between buckets. For example, you might decide that if a characteristic hasn’t been used in a product decision for 3 months, it should move to undecided. If 10 customers fit one characteristic, you might move it from undecided to true.

“This doesn’t happen once” Adrian says. This is an iterative process and needs to be continually worked on.

Step 4: Realignment

Make sure that you check up on your personas regularly. Throw away ones you don’t use. Add new ones you discover along the way. You might find you need to merge two, or split one when you find out that certain types of people use the product in the same way, or completely differently.

Realigning your personas on a regular basis will allow you to reassess who your customers are and how your business model and product might change as a result.


  • Customer personas inform every step of your product journey, they’re everyone’s business.
  • Personas should feature basic info like age, location, job title as well as: characteristics, relationships, motivations and needs.
  • Personas should not be a “set and forget” process.
  • Personas need to be realigned on a regular basis so that they evolve as your business does.

Done wrong, personas can be a waste of time. Done right, they will help you find customers, create a product they love and ultimately help you to grow a successful business.

If you want to talk about your product or startup, get in touch with Simpleweb today.

If you’d like to discuss your startup or project, get in touch with Simpleweb today.

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