Don’t build a product until you know your customer’s “jobs to be done”

One of the big causes of startup failure is founders not having enough clarity on their target customer. 

We’re not talking about demographics like age, location, gender, marital status, position in their company, or hobbies and interests. 

Instead, one ultra-important key element when we say “clarity on the target customer” is understanding your customer’s “jobs to be done” in relation to the offer you’re creating. 

This is where delivery model meets customer journey.

At the most fundamental level, Jobs to Be Done – or JTBD – is a framework that helps product and marketing teams understand why consumers buy the products they do. 

It’s the sequence of events – from the “trigger” (the moment someone needs something) to the outcome – when someone engages a product or service to solve a problem or get something they want. 

It’s said that people don’t really buy products, they hire products to do a particular job.

As Harvard Business School professor Theodore Levitt famously put it, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.”

Or, take the case of Uber: people don’t want a car, they just want to get to their destination as quickly and as hassle-free as possible.

Let’s think back to before Uber existed. 

If someone wanted to go out for the night and didn’t want to drive, or didn’t have anyone to give them a lift, they had to take a taxi to their destination. 

The “jobs to be done” when it came to ordering a taxi were as follows:

  1. Pick up the phone and call the taxi number 
  2. Wait while the call connected to the operator 
  3. Tell the operator your home address and the destination address
  4. Wait for 10 to 25 minutes for it to arrive (depending on availability) with no real way of knowing how long it would actually take 
  5. Get in the cab and confirm the address with the driver 
  6. Give further instructions to the driver if they weren’t familiar with the streets or area you were going (and didn’t have satellite navigation in their car) 
  7. Watch the meter tick over, being unsure about how much the ride would ultimately cost 
  8. Have to take out cash or a bank card to make the payment at the end 

When Uber came along, they disrupted the taxi service by removing those jobs to be done. 

With Uber, when you want to order a car to your destination, you simply open an app with your address and payment details already in there, set your location, and the job is done. 

Here are the pain points removed:

  • No waiting on hold for an operator to answer 
  • No risk of the operator mishearing you and getting your address wrong 
  • When waiting for the car, you always know how far away it is (no guessing games about if/when it will arrive) 
  • No need to confirm the address in detail with the driver as they have it in the app 
  • No need to give further instructions to the driver on how to get to the destination 
  • No anxiety about how much the ride will cost as it’s decided up front on ordering 
  • No need to handle cash or cards at the end for payment 

Where many startups go wrong, however, is they leave it to the marketing stage of the game to get clarity on the JTBD.

This is a major error because if you don’t have a crystal-clear understanding on your customer’s JTBD, it’s almost guaranteed you’ll build the wrong product.

Sometimes, this can be an irreversible mistake.

Take the well-known example of Rethink Robotics whose founders raised $160m but ultimately went out of business because they didn’t understand the JTBD of their ideal customer.

The founders wanted to improve upon the shortcomings they saw in current robots at the time with their own pair of collaborative machines, Baxter and Sawyer, launched in 2011 and 2015, respectively.

However, in building their product too quickly – before understanding what their beachhead market segment was really going to be (and therefore the JTBD) – they built the product in a way that didn’t suit their ideal customer – manufacturing companies.

Among other issues, they chose the wrong servo motors to power the robots, meaning they were unable to deal with the complexity and precision required to do the work within the manufacturing plants that the companies needed them to be able to do.

If the creators had known that precision was one of the key requirements to execute the JTBD, they would have made a different decision on the type of servo motors they chose.

As entrepreneur Steve Blank says, “Cheating on customer development is like cheating on your parachute-packing class.”

The only way to build a phenomenal customer experience is to talk extensively with customers from a range of market segments, understand the real problems and JTBD, and start to solve the problem iteratively using build-measure-learn principles – and resist racing to build a product until you have ultra-precise understanding of what’s really needed.

When you really analyse a customer’s JTBD and aim to remove as much friction as possible – often you realise there’s more friction there than you had anticipated.

The iterative process can feel manual and slow, but it’s a whole lot better than wasted capital and a failed business venture.

If you’re a founder navigating the early stages of your startup and you’re committed to following a proven framework to ensure you build the right product, we can help. Fill out this short questionnaire, and introduce your idea to us.


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If you’ve got a startup idea, or you’ve already embarked on your journey – you might be facing one or both of these situations.

  1. You’re struggling while going it alone. Worse, you’re wading in the muddy waters of some not-so-great advice.
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