Start Up on the Right Foot — Build a Customer Advisory Board

Start Up on the Right Foot — Build a Customer Advisory Board

Sales leader Peter Kazanjy on creating a group that will ensure you're building a product your customers want, need and will buy.

“We were able to email 10 of our customer advisory board members, give them mockups of the new feature and invite them for an hour of usability testing — we threw in Amazon gift cards as a reward — and the results were amazing,” says Peter Kazanjy, best known for co-founding recruiting startup TalentBin and his proven early-stage sales wisdom. “With a Customer Advisory Board (CAB), you essentially have a captive audience of folks who are fired up for your success, and who you can leverage on an ongoing basis to build the best product possible.”

Which begs the question: Who wouldn't want this? If you're a B2B startup founder, having warm relationships with a crowd of prospective customers is an ideal. But it can also be a reality. Today, as Kazanjy gears up his second company, Potential Energy, he counts representatives from 80 companies on their CAB.

“Your Customer Advisory Board should be an extension of your customer development process,” he says. “You're transitioning those initial research conversations into a longer-term relationship, giving you a chance to prove how awesome you and your execution on this idea are, and investing these people in your success.” Once your product works, they'll become your lighthouse customers, evangelizing to and recruiting more just like them.

In this exclusive interview, Kazanjy shares the steps any startup — no matter how small — can use to build its own, robust Customer Advisory Board. He covers how to recruit members, gather high-quality feedback, keep relationships strong, and ultimately how to turn advisors into paying customers and advocates.

What a Good Customer Advisory Board Looks Like

“A standard early-stage CAB is a group of folks who are representative of who you you think you’ll eventually be selling to,” says Kazanjy. “They have an interest in what you're doing because it could help their business, help solve problems for them in their day to day or career, help them advance their personal acumen and brand. This interest can be applied to a variety of use cases that change over time depending on where you are in your product development cycle.”

So, for example, if you're selling recruiting software, you want to gather recruiters, managers, directors and VPs of talent. If you're selling a drone camera for sports enthusiasts, you want a cross-section of skiers, skateboarders, and others who often post videos of themselves online. This doesn't have to be a small group. Just like Kazanjy's CAB now includes over 80 people, yours doesn't have to fit in one room.

When you’re setting up your CAB, you're looking to have a quorum at your disposal whenever you send out a quick survey, mockups, or paper prototypes, or when you invite people to an in-person event or dinner to provide feedback. Your goal with the CAB should be to validate whether your next move is right or wrong. There are many ways to reach out to them — Kazanjy is a fan of quarterly dinners, like taco and margarita nights, for instance — but the point is being able to ask a cross-section of potential users questions and get their opinions as you develop. A mix of in-person and online interactions is recommended (more on this later).

If you don't think you have time for this, suck it up. The alternative is building something useless.

“You want people who are going to give you candid feedback — tell you when something is dumb. And you need to help them do this, because people don’t always want to. Make it clear to them that if they don't tell you when your ideas are dumb, you're going to build something dumb, there won't be any more tacos or margaritas, and everyone will be sad.” To make this clear, you must continually remind members of your CAB that they won't be hurting your feelings. What you're building is not fragile. It's a hunch that needs to be stress tested.

“Ideally these people create a halo effect around your company — a ring of people so enthusiastic and bought in that you always have someone to provide a great testimonial or success story.”

As your company's frontier changes, your CAB needs to change with you. Early on, they should be helping you with early product development, indicating whether the pain your product solves is strong enough, and if the product and features you're proposing actually solve that pain and create the value you want them to. Once you've validated you're on the right path, you move into scale and you may ask them about pricing, new features, the effectiveness of your customer support, or breaking into a new market.

“Maybe you're having success going after a pretty uniform mix of SMB customers but you see an opportunity to go after an enterprise audience. You'd want to add 10 more enterprise buyers to your board to get their opinions,” says Kazanjy. “Make sure the composition of your CAB matches the challenges in front of you.”

How to Assemble Your Own CAB

Customer development interviews come first. Execute them well and at sufficient volume, Kazanjy says. For a detailed guide to running these interviews well, he recommends reading 'Get in the Van' and Other Tips for Getting Meaningful Customer Feedback' — advice from Michael Sippey, Twitter's former VP of Product. But here are the CliffsNotes for what to do:

First, set up meetings with as many prospective customers — people who you feel have the problem you’re solving — as you possibly can. Make sure that you cover the various personas you think your product will engage. Are you building something for the enterprise that will touch executives, first-line managers, or individual contributors? Make sure to do interviews with an assortment of each persona. Same with size of organization. Have a coverage matrix that you’re seeking to fill out with interviews so you know you’re not missing something. Making sure all personas are represented ensures you have solid research and will help with putting together your CAB.

Schedule at least 30 conversations, or else you won't get to a good product. Offer them a small incentive for helping you — a $100 Amazon or OpenTable gift card does the trick. Then go meet them in person if possible. Once there, use time wisely.

5 Minutes: Quick introductions.

30 Minutes: Sussing out the problem.

  • What are your top problems? (Can we verify that our target problem is a top priority for you?)
  • How are you solving this problem today?
  • How much are you spending to solve this problem? (If your product isn’t paid, ask them how much they care about the problem.)
  • How does this problem impact your business?

10 Minutes: Here’s how we’re thinking of solving the problem.

10 Minutes: Feedback and next steps.

You want to polish this routine to a high sheen. Present with confidence and be diligent about taking notes (recording the conversation can be good), following up with answers to any questions they had, and staying in touch as their feedback makes a difference in your product. Don’t ask leading questions. You’re trying to understand their current problems, solutions and genuine level of pain. Most importantly, ask them who else in their industry or role at other companies they should be talking to. If you've done a good job, they'll want to connect you with their friends, because you and your product might solve a big pain point for them. Phrase the question carefully: “Who are a couple other people who are really smart about this?”

“Your customer development interview should be a wonderful experience for the person who's helping you,” says Kazanjy. “They should feel really smart, like someone was really listening closely to their ideas and issues, like they were adding value and being helpful. They should feel rewarded for their time. They should want their friends to have the same experience.” If you do 100 of these interviews, that's $10,000 spent on gift cards — a small price to pay for all the time you'll save on product development and outbound sales later, he says.

At this stage, you want to start logging all conversations in your CRM. Record each person's role and the type of company they work for, rank the quality of their feedback, and note your rapport — because later on you’re going to want to query this information for forming your CAB (and other purposes). When you start asking these people to formally join your CAB, you can add specific fields for that reflecting whether you made the request, if they agreed, and whether they signed an NDA. Once all three are done, they're onboarded.

“We came up with the idea for our Customer Advisory Board halfway through our customer development process,” says Kazanjy. “So we went back to all the folks we'd talked to who were especially insightful and asked if they wanted to be a part of this elite group of people — don't call them prospects — helping us build a better product.” If you've built detailed records for people, you should be able to go down your list of customer development interviews and say, “Yeah she was smart, and he was good, check check check... oh, ugh, not him, skip skip... check check check” to build your CAB.

When you have a good data model, you can segment your CAB to easily make more targeted requests. For example, you could query your CRM to send a survey only to individual contributors in sales roles, managers in companies above 100 people in size, only women, or only VPs.

Here are the elements to include in your ask to join your CAB:

  • After hours of research and talking to many customers like you, it's clear there's a lot of excitement about this type of product.
  • We're putting together an elite group of people who are excited about this problem space to continue to be involved.
  • Your feedback has been so valuable that we'd love to be able to call on you on an ongoing basis.
  • We plan to engage with the group every so often to get feedback and learn more about their needs. We expect to be in touch once a month, requiring less than an hour of your time.
  • We'll be hosting exclusive, quarterly events where food is served and you'll have the chance to mingle with people at the top of your field and who share your experience, and who were also among the best folks we interviewed. (Provide examples of reputable companies who have already joined to demonstrate a worthy group that’s enticing to join.)
  • Once we launch, you’re welcome to merchandise your CAB membership on your LinkedIn profile, resume, etc.
  • We’d love to have you involved. If you can’t, that’s totally fine, but let us know so we can move on to the next potential person for that spot (to create urgency).

“You'd be surprised how many people will be interested when you mention the idea of promoting their work as an advisor,” says Kazanjy. “You want the people who love this stuff— people who get really excited having access to new technology and thinking through new problems.”

When he and his co-founder were spinning up their new company, they did 150 customer development interviews. They went after a broad matrix of people at different size companies and in different positions within organizations. They spoke to people across functional areas in sales, engineering and customer service. Each time, they noted whether the person had validated the problem they were trying to solve — or not. At the end, they could see what type of people felt the problem the most intensely. These were the people they recruited for the CAB.

Ultimately, his product resonated most with VPs of sales, sales managers, account executives and sales operations leaders. Even though they had different roles, they made sure they were all represented in the CAB. This allowed them to segment and address questions as appropriate, for instance, to just sales managers or just AEs to plumb their interests and needs more in the future.

“You'll meet people who give great feedback at companies that are unlikely to buy your future product, and people who aren't that helpful at really amazing prospect companies. You have to find a balance of these attributes and be honest,” says Kazanjy. “Not everyone needs to meet your bar for quality of feedback, but their total aggregate ‘value score’ should be above the bar. If their feedback hasn't been high-quality, their company better be an awesome opportunity with a decent chance of closing.'”

The perfect person is the one who's hacked together their own suboptimal solution to the problem.

Recruit people who exhibit that kind of creativity and enthusiasm. They volunteer things like, “You know what would be really cool? If your product did X, Y and Z.” Maybe they've taken several runs at solving it themselves. They'll be thoughtful about it.

How to Survey Your CAB

Surveys are the primary way to engage with your customer advisors. You can make them very specific around questions or problems you have, they can be very short and quick for your audience, and you can make them fun. Kazanjy and his co-founder sent a number of surveys to segments of their CAB to reduce their list of proposed features to a manageable roadmap. They then mocked up that product in Google Slides, which they sent along to CAB members with an accompanying survey, before moving on to more detailed paper prototypes and walkthroughs.

To give you a sense of how much you can rely on surveying, Kazanjy's company has used SurveyMonkey to elicit opinions about not just features, but overall product design, and even the name of the product. The key is that they don't have to be elaborate or formal. This will only hold you up and slow down feedback. You can be casual and conversational in your surveys. You're just trying to take your audience's temperature on ideas.

The naming survey was sent to the entire group. They then cross-referenced the suggestions they got against the persona of the respondent — e.g., Sales Managers vs. Account Executives vs. Sales Operations. “It was fascinating to see how different customer personas reacted to different names,” he says. “It gave us even more data points about how they perceived and what they wanted from the product.” Here's an example:

“Just don't make your surveys too long. Think carefully, 'What do we actually need to know?'” he says. The example above included 7 pages of one question each on how CAB members used their phones.

Don't shy away from sending one-question surveys. They're even easier for people to fill out, will keep you engaged at a regular cadence with the group, and can tell you a lot. “In our case, when we were thinking through our mobile app, we sent out an email that asked only, 'Can you tell us what OS you use on your phone?' Our strategy was based on a guess that there wasn't substantial iPhone dominance in our target market and we might have to do an iPhone and android app to start — but it turned out there was a huge weight towards iPhones, so we focused our dev resources there,” Kazanjy says.

From there, they were able to survey just iOS users about their experience (example above). This was a longer, more involved survey incentivized with rewards, but also with the idea that the product was becoming even more relevant to their CAB users' needs.

When you have quick questions, you might choose to survey smaller subsets of your CAB who might have a stronger or more vested interest in what you're asking. “We wanted to ask, 'What are the average contract values you guys sell?' and get a quick response, so we chose 10 of the people who have come to all our dinners and who we felt closest to. It was easy to dash off and hear back immediately.”

When you run more serious or formal surveys, there should be clear incentives. “If you’re asking someone to knock out a 30-minute survey that prioritizes 15 different features in slides, there probably should be a $50 gift card attached. Otherwise, you’re unlikely to get good completion rate,” says Kazanjy. “We typically value CAB time at $100 an hour and compensate it in Amazon or OpenTable gift cards, which makes people feel valued on top of the exclusivity of membership in our CAB.”

In-Person Experiences that Double as Incentives

Dinners and meetups are great for creating continuity for your CAB. At each event, your advisors get to see the progress being made and how their feedback is getting used.

Kazanjy's new company will invite the entire group to a happy hour or private dining experience once a quarter. On average, a smaller subset attends, making it manageable to host while deepening their connection to the product. Beyond seeing updates to the product and insider information, the draw in their invitation also includes the ability to meet and chat with other CAB members, including well-known leaders in their field or industry. They'll also invite and plan assigned seating with outside prestigious stakeholders like their venture and angel investors and sales leaders they know well.

“Every evening starts with about 30 minutes to an hour of unstructured networking,” he says. “We try to make it really nice — good venue, good food, good music, nice nametags — we pay attention to the details to make folks feel special. Then, once they've been to a few in a row, they start to know and look forward to seeing each other. It becomes a community rallied around the problem and product.”

After everyone sits down to eat, Kazanjy and his co-founder give a relatively quick 15 to 30-minute presentation. Here are the components of what they share:

  • The starting hypothesis they had during their earliest customer development, and a sense of where the product stood during the last in-person update.
  • The fact that this idea has evolved and been refined based on the thought and insight provided by all the customer advisors in the room.
  • A quick summary of what they said they were going to do after the last quarterly event, and a rundown of the key feedback received from CAB members since then.
  • A review of the changes they've made in response and the impact those have had so far.
  • A look ahead to the next actions they plan to take to address more feedback, weaknesses or feature requests.
We make honesty about failure and improvement central to every presentation.

“We want everyone to leave knowing exactly what we plan to do because of what they said,” says Kazanjy. “After we talk, people can keep on networking with even more fodder to discuss, that we can overhear and use. People are always stoked to see big impact made by what feels like a small effort on their part.”

Whenever possible, he likes to tie specific features or changes to individuals in the CAB. “We might say, 'Tonight we're introducing the Kelly Feature, because she shared this great idea with us and we hacked it together,'” he says. “This encourages everyone in the room to provide more feedback because people who do not only get to sit in a room with a bunch of impressive, important people, they get put up on screen and shouted out in front of a room of impressive, important people.”

Kazanjy spends hours assembling and polishing decks for these presentations. The production value conveys the care and importance his company places on the CAB. It should be clear that they're powering an amazing feedback loop. At the same time, investing in these events demonstrates to the VCs and angel investors who attend that the company is buttoned up, moving forward, and has a lot of enthusiastic interest already. It’s the beginning of a flywheel.

“Your prospects start to think, 'Okay, this is a real thing that's getting close. Me being here is valuable. I want to continue with this to see what happens, and these are certainly the kind of folks I want to be in business with.'”

Events like this generate more social capital you can spend on sending surveys and asking for prototype feedback. You start to see who comes to every single event, and they become the people you can ask for one-on-one user interviews or usability testing. Attendance should be logged in your CRM so you know how deeply invested each person is in your success and how they like to participate.

“That way, you can start your emails to some people with, 'Hey, we're so happy you've been to our last four dinners, now we'd love your help with X.' Personalization really matters,” says Kazanjy. “If people get in the habit of gathering in person, think how easy it will be later on to record video of a bunch of authentic testimonials.”

If Your CAB Isn't Coming Together...

If you're not getting a high hit rate on people joining your CAB, or not responding to your surveys and invites, the likely reason is they don't fully believe the problem you're solving exists, Kazanjy says. “You'll want to review your customer development interviews to see how strongly they felt the problem. Were they really feeling a lot of pain because of it? My guess is no. You may need to reconsider what you're solving for, or how you're articulating it.”

If people said they really do feel a lot of pain from the problem and they're still not joining your CAB, then you're probably targeting the wrong persona or role within the company.

“You're likely going after folks who are too senior,” he says. “A lot of startups go in with an erroneous belief that the senior most person should be their primary customer — the SVP of Big Deal Company or the VP of No Time for You somewhere else. But this isn't actually who you want on your CAB. A senior person you have to convince is going to want equity. You don't want to give them equity — you want to give them margaritas and tacos. Change your approach and recruit the people who would be using the product every day at the director or manager or IC level. You'll get better results. They’re excited to engage — and you can even hint at how working with you positions them to be VP of BFD more quickly than otherwise.”

Deploying Your CAB As You Get Closer to Launch

Now that Kazanjy's product is no longer a paper prototype and a working version exists, his engagement with the CAB has changed. Increasingly, he and his co-founder are deploying the product to five companies at a time to do hands-on customer success interviews and validate that their problems are actually being solved.

They've also been asking smaller groups broken down by persona about pricing. How much would they pay for the solution? Under what conditions? Do they have the authority to buy? What needs to happen on their end first?

Following launch and traction, they plan to ask questions about the best ways to achieve scale: Do we need more marketing collateral? Where might ads be effectively placed? What additional features should we consider? How was the onboarding experience? And many more.

“You want to get into this really predictable cadence where you're providing updates to your CAB like you would to your company's board for a board meeting,” says Kazanjy. “Even if people can't come to your quarterly events, you want to send out a deck to everyone that says, 'Hey, here's what we said we were going to do. We either did it and here it is, or we didn't do it because new data popped up and we decided to go a different route. Here's what's blocking us from success. Does anyone have any ideas or feedback?'”

If people miss events, be open to scheduling calls. One-on-one feedback will almost always be more helpful than what's shared in group settings. If people want to meet with you, go to them. The closer you get to launch, the tighter you want all these connections with CAB members to feel.

If you're responsive, diligent, and don't let threads drop, people will start to have faith in you — and that will translate into beta testers, customers ready to sign at launch, and evangelists from day one. Later these are the folks who will be your case study subjects and even speakers at your eventual user conferences.

Building a strong core of supporters early travels with you through each stage of your company.

“You want to create as much surface area for your CAB members to engage with you as possible,” says Kazanjy. “They should feel like they could jump in anywhere at anytime and their feedback or help will not only be acknowledged but incorporated. It should never be some big, involved exercise for them to contribute or get the information they need to be helpful.”

Right now, his company is sussing out what to do about a certain feature. He was able to dash off a quick BCC email to 10 prospective customers who've been hooked in since the beginning. “Five of them got back to me within 15 minutes, then three more the next morning,” he says. “I didn't hear from the others, but it didn't matter because I was able to get what I needed. We're able to do that and learn more every week.”