I know that “how are you acquiring customers?” is now part of a VC joke, but the question is no joke.
Across the companies I work with, there’s a very strong correlation between those that found a new twist on acquiring customers early on, with success in the business. In contrast, those companies that ended up acquiring customers in more traditional ways (e.g. Google AdWords, display ads, etc.) have struggled much more and grown more slowly.
Taking this even further, I think differentiation for many companies resides not with the product idea itself, but with customer acquisition methods. For the Web and mobile, ideas are plentiful, often easily copyable, and increasingly narrow (because it’s gotten so crowded). With the ever-growing app/Web-site/messaging bombardment, it’s impossible to get new user attention.
This viewpoint is heresy for many product-oriented entrepreneurs, but I think it’s more right than wrong. I frequently meet entrepreneurs that have 10 slides on product/service, but only 1 on customer acquisition. That ratio of attention is completely backwards.
And taking this to the extreme, I’ll share advice I recently gave a friend. He’s a very creative product guy, working on a bunch of new product ideas. I suggested he invert things: stop working on products, and start working on customer acquisition opportunities. Then, figure out the apps that will engage those customers.