Who make the best consultants for start-ups? Customers.

No one knows what your customers need and want better than they do. Don't be afraid to overhaul your business model in response to their feedback.

Fred Prouser / Reuters / File
A crew member (l.) talks with a customer at an Apple store in Glendale, Calif., on Dec. 8. Talking with customers gives businesses, large or small, an invaluable insight into their needs, wants, and how best to meet them.

A common myth about launching a new business is that you can sit at your computer and develop a comprehensive marketing plan that will guide the growth of your venture.

The truth is that until you get out from behind your computer and engage real customers, you probably won't know what it really takes to successfully launch a business.

Attracting early customers to a new business should be thought of as a courtship. The first phase of the courtship addresses two questions. Exactly who are your target customers? And, what do they really want from you?

No amount of Internet research or talking to experts can give you this information; only real customers have the answers you need.

Sam Dryden and John Price, former students in entrepreneurship at Belmont University, learned a great deal from their customers during the initial start-up of their company, My Outdoor Calendar (http://www.myoutdoorcalendar.com).

"We were pushing our software to individual fishing and hunting guides," said Sam Dryden. "It seemed like the right thing to do. We could help them get organized and manage their schedules. After a few months we realized that these individual guides didn't have trouble with their schedules. They had trouble getting exposure.

"As a result we now give away our booking tool for free to small individual guides. We can then take our growing list of individual guides to large outdoor-related websites that specialize in marketing activities that see value in our list of guides."

Business startups need to work with customers to establish "proof of concept." Start your business by keeping it at a very small scale, because the odds are that many of the assumptions you have made about your business model are wrong and your business will need to adjust and adapt.

You may go through many iterations, think of them as experiments, adjusting what you are trying to sell as well as who it is best to sell it to.

Once you answer the "what" and "who" questions, it is time to move to the second phase of the courtship. Develop an entry strategy, which is a plan for how you will get the market's attention and let potential customers know that you are open and ready for business.

Assuming the theory that "if you build it they will come" rarely works, you'll instead need to find creative ways to stand out from the crowd.

In the third phase of your courtship with customers, you are finally ready to implement a more traditional marketing plan to keep the flow of customers coming to your doorstep as you grow. In any new business you should think of the customers as your consultants. They can help you understand how to turn your business idea into a thriving venture plugged into long-term success.

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