When you’re a startup founder, you get a lot of questions. What’s your traction? Are you technical? When do you expect to implode and go back to working at a bank? Most of them are easy to answer. But there’s one that I get pushback on. It usually goes like this:
“ Alex, how many customers do you have?”
“We have a few hundred, but most aren‘t paying yet at this point.”
“Those aren’t customers, Alex. Those are users.”
Are they? I don’t think so.
If you’ve done everything right, your product should be growing. If you’re lucky, then it’s growing well and everyone is excited about what you do and where you’re headed and you have plenty of non-paying customers. If you’re really lucky, you have hundreds of paying customers. As a startup founder, I’ve had many conversations with my product, Bugsee’s, current and potential investors, friends and business partners, press and analysts, and so on. During these conversations, I’ve used the words “customers” and never used the word “users.” Why? Because users are just customers waiting for an invoice and, ultimately, the term “users” is disrespectful.
Here is my rationale:
Our customers rely on us to help them when they are having trouble debugging their apps. They send us customer inquiries and we provide them with customer support. We strive to maximize customer satisfaction. Calling them “users” is inappropriately dismissive and sends the wrong message to our team. Everyone who walks through the (virtual) door is a customer. The only people who turn their nose up at folks who are just browsing are luxury retailers and fools. When I send an email to my team, I don’t write “User 445545 can’t figure this out.” I write, “Our customer, Jack Smith, is struggling with our dashboard.” Again, Jack will appreciate the help. And when the time comes, we can convert him in a heartbeat.
But some startups do have users!
OK, I’ll accept that premise. Facebook, for example, has both users and customers. Their users (you and I) and advertisers (their customers) are two distinct groups, as they use different products that dictate different requirements. That’s not the case for us. We offer only one product to our customers. We don’t split them down the middle. Facebook sells its users to its customers. We don’t sell anyone to anyone.
Customers are usually measured in hundreds or thousands, depending on your business. Users, on the other hand, are often measured in millions. Calling our customers, albeit non-paying ones, “users” might anchor the listener in the wrong scale. And you know that those millions of users aren’t paying and probably never will. All of Twitter’s users are essentially undifferentiated strains on Twitter’s infrastructure. We don’t think of customers in that way.
That’s why I always use the word “customers” when I talk about our company’s stats.
Obviously, one might assume that having customers is equal to having revenue, and therefore it’s essential to properly qualify the answer to the question, usually by mentioning total revenue. This way I’m not misleading the listener.
But I refuse to separate the two. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s unkind, not smart, and generally bad form. Anyone using your site is a customer who deserves attention. If you truly believe that, you will never go wrong.
Customers are friends, not food
The bottom line? It’s simple: Even if you plan to monetize the user base directly and haven’t flipped the switch, those people using your platform are your non-paying customers. They are an essential cohort that helps test and later monetize your product. They are not eyeballs. They are not users. They are human beings who like your product and can help you succeed. They deserve to be called customers because they deserve your respect, your attention, and your appreciation.