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The following is a guest post from Gareth Dismore of Sales Gust, a referral marketing platform for brands to create customized referral incentive programs that accelerate customer acquisition. Sales Gust was one of nine teams who participated in the NEXT @ SXSW workshop. Find out more about Sales Gust on their website, Twitter and Facebook pages.

I thought NEXT could be a good platform to promote our product. I thought it could open doors for networking, meeting customers/partners and getting press. I thought any feedback or improvements we could achieve would be an added bonus. We had no idea what we were in for. The NEXT program really kicked our ass.

It was a whirlwind from start to finish! From the moment we arrived we were getting in front of customers on the street. It started with an ice breaker designed to raise as much money as possible from strangers in the streets of Austin (in an hour we raised $58 and later donated it to charity). From then on it was all about finding potential customers for SalesGust who could give us valuable feedback we could use to validate or invalidate our ideas. Countless conversations went on throughout the weekend.

Lessons learned:

  • Based on customer conversations, we honed our customer segment

  • How to identify our customers (types of companies, who the Decision Makers are, who their gatekeepers are… and generated some ideas about who potential saboteurs might be)

  • How to pitch our product (nothing like an opportunity to pitch a panel of 3 respected accelerators to get you think hard about this)

  • How valuable customer development can be (especially, in terms of saving time & money building our app)

Some advice for other NEXT teams:

1. Figure out how to find your customers.

Step one in having engaging conversations with customers is finding them. Formulate a game plan for identifying them easily. You need to know where they hang out and what they look like (think about demographics, type of clothing, etc)

2. Be able to articulate your product and why people should care about it in 60 seconds or less.

I had been living and breathing the product for over a month so I thought the concepts were obvious. It turns out many people don’t understand what the phrase “referral marketing” means. While it was obvious to us in the context of enterprise software, it needed some introduction and examples to make our pitch clear to a broader audience. Again, it was obvious to me but it didn’t make sense to anyone else. I had to make a lot of adjustments to my messaging and terminology to get it across.

Another round of NEXT starts on April 10. Find out if it’s coming to a city near you on the website!