Don’t listen to customers, develop your products in secret and make every decision yourself.

This approach worked for Steve Jobs. But it won’t work for your startup because you’re not Steve Jobs. (Heck, even Steve Jobs wasn’t Steve Jobs.)

If you want to succeed today, you need to put your product out on the market, collect user feedback and keep tweaking it to make sure you’ve got a winner.

You Can’t Trust Your Family

To do that, you need to attract early adopters, people who will sample your product or service and tell you what they think. No, not just your immediate family and Facebook friends. Real customers, users who will test-drive what you’re selling and give you an honest assessment. They’re vital. They’ll keep you from traveling down dead-end avenues and save you a lot of time and money.

The problem is finding them. Erli Bird is working to solve that problem.

Erli Bird is a website where beta users can discover new startups, try their products and give feedback. It works for startups, because you get customer insight to keep you on course. And it works for users, because they get to check out your cool new product, provide constructive criticism and brag to their friends that they’re helping to develop it. (Early adopters… You know the type.)

Failure Is A Good Teacher

“The idea came out of an experience this spring when I applied for a spot in Y Combinator,” says Erli Bird founder Mike Siegler. His startup at the time was a dating site based on the Pinterest concept and “it was not very good,” Siegler admits. He was rejected. But he was inspired. How about a startup that doesn’t solve a problem for customers but one that solves a fundamental problem for other startups?

Erli Bird showcases about seven new startups on its homepage every few weeks. It offers slots for early adopters to sign up and test the products. In return for their participation, users earn points that they can redeem for products from other startups. Neat.

“I’ve founded a number of companies,” Siegler says, “and I always thought there should be a service where you could get early users to test out your site and tell you what they think. Some of the startups I launched in the past, I had no idea what I was doing. I would spend time and money on development and get it out there and then nobody would use it.”

There was his dating site. There was a logo-design marketplace. There was a social network for oenophiles called Wine McGee. All of them went sour.

Finding Feedback Loops

“My biggest problem was just getting my product in front of people,” Siegler says. “Even getting in front of 100 people is hugely beneficial. And feedback – without a formal feedback mechanism most people will not tell you what they think, won’t say, ‘Hey, I don’t understand this tab on your site,’ or, ‘This button should be on the left side, not the right side.’”

Erli Bird is an inexpensive way for startups to gather this valuable information. Wahooly, for example, takes a piece of equity before it matches your startup to 5,000 “brand advocates” or social media influencers. BetaBait is free, but the email-based diretory service doesn’t provide direct feedback tools.

Erli Bird has a freemium option that connects your startup with around 100 beta users for free. You can connect with more for a fee, which Siegler wants to keep low to avoid the appearance that he’s selling users.

Erli Bird launched in June and now has 70 startups participating. They include Glyder, an iPhone app for small businesses built by a Zynga designer and an OpenTable cofounder, and Capriza, which lets users make their own mobile apps in less than three minutes. Erli Bird has a Kickstarter feel, with a window where the early adopters can meet the company founders.

“You’re creating a product and maybe this is your first time in front of customers,” Siegler says, “but you will get honest feedback and know what you need to do to change course a lot sooner than you would have before – and in the process save a lot of time and money and, ultimately, have a much more successful company.”

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.