By Charles Plant
One day, Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp couldn’t get a cab, and decided that trying to get a taxi in the rain was a horrible process. They went on to found Uber, which became one of the most successful unicorns in history (but time will tell if it stays that way). If you’ve got an idea for a business or a product, this could be you, or you may be like the founders of Napster or Pets.com, famous failures that were close, but no cigar.
The thing is, there isn’t much of a difference at the ‘idea stage’ between huge success and ignominious failure. I like to think that each of us has an idea that, if targeted effectively and nurtured properly, could grow into being the next Facebook or Alibaba. While we may not get the chance to drop out of Harvard, our startup could be quite like that of Jack Ma, who founded Alibaba.
Jack failed his university entrance exams in China three times. Finally, he went on to Hangzhou Teacher’s Institute to get a Bachelor’s in English and teach that as a living. But he had a bug for this thing called the Internet and in 1995, finding no information on the net about China, he started a company to build websites for other companies. This was the ‘Chinese Yellow Pages.’ When he arranged a demo for friends, the Internet of the time was so slow that they sat around drinking beer for three and a half hours, waiting to get half a page of their first website.
From 1998, he headed an information technology company that was a department of the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation. Finally, in 1999, he quit that company and returned to Hangzhou with his team to found Alibaba. So, from his first idea for the internet to Alibaba, he was engaged in a process of exploration, development of new ideas, and growth. It took Jack Ma from the interminable loading times of a web page to the largest IPO in the history of the New York Stock Exchange at $25 billion.
Jack could have continued building websites for people and he could have developed a nice business doing just that. But he, like many entrepreneurs, was always searching for something great — and that is your task. You have to realize that your current idea for a business is very unlikely to be the idea that you end up with. And it’s even more unlikely that your current idea is going to result in a company worth billions.
What you actually have is the foundation of an idea, something that can point you in a particular direction. If you listen very closely to what potential customers are saying, they will tell you what business you are in. That last sentence is so important that I’m going to repeat it and ensure that you can’t miss it:
If you listen closely, your customers will tell you what business you are in.
I recently wrote a book called Triggers and Barriers, A Customer Perspective on Innovation. This book is all about understanding your potential customers. It’s about understanding what triggers them to buy and what barriers get in the way of you making a sale. It’s about how to listen to customers so that you can understand their behavior and capitalize on it to make your business a resounding success. When I started writing this book, I didn’t think it was about listening, but as time has gone on, it has become increasingly apparent that people need to develop this skill if they want to have a successful business or product. In life as in business, the difference between listening and not listening is the difference between success and failure.
The thing about customers is that they don’t talk very loudly. In fact, sometimes they won’t talk to you at all. They won’t tell you what they want or what you should create. They won’t tell you what triggers them to make a purchase. They also won’t tell you why they won’t buy, or what barriers get in the way of them making a purchase. They might not even know that what you have is something they need. You can’t listen passively to customers; you need to ask them the right questions. The big issues though, are what questions you need to ask…and how to interpret the answers.
You can’t ask your mother whether something is a good idea, because chances are that she loves everything you do. And you can’t go out asking friends and work colleagues if they like your product or company idea; chances are that most people will say yes because they don’t want to hurt your feelings.
What you need is a framework to help you listen to customers, to understand what triggers them, what barriers stop them, and how they view your competition. That’s what I’m trying to develop in this book: a framework to help you understand your prospective customers’ triggers and barriers — how they think, what they feel, and how your idea relates to their lives.
Charles Plant is a Senior Fellow at the Impact Centre at the University of Toronto.