Bad Advice From Henry Ford

Practical Tips for Startups: Listen to customers, stay rational. [Final Part 10]

Joel Cannon
Jan 12, 2019 · 4 min read

For the months that I’ve been writing these stories about entrepreneurship I have been advising new entrepreneurs and their startups. But for the first time in nearly 30 years, I am not in their shoes in a fast growth tech company myself.

The perspective has been eye opening.

Watching and listening to new startups I often see and hear the same kinds of mistakes taking shape that were warned of in parts 1–9 of this series. I marvel, sometimes in dismay, at how perfectly rational and intelligent people check their reason at the door when they start a business.

You would never dream of attempting a complex construction project (at least I hope you wouldn’t) without proper training and expert guidance. You would be sure to learn from the lessons of others so as not to repeat their mistakes and have your house fall down.

Yet every day, it seems, scores of people start companies — and continue to run them for months and years — based on emotional assumptions. And they continue to do it — until they run out of money. Sometimes they raise more money. Then they run out of that money too.

Why? Because they are not listening to customers and meeting their real needs. Instead, they convince themselves that if they can just get their message through, people will figure it out and start buying. Instead of learning from negative customer feedback they say, “That customer just doesn’t get it.”

Oh, somebody doesn’t “get it” alright, but it’s not the customer.

Want to start a successful business? Talk to 100 customers and log their responses before you start anything. And be sure to ask the right kinds of questions. Learn from good resources about conducting customer interviews, here’s an example.

Henry Ford allegedly said, “If I had asked my customers what they wanted they would have said a faster horse.” With due respect to Mr. Ford, if he did indeed say that, he is responsible for giving really terrible advice to millions of entrepreneurs who came after him.

If he’d asked his customers the wrong questions then sure, they might have said they wanted a faster horse. But if Ford had asked them the right questions, customers would have described their desire and need for his automobile quite effectively.

Smart entrepreneurs listen to customers. Smart entrepreneurs also spend a lot of time thinking about the money they hope to collect. They think about exactly what else is competing for the dollars they hope to claim as revenue for their new business. Who decides to buy, when? How is that person’s job affected by the buying decision, what do they have to lose/gain?

Customers are people. People are complicated. They often don’t do what we expect or want and for reasons we often don’t even see. Getting inside the customer’s head and understanding the other pressures influencing their buying is not easy. But there is no point in starting a business if one isn’t willing to do that work. And willing to keep doing it all the time.

Entrepreneurs need to believe in themselves when no one else does. That takes an emotional drive. When emotional drive becomes emotional attachment to an idea, things get dangerous. Businesses can be hard to stop once they get going. People with entrepreneurial leanings do not tend to give up.

The way to keep from getting into a situation where your business digs a deeper financial hole every day is to stop it before it starts. Get with those customers and listen. Really listen. Be ready to radically change your idea or even toss it out and pursue a different one based on the feedback you get. Do this and your business will start out aimed at a real market need. Do this and you will be in rare company among startups.

Too many entrepreneurs take the value of their idea as a given and focus on how to execute. They start spending money, designing and building product, and even trying to sell it. Only to find out customers are not that interested.

Execution comes after careful work is done to learn exactly what to execute on. Creating demand — creating a need to execute — is what should concern you in the early days.

Be emotional about your commitment to your business, your team and your customers.

Be painstakingly rational about exactly who will buy your product and why.

If you can do those things as an entrepreneur, you just might be the real deal. I look forward to meeting you one day.

I hope you’ve gotten some value out of this little series of stories. My thoughts based on decades in the startup trenches.

I’ll be back soon with thoughts on related topics.

Happy 2019!

Mindful Entrepreneurship

For entrepreneurs who build cool things.

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