The Power of Entrepreneurial Empathy

The act of creating a new business venture is akin to the act of writing a novel. It feels very personal; your heart and soul are wrapped into the work. It’s all about achieving a vision. Fulfilling a certain need.

Only, it’s not your need that matters. It’s theirs. The customers. The audience. The readers.

This is the common theme in most creative acts. When creative work is successful, we find a serendipitous alignment between the thing that is offered (the product, service, or new novel) and the needs from the broader market. For novels, that can mean a new book just-so-happened to fulfill the needs of 10,000 readers who were looking for that very thing. For a business, it could be as few as a 10 clients. Or a single contract.

Obviously, this is just a small fraction of the millions of people waiting for someone to deliver a solution to a given problem. So opportunity is everywhere.

It begs the question: why do novels fail? Why do businesses go bankrupt? Some of it appears to come down to rigid self-involvement. We love our own work, build things in our own image, and hope that others will love it, too. We cling to a specific identity even when there aren’t a lot of people who want it.

You can see this more easily with novelists. So many authors fail to remember that no one cares if they love the books they’ve written. To succeed in any conventional sense, others have to love the book, too. Great art isn’t beholden to the whims of a market. But publishing is.

Again, I see it with some products and services, too. Particularly those new ventures that have a firm, deep-seated, multi-layered identity of who they are before they’ve acquired a single customer. These groups occasionally succeed. But not without a pivot or three.

This necessary alignment between what is offered and what is needed is an inescapable gravity problem. And I don’t know about you, but everything I like and want and need, as an individual, appears to be so niche, so quirky, that I can’t trust myself to rely on mere instinct alone. I need some good analysis to help me understand the market’s broader needs. I need some better understanding of other people.

How can we develop that understanding?

The Great Ideas Starts With Empathy

Here’s a classic line from Zig Ziglar that always sticks with me:

You will get all you want in life, if you help enough other people get what they want.

Given all the data generated by our modern practices, it’s tempting to think that we know what people want. After all, we have their browsing history, demographic data, spending patterns, psychographic profiles, and viewing behavior. Yet, for those of us who don’t operate massive tech platforms, this data is seldom as accurate as we’d like to think. And rarely predictive.

Indeed, for all the love of big data, accuracy continues to prevail over scale. Even the tech giants and their vast platforms can’t see it all. This is where the hard work comes in.

To know what people want, you probably have to talk to them. I know. It’s terrible. But not as bad as it may seem.

Empathy Starts With Interviews

In the book Lean Analytics, authors Alistair Croll and Ben Yoskovitz share fantastic insights on exploratory methods that can help us. Their approach offers the highest level of accuracy that I think we can find. It starts with a clear sense of a problem that you want to solve and a series of interviews with people to test the need for a solution.

These interviews are critical. Which is funny, I think, since a book on analytics would presumably give you all manner of ratios and measurements from some trove of data that allow you to treat the whole thing like a math problem. It just further proves the old adage that you can only find value by getting out of the office.

And when you’re out there, you have to look for one specific measure above all. As the authors write:

Ultimately, the One Metric That Matters here is pain — specifically, your interviewee’s pain as it pertains to the problems you’ve shared with them.

Thankfully, this is a fun thing for people to talk about. And it is a whole lot easier than talking about solutions. No one cares about your solutions just as surely as no one cares about my unpublished novels. But everyone loves to talk about their pain. So invite them to do so. As it pertains to the problem you want to solve.

This is what empathy is all about. And it’s great that it comes at this stage of the startup process. Far too often, we get advice that we should just have a great problem. Or a great solution. A Google search on both fronts will give you delightfully-contradicting advice. So I’ll spell this out more plainly:

A great problem isn’t enough. A great solution isn’t enough. Don’t fall in love with either until you find people searching, in pain, for what you want to offer.

Ask any charity organization and they’ll probably affirm this. They’ll tell you that there are plenty of problems and plenty of solutions that no one wants to fund. Why? Because there is no adequate level of pain. Thus, there is little sense of intrinsic value.

So how do you measure pain? The medical profession has tons of literature on the topic and yet results are still inconsistent and subjective. Thankfully, breakthroughs are emerging that may lead to true objectivity. But for the rest of us who don’t have fMRI machines, what are we to do?

Structure your interviews. After all, this is analysis. So it needs a consistent method that produces real qualitative data at the end.

To get the best data possible, use a consistent method of delivery. Explain the problem in the same way with each person. Try not to lead them with suggestive phrases like “Don’t you think … “ and “Isn’t it obvious that ….” Take a lot of notes. Calibrate their sentiments. “On a scale of one to ten, how important is ….”

Just don’t go overboard. Because this is tricky. You want to be analytical in these conversations but you don’t want to be clinical. Your interviewees are not patients. So the main objective isn’t pure accuracy in their response, but rather a consistent, comprehensive view.

What questions do you ask? What insights do you look for? Our authors suggest that you explore people’s thoughts along the following themes:

  1. Their level of interest in the problem.
  2. Their level of effort already expended to solve the problem.
  3. Their level of engagement in the conversation.
  4. Their willingness for a follow-up meeting.
  5. Their willingness to refer you to others.
  6. Their unsolicited willingness to ask about solutions and even pay for them

Ask structured questions along these themes. Write down the answers. Afterward, score each response on a point scale that offers some level of granularity. Add varying weight to each theme.

For example, our authors weigh Questions 1 and 2 the highest. Favorable responses can earn up to 10 points whereas Question 6 can only yield 3 points. Why? Because the authors believe that finding the pain point is more important at this stage than finding the sales opportunity.

But this is philosophical. So if you think Questions 4–6 are more important, weigh them accordingly. The key, of course, is to do this rigorously and consistently across a broad set of interviewees. This is how you get the signal.

Bring Me Your Grievances

How do you find interviewees? By finding people who deal with the problem you’re looking to solve. It’s that easy. Hopefully, this includes people you know who then lead you to people you don’t know. So long as you aren’t trying to sell anyone (yet), this shouldn’t be too difficult.

Because ultimately, this is just a conversation. I think it’s important to keep that intent clear. It’s easy to misconstrue these interviews as some form of market analysis. Some might say its an exploration of “product/market fit.” But again, that’s misguided. Or maybe just overwrought.

I think it’s easier and more honest to imagine these interviews as a form of constructive complaining. Help people complain about the problem, the ways it really bothers them, and use that to test and inform your solution afterward.

If and when you find a problem that is of high interest, that people are already trying to solve, you’ll find a fabulous opportunity. The empathy is easy here. You can see it plainly.

I think of it in terms of duct tape. When you find people trying to make things work with improvised solutions, like when I use duct tape to fix something, you’ve found the pain point. And the empathy. Because we’ve all been there.

After the interviews, take a look at the problem. If it has a high score, meaning that most interviewees really feel the pain and want a solution they can’t provide themselves, you have a great opportunity to give them what they want.

If the scores don’t show that, either keep searching or take the insights you have and think about a different problem to address. I’m quite sure the exercise will point in many new, interesting directions. Thus the search continues.

Angry Customers = Happy Prospects

In closing, Bill Gates once said you learn the most from your angriest customers. This is true. But people don’t have to be your customer for you to learn from their anger. Every point of their discomfort is a highlighted need just waiting to be addressed.

Coincidentally, this is the stuff of tactical empathy that was covered in the study of Chris Voss’s fantastic book Never Split The Difference (book review here). It works fantastically for negotiation. If you’re curious, here’s an article on the concept.

I think it works just as well for entrepreneurship. To understand a customer’s pain is to prove the severity of their problem. And when the problem is severe enough, the solution doesn’t have to be perfect. Just better. With enough customers looking for something that is “just better”, you have “just enough” opportunity to serve.

This method seems a lot better than just developing a business plan in the dark, armed with mere factoids, generalized market reports, and vague intuitions.

Those intuitions and passions are a bit dangerous. We can power of lot of work with our own love for the idea or the problem we want to solve. But like so many unread novels, it’s not going to work if no one is looking for it.