Do you need to be your customer?

It's easier if your business solves a problem you can relate to, but what happens when you outgrow it, asks entrepreneur Richard Walton.

by Richard Walton
Last Updated: 06 Apr 2017

In the course of my twenty-year career as an entrepreneur, I've been through my fair share of successes and failures. I started out as a bright eyed twenty-one-year-old, confident, innocent and blissfully unaware of what lay ahead. In those days, there wasn't much information available to entrepreneurs, in fact, I'm not sure I even realised that's what I was becoming.

If there's one benefit to getting older it's retrospect. I have founded four successful companies which I still own or part own, and when I reflect on what made those work there seems to be a common theme. In every case, I was my own customer. I understood, first hand, what my customers needed, because it was what I needed. I didn't have to pretend I felt their pain, because I truly felt it.

Think about it like this: usually you know when someone's trying to cut you a dodgy deal because something seems insincere about their sell, they don't believe it, so you don't believe it, but when they're truly passionate, you're more likely to trust them.

In 'Breakthrough Entrepreneurship', Jon Burgstone and Bill Murphy Jr. suggest the best way to find a business idea is to search for the pain and then focus on the ‘healing’, or in other words the solution. However, they say that it's not just about ‘identifying what the pain is, but also figuring out when people feel it most pressingly. It’s almost always easier to sell a solution to a current, intense pain than to solve something less acute.’

When you're talking about a product, clothes, for example, to call a customer's need ‘pain’ seems a bit overly dramatic, but it's a useful term in that it implies intimacy. Pain is an individual experience and the number one rule is to always treat your customer as an individual, right? They need to feel like you're talking directly to them and that you've felt what they've felt, which is very tricky to achieve if you're a forty-year-old man trying to sell maternity wear to mothers. Somehow, it sounds less convincing.

Okay so we've established that empathy is essential, but what happens when you outgrow your customer? I set up my first company, GVI, when I was fresh out of university, living on an island off Honduras as a diving instructor. My customer then and now is adventure hungry youngsters who want to experience new cultures and leave an impact on the world by volunteering their skills to communities who need them.

Now, I'm forty-one years old, married with four children. Whilst I like to consider myself relatively adventurous, my priorities have shifted. I no longer want to take the same risks and instead of setting off an expedition to ‘find myself’, I'm trying to find ways to improve my work life balance and provide for my family.

I'm never going to be able to properly relate to a twenty-year old, but that's when focused recruitment becomes even more crucial. You have to hire your customer. They're the ones who can handle the sales when you can't identify first hand anymore and they're the ones who can help you maintain empathy and enthusiasm for an idea you've outgrown.

The technology industry, for example, notoriously hires young employees. A study by PayScale worked out the median age of workers at many of the most successful companies in the technology industry, along with information on gender and years of experience, and discovered that Facebook and Google were amongst those with the youngest workers, averaging 28 and 29 respectively.

‘The firms that are growing or innovating around new areas tend to have younger workers,’ said Katie Bardaro, the lead economist at PayScale. ‘Older companies that aren’t changing with the times get older workers.’ The main customers of Facebook and Google are the younger generation who are savvy with social media and are constantly pushing the boundaries of technology to make their lives easier and more efficient. To keep up with the demand they have to hire employees who are experiencing the same struggles so that they can predict the next issue that needs solving before their competitor does.

So where does that leave us? If you're searching for a business idea my advice would be to first ask yourself where you're struggling, find something that really frustrates you or makes your life difficult and then look for the solution. You'll instantly feel passionate about it because you will have just made your own life a little bit easier. It's an easy sell.

If you're concerned about outgrowing an idea, focus on the people you hire. Whilst skills and expertise are important, they won't mean much if they can't relate to your solution. Look for genuine enthusiasm and excitement. Customers always know when you're not really in it.  

Richard Walton is the founder of virtual PA company AVirtual, and travel company GVI. 

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