Why founder insight is overrated (and how I learned to trust the customer)
Company founders tend to be charismatic people. They need to convince investors to fund their venture when it’s nothing more than a sketch on a napkin and early employees to join a team that may only be a handful of people in a garage.
If you’ve ever listened to a founder describe their vision for their company, it’s easy to think, “Wow, this person has a unique insight and what they want to build is really cool. I want to be a part of it.”
Unfortunately, though, most founder insights are overrated.
Why? Let’s consider this a little more closely.
Think of some of the successful products you know, like Slack, YouTube, and Twitter. You might even recognize the names and faces of their founders: Stewart Butterfield, Chad Hurley, Steve Chen, Jawed Karim, and Jack Dorsey.
I must admit I didn’t know the names of YouTube guys, but luckily Wikipedia did.
All these founders had unique insights and inspired others to join their teams. Stewart’s insight was that the world needed another computer game. The YouTube trio knew that the world needed a video dating site (yes, YouTube was originally meant to be a video dating site). Jack’s insight was that the world needed a podcasting platform.
Now you probably already know that Slack isn’t a computer game, but a collaborative messaging platform. YouTube isn’t a dating site, but a video-sharing platform. And Twitter isn’t a podcasting service, but a social microblogging service. Why? Because founders are mostly wrong.
What made these products and companies successful were not the founders’ insights. What made them successful was the founders’ courage to admit to themselves—and to their teams—that they were wrong. And they had to rely on the customer empathy of their teams to find a big customer need that was really worth satisfying.
I can’t emphasize this enough. I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s the teams that succeed, not the founders. It’s the teams that come together—driven by a deep empathy for customers—that build the great products.
What exactly does this mean? Deep empathy involves understanding not just what your customers want to do, but how they want to feel. It means not just solving the problems or meeting the needs they have today, but anticipating their future needs and relationship with technology.
Now imagine that your team has figured this out and built a great product. Congratulations—you’re done! Well… not really. Now you need to do it again. And again. And again.
This is why we’ve seen a growing emphasis on product discovery in recent years. We can’t simply build a great product and forget about it. We need to engage in an ongoing process of learning from our customers and making changes to our product accordingly.
Let’s consider a few really successful companies. What sets them apart is that their teams keep nailing it again and again.
Spotify started as a simple music streaming service. But the team there listened to their customers and kept improving. They made it easy to embed the player into websites. They added the ability to follow an artist or discover new music based on your past choices. They added music videos and podcasts. They kept nailing the needs of their customers, which helped them to fend off the attacks of competitors and succeed.
Salesforce started with the Sales Cloud. Marc Benioff’s team understood salespeople’s needs. But to grow into the size that they are today, they expanded into support, marketing automation, data analytics, and more. Most recently they acquired Slack, which by that point was no longer a gaming company (because they listened to their customers!) and had become a collaborative messaging company. Salesforce was able to empathize with their customers and strategically tackle their needs one by one.
At Tesla, the early team understood the needs of car enthusiasts, for whom they built the Roadster. But the success of Tesla lies in their ability to systematically empathize with customers. That is why they kept succeeding with the subsequent Model S, then Model X, and now Model 3 and Model Y to get them closer to their vision of mass electric transportation.
Do you see the pattern? The really successful teams leveraged their empathy for customers to make the right product decisions. And they understand that their long-term success lies in their ability to do it again and again. That is how they achieve Product Excellence. They understand customers, build great products, and repeat.
So regardless if you’re a founder already, aspire to be one, or are considering joining one, remember, it isn’t about the founders. It’s about the teams and their empathy for customers.
Watch my full talk at Collision Conference!