Over the years, I’ve welcome hundreds of experienced entrepreneurs into my Innovation & Entrepreneurship courses at Duke to speak with students and share the stories of their entrepreneurial journeys. Doing so has allowed me to recognize patterns among entrepreneurs and the kinds of things they focus on. The most interesting pattern relates to who the entrepreneurs choose to talk about.
When most entrepreneurs — myself included — are asked to tell the story of their entrepreneurial journey to a group of college students, they focus on themselves and their personal roles within their companies. They talk about what they were doing before starting their companies, they explain how they came up with the ideas that would become their ventures, they discuss challenges and struggles along the way, and they usually end with a collection of motivational messages about persistence, determination, coping with failure, and so on and so forth.
None of that stuff is bad. Persistence, grit, goal setting, resilience, etcetera are all important concepts for young entrepreneurs to be thinking about and practicing, but none of them get to the core of what makes great entrepreneurs so great. After all, doctors tend to be persistent, gritty, goal-driven, and resilient, and they also tend to be non-entrepreneurial.
In contrast, the best entrepreneurs I’ve heard tell the story of their entrepreneurial journeys — the ones who have launched, scaled, and exited from multiple successful ventures — never actually talk about themselves and their personal roles in their ventures. They don’t discuss the challenges they faced, they don’t wax poetically about learning to handle rejection, and they don’t insist that the secret to success is determination.
Instead, the truly great entrepreneurs are obsessed with their customers. It’s the only thing they think about.
Great entrepreneurs constantly want to understand things like:
- Who are my customers?
- What problems do my customers have?
- How big are my customer’s problems?
- Are the problems my customers have obvious to them?
- Can I help my customers solve their problems?
- Do I have a way of reaching ideal customers?
- Once I have a customer, how can I make that person’s experience with my product as great as possible?
- What kinds of problems might my customer have with my product?
- How can I support customers who have problems with my product?
- What will make my customers want to tell other people about my product?
Do you see how the answers to those questions have nothing to do with the entrepreneur who’s asking them?
Great entrepreneurs don’t bother telling you about themselves because they aren’t building companies to serve themselves. They’re building companies to serve the needs of other people. This becomes obvious when great entrepreneurs are asked to share their entrepreneurial journeys with other people.
Average entrepreneurs will talk about their products and their features. Great entrepreneurs will talk about the needs of their customers and how they’re being met.
Average entrepreneurs will describe their teams and their company culture. Great entrepreneurs will describe their customer success processes and their strategies for cultivating brand advocates.
Average entrepreneurs will try to inspire you by recounting their journeys toward entrepreneurial success. Great entrepreneurs won’t try to inspire you at all. Instead, if you ever have the chance to meet one, a great entrepreneur will immediately start asking who your customers are, why you’re trying to help them, and how you’re going to reach them. They do this because they want to make sure you’re as customer-focused as they are.
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting that an entrepreneur focused entirely on serving customers is doing so for purely selfless reasons. In some cases that might be true, but, in other cases, entrepreneurs care about serving customer needs in order to make as much money as possible, become famous, or any number of other reasons.
But this isn’t a discussion of what may or may not be an acceptable reason for launching new ventures. This is a post about entrepreneurial obsessions. The most successful entrepreneurs — regardless of their motivations — are the ones who are obsessed with understanding and serving their customers.