Why the Smartest Startups Lead With Need

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It’s a widely acknowledged meme that successful founders need to be passionate. In fact, there’s a whole word cloud of associated entrepreneurial attributes that spring to mind here: Relentless, Committed, Fearless, Obsessive, Doesn’t-Sleep, Willing-to-Run-Through-Walls, Hard-Freaking-Core.

1. Inertia

The blood, sweat tears they’ve invested to date make it psychologically and emotionally difficult to pull out of an existing attack pattern. The Sunk Cost Fallacy is a doozy, because after all of the time and treasure you’ve put into your business, you convince yourself that you’ve gotten to a point of no return. A tendency to throw good money after bad is… not terribly investor-friendly.

2. Inside the Jar

Sometimes, your expertise actually gets in your way. Around here, we like to say “You can’t read the label when you’re sitting inside the jar.” You become such a stud in your discipline that you’re unable to see past your own bulging best-practice biceps. The truth is, sometimes your business can really benefit from the objective, “civilian” perspective of an outsider. If you find yourself spending more time tearing apart alternate approaches than you spend selling folks on the merits of your own approach, you might be stuck “inside the jar”. Remember: Successful entrepreneurs are Creators, not Critics.

3. Pride

This one is simple to describe, but tricky to beat. Founders resist accepting feedback because they take pride in the sheer novelty and uniqueness of their personal idea. To most founders, the business is their “baby”, and no-one likes it when you put their baby in a corner. It takes real maturity and humility to objectively recognize that your idea/invention/business isn’t cutting it in the eyes of the market.

The Path Forward? Lead with Need.

Albert Einstein supposedly said that if he had an hour to save the world he would spend 59 minutes defining the problem, and 1 minute finding solutions. Tragically, many startups are spending their full 60 minutes building elegant solutions to problems that don’t really matter.

If you’re leading with a clear customer need, even your stumbles will count as progress towards something the world wants. Thomas Edison wasn’t infatuated with tungsten filaments. He was infatuated with more safely and affordably defeating darkness.

“I have not failed,” he wrote. “I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Necessity: Undisputed Mother of Invention Since 380 BC

Spend less time dreaming up new ideas, and more time working to uncover a deep necessity held by a deep customer base with deep pockets. But be thoughtful about it: If you ask customers directly, they may limit you to a fruitless hunt for “faster horses“. Don’t be afraid to put your anthropology hat on and do a little primary and secondary research to uncover the emerging, tacit needs that they themselves aren’t yet even able to articulate. Steve Jobs famously said that “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them”, but I’d bet my iPhone that Cupertino’s offerings have always been heavily informed by boatloads of customer research.

Success favors founders who are passionate, not about their product, but about solving their customer’s unmet needs. Last time I checked, satisfied customers are still the staple ingredient in any profitable, growing company.