Some mistakes are beneficial for startups to make in order to gain direct experience and wisdom. However, others are unnecessary and costly. One of the most dangerous mistakes is becoming attached to your own products and ideas to the point of rigidity.
Adaptability is a Sign of Intelligence, Not Weakness
While not always the case, entrepreneurs tend to be very prideful. Not prideful in the sense that they think they’re better than everyone else, but prideful in the sense that they believe in their products and ideas and want them to work. Unfortunately, the vast majority of products don’t work, which is why the failure rate among startups is astonishingly high.
For someone who has great pride and genuinely believes his product is the answer to a specific need or pain point, the idea of pivoting is often seen as weak. You only pivot when your idea/product sucks, the rigidly prideful entrepreneur thinks. But this isn’t true. You pivot (or scrap an idea altogether) when you recognize that you’re moving upstream against the current.
There’s nothing glorious about paddling upstream against the current, but that’s exactly what pride will tell you and push you to do. Sure, you might make some progress for a short period of time, but you’re eventually going to end up exhausted, depleting your energy and for better or worse, you’ll end up downstream.
Instead of trying to paddle upstream, what if you ditched your pride and started moving with the current? What if you identified what your customers actually wanted (as opposed to what you’re trying to force on them)? What if you carefully listen and let their needs and pain points guide your innovation and decision making? Not only will you end up downstream faster and measurably happier, but you won't waste all of your time, energy, and resources trying to paddle against the current.
Contrary to what you may think, adaptability isn’t a sign of weakness or failure. It’s actually a sign of intelligence. Smart entrepreneurs know when something isn’t working and are willing to adapt so they move with the current, as opposed to against it. They keep their mind pliable.
Are you savvy enough to do the same?
How to Listen to the Marketplace
In order to build a sustainable business that enjoys big rewards over the long haul, you have to listen to the marketplace and recognize how consumer demands evolve on a monthly and yearly basis. Unsure of where to start? Here are some practical tips and suggestions:
1. Don’t Fall in Love With Your Designs
“What’s really important when you’re running a company and you’re running a business and you’re in the marketplace is to not fall in love with your designs to the point where you’re unwilling to be flexible with what the market is asking for…,” entrepreneur Margo Morrison believes. “That’s an integral part of having a successful business -- is not getting stuck in your own perception of what you think is going on.”
It’s incredibly easy to form an emotional connection with specific elements of your product -- especially aesthetically. Any entrepreneur with experience launching new products knows this to be true. However, just because your startup is your “baby,” doesn’t mean should fall in love with its current form.
Your focus needs to be on your customers. If you fall in love with your customers, rather than a specific product or design, you stand a much greater chance of fulfilling the needs of your target audience. Interestingly enough, you’ll usually discover that they want something slightly different than what you’re currently offering.
2. Actively Listen to Your Audience
Are you listening to your audience? Like are you really listening, or just focusing on your own goals? When you’re honest with yourself and take inventory of your thoughts, you’ll probably notice that you aren’t spending nearly enough time hearing what your customers are telling you.
Nate Dame at Prospecta analyzed some research studies and curated some compelling data points from across the web. Here’s what he found:
- Only 13 percent of marketers feel like their companies understand what customers actually want or need.
- Approximately 43 percent of customers fail to provide feedback because they think companies don’t care.
Those statistics are sad, yet true. But the good news is that customers do talk and share ideas. While you can pay for market research, one of the best options is to listen and monitor social media.
Dame points out that 50 percent of social media users utilize their social networks to provide product feedback -- both positive and negative. On a platform-specific level, 39 percent of Twitter users have posted about a brand, while 42 percent of Facebook users have mentioned a brand in a status.
Thanks to a variety of social listening tools on the market -- many of which are free -- listening to your customers on social media isn’t that time consuming or challenging. You just have to be willing to do it.
“With your ear to the door, make sure you’re listening for what is being said as well as what is not being said,” Dame advises. “In small settings, someone may withhold a compliment or a criticism to avoid a potentially awkward conversation. But if buyers are talking about you, and they don’t know you’re listening, what they don’t say can be just as important as what they do say.”
3. Collaborate With Your Customers
Listening is the most important step, but there’s also a time and place for collaborating with your customers. When it comes to innovating new products, optimizing existing products, or contemplating a 180-degree pivot, their input is invaluable.
“Your brand is built on trust and familiarity,” entrepreneur Robert Fabricant reminds us. “Innovation is not just about putting the right new feature into a product and getting it on the shelf faster than the next guy. Innovation comes from an intense collaboration with your customers through which you can influence the behavior that will keep you (and your products and services) relevant for a long time.”
Customer collaboration can take on many different forms. In some cases, it looks like asking customers for product ideas. In other situations, it’s less overt. For example, you might simply send out a survey to gauge how your audience feels about particular issues. The important thing is that you’re having two-way conversations with your audience and genuinely seeking to understand what they want.
4. Value Your Frontline Employees
It’s easy to lose focus of who is really creating value within your company. Because corporate America has historically been based on tall organizational structures where those at the top get paid the largest salaries. We’ve been conditioned to assume that a company’s executive-level employees are the ones that matter. At the same time, we naturally view entry-level positions in sales and customer service as low yielding.
Honestly, nothing could be further from the truth. Sure, the C-suite is important, but in startups and young companies, there’s incredible value in frontline positions like sales and customer service.
Think about it for a second. Your sales and customer service employees are the ones who interact with your customers. They actually have verbal and face-to-face conversations with the people you’re selling to. Not only are they the literal “face” of your company, but they hear, see, and observe things that go undetected online and in surveys and focus groups.
While it seems contrary to what you’ve been taught over the years, it would be smart to invest time and money into hiring extremely talented and personable frontline employees in what have historically been seen as entry-level positions. By flattening your organizational structure and giving greater responsibility and compensation to these individuals, you’ll almost certainly have a stronger pulse on what’s happening.
5. Stop Forecasting so Far Into the Future
From an inventory planning and budgeting perspective, forecasting is very important. And while there’s nothing wrong with anticipating what will happen, there’s something to be said for focusing on the here and now. Best not to get caught up in what might happen down the road. It’s okay to forecast a few months out, but stop with the five and ten-year plans. As a startup, you don’t know what’s going to happen in the next five to ten days, let alone years. Only thing we can do is plan for it and start a real business.
Start Moving With the Current
You might be swimming upstream and not even know it. Depending on the resources you have and how focused you are on a specific outcome, you might be capable of paddling against the current for years before even realizing it.
If your startup is struggling, and has been for a while, it’s time to zoom out and reevaluate the situation. What you may find is that you’re fighting the marketplace and letting your pride lead you upstream against the flow that could take you where you can fulfill your true destination. By discontinuing this unsustainable trajectory, you can feel the release of letting yourself flow with the current and float downstream.
It all starts with flexibility. You have to reach beyond yourself and stop seeing adaptability as a weakness; recognize it for what it is: a characteristic of intelligence and shrewdness. Are you ready?