I’m not talking about Henry Ford pushing forward with the automobile while his customers allegedly clamoured for faster horses. I’m asking you to decide whether you’re willing to bet everything on your solution.
Why you should seek out and embrace negative feedback
I get negative customer feedback quite often. Not a lot, but more than a little, because I solicit customer feedback at every opportunity. When that feedback goes negative, it’s usually because what I’m building or proposing or discussing doesn’t look, sound, or act like it’s supposed to. It doesn’t work like it should. It doesn’t offer the expected value proposition for the price.
Almost all of the fault is on me, and that’s fine.
Negative customer feedback used to bother me lot. I used to avoid it at all costs. Now negative feedback doesn’t bother me at all. And I don’t avoid it, I seek it out. And when I don’t get it, that bothers me.
Because if I’m making everyone happy, I’ve definitely stopped innovating.
What is innovation and why is it important?
Don’t let that last sentence paint the wrong picture. Chasing innovation is not the wielding of secret sorcery. Innovation is not something that is conjured up. In fact, innovation isn’t really even something you do so much as it is a by-product of relentlessly chasing a goal and perpetually running into a brick wall.
There’s no magic to that. My kids used to do that when they were toddlers.
Every startup thinks it’s innovative. And in some ways, every startup is indeed innovative, even the ones running cookie cutter business plans or riding the coattails of whatever latest trend is turning heads on Sand Hill Road or trending in the pages of TechCrunch (or the echoes of Clubhouse).
Because any startup that doesn’t innovate doesn’t stay in business. If your company isn’t solving more difficult problems faster for less money, your runway will roll up like bad carpet. Even the unicorns — the WeWorks and the Theranoses — all that raised capital is just fuel for bigger and uglier failures down the road. Unless they innovate, and quickly.
That’s what those investors are cutting checks for in the first place.
The question of innovation isn’t about sizzle, it’s about steak. Or rather, it’s about navigating the change that needs to occur for the mainstream acceptance of plant-based steak. Or electric vehicles. Or space vacations. It’s about getting the market to agree to do things a different way, which includes convincing them to abandon the ways that have always worked.
Change sucks, and innovation is not for the timid. If your business is betting on the seeds of innovation, those seeds are where your success will take root. So while you do indeed need to listen to the customer, you also have to tend to those seeds.
What’s the danger in listening to the customer?
There’s no risk listening to the customer. There’s no risk in agreeing with the customer. The danger arrives when the customers begin to dictate the solution.
I had a very long and good talk recently with a friend who is disrupting an industry I’m close to. Their company is now going through the process of recovering from a series of decisions they made that sprung out of customer feedback.
That feedback, and those subsequent decisions, knocked the company off the path to their innovative solution and drove them closer to to looking and acting like the incumbents they were trying to disrupt. Their customers were telling them that the incumbent’s value proposition was what they were used to, that was how they expected the solution to work, and so that was what was missing.
And their customers were right! When you looked at my friend’s not-small, not-unsuccessful startup in the context of the bigger, deeper-pocketed, better-branded incumbents, the startup was lacking in a lot of ways.
But here’s the thing. When you don’t have the dollars and resources and brand awareness that the incumbents have, innovation is your only weapon against them. Playing the incumbent’s game on the incumbent’s turf only leads directly to a price war that the startup is going to lose.
The startup listened to those customers, and the short term gains were excellent. Then they found themselves hitting a ceiling as just a pale version of the very companies they were trying to disrupt. Instead of being the top choice in their own market segment, they were now the 10th or 11th choice in a crowded segment.
So they made a bold decision: Get back to the seeds of innovation, which meant losing half their new customers or more. If they’re wrong, they fail, but if they’re right and they survive, they become the industry leader anyway as their incumbents die off.
If they didn’t make that decision, they’d be dead at some point anyway, when some other, more dedicated disruptor comes along and knocks off all the incumbents, maybe even using the innovative solution the startup just abandoned.
You can be the innovator or the incumbent. You can’t be both.