Faster Horses: Vision, Disruptive Products, and Influence

July 28, 2011

2:30 pm

Many entrepreneurs believe that the key to success is listening to their customers.  That’s great advice if you are looking for feedback on product quality, your service, your market, your competitors, incremental improvements, their needs.

Some companies look to their customers for vision. If the customer isn’t asking for the next big thing, then the same old regular thing is just fine, right?

You don’t lead a market by looking to your customers for vision.  If you need the customer to create your vision, then maybe you should trade places.  Maybe the customer should become the vendor.  Maybe you should be paying them instead of the other way around.  Maybe Steve Jobs should commute on the subway to a supply clerk job with white ear buds firmly ensconced while a Steve-Jobsian, hero-worshiping, cubicle-dwelling, mail clerk leads  Apple’s vision: “I got it, let’s do the next generation of the iPod!  We’ll call it the pPod, and it will be purple!” Brilliant!

I’m not saying don’t listen to the folks who put food on your table. I’m just saying that great companies create disruptive products while great customers don’t seek disruption.  Henry Ford said,

“If I asked customers what they wanted they would have said a faster horse.”

Think of great companies and how many of them have built their success on the back of a faster horse?  How many Apple II customers would have said, “I’d like a graphical user interface with a mouse.  Could you give me a Macintosh?” How many Mac customers would have asked for an iPhone, and the iPhone customers an iPad.

Listen to your customers.  They’ll let you know how you’re doing.  Listen to the marketplace to determine how you  compare to your competitors. Blaze your own path if you’re going to do something special, lead the market, make a splash.

Or, wait for your customers to create your vision because there is still a market for buggy whips, and there are probably some laggards out there who will buy your faster horse.

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Glen Hellman (@glehel), is an angel investor, serial entrepreneur, and works for venture capitalists as a turn-around specialist. He is the Chief Entrepreneureator at Driven Forward LLC, frequently muses on his blog, Forward Thinking, and works with entrepreneurs to help them figure out what to do and get them to do it.

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