Don’t Work for a Startup with Market Apathy

April 30, 2013

8:56 am

Have you ever thought about market apathy? This is my phrase for a startup founder or team that is so focused on product that they forget or do not consider the emotional choices of the market they want to serve. How can this be true? It’s a lot truer than you think.

Earlier today, I hung out with an unemployed – and searching – marketing professional who has almost exclusively chosen to work with startups in the Bay Area, and earlier in NYC. She is super bright, emotionally sensitive, and curious about product and business design, as well as psychology and sociology.

We were talking about the real problem she is facing in her search for finding rewarding, and paying, work for startups. She likes startups because they are exploratory ventures, looking for a business model, and she likes the searching process. She says there is a lot of rewarding creativity there, and that is a main driver in her passionate search for work.

The biggest hurdle she has experienced in the dynamics of the work relationship is this: she’s seeking work from startups led by people who don’t seem to be emotionally interested in their customers, so it makes her uncomfortable to work with them. I think this is something really important, because at the heart of startup success is a really profound understanding of the emotional successes that customers feel from experiencing and enjoying the product.

In other words, dDn’t get glacial. Connect with customer emotions and speed scale and development along.

“It’s amazing that people don’t get this, or are not aware of the situation of people around them,” she told me. I agreed, actually.

I’m a big fan of Clayton Christensen’s work, and his theories on “jobs-to-done.” At the heart of what this Harvard Business School genius has written is his discovery that customers – you might call them people – are less interested in the product than in how they feel about the product. This is something that many, many founders seem to forget in their search for a market niche or an investor.

My discussions with startups have taken me literally around the world, and in many of my conversations, I find it rare to meet a founder who is not constantly focused on product, but is instead focused on how customers feel. I cannot list all the reasons why this might be the case. I can make a lot of assumptions. One of my assumptions is that as potential founders or product designers, we are learning about the potential for what already exists, and since each production process and customer discovery process is invisible to us, we can only make our assumptions based on what we see that works.

But what’s missing in all of this is that a founder making a really profound product for a market is making that product out of a genuine emotional experience she or he has had in reality. There is emotional DNA in the making of a product. The founder is using that product to connect to a problem in the world and solve it in a human way using technology. So, then, why would we think that a customer would not respond in the same way? It’s baffling.

I think we create a binary in our mind that there is a product and a maker, and then there is a customer and his potential revenue. Founders may be so focused on proving results for investors and thinking in their language that they forget that the real, true reason a customer is picking and choosing that product is not because the product works, but because the product makes a person feel a certain way.

Using this logic, wouldn’t a founder find it of highest importance to practice empathy for the market? And then wouldn’t the founder want to create an environment of respect for that process in order to attract people of equal merit, with the similar kind of awareness, to work on that product? Well, you would think, but I don’t believe this happens.

I don’t believe this because of conversations like the one I had today with the marketing professional.

If she feels the CEO is not emotionally curious about the customer’s choices, she won’t feel emotionally validated or interested in that work relationship. It signifies to her that the sales team is not going to be listened to, and then the marketing team has no role, either. The sales and the marketing teams are the two nodes in a company that know the most about the emotional core of the customer. And they are often thought of as last, not involved in the formation of the design, the principles of the product, or its delivery to the customer.

I wonder how many CEOs think about that as they mull over their pitch decks and product features.

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Douglas manages the social media strategy for a Microsoft division that works exclusively with startups. He works with internal partners in product groups like Windows 8, Windows Azure, Windows Phone and others to create an integrated marketing channel from startups to Microsoft and back. His work entails curating great content, showcasing the work of startups, and managing the way developer evangelists in Microsoft use social media to engage with their audiences.

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