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Great founders live in the uncomfortable space of never satisfied

I get to talk to entrepreneurs building growing businesses every day—and have for years. One of my observations is that entrepreneurs tend to naturally lean one of two ways—

  • Customer led (path smoothers)
  • Vision led (path breakers)

Which do you think is better?

To clarify, when I say customer-led, I’m talking about those companies that come out of the entrepreneurs trying to solve a specific problem, often one they experienced. (They were often customer one).  That’s like David Cummings building Pardot, inspired by Hannon Hill’s marketing needs. It’s like Tope Awotona’s frustration when he was a sales leader at EMC, scheduling that 20th customer demo of the week and just hating the calendar tools available—and deciding to build Calendly to help take the pain out of scheduling between organizations. 840,000 customers (and counting) agree that team knows what they’re doing.

Customer-led is a great way to build features and a business, especially when you’re customer #1. It always takes vision for making something better.

I used to love this model so much I thought it was the only real viable way to build a sustainable business.

However, its one flaw, if you can call it that, is that the necessary discipline having the customer lead can, if your customer is not a driven persona, create incremental innovation. That’s not the case in marketing, ad or sales tech like  Calendly or Pardot, but it can be when the customer doesn’t have competitive market forces pressuring them to seek improvement.

There are more “slow customers” than ever. It used to be tech was in an always-expanding market. Today, tech is eating tech—it’s about upgrading to new technologies and platform leaps aren’t quite as frequent as they were. For example, it was one thing to convert people from mail to email. I used to copy form letters and bring them to the mail room in my first marketing job. I became one of the first ever spammers back when spam was something you spread on sandwiches.  Oh, the open rates we had back then!  Of course we couldn’t track opens at first…but we got answers, even better!

Now, it’s going from one mass email tracking program to another (not so obvious). That’s incremental. The next innovation on this path is no email. And it’ll happen–we’re in the middle of a shift to AI as a new normal that will take years, for example, and people find it scary. However, change is coming so fast, for some segments, there’s a backlash.

If your customers are techies, founders or sales and marketing people, you can have some assumptions about their drive.

Because they are on the front row of competing, they know they have to try new things to stay ahead. But not all software companies are built to serve driven customers. Is yours? Technology has come so far that there is actually a customer market for backward looking tech, and there are whole types of customer profiles that do not have forward-leaning metrics. They will always put convenience first, including “doing things the way we always have”–not system efficiency. We are in time of incremental innovation, and you can see it in the facts, like a generation of fewer startup starts and an era when 90% of all venture capital is placed in a follow on round.

Steve Jobs really got this. In 2011, you can hear his frustration of living with “never satisfied.” He said to build Apple’s strategy, he learned the hard way the approach is, “Where can we take the customer?  Not, let’s set down with the engineers and figure out what great technology we have, and how to market that.”

When you’re looking for leaps, simply being customer led won’t work.

You need the other entrepreneurial super-power working in tandem: vision. You have to primarily lead customers to innovate past incremental. That’s really hard, and as many founders will tell you, quite often impossible.

One of my favorite recent visualizations is this video compilation of the four years of SpaceX from pre-rocket, through Grasshopper, through crashes, to their first successful land.

Every time I see the rocket land, I get tears in my eyes.

Musk was customer #1 for his rocket company. While there were customers for rockets, the price and the bureaucracy was keeping them out of the market.  In order to innovate, the SpaceX team is having to lead its customers into a new way of thinking, taking new risks, and also educating new potential customers. It’s one of many stories that can inspire you about listening to the customer as you build out features, interfaces, pricing–while not compromising your vision about the new value you’re creating.

We’re at the end of the mobility age of tech, and you see the incremental innovation of the end-of-cycle. That means we’re at the start of the next . . .

It’s a time when entrepreneurs who dream big are going to excel, and especially those that understand their vision. While features and interfaces may always be customer-led, and the discipline of customer feedback is critical, the cores of the new companies that will define the next 25 years are going to be built by bold, uncompromising visions the founders won’t sacrifice, even as they do their best to soften the bumps on the road of change.

Tie your dream to your customers so you lift  them with you.

But don’t knot those ropes so tight that they tie your vision down. Here’s to entrepreneurs and the places you’re taking us–it’s take off time.