This is one of what I hope will be a series of columns under the general heading of “Advice to Founders.” These are topics that I find I come back to often in my conversations with founders of small businesses and which I think are things that anyone who has, or is thinking about, founding a business should know.
Every founder learns quickly that some of the most important people in their lives are their customers – or potential customers. Although founders are almost always smart, committed, and passionate about their ideas, they sometimes struggle to understand why they do not inspire that same level of interest in their potential customers. The reason, often, is that founders, in the early stages of their companies, are conditioned to believe that they must prove themselves and their ideas and they tend to enter every conversation armed with facts, figures, and arguments about what makes them and their ideas special and valuable.
But this may not be the right approach to take with most customers.
The important thing to realize, as a founder, is that customers are not interested in your technology. They are interested in their own problems. If your technology solves their problem, then they will be interested. But until they are convinced that you are selling a solution, they are not that interested in the details.
It is far better to walk into a meeting with a customer, any customer, with a genuine interest in understanding their problem than to walk into that meeting excited to describe your idea. In short – it really isn’t about you. It’s about the customer and what they need, or think they do.
It is also very important that your interest in their problem be genuine. Don’t just ask the question and then move on to talking about your ideas. Be curious. Follow up. Demonstrate the fact that you are really trying to come to grips with the customer problem. If you do this, customers will start seeing you as someone who wants to contribute, rather than as someone who wants something from them.
When you cross that line, you are on your way to success.
In fact, in some ways the objective is not even to present your ideas at the meeting. If the outcome of the meeting is that the customer does most of the talking and at the end of the meeting you say: “I think I might have something that could help, but I need to look at a couple of things. Can I come and talk to you next week?,” the meeting really was a success. Because, if they agree, you have gone from being an outsider looking for cash to a member of the team looking for a solution. I guarantee you that at the next meeting you will have a receptive audience. They will be hoping that your ideas will solve their problem instead of finding reasons why they don’t.
In the end it is critical to understand that you will never actually sell your ideas. You will only ever sell solutions to the customers’ problems. The trick, for you, is to make those two as close as possible to the same thing. The only way to do that is to be interested, genuinely, in the customer’s perspective.