It worked for Steve Jobs. He dismissed market research and adhered to a single, basic product development ideal.
I am a huge Apple fan. It is one of my favorite examples of a company that turned itself around with products consumers love and want to use. That said, I have always been reluctant to hold Apple up as an example for other companies to follow because of Steve Jobs' dismissal of market research.
When asked about the amount of research Apple conducted during development of the iPad, he famously answered, "None. It isn't the consumer's job to know what they want."
Now many other companies and individuals confidently reject consumer research, citing Apple's success as proof it's not necessary. My strong personal belief from over a decade of doing consumer discovery is that you must talk to and deeply understand your consumers in order to build products, services and experiences that will work in today's new consumer-driven market.
So how do you reconcile this? I wasn't sure, so I began to study Steve Jobs closely in an attempt to understand him. I read everything I could about him and I pored over his biography looking for clues to his success.
It wasn't until I saw what Apple unveiled at their widely-followed developers' conference last week that it finally clicked. I didn't see the kind of creativity in the products Apple announced that I have come to expect from Apple. The announcements were mostly rehashes or improvements of something that's already on the market.
What I realized was this:
So while Jobs said he didn't believe in market research, what he did well was identifying gaps in what consumers wanted versus what was available in the market. Then he moved to elegantly and deftly create a product that addressed the need. Only after the creation of a new product or service did he field test it to improve upon the initial design. (Remember the famously misplaced pre-release iPhones that were discovered across Silicon Valley?)
That's a notable contrast to what a lot of companies do: over-reliance on market research and past success to drive innovation. That's a way to play it safe. They want proof they should build a product based on what they have learned in the past or by replicating someone else's success. Innovation works differently.
Innovation cannot be found in past endeavors. Instead, companies should focus, like Jobs, on understanding consumers' unmet needs and work in that white space.
Jobs' success hinged on being a renegade who was willing to throw out the rulebook and move into uncharted water. The iPod was a game changer, not just because of the technology, but because of the iTunes delivery platform that fundamentally changed the way we buy and listen to music, taking several industries on a roller coaster ride that uprooted their entire model. It also addressed an unmet consumer need: the ability to have at one's fingertips--everywhere--an entire CD library.
The other big difference: Jobs was willing to completely start over with a product or service if it missed the mark. This requirement for perfection is highlighted numerous times in his biography and is rarely, if ever, followed by traditional companies when they are headed down the path of launching a new product, service or experience.
What I believe Jobs meant is that he didn't believe in market research to innovate, which I can agree with him on. Customers can't tell you what they want, but they certainly can tell you what doesn't work for them currently. It's in customers' unmet needs that the real opportunity to build the next great business exists.
ERIC V. HOLTZCLAW is a serial entrepreneur who has founded multiple startup companies, including one of the first profitable Internet enterprises. His last company appeared on the Inc. 5000 list three years in a row. Eric advises clients on the “whys” of business – why customers buy, why teams work and the all-important “entrepreneurial why”. He is the author of Laddering and his weekly radio show, The 'Better You' Project, shines a spotlight on entrepreneurs' individual business journeys and successes. Learn more about Eric at www.ladderingworks.com or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. @eholtzclaw