If you want to understand your potential customers, put your phone away and look around.
Last week, walking through New York and, later, Boston, I started to count how many people were looking at or clutching their cell phones. I'd say that 7 of every 8 were either staring at the phone, talking on it or even just hanging on to it, as though waiting for something to happen. Did all of these people expect urgent calls representing life or death emergencies? Really?
Of course not. The cell phone has become the adult's transitional object, replacing the toddler's teddy bear for comfort and a sense of belonging. We clutch phones to show that we do know at least one other person--that we might look solitary but we have connections. We are important because we might get called about something crucial--or, at least, non-trivial. We count in the world.
Our insecurity may be laughable but our response isn't. Because the entire time you're talking to someone miles away or looking anxiously for texts or at stock prices, you are not mentally present. And that's a shame because being where you are is how most entrepreneurs do their market research.
The best business owners I know tell me that their sense of the market, their customers, new trends and ideas comes to them randomly when they're driving or walking and can let their minds wander. A great deal of creativity is about pattern recognition, and what you need to discern patterns is tons of data. Your mind collects that data by taking note of random details and anomalies easily seen every day: quirks and changes that, eventually, add up to insights.
That pattern recognition is often what sparks the idea that creates the business in the first place. You notice something that doesn't work or could work better. You see a problem that isn't being solved. Very few entrepreneurs start their business on the back of market research. Instead, they have tremendous zeitgeist, honed by paying attention to where they are.
Of course, if you're too absorbed by texts and calls--or by hoping for texts or calls--you miss out on all of that. I regularly take my entrepreneurship students out walking because I want to get them in the habit of noticing and thinking about what they notice. They have to leave their phones behind to learn the basic lesson: Be where you are.