A trap many innovators fall into is thinking that their own needs and expectations reflect what other people (customers) need. Many innovators have incredible "aha" moments where they spy a solution to a problem and immediately assume that other people experience the same challenges and will appreciate the newly conceived solution. There are a number of problems with this thinking, including:

  • What's obvious to an inventor is rarely obvious to customers generally
  • Many people fear adopting new products and change more than working with an inadequate or incomplete solution

But the most important problem is this: you are an imperfect observer of other people's needs, and too likely to fall in love with your own solutions. This means you need to listen carefully or build flexibility into your business and operating models.

A better mousetrap

Store shelves are filled with a wide range of "better mousetraps" but the one that dominates the market is still the swinging gate type which snaps shut when the mouse shifts the trigger arm. Inventors can imagine thousands of better ways to trap mice, and what's more, these solutions work effectively. But the real evaluation is made up of several parts. No matter how obvious, simple or effective a technology is to the innovator, it must be obvious, less expensive, more effective than what exists, and solve needs that customers prioritize. Customers are very happy with "good enough" technology that is proven, relatively inexpensive and doesn't require new learning.

It's important to understand that your customers are busy, bombarded with new technologies that solve problems that are already being solved, and usually hate to learn new things or make changes to their way of going about their lives. Even the best new product or technology will go unused or underutilized if it requires a consumer to make significant changes or seems difficult to learn or use, even if it promises better results.

Inventors are terrible customers

Most entrepreneurs and inventors are terrible customers - that is, they think that the vast majority of customers have the same expectations and needs as they do. As an innovator or entrepreneur, you must understand the psyche and needs of your customers, and further understand how likely they are to change habits and spending patterns. For the most part, people are unwilling to learn new technologies, change habits or spending patterns. That's why there are a lot of entrepreneurs who have offerings that are very similar. For example, a "dry cleaner" may use carbon dioxide or traditional dry cleaning fluid, but they all provide the same model of service, the same hangers and the same illegible tickets. Customers understand the service and solution.

Innovators and entrepreneurs must understand that their own insights, needs and expectations are rarely the same as their target markets. With this understanding comes two pathways: either try to understand how "regular" customers understand and prioritize needs OR must be open to shifting solutions and business models once they understand what customers truly value.

An example of the second path is Instagram. Instagram was originally built as a platform for bourbon lovers to share information and photos about bourbon. When the founders investigated Instagram usage, they found the only functionality getting any usage was the photo sharing capability. Even though the founders loved bourbon, they quickly dumped the bourbon focus to shift their models to photo sharing, because that's what their customers wanted. If you cannot take the time to discover customer needs, leave enough flexibility and have enough humility to create flexible solutions.