4 min

When you’re building a product, most entrepreneurs will try and look at what their customers need. A problem they have. A challenge that must be overcome. It’s considered common sense, that’s what you do if you’re building a startup. There’s a common theme that tech companies have one job, which is to fill in the cracks in their customers’ lives.

I want to challenge that whole idea. I don’t think it’s a complete or totally accurate picture of what an entrepreneur’s role is, what a startup’s mission looks like.

I think there’s a higher purpose, and a bigger goal here than just developing widgets, shortcuts and solutions. When all you’re doing is trying to find a problem you can solve, and imagining problems that don’t even exist, you can build a good company, or you can end up with stupid ideas.

I read about a startup in Silicon Valley driving around with a boot full of fuel because they think they’re about to “solve” fuel stations by Uberifying them. This is not a good situation. Talk about an explosive idea.

People are just looking for any area where they think there’s a whole that can be plugged with a landing page, an app and enough cash to pummel the market into acceptance.

Some of the entrepreneurs who are doing this will tell you they’re trying to change the world.

The truth is, they’re mostly attempting to break the parts of the world that they don’t like, in the hope that there’ll be enough money in it to make the whole thing worthwhile.

The author of The Innovator’s Hypothesis, Michael Schrage, sent me a copy of his e-book called “Who do you want your customers to become.” And it pretty much said exactly what I’ve been telling most people. Here’s the one take away point:

“Growing a successful startup, and an audience of happy, empowered customers, depends on who you are transforming your customers to be.”

Still with me? Sweet. Let’s transform your business.

A successful product does not just fill a hole. This is unarguable. A successful product does not become an integral part of people’s lives. A successful product transforms the lives, and the jobs, and the habits of customers, and moulds them around itself.

When Netflix first started, you had to have DVDs mailed out to you in an envelope, and you’d watch the DVD and mail it back, and wait for the next one in your queue.

That was filling a hole, and solving a problem. People no longer had to go out to Blockbuster and rent a bunch of movies, they could push a button, wait for a certain amount of time, and then be entertained.

If they had their customers what was wrong with that system, in an attempt to find a way to compete, customers would probably have asked for lower fees, or fast delivery, depending on their tastes.

They won’t say they needed to completely do away with the entire system and structure and model of the company – that’s not how consumers think.

Consumers look at what they have, find a crack, and ask for it to be filled. Entrepreneurs who think the same way are able to build profitable companies, but they don’t build truly innovative ones.

Netflix are an innovative company. Their choice in moving to a streaming model wasn’t an attempt at solving that business model as if it was some kind of problem.

It was an attempt at transforming their customers, and letting them become a new breed of entertainment consumers.

You know how you can tell these companies were successful? The word Netflix has entered the modern lexicon and begun to mean “streaming” in the same way that Apple just means “Quality.” The product has transformed it’s customers so drastically that it’s even changed their language.

Don’t believe me?

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said they needed a faster horse.

– Henry Ford

I can’t help feeling that some that quote as meaning that consumers are stupid and only genius entrepreneurs can see the right path.
That’s a false tech bro attitude, and it’s not what Ford meant.

The quote is really about being innovative. It’s about looking beyond the problems that a consumer is facing, and recognizing that there is a transformation that could take place to turn the consumer into a new model.

Of course the idea that you have to solve problems isn’t totally wrong, and it’s not bad, and it’s not stupid. I think entrepreneurs have a tendency towards being completely re visionary everything is innovation, until it’s not, and then it never was.

Approaching entrepreneurship as a solver of problems is still valid, and it can still enable you to create successful startups.

But innovative companies aren’t built like that. Innovative companies aren’t built to fix things, they’re built to transform the people who initially wanted the fix into people who don’t even remember why they wanted it in the first place.

If you’re looking to create innovation, it is your job to envision who you want your customers to become, and then find a way to effect that change. If you want to create innovation, it is your job to be hacking together solutions. You have to become a powerhouse of customer transformation.

“I want my readers to become innovators and entrepreneurs who always recognize and empathize with the aspirations and constraints of their customers. That means they should see their customers and clients as people who are looking to expand the boundaries of who they are and what they can do but respect the limitations on their time and their talents.”

– Michael Schrage.