In his new book, “Unleash Your Inner Company: Use Passion and Perseverance to Build Your Ideal Business,” famed Silicon Valley tech advisor and investor John Chisholm made one thing very clear: He had no interest in making the book a tribute to conventional wisdom.
I recently had the opportunity to discuss the book in an interview with Chisholm, and I drew that conclusion about five minutes into the interview. For starters, Chisholm warned of the danger inherent in listening to customers:
It’s certainly important to listen to your customers, but you have to listen to them intelligently, and listen between the lines. You can’t take what they say too literally. The chapter of the book called, “Don’t Listen to Your Customers, Discover Their Goals” starts out with a story about a customer who says he needs a better mousetrap, when what he really needs is to keep mice out of the house in the first place. There are any number of ways that could be accomplished, using new ultrasound, chemical, and electronic technologies; perhaps mechanical or optical means. So you have to listen between the lines. … I don’t think the problem lies in asking customers for feedback. The problem comes when entrepreneurs and product managers take the feedback too literally, without putting it in context and understanding what the customers are trying to accomplish—what their goals are.
I mentioned to Chisholm that what he was saying reminded me of Clayton Christensen’s book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” where he refers to companies being “held captive by their customers.”I asked Chisholm if this over-emphasis on listening to customers is stifling innovation, as Christensen contends. He said it clearly affects innovation within established companies:
I’m a great admirer of Christensen’s book, and I reference it in ‘Unleash Your Inner Company.’ I talk about it as a way of pointing out that startups have an advantage that they often don’t realize. Because established companies are listening to their customers and doing what their customers say, they’re fulfilling the needs of existing customers rather than addressing new opportunities that are arising. … Whether or not it holds back innovation is hard to say. It creates new opportunities for other innovators—the startups who are focused on addressing the needs of the new markets coming up. It certainly affects innovation in established companies. Whether it affects innovation in the economy overall, I don’t know.
One chapter in Chisholm’s book that I found especially compelling is titled, “Different Is Better Than Better.” I asked him what it is that’s standing in the way of companies recognizing that being different is what they need to be aiming for. He said it’s the simple fact that the competition is so gripping:
When we have a competitor, we look at them, and they rivet our attention. We see what they’re doing, and we want to copy it, and we want to do it better. It’s a very human reaction. … Especially for a startup, being better is a very tenuous competitive position. If you’re competing along the same dimensions as established companies, they have more resources than you do. They have revenue streams, a customer base, brand awareness. As a rule, the startup has none of that. … Anyone can be different—it’s simply a matter of finding a dimension of a customer set or need that other players in the market are not focused on. Of course, it should be a large enough customer set and need to be interesting, and should ideally have growth potential so that as they grow, you grow with them.
Chisholm also pointed out that creating sustainability with an unpopular idea can be a hallmark of a true entrepreneur. He explained the concept this way:
If your field isn’t very popular, you’ll have less competition. I talk about the fact that there are more than 100,000 health and fitness apps for the iPhone, and very few of those are going to survive. The market is big, absolutely. But it’s not big enough to sustain 100,000 fitness apps. In contrast, what is the least sexy thing you can think of? The least sexy thing I can think of is municipal sewer and water—that’s actually the name of a trade magazine.If you look at it, it’s full of articles on innovative technology—automated flow control, remote monitoring, real-time alerts, techniques for controlling odors, ultraviolet disinfection of sewage. The upfronters applying these new techniques and technologies in water and sewage are doing a lot of good—they’re improving water quality, sanitation, and public safety, while reducing manual labor costs and taxes. There are probably many players in that space, too. But certainly it’s less crowded than having 100,000 competitors. So don’t let what is merely popular blind you to other opportunities.
Chisholm punctuated this portion of the interview by highlighting the unique nature of every entrepreneur:
I do a lot of speaking to aspiring entrepreneurs right out of college—folks who want to start their own businesses. Their passions are sometimes things like comic books, or kittens, or long, hot baths—three really unbusinesslike things. But even with those three really unbusinesslike things, there are a myriad of opportunities around them. … No matter what your passion is, there are unsatisfied customer needs around it. … The right business for you to start is absolutely unique to you. No one else has your unique set of skills, knowledge, relationships, and reputation. Entrepreneurs are not interchangeable, like batteries or light bulbs—other entrepreneurs don’t have your same passions or skills or history. And IT professionals in particular have many more assets to start a business and make it a success than they tend to realize.
Chisholm also shared his insights on gender-related issues in Silicon Valley, and explained how being gay has been an asset in his professional life. I’ll cover that portion of the interview in a forthcoming post.
A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.