Suggested Song: This is My Passion, Ehrling
Suggested Drink: Pornstar Martini: passion fruit, lime juice, vodka, Passoa, champagne
You’re going to change the world.
This is #5 of 12 monthly experiments for the year, offered to get you inspired, thinking creatively, and organized in the pursuit of bold life ambitions of deep personal meaning. For this fifth experiment in the art of interpreneurship I again borrow heavily from my work in entrepreneurship. Not clear on the difference? Click here.
Customer empathy is a core pillar of business model creation and taught in business schools worldwide, including in my startup courses for INSEAD and the American College of the Mediterranean (ACM), here in Aix-en-Provence. A book I’m cowriting at the moment on deep tech commercialization has a chapter committed to it, with this passage at the start:
Capturing customer empathy has risen to the apex of critical deliverables in most workshops, courses, and publications on business model development. It resides at the core of lean-inspired startup methodologies, and for good reason. Before precious time and significant sums of capital are invested (and likely wasted) in product development it is essential to understand the customers’ needs, pains, limitations, and other factors that help you maximize value through product design and a go-to-market strategy.
The pursuit of a grand personal ambition – your interprize – also requires the mastery of customer empathy to maximize commercial success. But there is a distinct beauty to interpreneurial endeavors: the primary metrics of success are not measured in units shipped or profits made, but rather in passions fed and purpose found.
That sounds seductive (and poetically penned!). Let’s take a deeper dive.
On Customer Empathy
Empathy:the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.
Entrepreneurs are an excitable lot. They experience a business epiphany or make a science discovery and the eyes go Davey Jones sparkly. Bank accounts are drained, months are consumed, and deep in the dark bowels of a lab or living room a shiny new widget is perfected. Then off to the market they charge with a world-beating solution and heart full of hope, … and inevitable disappointment.
Entrepreneurship 101 now leads us with market need, not product design. Okay, you have a promising concept. Now, who is the target customer; what work are they doing; how can your concept bring gains to their undertaking of that work; how can your concept reduce pains in their undertaking of that work? Customer empathy is MBA-speak for the process of working through these questions and gaining a deeper sympathy for your customer and their job BEFORE focusing on product perfection.
An illustration of the customer empathy process looks like this:
On Customer Compassion
Compassion: a sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.
Compassion goes one step further than empathy. It requires action. Being deeply empathetic to the customer experience is a critical Step 1. Figuring out how to apply that understanding to optimize customer happiness is the compassionate Step 2. This is achieved through effective product/service design, delivery, support, and other business model elements that amplify user gains and reduce user pains.
As a new shiny gadget’s features and support align with the customers’ wants and needs we arrive at product-market fit (yet more business school speak). It’s a guiding principle to product design that requires constant validation and tweaks.
The Interprize Exception
Interpreneurs and entrepreneurs have a lot in common, particularly the desire to create something of great value and share it with the world. But we interpreneurs enjoy one crucial exception: the pilot customer is facing us in the mirror. Our fundamental motivation for the early mornings and late nights and hard-earned savings spent is in the search for purpose that is found through this sharing.
That search takes precedence over the market competitiveness and profit optimization of our shiny new gadget. And this liberating distinction gives us great license to create in our own image, to nourish our deepest passions, possibly and acceptably to the detriment of success as measured in conventional business terms. We call this hybrid principle product-passion fit. (That term is very much NOT business school speak.)
Examples may be helpful.
Marcia is a classic interpreneur. Her core career was spent mostly in marketing and sales in Silicon Valley’s tech world of venture-backed, high-flying startups. Living for the moment in Provence, she is an artist of impressive talent, and the sharing of this gift guides her encore career.
Marcia just completed my course on startup entrepreneurship at the ACM, working through 10 weeks of Bill Magill on mission statements and elevator pitches and product-market fits and business model canvases and fundraising, … and yes, also on customer empathy.
She was a great student and this grounding in basic entrepreneurship should enable even greater success with the spread and sales of her art. That is important, not only in helping pay the bills but validating her gift with the buying public. But Marcia will paint her garden watercolors irrespective of market success. It is her interprize, that prize within. It’s something she cannot not do. It defines who she is. It is her passion and through the sharing of this gift she finds purpose. Validation IS appreciated. Validation IS NOT the paramount objective. With her encore career she’s seeking product-passion fit.
My interprize is to write and stage rock dramas. I could plow ahead with a script and music and charge off to Broadway in search of open arms. Or, before setting pen to paper and fingers to keys, I could make an effort to understanding the arts of musical development and script writing, my specific audience (young, old, rockers, opera goers, theatre regulars, theatre newbies), what they want in a story (old stories reimagined, new stories freshly written), where they want to experience it (the stage, at home on a streaming series, watching a YouTube video, listening to Spotify, some mix of all), and so on.
My chances of getting staged are much higher if I first respect the craft that is my craft and the content qualities gaining market interest. But I will write these dramas regardless of their chances, and in my own voice. And I will not be limited to an algorithm’s guidance of what’s trending now. Writing music is something I cannot not do. I have finished one (click here for a listen to Last Night at the Ha-Ra if curious) and am working on my second rock drama now.
A final word on creative integrity.
Van Gogh had a wholly unique style. It is not that he was disinterested in what others were doing. On the contrary, his influences were many, including the Dutch Masters like Rembrandt and Hague School celebrities trending at the time. But unlike his contemporaries he remained ignored and famously broke for most of his life, and that speaks to his creative integrity. A healthy dose of customer empathy might have steered him in other directions. He chose to prioritize product-passion fit over product-market fit. The world is the better for it.
Product-Passion Fit Experiment
(Refer to the diagram above if helpful.)
For your interprize concept:
1. Create a profile of your targeted customer archetype(s). Descriptors may include age, location, education, affluence, and other qualities that best characterize their particular attributes.
2. What jobs or activities are they doing related to your concept? For Marcia and her Watercolor Garden that list may include finding watercolor artists online (or locally) who have a particular focus on garden scenes, evaluating their work, buying and framing original pieces, having the same art rendered on cards and sacs, returning items, etc.
3. Build customer empathy by listing the pains they suffer and gains they would value while doing these activities. Apply customer compassion by turning this empathy into action items you can do to reduce these pains and amplify the gains.
Now, walk away from this activity for an hour or a day, then…
4. Reflect on how this act of compassion will impact your interprize project. In the perfect world they will align by reinforcing your sense of validation and accomplishment. More people finding and buying Marcia’s art. More musical lovers and critics finding and applauding my dramas. But the world is often not perfect. Making customers’ needs the overarching priority may pull you off your North Star (click here to refer to Experiment #3, Your Mission Definition). I may favor an abstract musical style that fewer people love. If crafting in that style for those few feeds my passion and gives me purpose, then I’ve maximized product-passion fit and the world will be better for it.