Empathy First: Lead with the Need… Not Your Ego

by Jeff Hittner

It’s thrilling to see entrepreneurs-to-be exuberant about a big idea they want to build.

Their voices can’t hide the excitement when they describe what their product will do (and how much $$ it will make).

Then I ask a seemingly simple question:

Who is the product serving and why do they need it?

Ron Burgandy-esque blank stares ensue.

In a race to dream big, too often entrepreneurs-to-be dive head first into their idea — rather than deeply understanding the people they want to serve.

There’s a wonderful clip of Brene Brown and Jonathan Fields describing great entrepreneurship as:

Servicing the need of others instead of making a product and then looking for a market

Why is this so hard to do? One of the biggest challenges we face when launching a business is letting go of our ego. We are proud of our idea and that can make us less open to altering our assumptions.

We can still be proud of our ideas — we just need to start from a place of service and empathy. Recognizing that our ego and emotions can block out smart suggestions is a critical step to avoiding it.

Jump into the video at 13.30 to hear about empathy and entrepreneurship

I’ve spent several weekends mentoring enthusiastic entrepreneurs-to-be at Startup Weekend. When I connect with most of them, they’re at the “MVP stage,” designing the most stripped down version of their idea to test in the marketplace. A key part of my role is to ask questions about the problem they are trying to solve, and the feedback they are receiving from interviewing potential users.

What often happens is that teams wed themselves to an idea quickly. Even as they go out to interview users about challenges they are facing, they have trouble letting the data redirect them.

Related: 12 Lessons Learned from 12 Months of Entrepreneurship

After mentoring countless fledgling entrepreneurs, I’ve identified some common warning signs to alert us to an idea is being led by our ego rather than by user needs:

1. The Brainstorm Trap:

You are furiously brainstorming with a group about how the product, app, service, etc., will function far before you are able to explain the very specific user problem you are solving.

2. The Gold Nugget Seduction:

You’ve collected some fascinating nuggets of data on potential users and begin designing your product, but the information doesn’t yet add up to a problem that needs solving. This is actually a fantastic first step… you just need to go back out and ask more questions based on this information. You’re halfway to identifying a need.

3. Can’t. Answer. The. Question.

When someone asks you to describe the problem you’re trying to solve, you keep explaining your idea or solution rather then giving the answer.

4. Tell me why?!

You are having difficulty explaining what is motivating people to use the product.

Keep an eye out for these traps as you ready yourself for potential user interviews and designing your MVP. The empathetic solution is within each of us. We find it as soon as our ego gets out of the way.

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