A great quote from technology luminary Alan Kay that every entrepreneur needs to remember: "The best way to predict the future is to invent it."
I'm working with a company that at one point had a product that was not only best in its class, but also technically far ahead of its competition. It created a better way of offering its service, and customers loved it and paid for it.
Then it made a fatal mistake. It asked its customers what features they wanted to see in the product, and they delivered on those features. Unfortunately for this company, its competitors didn't ask customers what they wanted. Instead, they had a vision of ways that business could be done differently and, as a result, better. Customers didn't really see the value or need until they saw the new product. When they tried it, they loved it.
So what did "my" company do when it saw what its competitor had done? It repeated its mistake and once again asked its customers what they wanted in the product. Of course the customer responded with the features that they now loved from the other product.
The company didn't improve its competitive positioning. It put itself in a revolving door of trying to respond to customer requests. To make matters worse, resources and brainpower that could be applied to "inventing the future" were instead being used to catch up with features that locked the company into the past.
Entrepreneurs need to be reminded that it's not the job of their customers to know what they don't. In other words, your customers have a tough enough time doing their jobs. They don't spend time trying to reinvent their industries or how their jobs are performed. Sure, every now and then you come across an exception. But you can't bet the company on your finding that person among your customers.
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Instead, part of every entrepreneur's job is to invent the future. I also call it "kicking your own ass." Someone is out there looking to put you out of business. Someone is out there who thinks they have a better idea than you have. A better solution than you have. A better or more efficient product than you have. If there is someone out there who can "kick your ass" by doing it better, it's part of your job as the owner of the company to stay ahead of them and "kick your own ass" before someone else does.
Your customers can tell you the things that are broken and how they want to be made happy. Listen to them. Make them happy. But don't rely on them to create the future road map for your product or service. That's your job.
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This article is an edited excerpt from How to Win at the Sport of Business: If I Can Do It, You Can Do It (Diversion Books, 2011) by Mark Cuban.