When you set out to make your product solve a defined problem, you'll soon realize that you can't get by being selfish.
Your venture will rise or fall on the backs of its users, making their problems your problems, their needs your needs, and their happiness your success. A little empathy can go a long way when it comes to starting and growing a business focused on existing industry pain points. Be sure to remember these three selfless steps:
Solve problems. To find out what your future customers need, you have to see through their eyes and identify their everyday problems. How many times a day do you encounter a situation and think, "there must be a better way to do this?" That's your signal to start probing.
Before I built Bridgit, a mobile and web communication platform for the construction industry, I spent several co-op terms working on construction sites across Canada and the U.S. with a concrete restoration contractor. As the youngest person on site, I watched industry vets scribble notes on any scrap of paper they could find (often a crumpled donut box) and then input their notes into the computer at the end of the day. Cue, "there must be a better way to do this!"
After months of asking questions to hundreds of construction project managers and site supervisors, the answer became clear: No, there wasn't a better way to track construction deficiencies on site, and yes, I was going to be the one to fix that.
Ask questions. Part of being a selfless entrepreneur is realizing that others know a lot more about their industry than you do, and the only way to learn what they know is by asking them.
My Bridgit co-founder, Mallorie Brodie, had no prior experience in the construction industry before founding Bridgit in 2012. Today, she is an expert working at the intersection of construction and mobile communication. From the day she took her first steel-toed step onto a construction site, she has asked more of the right questions than I ever thought possible, and people have happily answered every single one of them.
Related: Big Ideas Come to Those Who Ask
You're not always going to get the answers you want to hear. However, you're also not solving your own problems, so it doesn't matter what you want. Customers always win.
Build relationships. When Mallorie and I first started Bridgit, we knew that in order to make our product successful we needed to get to know our users, and we needed to know them better than any of our competitors.
At the time, we were both in our last year of university and had busy class schedules. Conveniently, construction work starts at the crack of dawn, so we got up each day at 5 a.m. We walked, uninvited, on to every construction site we could find and spoke to the first crew member we met, no matter their role. We asked everyone the same question: "what could we build to make your day better?" The crews were so happy to hear someone listening to their plight that they spoke without hesitation.
We built strong relationships with project managers and site supervisors, and were quickly invited to shadow workers and even attend weekly site meetings. This may sound like a stroke of luck, the "holy grail" of users' needs, but without the drive to get off the computer and physically go meet our users on their terms, it wouldn't have been possible. Bonus points are typically given out if the sun's not up yet and it's so cold you can see your breath.
At the end of the day, business credentials simply aren't as important to entrepreneurial success as the ability to empathize with other people and offer solutions to their problems. Selflessness will endear you to your customers, and taking time to familiarize yourself with their needs will keep you on the leading edge of innovation.
Lauren Hasegawa is a civil structural engineer with a degree from the University of Western Ontario. She founded Bridgit, a mobile and web communication platform for the construction industry in December 2012 with Mallorie Brodie. Lauren is an active mentor to young women in construction and is a recent graduate of The Next 36.