Startup advice is everywhere. This is not one of them.
A story goes like this: In 1963, Martin Luther King was attacked by a white supremacist while preaching at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. The hateful man threw himself at Martin Luther King, fist first. Instead of fleeing, the preacher responded by quickly closing the distance and embracing the man. King held him tight while saying: my brother I love you, my brother I love you. The man furiously tried to pound on King, but the preacher maintained his embrace while repeating his sermon. Upon hearing these words from the very man the supremacist was trying to hurt, the attacker went limp and burst into tears.
The story is beautiful, and maybe even true. Regardless, it holds a rarely told truth for startup founders. One that I learned myself.
My own lesson began around 2006. Rumors began circulating about Apple turning their next iPod into a phone. Then came the vision that would define me.
I foresaw that our phones would be on the internet. The clarity of my prophecy made me evangelistic, and I preached the coming revolution to everyone that wouldn’t listen.
I turned a couple of friends, and we decided to lead the revolution and built a product that would demonstrate we were right.
The product was a ticketing platform. We knew that events are fundamentally a social experience and that most people buy tickets together with their friends. So why not create a platform that allowed people to buy tickets directly from their phones.
We started pitch event organizers and demonstrate our platform. If they created events on our backend, users could buy the tickets from a mobile device. I told them it was the future.
The problem was that these people did not live in the future. On the contrary, they very much lived in the present. And in their reality, they had an event next month that they needed to sell enough ticket to. Because our platform had no users, we did not alleviate their anxiety.
I responded the way most self-development books tell you to. I persevered. But at large, the event organizers remained dispassionate. And then something important happened.
I started to hate our customers. Not immediately. But a resentment towards these dispassionate naysayers grew in me. Gradually, the feeling spread to the rest of the team. Perhaps because I started referring to our customers as idiots, dinosaurs and stupid.
Unsurprisingly, our emerging company culture of hating our customers did not produce a healthy environment for building a great solution to event organizers. Ultimately, it became a core reason for our failure.
Since then, I have seen customer resentment develop in multiple other startups. What happens is this: the founders create a piece of tech. They do customer discovery. Pivot a couple fo times. Finally, they find themselves targeting a customer segment that is somewhat alien to them. But the segment has money and a definable pain point. Advisors and investors agree.
The founders have built a product that is objectively valuable to their customers. It saves time, money and unlocks new opportunities. But for some unfathomable reason, the customers are wary. And most of them don’t convert.
At this point, resentment creeps in. Taking rejection upon rejection from people you are trying to help simply does that to a person. That is unless you are Martin Luther King, and have true and deep empathy for those you are trying to convert.
When founders ask me if they should go for market X or market Y, sometimes I put all the data aside, and simply ask them this: Who do you want to spend your life trying to help, knowingly they will reject you over and over?
Doing a startup is in large part an experience of suffering rejections from the very people you are trying to help. And in order to succeed, your natural response must be embrace. Something that is only possible if the founders truly empathize with the people they are trying to turn. Surely, Mr. King would agree.
Choosing a customer segment for whom you have deep empathy for might not be the most business-savvy advice. But sometimes, I find it is the most important.