What I learned from Steve Jobs: When not to listen to your customers

October 9, 2011

Apple co-founder Steve Jobs (February 24, 1955 – October 5, 2011) passed away this week, and the world lost a great business and technology innovator.   There’s a lot that Steve taught us about how high tech should be done, but in this post I’ll focus on just one thing: Knowing when not to listen to your customers. 

The problem with the marketplace is that it can’t tell you if there is demand for a product that doesn’t yet exist. The marketplace responds strongly and decisively to products and services that exist, but it’s an opinion-free zone about hypothetical product ideas. To quote Apple Computer CEO and co-founder Steve Jobs, “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” When you depend on your customers to tell you what they want or need, then you are, by definition, setting yourself up to be a follower. As Henry Ford said, “If I’d listened to customers, I’d have given them a faster horse.”  

Customers can tell you about their problems, which are the start of all good product ideas.  Listen to your customers carefully to undrestand the challenges they face. And with product in hand the marketplace is a brilliant (and brutal) evaluator of what you’ve built.  What happens between those two points – the problem and market acceptance, is really up to you.  That middle ground is the incubator of great technology. Jobs new that was a place best reigned by the unbridled freedom of dreams.   Dreams can lead to great innovative products, customers ask for faster horses.

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