How Understanding Others Can Transform Your Business
Ron J. Williams has built a career out of getting inside customers’ heads. For the past 11 years, this energetic entrepreneur has founded, built, invested in, and advised on peer-to-peer, sharing economy, marketplace, social data, and social commerce companies.
Named by Fast Company as one of its 100 Most Creative People in Business, Williams is passionate about applying technology to “regular-people problems.” His current venture, proofLabs, is a strategy, product, and innovation consultancy that helps teams build the perfect products for their customers faster.
Understanding others’ perspectives is vital to the process at proofLabs, and Williams believes it’s essential to the success of any startup. Tim Donovan, Head of Internal Communications at Fundbox, recently talked with Williams to learn how the power of perspectives can help grow your business. Here’s an excerpt from their conversation.
Fundbox: Tell us how you got started in business.
Ron J. Williams: My first job [out of college] as an investment banker has served me well even 20 years later. I learned to ask questions: How do you come up with a model for what drives the business? How do you find out where the value is created?
[After working on Wall Street], I started a company that was an early entrant into the sharing economy. Eventually the business failed because I wasn’t focused on customer needs as acutely as I should have been. That realization was where proofLabs started.
Jeff Bezos once said, “At Amazon, we’ve always focused on our customers, [not on] our competition.”
RJW: Bezos is a great [example] of the singular focus on not just the customer, but a specific way in which you add value for a customer. He has laid out very plainly, ‘We’re serving a customer, they are the only group that we care about, and the specific way that we add value to them is we give them the best selection of the least expensive products.’
In the simplest terms, that means everybody on the team, from Jeff Bezos down to the warehouse, knows the metric by which they will ultimately be judged is, ‘Did we create value for the customer?’
A lot of startup [entrepreneurs] think they’re visionaries. If they’re really good, they get investors excited to buy into their vision. But investors are not [your] customer and getting them excited isn’t the same thing as understanding the real pain point of the customer day-to-day.
We interview customers [to get their perspectives for our clients]. When we get a sense of recurring [pain points], we find somebody who has expressed the pains most acutely. Then we’ll pull their photo and write up their bio. That goes up on everybody’s desk throughout the office, so the whole team can say, ‘This is who we’re building for’—not some made-up persona or amalgamation of people.
[You] can have really smart people and really good ideas and still miss the point if you don’t start with one very real person and solve the problem they’re having. Whether I’m helping to redesign a product or create a go-to-market plan, it starts with going back to the customer, crawling into that person’s head, [standing] in their shoes, living with them and understanding how they think about the world.
I call that skill ‘perspective-taking.’
Can perspective-taking create a more effective workplace?
RJW: In conflict with teams, I’ve seen folks going at each other’s throats. If you just dig in a little bit you realize that what they’re really arguing about is not, “My idea is good and your idea is bad.” It’s, “You’re thinking on a six-month timeline, I’m thinking on an 18-month timeline.”
Being able to take in the other’s perspective can help you reframe your argument or request in ways that reflect [their] understanding and perspective.
It sounds like perspective taking can also help create more inclusivity in business.
RJW: If products come from problems that we solve, and if problems that are worth solving come from understanding people’s experiences and their pain, then if we look back at the past 25 years of the internet, we’ve largely only solved problems for Silicon Valley white males. That’s a small fraction of the population.
There’s an economic reason why we should be investing in solving the trillions of dollars’ worth of problems that we don’t even understand because they’re somebody else’s unique, very niche problem [that doesn’t fit into that mold]. We have to learn how to network and resource black and brown founders, female founders, LGBTQ founders and then get the hell out of the way.
People pay a ton of lip service [to diversity in business]. But it’s not enough to hope that we bump into more women or more LGBT folks at a party and then invite them to [work with us]. We have to go actively seek folks out. That is not about quotas. It’s active participation in progressively changing values.
What’s your best advice for entrepreneurs putting together their growth plans?
RJW: First, figure out what you really want. In designing your business, what you’re really doing is designing your life.
A business has a natural upper limit that’s a function of lots of things: How long do you want to run it? How much stress do you want to take on? Is it about [part-time income], or this is supposed to be the “big kahuna?”
There’s a product I’m tinkering with—a simple product for prepping people for meetings. If that kicked off $50,000 a year, that would be an awesome little pet project.
If I decide I want to put all my eggs in that basket, I would need that thing to be a real business. I’d have to ask, “Can we grow this into a $20 million business?”
If I want to raise venture capital, I’d have to ask, “Can we make this a $100 million business?”
The goalposts shift depending on your aspirations, your ambitions, your limitations, your constraints.
You’re passionate about the power of networking. Why do you think this is so important for entrepreneurs?
RJW: It’s not enough to give people advice and tools. It’s really important that we network. Let’s help communities of entrepreneurs, aspiring entrepreneurs, find people to work with, because that’s where real consumer innovation comes from and where forward momentum is.
One of my favorite things to do is connect good people to build awesome stuff. There’s nothing better than having an army of people walking around with your best interests in mind because you’re here to help create value for them too. People doing work even when you’re not, to help you out—it’s such a powerful thing.
About Ron J. Williams
Ron J. Williams is a mission-driven entrepreneur, keynote speaker, proud dad, and Managing Partner at proofLabs. Previously, he founded Snapgoods/Knodes and advises companies on product-market fit, system design, customer acquisition, social commerce, and more. He was named one of the 100 most creative people in business by Fast Company. Find him on Twitter and Linkedin.