Your Most Important Startup Decision Comes from the Heart

Summary:  A startup takes a full-time commitment of 5-10 years – a good chunk of our lives.  A great deal of that time will be spent talking to and empathizing with our customers.   The most important choice you can make is deciding what customers you want to serve – everything else comes from this decision.  

I can’t remember the last time I read an article on TechCrunch – I pretty much ignore the startup entertainment industry because it gives me a distorted picture of reality.

But through my startup help Skype calls with entrepreneurs worldwide, programs like NEXT Beijing, my work mentoring at accelerators, I DO help hundreds of entrepreneurs a year with real problems. I see patterns between those who are getting traction and those who are struggling.

Market Empathy – The Most Consistent Predictor of Progress

I’ve observed 1 consistent characteristic of entrepreneurs who are making real progress.

It ISN’T …
…where they went to school,
…where they live,
…what VC funded them,
…the size of their market,
or, how hard they work.

It isn’t even how well they follow a rigorous process like Lean Startup.

Nope, the most consistent pattern of entrepreneurs who are making real progress is how much they empathize with their market. It’s not what they DO but who they ARE. What they truly, personally care about and who they want to serve.

Your choice of customers and market is the most important decision you can make. And it comes from the heart – not the head.

Who Do You Want to Serve for 5-10 years?

Building anything new and enduring takes a full-time commitment of about 5-10 years. That’s about 20% of a career – scary when we think about it in these terms. Life is short.

Startups are about creating a movement, inspiring people with a vision of changing the world. Practically speaking, that means 5-10 years interviews, support calls, conferences, meetings, emails, and blogging with your customers.  It means years of truly empathizing with a customer’s worldview, knowing their problems and predicting the ones they will have tomorrow.

Does this excite you or terrify you? Take a moment to think about your startup, why you’re doing it. Are you excited about meeting these customers at conferences and having late-night drinks and early breakfasts? Do you look at angry support calls as an opportunity to understand them and win them over? Do you WANT to serve them?

What True Market Passion Looks Like

A few months ago I had a startup help call with entrepreneur Jennifer White of Able Opportunities:

We assist disAbled youth and adults in achieving their highest level of independence in employment and independent living
We specialize in school and adult services for people who are deaf, hard of hearing and deaf blind.

It was one of the most inspiration conversations I’ve ever had. Jennifer told me about why she got into this industry years ago, why she cares deeply about what she does. She sounds really happy.

She asked my advice about building an iPhone app for her customers. I started hitting her with the usual Customer Development questions about customer problems, solution challenges, user types, revenue sources – everything it would take to execute on this challenge and build a successful product.

She crushed it. She not only knows what her customers need, but she has the kind of insight you get from years of true empathy – what Steve Blank calls knowing customer archetypes.  While most of us have a bunch of assumptions and guesses about customers, Jennifer can describe a detailed day-in-the-life for every single person who would engage her product.  When she asked me about getting a “real” business person for the product I explained to her that the product already had a real business person running it – her.

There is a magic in these conversations you just can’t fake. It is what I hear from Paul Leon Mederos about Kale, Patrick Smith about Power Supply, Dave Haeffner about the QAGuidebook, and Pin Wang about a great gaming experience.

Put them up against a less-inspired “holy trinity” trendy startup team (hacker, hustler, designer) with all of King Solomon’s gold and I’ll bet on them every time.

These entrepreneurs start with their heart – it’s a scary-powerful asset. And it isn’t for sale.

You Have Choices – Really, You Do

The beauty of entrepreneurship is that you can choose what you want to do, the kind of company you want to build and the people you want to serve.  If you find yourself frustrated and stuck, I suggest you do what I did last year: pour yourself a tall glass of your favorite beverage and ask yourself some tough questions about why you’re doing what you’re doing.

Heck I’ll even have a drink with you and listen– just pick a slot a slot during my startup help time and I’ll be happy to help you think through your options.

About the Photo

I picked this photo by of Muhammad Yunus, Banker to the Poor.   I don’t know of a better symbol of changing the world through empathy and truly understanding a market.

Follow me on Twitter – I share unique startup content I find around the web.


  1. michael michelini April 14, 2013 at 9:41 am #

    really great post Kevin! I get a lot of questions from people asking me “what products should I sell online” – I always tell them something like this – what do you WANT To sell, and WHO do you want to sell to. Most often, its best to sell to people like ourselves, as those are the people we know the best, and want to meet and deal with each day.

    Its best when we “eat our own dogfood” as they say in startup terms – use the product or service that we are creating – so that we best understand the product and the market.

    • kevindewalt April 15, 2013 at 5:45 am #

      So easy to forget. In your case I have no doubt that is your passion. You help people come to China for the fun of it!

  2. Tim Jones April 15, 2013 at 8:41 am #

    Truly awesome post, Kevin. I hope all is well. I totally agree with your points about serving the customer being the market passion that keeps you going, especially during the tough times.



    • kevindewalt April 15, 2013 at 5:26 pm #

      Thanks, Tim. Yes, you would definitely know! Congrats on the recent success, you seem to be killing it now. As hard as you’ve worked for so long…you deserve it.

  3. jevy (@jevy) July 1, 2013 at 11:35 am #

    100% Kevin. I am glad I did a ton of up front customer interviews. Discovered I really disliked working with Loan Officers for a bunch of reasons. Have to think out who I want to help for next time around.

    • kevindewalt July 1, 2013 at 9:30 pm #

      Thanks jevy. My call with you was one of the inspirations for this post.

  4. Bruce McCarthy July 18, 2013 at 4:06 pm #

    Your advice really resonates with me, Kevin. I don’t want to sell a commodity to whoever wants it. I want to spend my time helping people like me get better at what they do. I’ll happily do that all day long!

I read EVERY comment and want to hear from you