Celebrity Death Match: Steve Jobs, Henry Ford, and The Dalai Lama vs. P.T. Barnum, Larry Page, and Calvin Coolidge
9 years ago

I think every entrepreneur, at some point, has to face what side they are going to be on in the celebrity death match between leading based on your vision and leading based on your empathy for the needs of your market.

On one side, we have Steve Jobs, who continually developed new products that the market didn’t know they wanted until they got their hands on it, after which point, they became absolute necessities.

We also have Henry Ford, who famously said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Then, of course, you have His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, who sells books on the message he wants to send, without any market research on what is trending in the bookstore.

Facing up against them, in the opposite corner, is P.T. Barnum, who in defense of some of his low-brow circus entertainment, declared, “give the people what they want,” Larry Page, who co-created the largest mass customization search engine in history which entirely forms around your input as the customer, and former U.S. President Calvin (“Silent Cal”) Coolidge, who inherited a presidential office marred by Harding’s scandals and decided to focus on “avoiding big problems” by using popular polling data to make nearly all of his big decisions.

So, now the question is, “Which team are you going to be on”?

If you’ve ever built a product that didn’t quite land in the market, invested in a technology too far in advance of its adoption curve, or found yourself on stage getting a great audience reaction but holding back some of the things you really want to say, then you already understand the costs available from picking the wrong side of this equation for you.

It’s a personal choice and I think this question strikes the deepest part of the entrepreneur’s heart.

But like all conflicts and all paradoxes, it is a false dichotomy.

It’s not a balancing act between the two sides, as it appears, and the apparent wisdom of one side doesn’t diminish the importance of the other the way you might think if you were to hear Henry Ford debate P.T. Barnum on the subject.

The access point for us to have both the leadership that is available from following your own vision diligently and the relevance of catering to the market needs and preferences can both be achieved by pursuing them in the proper sequence.

Once you have an idea of who your customers might be, endeavor to empathize with them completely, understand every nuance of their circumstance, walk a mile in their shoes so that every hope, pleasure, pain, and fear you can feel yourself.

Get to the point where you can read a promotion or a piece of copywriting and your body reacts to it the same way theirs would and so you can look at the price of an offer and have the same sense of price elasticity that they would. Understand your customers so deeply in the same way that Google knows your search patterns and preferences.

Once that is true, completely ignore their feedback and requests, envision what you most want to contribute, and then follow your vision diligently the way Jobs or Ford would.


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