August 26, 2012
This August's Wired cover story asks "Do You Really Want To Be Like Steve Jobs?" Now that nearly a year has passed since the legendary innovator left us, it seems many leaders are beginning to doubt the Jobs path to success. One of the most frequent Jobs lessons I hear is "He didn't believe in market research." This broad claim distorts the reality of Apple's success and weakens entrepreneurs' chances. The purpose of this post is to bring some clarity to Jobs' words and show how market research should and shouldn't be used. I was compelled to write this post after seeing a stream of comments erupt at a LinkedIn group on New Product Development. A post titled "Three Reasons Why Steve Jobs Didn't Need Market Research" solicited passionate responses from this group of innovators who come from both the startup and corporate worlds. Clearly those of us who work to launch new products and assist others in the process are struggling with "the Steve Jobs market research quote." Every few weeks I come across an objection to market research when I speak with startup founders about my Minimum Viable Concept Test. Some first-time founders feel that research flies in the face of what they hear from startup luminaries. Market research is sometimes derided in Silicon Valley circles as a sign of weakness. Founders are encouraged to be determined, passionate go-getters who "keep shipping code." They feel pressure to be constant cheerleaders with investors, partners, friends and family. All news most be good news and momentum may never ebb. Market research can feel like a brake on progress, and, deeper-down, some founders fear that "bad results" from testing with customers will threaten their progress and promises. I fear that the rising generation of innovators is following "rules" laid down by investors who have never actually built a business--or they have only seen market research used in big corporations, where studies cost many thousands of dollars and output is just as likely to be a bureaucratic barrier to progress. As someone who has used market research to build successful business at both big companies and startups, I'd like to offer entrepreneurs a nuanced guide... What Jobs Really Thought About Research Before moving on, we should analyze Jobs' actual words about market research. Here are the three relevant quotes that I found in Walter Issacson's official Jobs biography:
- At a 1982 planning retreat, someone on the Mac team, "thought they should do some market research to see what customers wanted. 'No,' [Jobs] replied, 'because customers don't know what they want until we've shown them.'"
- "On the day he unveiled the Macintosh, a reporter from Popular Science asked Jobs what type of market research he had done. Jobs responded by scoffing, 'Did Alexander Graham Bell do any market research before he invented the phone?'"
- Jobs: "Some people say, 'Give customers what they want.' But that's not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they're going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, 'If I'd asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, "A faster horse!"' People don't know what they want until you show it to them. That's why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page."
Jobs has become a Rorschach test, a screen onto which entrepreneurs and executives can project a justification of their own lives: choices they would have made anyway, difficult traits they already possess. Everyone has their own private Steve Jobs. It usually tells you a lot about them--and a little about Jobs."In other words, if you don't believe in market research it's probably an internalized bias and you are just using Steve Jobs success to justify this belief. I run across a fair number of people who similarly feel that customer input and understanding is a waste of time, and prefer to move forward with determination that hard work and "just shipping" will pay off. I choose to keep investing in and working with leaders who are confident, yet eager to learn and improve. This is a personal bias that has helped me and others succeed in innovation in the past. If that's you, look me up. Oh, and let me ask a final favor: +Bob Gilbreath