Saturday, April 11, 2015

Empathy Is Key To Entrepreneurial Success

Pain. Problem. Passion.

Such are the buzzwords commonly drilled by sagely entrepreneurs to aspiring ones looking for the next big business idea. Search your feelings. Do what you're passionate about, not just what makes money. Stick to what you know. Find your personal pain point, identify the root of the problem, and passion will drive you towards finding the solution to cure the pain.


The advice is sound, of course. Many successful start-ups have been fired up from the depths of the founders' burning forge. Airbnb - the billion-dollar platform which enables people worldwide to rent out their premises to strangers - was started by two guys in San Francisco who couldn't pay their rent. Pinterest was inspired by a co-founder's childhood fascination with collecting insects and leaves.

But internalising is not enough. The best entrepreneurs are those who can externalise as well. They don't just set out to solve a personal pain - they're also trying to solve a major pain for everyone else. And to feel that common pain, you need empathy.

The Trouble Of Over-Internalising

Earlier this year, my partner and I went around casually pitching start-up ideas to our friends. One was a social discovery tool to enable users to post notes about their surroundings and in turn, find out what's happening in their vicinity from other users' notes. The idea elicited mixed responses. We then asked them to specify their personal pain points and start-ups they wished existed. One suggested a gardener listing and hiring app, and another suggested a similar app for barbers (no kidding - and they were smart professionals).

The sessions were fruitful. An interesting lesson learnt was this: beware of over-internalising.

1. Mistaking personal pain as a widespread pain: What may seem to someone as a pain, others may see as a mere inconvenience. The pain points in scarcity of gardeners and long waiting time for barbers may be novel, but too niche and barely scalable on their own. Personally, I have no problems with barbers (or dentists), as I rely on regulars that I'm familiar with well enough to know their non-peak hours or make appointments. My house doesn't have a garden, so no need for gardeners.

Lesson Learnt: Ask yourself whether your pain is felt by others as a real pain, or a mere itch. If it's the latter, then the pain point is likely too miniscule to build up into a business idea.

2. Overlooking existing alternative cures: You've found the right pain. It's a real problem for you, and many others. But what you may not realise is that there are alternative solutions already in existence. When we pitched the social discovery tool idea, immediate comparisons were made to Facebook, Foursquare, Yelp, and so on. Fair point. The web has food review sites with location finder tools in abundance. Everyone can post about anything on Facebook, and tag a location. Our idea had novel differences, of course - but to them, the differences were miniscule.

Lesson Learnt: Do not underestimate the alternative solutions out there. It may not cure your pain directly or completely, but they may good enough to alleviate other people's pain into an itch that can be ignored. Be mindful of competition.

3. Ignoring the side effects to the cure: The pain is real. The cure works. But the cure has side effects that may ruin your overall experience. Is the cure really worth it then? Back to the barber finder app. As we got deeper into the analysis, my friend started having second thoughts: "Hmm, but I don't want other people knowing about my barber, I hope he stays off the grid." Boom! That rips a big hole into the idea. All listing sites suffer from the same inherent adverse side effect. Customers worry that greater popularity of their favourite merchants will increase prices and diminish access. Merchants fear critical reviews and sabotage. It may be that both barbers and customers aren't exactly excited about the app.

Lesson Learnt: The side effects of a new cure may pose greater pain to you and others, in the long run. When one overly internalises, one is overly focused on the present pain, without thinking much about what the future holds. And that's not good.

Grandpa wishes he had a barber finder app.

Tunnel Vision: Missing The Woods For The Trees

The overarching problem with internalising is that it narrows your tunnel vision. As Peter Thiel puts it in 'Zero To One':
"Suppose you want to start a restaurant that serves British food in Palo Alto. "No one else is doing it," you might reason. "We'll own the entire market." But that's only true if the relevant market is the market for British food specifically. What if the actual market is the Palo Alto restaurant market in general?"

The gardener and barber ideas may sound insignificant and silly. Those are just the obvious examples. But here are some real-life start-up ideas already launched in certain markets that face uphill struggles:

  • A carpooling crowdsourcing platform: The idea seemed to be working well in some parts of the world, especially Europe. But will it work as well in Asia? Car ownership is high. Oil is cheap. Driving is an ingrained habit, even amongst the poor. Hitch-hiking for long distance travel is unheard off. Plenty of cheap alternatives in taxi apps (GrabTaxi, Uber, etc.) Safety remains an issue, even with a ratings system (e.g. a woman boarding a Uber car was raped in Delhi). Governmental policies to encourage carpooling have failed miserably. Practically, there are serious cultural hurdles for this idea to take off just yet. (Perhaps it's all a matter of timing. Given time, the renting culture will catch up in Asia. For someone who finds traffic congestion a personal pain, I do hope the idea takes off, eventually.)
  • Digital business cards: I find it such a hassle to exchange physical business cards. Once back in office, they'll be tossed into a mountainous pile. I fervently wish people would just move on to digital cards - that way, I can search and sort through them on my phone easily by company, industry, and so on. Then again, business cards are a relic of the past, that no one really cares about. Plenty of alternative ways to keep track of business associates: email and mobile contact cards, and social network (LinkedIn). More of an itch that needs scratching, than a pain that needs healing.

Internalise too much, and you may be making a mountain out of molehill. Internalising too much, and you may be missing the woods for the trees.

Empathy Is Virtue

Externalise. Emphatise. Look beyond your own pain. Put yourself in other people's shoes. Look at the world through their eyes.

Empathy is important, whether you're starting or investing in a new venture. Initially, the founders of Pinterest and Airbnb had trouble pitching their ideas to investors. Why? Because most investors couldn't relate to the younger generation's openness to the renting culture, and the female joy in collecting pretty things. Because they are mostly rich and male. Because they lack empathy.

With empathy, you will see the world in all its multi-coloured splendours. With empathy, ideas will flow, opportunities will come, and business with thrive.


  1. #1 is one of the hardest things to get over. It's so easy to think that because you experience something some way, that that's how everyone experiences it.

    Fred | O'Malley Hansen Communications

    1. Yes, we tend to overdramatize our own pain, hence overvalue the potential remedy to our pain.

      Same thing about being too focused on a personal passion - it may just be something that only you, and no one else, cares strongly about.