People-centered entrepreneurship

Practically all Many of the books I’m reading about entrepreneurship assume that you start with a big idea for a product or service, and then you find and validate the market for it.

Many of the people I talk to start with the same assumptions, too. “Oh, I’ve always wanted to start my own business, but I’m waiting for the idea to hit me.”

Starting with the idea seems like putting the cart before the horse, and the cart is full of things you want instead of things other people want.

I was mindmapping where I’d like to start with this business experiment. Consulting is handy, but hourly billing’s not going to get me to where I want to go: a family-friendly business where value isn’t directly tied to time.

Every time I tried to come up with a snazzy business idea, though, I hit a brick wall. It didn’t feel right. It felt like I was approaching the challenge in the wrong way.

I thought: Well, if entrepreneurship is about going from having one boss to having a hundred bosses, maybe I can pick the kinds of bosses I’d like to work with. Maybe I should start by picking the kinds of people I’d like to have as clients, then looking for ways I can delight them, then looking for ways I can take advantage of my talents or skills to deliver more value than it costs me.

I figure that if I pick a segment of people who have demonstrated the willingness and ability to pay for products or services, and who have some idea of what they want, then that’s as good a place as any to start experimenting.

The wild “You don’t know what you want yet, but I’m creating it for you anyway” innovation can wait for when I have more business experience. In the beginning, it’s okay to take a well-known model and a well-known product, and look for ways I can put my own spin on it.

So I brainstormed personas representing some of the kinds of people I would love to learn more about and help out. Maybe I can make their lives better. Maybe I can help interesting people do interesting things. Here are some ideas:

  • Ive, the introverted independent
  • Ell, the Emacs enthusiast
  • Val, the visual thinker
  • Em, the excited entrepreneur
  • Quinn, the Quantified Self tracker
  • Pat, the practical parent
  • Bobby, the bashful blogger
  • Chris, the conference commando
  • Cathy, the cat cuddler

More details in this outline view of my mindmap

I “bump” into people like them often. Who knows, you might even identify with one of them. (Who? Tell me in the comments, or e-mail at [email protected] – I’d love to pick your brain!) Don’t see yourself there? Tell me what kind of person you are. =)

I think it would be great to look for small, cost-effective ways to make their (your!) life more awesome. I’m good at building systems, automating, sorting things out, and setting life up for constant improvement. There might be ways to scale across time or across more people. Hmm…

I described what I was thinking about to Mel Chua. She laughed and said it was like user-centered design. That made me think of Karen Quinn Fung, another friend of mine, whom I had met when she was working at the IBM User-Centered Design lab under Karel Vredenburg.

Where can I find more business/entrepreneurship books that start with people first instead of assuming you’ve got some genius idea? =) (Lean Startup is somewhat related to this because of pivots and watching how people actually work…)

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  • Nathaniel Mallet

    Have you ever read “Innovation and Entrepreneurship” by Peter F. Drucker? The premise of that book is that innovation is more a methodical process than a Big Idea or a Eureka moment.

    It’s not specifically people-focused, like you asked, but he does give a pretty good list of places where you can look for business ideas. I thought that might be helpful.

  • Brendon Robinson

    Contextual Inquiry is a good method for identifying ways you can improve the work process of a targeted group of people. Not coincidentally, it is one of the methods that can be used in user-centered design.

  • Nathaniel, Brendon: Oooh, thanks for the recommendation! It’s always such a big help to find the words that I need in order to look for things. Contextual inquiry might be handy in my collaboration consulting work, too. Thank you!

  • Alexis Chan

    Hi Sacha! I sent you a direct message via Twitter. Hope you received it!

  • Mom

    What about “Harvey, your helpless mother?” as a possible client? We need a geek guide to take us out of the dark ages. :)

  • Hi Sacha! :) Great post, I love this approach. I’ve known broadly what type of thing I want to build to help people, but not knowing specifically what, chose to build a blog and online community first. This method has already helped me better understand what people want. I’d love to explore this approach with you – @heykatieben. Cheers! :)

  • Katie: Alexis pointed me to your site – I like your energy and enthusiasm! =)

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