"Wantrepreneurs" and Category Creation

The value of listening well

I once heard that in ancient Greece, no one claimed they "had a creative idea." Instead, they claimed that a kind of spirit -- a "daemon" -- came to visit them and planted a thought within them.

Today, creativity is often incorrectly attributed to the individual. We often think we're the source; indeed, our career progress often depends on our claiming credit for ideas, so a belief in our own creative powers is a survival mechanism. 

But creative people will often tell you that they simply listen better to other people. They don't claim full credit.

The concept that we're not atomic, isolated beings coming up with ideas was reiterated recently in a podcast in which science writer Annie Murphy Paul discussed her notion of "the extended mind." We're "loopy" creatures, she said: we interact with our environment, we listen, we think, and we interact with our environment again. We go to dinner with friends, hear a thought, go home and think about the thought, go to work and raise the discussion again, discuss it with our spouse, revise our thinking. In this view, any idea isn't truly "ours"; it's the outcome of a loop between listening and thinking.

Like creativity more broadly, the creation of a software category is often falsely attributed to entrepreneurs and their companies.

Aren't We Thought Leaders?

When I was at Gainsight around 2015, I spoke on a panel hosted by a VC. In my introduction, I explained that we were creating the category of customer success software. I didn't think that was controversial, but after the panel the VC approached me and told me that we didn't create it; rather, we were elevating thoughts shared by our community. 

Of course, I agreed wholeheartedly with that -- our entire motion at Gainsight was about building community. We brought together folks from the CS profession, facilitated conversations between them, learned a ton from those discussions, experimented with ideas internally, published them, got more feedback, and looped from there. Our community was our inspiration.

But, seated in between other impressive speakers on the panel, I wanted to toot our horn a bit, and I didn't think I was inaccurate in saying we were category creators. Was it so wrong to take some credit for all the work that community-building required? Having generated a large volume of well-received blog posts, podcasts, and speaking events, weren't we, in fact, "thought leaders" about customer success? 

Wasn't thought leadership what every VC wanted in their portfolio companies, anyway?

I noted my internal dissonance. And that internal dissonance is probably why I still remember my interaction with that VC so well.

Reflecting back on my Gainsight journey, most if not all of our successes in "category creation" were caused by our listening well to the ideas expressed by our community and industry. When we had gaps in our listening, we experienced setbacks. And I think that's true for basically all companies.

What Does It Mean to Listen Well?

To be clear, listening well doesn't mean "doing exactly what your customers say you should do," which has been known for a long time in the tech community, particularly among product managers. Customers are experts on their own experiences -- their pain, their joy -- but they don't always know the precise solution to reducing that pain or augmenting that joy. At the same time, their problem usually isn't solved by a stubborn person coming along and aggressively telling them, "Here's how you need to change your life."

Entrepreneurs need to listen for the answers to questions about topics such as:

  • Identity: How do our customers feel about themselves? How do they identify?

  • Language: What words do our customers use to describe this problem? What words do they use to describe the potential solution?

  • Social positioning: Where do our customers sit within their company? Do they have power, and what type of power?

  • Ownership: Who within the company owns the problem that we are trying to solve? Is that problem owned by anyone? If not, will it be owned by someone soon?

  • Ecosystem: What part of the problem does it make sense for us to solve? Are other vendors better positioned to solve certain parts of the problem? Are certain parts of the problem actually solvable by software? 

  • Timing: This is probably the most important question of all. How are all the answers to the questions above likely to change in the future? How quickly will they change?

But sometimes our customers tell us things we don't like to hear. They might disagree with us. 

What if You Don't Like What You're Hearing?

In the early days at Gainsight, many customer success managers thought of their jobs as "art, not science." Many were even offended by the idea that you could measure their value. (As a meaningful side note, I absolutely think we'd all enjoy our jobs more if we could enhance the artistic, immeasurable aspects of them...but that's the subject of another post :) )

I started my career as a management consultant, so it was obvious to me that in order for a function to warrant investment in a capitalist economy (i.e. our current reality), it needed to be able to articulate how it contributed to the company's valuation — and that articulation usually involved metrics. We also knew that Gainsight's valuation depended in part on the strategic value of the function we sold to; CS needed to be able to command budget to purchase software. And the strategic value of CS, as perceived by CEOs and their VC board members at the time, was peanuts. So Gainsight's survival required new thinking about metrics. How could we survive and also listen to what our customers wanted at the same time? 

The answer would have been "not possible" if we had listened to a community of exclusively CSMs. But we started including other more powerful stakeholders -- CEOs, executives, and VCs -- in the discussion, at dinners, on speaker panels, in webinars. And what we heard loud and clear from those folks was, "Why should I bother investing in this function, when I don't know their impact?" And the CSMs heard that message, too.

So we all started having conversations about the importance of measuring the customer retention rate as one indicator of "impact", employing CSMs to drive it, and empowering them with software. And CSMs felt proud knowing that they drove this important metric, and they felt supported by Gainsight in their careers because we lobbied to their bosses on their behalf. 

It was a lesson in listening to the right mix of people. Fascinatingly, we were actually able to help individual CSMs by listening to their bosses.

To be super clear: I don't mean to say that CSMs didn't deserve tools that helped them specifically to get through their day, independently of what their bosses wanted. They absolutely do! I've often said that the job of a CSM is harder in some ways than any other job at a SaaS company. And we did build many product features -- as well as courses, certifications, and other avenues of professional development -- to support them. CSMs were the core of our community.

But this isn't an argument about deservedness. It's an argument about timing, and the importance of "listening for timing". Now that in 2021 there's a general consensus on the value of customer success, we're seeing new companies crop up that sell directly to the individual contributor CSM. I invested in Dooly for that reason. But in 2014, no one would have given a CSM a credit card to go buy software that made their day easier but didn't also help executives. If we had pushed for this back then, Gainsight wouldn't exist today.

We may have wanted to build software exclusively for CSMs. It may have felt like the good thing to do. But it wasn't right for the time.

"Wantrepreneurs" and The Great Man Theory of History

Urban dictionary's definition of wantrepreneur is: "An individual that desires to be, but is not quite yet, an entrepreneur."

I'll posit a definition of "wantrepreneur type 2": entrepreneurs who want to create a category that shouldn't exist.

The reality is, no amount of wanting can compel the world to conform to their point of view. There might be some wins here and there, but they won't persist.

Wantrepeneurs might be held back by excessive ego, a subject I discussed over a series of blog posts on "Scaling Your Startup...Through Your Best Nature." Egoistic thoughts like "how can I become famous?" or "how can I be better than that other entrepreneur?" or "how can I justify the enormous resources my parents invested in me?" can cloud one's receptors for other people's thoughts and emotions, which can limit one's perception of whether a category should exist. 

Effective listening requires us to quiet our egos, to channel the part of us that allows us to connect deeply with other people. Ego isolates us. It prevents us from looping. 

Wantrepreneurs of the type 2 variety might be inspired by the "Great Man Theory of History" -- that individuals matter more than broader trends in shaping the way the world unfolds. But that theory is erroneous (even apart from its obvious sexism), because it overlooks the delicate interplay between people and their environments and societies. People are loopy. "Great" people are at the right place, at the right time — more broadly, with a personal nature that matches the needs of the environment. That match comes from more immutable factors — the person's origin, social context, personality, etc. — as well as a perhaps malleable factor — the person's ability to listen. Listening enables them to position themselves to shepherd a wave.

I like investing in entrepreneurs who are great listeners. They’ll listen when that daemon comes along.


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