The Starting Point For Business Is Choosing the Customers With Whom You Will Share The Value Generation Journey.

How do businesses get started? Or innovation projects, or marketing campaigns, or any other type of commercial value generation?

The conventional belief is that the starting point is an idea. The idea of the iPhone or the Tesla or Lily’s stevia-sweetened chocolate bar. Ultimately, the idea will turn into a new product or service that “reveals to the market what the market did not realize was available” as economist Israel Kirzner phrased it.

But this conventional view is actually a misunderstanding of how business works. Business is an activity with a goal: to create and retain customers. The first step in the process is to imagine a future benefit – an experience that’s better than today’s for which a customer will happily pay. An experience is in the mind; the design of the experience is for someone. It’s for a customer. Hence the customer is the starting point.

Empathic Design.

To be successful requires the exercise of empathy. The customer’s experience is not the same as that of the individual or team that’s working on the innovation project or the marketing campaign. It’s subjective and individual, as is the concern with a current experience not being quite satisfactory enough. An innovator must “get inside the customer’s mind” in order to develop some understanding of what dissatisfaction feels like and what form future expectations of something better might take. Empathy enables the innovator to construct a mental model of how the customer’s mind works, how they think, how their preferences are arranged, how they feel about different choices – how they “tick”. To build such a mental model requires a focus on one customer – perhaps an ideal customer, but certainly a real person – in order to perfect it and make it accurate. Then it can be stretched and expanded to apply to a group or a market segment, recognizing that, in the process of expansion, the model becomes less and less accurate for any one single customer. That’s why businesses start with just one customer.

With a mental model in hand, the innovator advances through a design process – designing a future experience that will deliver a future benefit. It’s not all engineering, and it’s not entirely science; there’s a lot of art in it. Art is that part of design in which the designer proceeds on their own initiative without input from a buyer. Van Gogh didn’t seek instructions on what to paint and how to paint it. But there is a limit to how much art can go into your innovation. The customer has the final say, exercised through the action of buying or not buying.

Empathic Engineering.

This integration of art and engineering is why business analysts are beginning to explore design science. The design process is a series of steps aimed at producing something that can succeed in the market. The first design might be a sketch on the back of a napkin, the second one a memo, then a meeting to discuss the sketch and the memo, and then a team collaboration to develop specs and a prototype, with a design development path that accumulates more and more knowledge inputs until it produces a saleable product or service. The customer is involved at all times. They’re the point of departure – who are we designing for, what experience do they want – and involved at every step, until the ultimate one of a decision to purchase. Design is creative, and creative people can often come up with unprecedented designs – new knowledge that didn’t exist before. It becomes a science when each of the design steps can be tested.

Testing can be engineering or empathy. The engineering test is functional: does the design work, does it perform the task it’s supposed to, will it last or will it break, will it integrate well with the physical environment in which it’s going to be embedded? The empathy test is emotional: does it appeal to the customer, do they feel it can address their felt dissatisfaction with what’s available now, do they anticipate an experience they’ll enjoy and value? In the market, the emotional test is more important than the functional test. In design, it’s people first, things second.

The design process – from the sketch on the napkin to the first shipped product or first service – takes time. The value is realized at the end when the customer buys, but that is not the only point at which the customer is involved. It’s valid to think of the successive design stages as a journey – one on which a business invites the customer along, sharing every step, making joint choices and joint selections of features and design components, discussing and dialoguing, with a lot of “what do you think” and “what if we tried this approach”.

The Idea At The End.

The customer doesn’t know all the right answers. They don’t know the final destination in advance. They’re along for the ride so long as they are given input and so long as it is clearly their interest that is being pursued. Sometimes they need to be told what they can want, because they don’t know what’s possible; they don’t know what they can have in the future. The role of the business innovator is to reveal to them – all in good time – what they didn’t know was possible. The idea is at the end, not the beginning. The journey to get there is a shared mystery.

And there may be competing journey options. Other businesses may be offering a similar destination, a similar value, and a similar experience. It won’t be exactly the same so the customer must make a decision which journey they’ll ultimately complete. They’ll make comparisons, they’ll try to weigh the alternatives. Emotion will be the ultimate decider – the customer will feel like (rather than make a calculation) that one choice will lead to a better place than another.

Choosing the customer at the beginnig of the journey is the most critical decision a business team can make. They’re going to commit to traveling closely with that customer for an extended period of time. They’re going to listen calmly to every suggestion, every complaint, every expression of “that doesn’t quite do it for me” or “it’s not quite what I expected”. They’re going to led the customer lead them on twists and turns that might not ultimately lead to the right end-point.

You’d better love that customer. Choose wisely.

151. Mark Packard On Entrepreneurial Imagination: You Can’t Do Business Without It

Imagination is the first stage of any value generation journey — starting a development project, enhancing the customer experience, embarking on innovation, or building a business for the next year or the next decade. Imagination might sound like a fuzzy concept, but it’s a robust business tool, the engine of the entrepreneurial design process. Mark Packard joins the E4B podcast to put imagination into a business context and describe the possibilities it opens up.

Key Takeaways and Actionable Insights

Imagination is central to entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship, and to innovation and advance in all aspects of business.

We see business through mental models, as a kind of a movie our minds play for us. In this movie, we remember result and experiences from the past (which requires imagination) and we create images of what might have been, or, in the future, what might be. We know these images are not real, but they play through our mental model of business reality. They inform our plans and projects. We imagine cause-and-effect relationships between imagined concepts and ideas, and between actions and outcomes.

From new product development to efficient administrative processes, every aspect of business involves — and requires — imagination.

We can use imagination in simulating possible results.

Not only do we employ imagination in our regular business activity, we also use it for advanced complex modeling. We add new inputs to what we have constructed in our imagination — in the form of “what if” queries – to create a new mental model that’s different from the current one: a prospective reality that we can plan for and try to achieve.

As we try to achieve that prospective reality, we receive feedback in various forms, which we use adaptively to further adjust and improve the mental model we hold in our imagination. Imagination is dynamic, always changing.

Customers are also imagining, and entrepreneurs must imagine what they are imagining.

We’ve highlighted in earlier episodes, the Value Learning Cycle that customers complete in the process of learning what to want and what to value (see The cycle begins with predictive valuation — consumers predicting to themselves how much value they’ll experience from the product or service a business is pitching to them. That’s imagination at work. If they buy and consume, value is an experience that results — and experience is a mental representation that includes imagination. Then in their post-experience valuation, customers adjust their mental model based on their new value knowledge. Future predictive valuations will be imagined with this updated knowledge.

Imagination is central to customer expectations of value and to customers’ decision-making.

Businesses use three kinds of imagination to make a value proposition.

Businesses develop value propositions for customers, utilizing 3 kinds of imagination: creative imagination (imagining the design of a future product or service that will deliver a valued customer experience); empathic imagination (imagining how the customer will feel as a result of the experience); and predictive simulation (imagining what the world will be like after pursuing the contemplated action).

Creative imagination is a combination of needs knowledge (what customers want) and technical knowledge (what can be produced with available resources). In both cases, more knowledge is an aid to the imaginative process.

Similarly, empathic imagination can benefit from more knowledge about the customer’s mental model, developed through relationships and conversations.

Predictive simulation is aided by rapid learning from testing and prototyping and developing design artifacts (like landing pages and A/B tests) that enable interim simulations of customer responses.

Imagination can’t be shared but visions can.

When we work on a team or in a firm, it’s productive to be aligned on the imagined future at which the group is aiming and is working towards. Strictly speaking, we can’t share imagination. Everyone’s imagination is subjective and individual. You can’t imagine what I’m imagining.

What can be shared is a vision, because it can be described in words developed from a shared language. Of course, every individual may interpret the meaning of the words differently, but with repetition, explanation and persuasive presentation, the group can get closer and closer to shared meaning. The vision becomes a cultural artifact — how we think in this firm, what we aim for in this firm, how we see the future in (and of) this firm.

Similarly, in selling value propositions to customers, businesses are trying to get those customers to share a vision. We persuade them with storytelling, whether it’s in the form of advertising, or PR or social media or the words printed on a package.

Rhetorical skills — being able to communicate in a way that enable other people to see and share a vision, and to adapt it to their own vision — are key to successful entrepreneurship.

Some people are better at imagination than others — but you can work on the skill set.

Many business icons are or have been symbols of great imagination at work, such as Steve Jobs in the past and Elon Musk today. They’re better at seeing the future than others.

But everyone who understands imagination at the foundational level, as Mark Packard explained it in the podcast, can get better at it, and train others to get better at it, too.

Imagination is a simulation run through our mental model based on knowledge we possess. One important step is to improve the knowledge set available for the simulation — better quality knowledge, more accurate knowledge, more detailed or intimate knowledge.

More needs knowledge and more technical knowledge will improve creative imagination. Keep up with new technologies and with consumer trends and marketplace developments.

More customer knowledge will enhance empathic imagination. Spend more time with customers. Use qualitative research (such as the E4B contextual in-depth interview: to understand their mental model better, so that the empathic simulations you run through that mental model will improve.

Predictive simulation is an act of imagination that improves with learning about what works and what doesn’t. Run more tests and new kinds of explorations. Explore, explore, and explore more. Don’t take your own predictions too seriously; rather, expect to be wrong in ways you never imagined. Be humble, be adaptive, be agile, and recognize that you do have to predict in order to act. Triangulate with what others are doing because they’re imagining too, and they may have more and better knowledge than you. Try to reconstruct their mental models and assess whether they’d be helpful for you.

Additional Resources

Elon Musk’s Imagination (Video):

“Subjective Value in Entrepreneurship” by Mark Packard and Per Bylund (PDF):

“Empathy for Entrepreneurs: How to Understand and Identify Customer Needs and Wants from Their Perspective” (PDF):

“Mark Packard on The Value Learning Process” (Episode):