This powerful brain hack helps you think like a wildly successful startup founder (but it’s really hard)

Everyone who starts something up is super motivated by the prospect of success, but how do you make that happen?

That’s the question you want to be answered.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s a side-hustle or you have funding from day 1, that’s the question everyone is asking.

But most new businesses hit a wall — splat!

Some don’t disintegrate but still survive. And others become wildly successful: the “unicorns”.

There are many potential answers, but one key factor is the mindset through which they view their customers and understand their needs.

I’m going to describe a mindset that successful startup owners seem to achieve in one of two ways: either unconsciously and naturally. Or by a significant investment in time and effort to master much information and large-scale methodologies.

I’ll also describe a simple brain hack to help you get this mindset: it’s a simple thing, but very hard to do. It’s probably not the only thing you need, but the journey is that much harder and riskier if you don’t do this.

How do you become wildly successful? What’s in your head right now?

I’m sure you’re thinking of some things. What’s going on in your head?

Thinking “Sometimes it’s just blind luck”, perhaps? Possibly. But successful businesses often make their own luck, even if they don’t know that’s what they are doing at the time.

“You need to be in the right place at the right time”? Yeah, right: try writing that into your business plan.

You could be thinking: “I’m going to deliver all this value to my customers — why wouldn’t they love what I’m doing”? But why do you think what you’re doing is “valuable” to them?

Ok, you say: “I’m going to ‘delight’ my customers: love them and smother them with all this good stuff that I’m going to do.”

That’s great, except that your customer doesn’t give a shit about you or your business or your offer.

The sooner you figure this out, the better off you’re going to be, even if that means stopping or pivoting.

How are you going to find out?

Maybe we should ask Samuel L Jackson!

You remember the movie “Die Hard with a Vengeance” — John McLane (Bruce Willis) and Zeus Carver (Samuel L Jackson) are paired together by Simon Gruber, the terrorist/robber mastermind, but Zeus wants none of it and leaves.

McLane has to get Zeus to help him. So he runs after Zeus and says: “Zeus! Yo, partner! Wait up.”

And Zeus responds:

“I ain’t your partner. I ain’t your neighbor, your brother, or your friend.
 I’m your total stranger.” Samuel L Jackson as Zeus Carver in Die Hard with a Vengeance 1995

What happened? McLane tried to “sell” Zeus on something and got told “No Way”.

So what did Bruce Willis do? He reframed his narrative to focus on something important in Samuel’s life. McLane (falsely) tells Zeus that a bomb was found in a park in Harlem, near where Zeus lives.

Suddenly, Zeus shows genuine interest and goes along with McLane on the journey.

This is the first hint of the mindset you need to master.

But wait! Does this just mean “You need to think like your customer? Doesn’t everyone know this?” Maybe everyone does. But how many truly take it on board and live it? Or do they nod knowingly and keep on with all that stuff we talked about earlier.

Your customer is not your friend.

All those ideas we described earlier are all about a 2-dimensional dynamic between you and a prospect or customer.

Let’s say your target market is barbers or hairdressers. You’re thinking about what you can provide them: tools, lotions, furniture, cleaning services — whatever.

In this dynamic, you’re part of the equation, like this:

The Two-dimensional Relationship

That’s what almost everybody thinks about when they visualise how their business is going to work.

Very likely you are thinking about product things: what equipment features will make him buy? What widgets or add-ons can I sell him? Will he be able to navigate my website and buy online and so forth.

You probably even give some thought to how that “stuff” can help your customer.

The problem is that these are all the things that interest you.

But your customer doesn’t care. They are thinking about the people and things in their lives — or more likely worried about them given our current troubles.

If they are in business, they are interacting with their customers.

If they have family, they are caring for them.

If they are in a church or a club, it’s their members who are uppermost in their minds.

Ok, I can hear you thinking, “I get it but aren’t there marketing and sales models that will help me”?

But aren’t there marketing and sales models?

There’s a huge amount of marketing and business literature.

Traditional marketing has many concepts that fit into this zone but don’t go far enough: an example is “stand in you customer’s shoes”.

There’s Theodore Levitt and his famous comment:

“People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!”

But do you understand what that means, let alone apply it to your project? Why do they need a quarter-inch hole?

Now we have “Lean Startup” and “Design Thinking” and “Jobs to be Done” and so forth. These are well thought out and proven through research and experience.

But they are heavy going. Do you have time to apply those to your side-gig?

Maybe you’ve picked up some lightweight techniques, like “User Stories” and “Personas”.

Like a lot of good techniques, they fail unless the people who use them permanently change their way of thinking.

If you can’t reframe your thinking, you’ll do a bunch of activities with the same mindset and probably get the same result.

So how do we reframe our thinking?

The Brain-hack: Zero Yourself out of the Picture

The brain hack is this: you need to zero yourself out of the picture, literally.

To make yourself better able to create an offer for your customers, you need to create a mental image of your customers that completely excludes you and the offer.

It sounds extreme.

But, as long as you are in the picture, your brain will naturally prioritise your stuff: your interests, values and activities. Anytime you have a question about the customer, absent any other input, your brain will fill in what it knows from your experience. And you won’t even know it.

So, you have to effectively negate everything you think is valuable and take on a completely different perspective.

“I must be willing to give up what I am in order to become what I will be.” Albert Einstein

You need to see your target customers from this perspective:

The Customer’s Customer Perspective

Where are you in this picture? You’re not there. Do you think that the barber is thinking of you when he’s shaving that guy’s head? Or is he thinking about the guy’s head or the guy and his situation? “What did we talk about last time? Does he have a dog named Woofie?”

Until you’re able to conceive of your customer being successful without you in the picture, you won’t have reframed your thinking enough to be fully aware of your client’s needs.

But how do you achieve this mindset reframing? And how does it help me understand my customers better?

Unpacking the brain-hack: a concept and an exercise.

The reframed mindset is simple to describe, but it is tough to do. I find it hard to do, and I’ve tried it in many situations.

To help you with this brain hack, let’s cover two things:

  1. A concept that you can use to visualise the end-state, and
  2. An exercise you can use as reinforcement.

The Second-level Relationship

This concept is from a book written in 2000 by Richard Normann called “Reframing Business: When the Map Changes the Landscape”. (Normann 2000)

Normann described the “Second-level relationship”. He thought this was one of the biggest reframing challenges necessary to operate a successful business in the current globalised marketplace.

“… true customer orientation means that one has to go beyond the direct relationship between oneself and one’s customers to understand the relationship between the customers and the customers’ customers — from the `first’ to the `second level customer relationship’” — Normann 2000

Normann visualised it like this:

The Second-level relationship

For the brain hack, I’ve adapted this model to give you this perspective:

In this perspective, you are outside the customer’s domain, observing.

Of course, in reality, you are in a constellation of value creation with lots of other stakeholders, including your customers. But you have to forget about this so you can leverage the Second-level relationship to hack your brain.

Normann recognised that this was not a common perspective. It involves extra work to change the view and then additional work to understand the customer’s customers in enough detail.

“Many pay lip-service to this idea; a few take it into their hearts” — Normann 2000

Apart from mental discipline and practice, how can we learn this new cognitive behaviour?

Kathy Sierra’s Amazon Book Review Technique

I mentioned Kathy Sierra in a previous story, and this is her technique for evaluating new authors and their book projects. I recommend it as an exercise to reinforce the brain hack.

This technique originated with new books, but it can be generalised (Amazon now sells almost everything).

This exercise involves a representative of the product or service, i.e. the equivalent of the “author” of a book. This representative should be the startup founder (actual or prospective) or a product manager or equivalent.

The other person involved is a reviewer, preferably someone detached from the idea and more objective. In workshop situations, you can be the reviewer or enlist the participants: whatever is the most objective.

It’s a two-step process.

Firstly the product or idea owner writes their ideal Amazon review, i.e. a review that a customer leaves on your Amazon product page after purchasing it.

They write the review from the perspective of a customer who has bought the product.

Write it out either on a piece of paper or a document so they can share it with someone else.

Secondly, the reviewer reads and scores the review.

The scoring criteria are simple:

The review gets 1 point deducted from the score every time the review mentions the author or the book or the company or the product or anything about it, e.g. features, technology, website — whatever.

The review gets 1 point added to their score if the “customer” talks about themselves in the first person, describing what they could do or understand or achieve.

They are talking about what the product enabled in their lives.

How do you do this yourself if you’re just a solo entrepreneur? Use existing materials on your product or service as a proxy for the review. You then apply the same marking criteria to that content (be objective!).

The Bottom Line: Enablement is Everything

This idea of zeroing yourself out of the equation is to force you into this conceptual reframe.

You must remove all your existing conceptual scaffolding about your value delivery to understand how you can enable something new and valuable in your customer’s lives.

Once you know the enablement point and maintain that perspective, you can look at what you are building or offering. But with that lens, you can now ignore anything you can’t directly connect to that enablement.

You’ll know when you’re at that point: customers will stop asking questions about your app or website: they will pry your phone out of your sweaty hands so they can play with it themselves.

That’s when you’ll know that you’re not merely focusing on your customers — You are your customers!

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