Startup Tip: Challenge Your Customer’s Assumptions

Green initiatives are all around us – green building, agriculture, computing, design. But while more companies and people are doing more things, the needle is hardly moving. This is not surprising. The last several centuries – particularly the 20th – have promoted consumption as a key to a better life.

One reason that the needle is hardly moving: failure to change assumptions. Manufacturers continue to produce tons of products – with “Energy Star” or “green” labels on it. We’ve done little to alter our assumptions about consumption and as a result, it seems like we’re fighting a battle we cannot win.

Green initiatives must demonstrate efficacy and also must educate people and persuade them to sometimes spend MORE money, often for less. For every green business, there are dozens who don’t care much about being green. Those promoting green practices are starting to understand that real progress will require people to change their assumptions about consumption.

Startups can learn an important lesson from the public’s collective response to green initiatives: to change behavior, you sometimes have to change people’s assumptions. This is especially true for startups that are trying to get people to do something they’ve never done before. Before Twitter, most people would have said that it would be impossible and futile to attempt to converse in 140 character phrases. Twitter has succeeded, in part, by persuading people to change their assumptions about the length of communications.

It’s not enough to have a technically superior product. Betamax was technically superior to VHS. HD DVD was technically superior to Blue Ray. Consumers don’t always buy the best products – they purchase products they believe are best. Many consumers ignore organic foods because of price – despite the fact that they believe that organic foods are healthier. Solar energy has failed to gain acceptance except when the government heavily subsidizes the technology so that the price of solar is equal to or less than competing technologies.

It’s not easy to change assumptions. Companies that attempt to do so are seen by some as heretics. Apple is perhaps one of the best examples. Thousands of articles have been written during the past week about what’s NOT included in the upcoming iPad. People assume that because other manufacturers have included usb ports, cameras, and other bells & whistles on tablet PC’s, that the iPad should have all of those things too. But Apple has never followed – they’ve always led by asking their customers to change assumptions about how they would use their PC.

Remember when Apple removed the floppy disk from the iMac G3 in the late 1990s? Many people were shocked and it took nearly all other manufacturers another decade to start selling PCs without a floppy drive. By challenging assumptions and asking their customers to change their behavior (i.e. stop using floppies), Apple has continued to prosper and innovate.

Consider the products and services your company offers. Most companies compete solely based on price and/or features.

The smart companies…innovate by educating and helping to shape their customers’ assumptions. What are you doing to challenge YOUR customer’s assumptions?

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