Knowing What People Need


Each Monday I post the next section of my 2001 book, which was originally called (by the publisher) Hoover’s Vision but which I have now retitled The Art of Enterprise. I have posted over half of it already; click on the “Monday” column to see all the prior sections. The entire book can be downloaded as a PDF for $10 at


Throughout this process, the key thing we are looking for is real needs or real desires felt by real people. Without that, our concept will never get off the ground. Does that mean that if everyone says your idea won’t work, you are wrong? No. Most great ideas start with most people not believing. You will hear everything from “If it was such a good idea, the big companies would have already done it,” to “It was tried years ago and it didn’t work.” In fact, if everyone’s first reaction is, “That’s a great idea! I wish I’d thought of that!” then you probably have an idea that is not a real breakthrough, and possibly an idea that would be easy to copy. No, people not believing in your idea should not bother you.
Next, you may ask, should I go ask people if they would buy this service if I offered it? Yes, I usually do ask people that, but I don’t always listen to their answers. There are two reasons.
First, when you come up with a whole new idea, there is no way someone else can visualize it like you can. Not even your mom.
Second, customers do not always consciously know what they want. In each of the three companies I started, I started them because I wanted them for myself, and thought that my fellow baby boomers would also like them if they saw what I had in mind. When we surveyed people and asked, “Would you shop at a giant discount bookstore?” many of them shrugged. Only when we opened the store did they say, “Oh, I had no idea you meant a store with this many books!”
People did not go around before Federal Express complaining about how they couldn’t live with first-class packages taking 3 to 7 days to deliver. People did not walk around in the 50s bemoaning the lack of personal computers. No one spent the 1850s griping that they couldn’t find a phone to call home on. In 1989, before Hoover’s, I was perhaps the only American who thought that company information presentation was medieval. Or at least thought it with enough conviction to do something about it.
However, you can extrapolate what customers want based on their behavior. The crowds in the Toys R Us stores told me what my surveys did not – that people would beat a path to BOOKSTOP. In dreaming up Hoover’s, I knew from the success of Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide, the Rand McNally Road Atlas, and the World Almanac, that people would eagerly consume affordable reference information if done right.
I am not saying that any of this is easy. Of my three ideas, two worked and one did not. No matter how good any enterprises’ batting average, almost nobody hits 100%. Ask Coke and Disney. But your chances of success will be multiplied dramatically if you continually ask, “Is this something that people will really like? Is it something they really need, whether they fully realize it or not?”