The unspoken, unmet need was not “a faster horse”
Henry Ford is famously attributed with saying,
If I would have asked people what they wanted, they would have said “a faster horse”
While it’s dubious that Henry Ford ever uttered these words, this quote continues to live on in the mouths of visionary entrepreneurs worldwide.
They commonly cite it to protect the invalidated vision of their venture—for the unspoken implication of the quote is “the customer doesn’t know what they want until they see it”.
For true “visionaries”, if they ask customers what they want, or try to sell them their vision, the heathens will reject their vision because “customers don’t know what they want until they see it”.
I say that’s horse shit.
The startup battlefield is littered with countless corpses of companies that tried to “innovate” a business into the market without talking to their customers.
The #2 reason startups fail is because there was no market for their idea.
The #1 reason is they ran out of cash and were unable to raise new capital. In my experience, this is just another way of saying they didn’t try to understand their market or didn’t pivot fast enough with what their market was telling them.
The people who use the Henry Ford quote to defend against their lack of market validation believe real innovation happens in a vacuum.
They believe they’re like Steve Jobs, who had such a strong vision of what the market needed he could will it into existence without talking to anyone.
Even Steve Jobs wasn’t THAT Steve Jobs.
He had plenty of failures, where he believed in something so strongly that he willed it into existence, only to see its dead husk fall amongst the other corpses in the startup battlefield.
Remember the Lisa? The Newton? Apple III? Yeah, most people don’t. Jobs failed plenty of times, but his successes were so meteoric that it’s hard to see or remember the failures.
It’s much sexier to think of Jobs as being this singular visionary who could tell customers what they wanted, and billions of people would flock to that vision.
This interpretation of innovation hurts the field. It costs investors (and entrepreneurs) billions of dollars and countless years of people’s lives.
How can you truly understand your customers well enough to solve their problems if you don’t ever talk to them?
Maybe people did say they wanted a faster horse
If Henry Ford actually did ask people what they wanted, it’s highly plausible they said “a faster horse”.
It matches their worldview and contextual history. They knew no better. Horses were their main mode of transportation.
But any entrepreneur who hears that response and thinks “all I have to do is build a faster horse” isn’t worth their salt and should find a new career.
One of an entrepreneur’s superpowers is the ability to interpret pain.
If you ask 20 people how to improve transportation and they all respond with some variant of “a faster horse”, it is up to the entrepreneur to get to the root of the unmet need.
Focus on understanding unmet needs
In this instance, the unmet need is the desire to get from point A to point B faster.
Once you understand this is the real problem to solve, it completely changes the game—because THIS is the problem to innovate around—to come up with a solution that allows people to travel faster.
It’s also up to the entrepreneur to understand what other key factors are valuable to the consumer. Affordability? Comfort? Quality? Support?
In some instances, you may very well find that what customers say they want and the solution to their actual problem is the same thing—a faster horse.
However, most of the time, you’ll find that what they need is something they’d never dreamed of—like an automobile.
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