Faster Horse? Nonsense!

I am involved in a lot of classes, panels, workshops etc. about entrepreneurship, and about every three days, I hear the all-too-familiar statement:

Before the automobile, if you asked people what they wanted, they would tell you that they wanted a faster horse.

Usually, the person bringing it up is attempting to make a point that customers don't know what they want and that sometimes one just ought to have a strong vision for a product rather than talk to customers. Often, it's a response to an attack of the "build it and they will come" philosophy, which many smart people (including myself) have at some point subscribed to, or still do.

The problem with the "faster horse" allegory is that it is wrong. It's based on a false premise that what you should be doing when around customers is asking them what they want. Given that premise, yes, you're better off not talking to customers. But the corollary is not to stop talking to customers.

To illustrate, let me build a little more (updated with today's lingo) context around the above quote. 

It's before 1886 and you're interested in the personal transportation space. Maybe you've worked at a carriage company, or maybe you've worked for an owner of a few horses. You believe that the space has a lot of untapped potential – it's a large market, but the users aren't served as well as they could be. Maintenance is relatively expensive, and it's very difficult to scale the business.

You decide to do customer discovery. You find people who travel by horse (probably via a stagecoach) and sit down with them. You ask them for their experience. Maybe you ask them to tell you a story about their last travel. You tell them that you want to make personal transportation better. You ask them to tell you what they want.

Of course they will tell you that they want a faster horse.  Speed is likely the biggest pain for them. It takes 3 days (given the average mileage of 60 to 70 miles traveled a day) to travel from Boston to New York.

It's unsurprising that the customers will tell you that they want a faster horse, because by the time you asked them what they want, they have already pictured a horse, they recalled the pain of traveling at 5 miles per hour, they connected the two and they can't wait to share their need with you.

Now, if you were a good interviewer, you would never, ever conduct an interview in this way. A good interviewer would extract precisely the kind of information he or she would need to build a car. The key thing is to get the customer out of their familiar frame of reference. The key is to understand what motivates them, what they value, and why they do what they do. The best customer interview rarely invokes the image of a horse.

After all, we're not talking to the customer to hope that he or she will come up with an automobile. That's our job. Our hope should be to understand the various dimensions of personal travel, and our customers' valuation of each. By doing this, we can hopefully understand how much of a pain it is to spend 3 days en route between Boston and New York – and that it's become more and more of a pain over time. Knowing this makes a prospect of a more expensive, but significantly faster method of transportation very appealing.

In my experience building products, I have found talking to people to be the single most important element of my work. Talking to people has two primary purposes, and they are both invaluable.

  1. It helps you solidify your vision. By forcing yourself to talk to someone who is not you, you need to phrase your area of interest and your ideas and thoughts in a way that's understandable by others. It's a great way to find the weak spots in your thinking. (Incidentally, that's the same reason for having a blog)
  2. It also allows you to get original data, rather than permuting the existing data that you already have in your head. Too often we stay in our heads, tricking ourselves into an illusion of progress, while in reality bathing in the soup of old ideas. The issue with surrounding ourselves with the same thoughts over and over again is that in the absence of "thought competition" our brains begin to confuse longevity with truth, and we begin to really hold on to these unvalidated ideas. Making a habit out of talking to people ensures a fresh flow of ideas, which creates a ripe environment for the selection of the fittest ones.

Whenever I hear the "faster horse" analogy, I can't help but think that it's a poor excuse. Maybe whoever used it got burnt on a bad user interview before. More likely, they are not a good "needs finder". Or, worst of all, they just want an excuse not to talk to customers. So no matter whether you are just trying to come up with a faster horse or an automobile, start by talking to customers. And do it well.