Empathy is often looked down upon in the business world because it is seen as antithetical to the modern day corporate environment (competitive, cutthroat, ladder to the top, etc.). However, it is one of the most important values that an organization can adopt and promote as part of its company culture. Empathy at its basest form is that ability to connect with and relate to others. This means we have to adopt a stance that goes beyond just seeing and hearing what goes on around us and truly seek to understand the logical and emotional reasoning of the people around us. The notion of empathy being critical to business is not new; Ashoka has deemed empathy as the force that drives business; Forbes called empathy invaluable to business; and the Guardian deemed it the last big business taboo that needs to be overcome. And even though we did not name empathy explicitly, empathy is critical to helping companies shape how they can provide value to all stakeholders. As founders establish new startups I believe it will be important for founders to make empathy a central component of their company culture; this, in turn, will help build stronger startup communities that make the holistic business environment more sustainable and successful. Here are three ways empathy is critical to startups and the communities they are trying to build:
1. Startup Life is Hard: Startup life is an incredibly trying one. It often includes long work weeks, low paying jobs, and can often take a toll on family life. It is no wonder so many startup founders face depression. I encourage everyone to read Brad Feld and Amy Batchelor's book Startup Life for a full spectrum look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of the toll being in a startup takes on your life. Therefore, making empathy the bedrock of your company culture is important as a founder. This allows you to look at your employees and understand the entire spectrum of the emotional and logical concerns, fears, hopes and dreams they have when joining your startup. This is also part of the reason Jack Dorsey doesn't have a desk and strolls around the office and spends time with every part of his company. I think every CEO should do every job in the office every once in awhile so they understand their employees and their day-to-day situation a little better. It also allows your employees to support their colleagues in a whole new way. Teaching empathy makes communication about problems and solutions a little easier and goes a long way to making your company more transparent and successful.
2. Empathy, the Bedrock of Customer Development: On this blog, we harp a lot about the importance of customer development to startup success. Customer development embraces the idea that startup founders should get out of the building to validate their ideas with real people. This is the best way to develop empathy for your customer! By doing customer development interviews the right way, you truly open yourself up to the needs, wants, and desires of your customer, and this might be uncomfortable when it invalidates your prior assumptions. At the same time, however, it helps you build the product your customer needs and will lead to a more sustainable business in the long run. Embracing empathy during the customer development process will be critical to supporting your customer throughout the entire lifecycle of your product, especially in customer support. This has been Jeff Bezos' philosophy from the very beginning with Amazon and the most important reason behind their success.
3. Creating Strong Startup Communities: Building a community should be a part of every company's strategy. Building a community is about finding people who care about the issues and topics you and your company do, making a commitment to the people around you, having fun doing things you are passionate about, and furthering the shared interests of those involved in the community. You can do none of this, however, if you do not have empathy for the people in your community and only care about advancing your self-interests or propagating your product. One example, I have encountered here in Shreveport, is the way established businesses interact with the startup community. In the first Startup Weekend in Shreveport, many established businesses did not send their employees to participate. It was not until talking with these companies that we realized that they had a very understandable fear that the startup community and events like Startup Weekend would cause their employees to leave for startup jobs. After a dialogue about why startup methodologies can actually foster intrapreneurship and strengthen established businesses, were we able to garner their support for these types of activities.
Twin Engine Labs works hard to be empathetic both internally as an organization and externally with our customers. It goes hand in hand with our notion of what constitutes a good company. However, it is something we can always improve on. Why do you think empathy is important to business and startups? How has empathy made your startup community stronger? Leave a comment below to let us know!! +Twin Engine Labs is always looking for an open dialogue about these important issues.