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Zoom in and zoom out to connect with reality

14 januari 2013

Entrepreneurs need zooming abilities to connect their vision with the real life of their customers.

Numerous very serious attempts have been made to pinpoint what certain characteristics and habits set apart successful entrepreneurial leaders from their less successful counterparts. What tempted me to humbly add an observation to this plethora of findings is that one vital treat of successful entrepreneurs often is omitted from the typical list of treats: As an entrepreneur in a startup where most things still are hypotheses to be proven, you need zooming capability. You need to know when to zoom in on the details and when to zoom out to get the overall perspective.

You often hear the expression “the devil is in the details” and yes he/she is. As an entrepreneur, you must therefore be prepared to now and then leave the captain’s bridge and go down to the engine room, get your hands greasy, find out what’s wrong, and fix the problem.

You need to understand exactly what makes your customer delighted, relieved or whatever is his/her compelling reason to buy. You need to know all the little chinks in your competitors’ armor and learn to use it to tune your value proposition and messaging. You need to be deeply involved in the user experience of your product/service. You need to understand every consequence if the developers are saying that they are three weeks behind schedule. Does it in reality mean three months?, etc. Some entrepreneurs really excel in this regard; they see the slight momentary constriction of the pupils of their customer when they happen to hit their true pain point and they equally sense the dilution of the pupils when they tune the value proposition in the right direction. They dig out the details that may very well be crucial for success. But do they see the storm coming?

Because the devil is in the big picture too. Especially if you have an ambitious plan to disrupt your industry or ecosystem. Most likely you are not the only one that sees this whopping opportunity. The established players and other startups have plans too and this will constantly change the game. I myself had big plans for car navigation systems with fiber-optic gyroscopes, this was before the GPS and before the US military ended its practice of intentionally fuzzing the satellite’s signals for security purposes. Guess what happened to my plan!  As an entrepreneur you need to be ahead of technology shifts, ahead of your customers and competitors and ahead (not to far though) of the VCs.

Some entrepreneurs truly master this arena. They are on top of all the trends in their market. They follow the Tech Crunches and Gartners of the world and they are seen at all the important events in their industry. These entrepreneurs are years ahead in their thinking and they see the shifts in the market well in advance. They love C-level meetings where they impress everyone with their sharp analysis of the future and their perfectly aligned vision. Often they give very inspiring talks.

However their bird’s eye view tends to limit the resolution of their picture. And even if their strategy is as beautiful and logical as the proof of Pythagoras theorem, it is often based on an oversimplified picture, making it difficult to translate the strategy into tactics. The customers don’t recognize themselves are in the entrepreneurs vision because it does not really connect with their present pains and desires.

In my work, coaching many startups, most entrepreneurs are either or. Either they are into the details of the operations and the customers or they are up in the sky selling their vision. Both categories unfortunately are heading towards a cliff… But then you have the third category: They shift between the big picture and the nitty-gritty details at will and they are also very good at understanding exactly when to zoom in and when it is time to zoom out.  The reason for this zooming ability being so vital is that it enables the entrepreneur to connect his/her game changing vision with the reality of the customers in the segment of his/her choice.  The gap between the vision and the everyday to-do-list can now be filled with a strategy and with tactics that makes sense. Sense not only to the entrepreneur but to his/her whole team, to their customers and to the investors.

So how to improve your zooming capability:

  1. Make it a habit to change perspective. Deliberately put yourself in your customers’ position, in your investors’ position, in your developers’ position, etc.
  2. Zooming in on detail is a good thing. Especially if it improves your understanding of your customers, employees and investors. Follow the problem to its root cause. Observe, learn, and improve.
  3. Always zoom out before shifting focus. Make sure that your priorities are still right. Is your to-do-list up to date? Update and zoom in.
  4. Zoom out fully from time to time. What is going on at the horizon? Does your vision still hold?  Which macro events may change the game?
  5. Share the perspectives. Let your team, your investors and sometimes your customers understand your picture. This is a critical part of your leadership.
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