Building A Successful Business Takes Empathy

Jonathan E

Steve Jobs. Elon Musk. Jeff Bezos. Travis Kalanick; these are just a few of the entrepreneurs I’ve never talked to in my life.

But if I were able to talk to them, I would tell each of them one thing: You need to work on your people skills.

Each of these (rich, white) men is famous for being harsh and demanding as a boss, and fiercely opinionated as a person. They are also famous for being the greatest visionary thinkers of the last 20 years or so. So, the temptation for many of us is to write off their interpersonal skills, or lack thereof, as irrelevant, or at the most, eccentric.

The fact is though, that had these men been mid-level managers at any other company, they would have been described as one thing, and one thing only:


Do people skills matter for entrepreneurs though? I mean, visionary thinkers and hugely successful entrepreneurs aren’t always known for their interpersonal skills. Part of being a genius is a little bit of dysfunction, right?

Heck, don’t most founders become entrepreneurs in the first place because they don’t want to work with other people, or for other people?

While it’s true that many well-known figures in the business world are lacking in the fundamental skills of interpersonal relationships, in the case of the four founders I mentioned above, that prickly, demanding, sometimes abusive, misanthropic personality is regularly on full-display. In Kalanick’s situation in particular, his actions as the founder of Uber were so egregious they led to his removal from the company. Jobs too was muscled out of Apple, only to be brought back in more than a decade later, to save the dying company. And he didn’t exactly let the board of directors forget that they had been forced to bring him back to save the company they nearly destroyed!

What’s missing, in each of these cases, and what I’m going to argue is a requirement for entrepreneurs in the future is empathy.

Before we go any farther, I want to stop and define the term empathy, because it’s frequently misunderstood. Empathy, or an empathic personality, is the skill of being able to relate to other people by truly understanding the situation or circumstance from their point of view. To feel the emotions they felt in the situation, to experience the circumstance from their position. Being empathetic does not mean being overly credulous, or willing to see the “best” in everybody. It also does not mean being a pushover or overly sympathetic. Empathy and sympathy are two different things. Therefore, I would argue that it is completely possible to practice empathy and still be a strong, independent leader, and one who can even be ruthless at times.

More than a powerful interpersonal skill, though, empathy is a Startup Superpower: It gives you, as the entrepreneur, an unbelievably keen sense of your customers unarticulated needs and wants. In this way, I believe early on in his career, Steve Jobs was exceedingly empathetic with his customers. No one even realized they needed the iPod until he created it. Prior to Jobs, the idea of buying a cell phone from a computer company was ludicrous, now it makes total sense. Because he understood his customers on an empathetic level, and could truly interpret their unspoken, and sometimes even unrealized, needs.

Here’s where it gets complicated: It’s no longer enough for your company to make great products. More and more customers are also expecting your company to be a good (as in, ethical, moral, excellent place to work) company as well. Values-based consumers are increasingly empowered in today’s markets, and the era of the volatile, misanthropic genius at the top of a multibillion dollar company is rapidly coming to an end.

As much as it might frustrate readers to hear this, it’s the truth: If you want to succeed as an entrepreneur you have to actually care about people.

There have simply been too many stories over the past decade of companies dismissing or not caring about their employees, their shareholders, their customers, all in the name of profit. Our fierce loyalty to the spirit of rugged individualism, and the rags-to-riches stories of many of these founders has led to a new era of robber barons. Except that, instead of destroying the lives and livelihoods of small-town shopkeepers, merchants, and laborers, these new startup kings have become such a part of the fabric of society that they no longer need to fear competition because they have commoditized their consumer base.

What do I mean by that? Just this: Apple’s major product is no longer the iPhone, or Mac, or iPad. Apple’s main product is a rabidly loyal consumer base. They can, and do, sell that consumer base, with its data, its attention, its money, to media companies, app developers, and the government daily.

Facebook is the same way. Their major product is the billions of people around the world who use the site, and app, all day, every day. They sell that product to world leaders, the media, and who knows who else, in return for ad dollars and access.

Is it any surprise then that companies which have commoditized their customers have generally poor track records of care and concern when it comes to their employees, too? Should we really be shocked when we hear about the draconian working conditions at Amazon warehouses, when Amazon has made it abundantly clear that its first priority is to get as many people hooked in its ecosystem as it can? To understand this, we have only to look at Amazon’s ubiquitous presence in our daily lives: You want a movie? Amazon can do that. A book? Please. A button that you can push to order laundry detergent placed directly above your washing machine? Ok. All of that, sitting on your doorstep in 48 hours? no problem.

The story of the mega-startups of the last decade is the story of commoditizing customers. Apple did it first, and still, to my mind, did it best. They were able to do this because they first understood empathy, and so understood their customers. This led to them being able to build a fanatically loyal customer base. Yet, today you would be hard-pressed to explain why exactly Apple products are still so popular. They aren’t inherently better than other products of the same kind. But it is because Apple hasn’t really depended on selling products for years. What they sell is commoditized loyalty. And they’ve made a killing at it. But the writing is on the wall, as these companies are experiencing record levels of mistrust and doubt surrounding their ethics.

If all this sounds depressing, it should. But, at the beginning, I talked about the secret to radical, explosive growth for your business. Which I’m about to give you right now:

The secret to getting ahead in a world where so many companies have completely commoditized their employees, shareholders, and customers is to treat people like people again.

If there’s one thing we can learn from the business scandals that have rocked the likes of Facebook, Uber and others over the past decade, it’s that people want to trust the companies they purchase from. As Simon Sinek says, people want to do business with companies who believe what they believe, not just who sell what they need. The secret to unlocking the next era of billion-dollar companies is for companies to begin to demonstrably care about their employees, customers, and shareholders again, rather than only caring about profits.

What does that mean, in concrete terms? Well, here’s a few ideas:

  • It means companies need to stop selling their customers’ loyalty to the highest bidder.
  • It means major corporations need to begin reinvesting in retirement and retention plans that communicate the value they place on their workers, rather than focusing solely on increasing profits and dividends to institutional investors.
  • It means giving back to the communities they are based in in ways besides just “jobs”. Build a school, sponsor a soup kitchen, pay for a new greenspace. Do something besides leech off the masses.

While some might object that this is a pipedream, and unrealistic given the modern digital pace of life, consider this:

  • What might it look like for a company to inspire such loyalty that its best and brightest actually stay with the company for 30 years?
  • What might it look like if, instead of articles being written exposing the shady business practices of the latest hot tech startup, articles were written exposing the relationship that that startup has with its community?
  • What might it look like if the shareholders of these companies were invested, not just in the profits of the company, but in the success of the company as a whole?

In the end, I believe firmly that the companies that will change the face of business in the next 25 years will be those companies that most authentically demonstrate their caring for the people involved with them. Studies have shown just how desperate the average person is for connection these days, and it’s only getting worse. If you want your startup to explode, find a way to make a real, authentic connection with your customers, and your employees, and bring them in as part of your organization, not just a funding source to be siphoned off until there’s nothing left, then discarded.

Treat people like people, care for them, nurture your business relationship with them, and watch as your business skyrockets to success.

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Active Duty Air Force Officer for 14+ years; Jonathan covers a wide variety of military-focused issues including leadership, personal development and budgeting and financial planning.

St. Louis, MO

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