I confess. I stole the title from the fortune cookie I ate today.
This is a common theme I’ve heard in many of the books I’ve read. Although, in the books I’ve read, this pearl of wisdom is phrased a little differently. The way to build a successful business is to help as many people as you can. Apparently, the cash will follow, if you concentrate on the helping part. The number of people you help is also important. The more people you help, the better. For instance, Facebook “helps” 250 million people per day, whereas Google only helps around 90 million people per day. Helping all those people has become very profitable for these two companies and many more. It’s all about changing the focus from “how do I make money” to “how do I help more people”.
Find a niche
Do not help just anybody. Finding a niche is still just as important when your focus is on helping and not making money. If you focus on a niche then you can better serve the people you are helping. You can also find more people similar to the people you are already helping. You will be able to help those people immediately and effectively. If you are finding that you are not helping enough people then you may need to change your niche. This might be because your niche is too small or the people you are helping need a level of help that is too demanding on your time . If you cannot service the level of help required effectively then you might not be using the core skills you have and are stretching yourself too far.
Learn to scale
The goal is to grow, not only the number of people you are helping, but the level at which you are helping them. You need to continue to help the people you are already helping, but help them more effectively. Efficiency is also important if you are going to be successful in scaling up without burning out.
Translating to tech
I come from the tech industry. Specifically, web development and systems development. How does this topic of helping more people relate to this field? Luckily, software scales pretty well. Sure, you need some more machines and the relationship between those machines becomes more difficult as the number of machines grows, but you have to be already helping a considerable amount of people before that becomes an issue.
You will start with a small application (let’s assume a web application). It will have a few features and it will help a few people. The helping has begun. You can now add more features and hope that your existing customers will find the software more helpful. This addresses serving the people you are already helping more effectively. You can then market the existing features. A good marketing campaign will grow the number of people you are helping.
Hopefully the new features you are building are based on communication with your existing customers and from talking to other people that you hope to help. The problems come when you try to help person A and in doing so you do a disservice to person B and C. You do something that does not help them and actually hinders them. You try to rectify the problem by giving person B extra help (adding a feature they requested) and then doing something similar for person C. Unwittingly you’ve now annoyed person A and C with your update for B, and likewise for the update for C. On a larger scale A, B and C would be groups of people or communities.
“You can please all the people some of the time, some of the people all the time, but you cannot please all the people all the time”
– P. T. Barnum of the world-famous Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey Circus
Finding the balance
The skill in building a great software product is finding the balance in the needs of the people you are helping. If you answer all the needs then your software will be complicated, feature-heavy, hard to design and hard to use. If you ignore the needs of the people you are helping you will become quite lost. If you work with averages, then your software will be average. You need to listen to your customer to figure out who they are and what they need. They may tell you what they need, but they can only tell you what they think they need based on their experience of your current product and of the products of your competitors. A single person with needs usually only focuses on their own needs and not the collective needs of all the people that you are trying to help. If you really want to help them then you have to figure out what the collective needs are and how you can address those needs most effectively.
Apple always gets a mention
Apple finds this balance perfectly. Of course they listen to their customers, but their customers are often annoyed that Apple is not doing what they are telling them. They are not adding feature X or feature Y. Instead, Apple understands it’s customers collective needs far better than customers understand their own collective needs. Not adding feature X and Y (and Z) benefits the customers as a whole. Apple uses feedback from customers to deliver products that most of those customers did not expect or realize would address their needs.
If happiness comes from success and it is true that you can become more successful by helping more people, then my fortune cookie was right. The key is to figure out how to please most of the people most of the time by understanding the collective needs and seeing a new path to addressing those needs effectively. Your evaluation on what those collective needs are may differ from what people are telling you about their individual needs.