People like Jim Clifton, chairman and CEO of Gallup, have been sounding the alarm about the state of entrepreneurship in the United States: In a blog post Clifton lamented the fact that more businesses in this country now close each year than open -- a trend that’s held true for each of the past half dozen years. But I think entrepreneurship is in safe hands.
The reason: millennials. In this year's first quarter, millennials surpassed gen Xers to become the largest generation in the U.S. workforce. And millennials apparently have an entrepreneurial bent. In a 2014 survey by Bentley University, two-thirds of the more than 1,000 young people surveyed said they hoped to open their own businesses. Millennials further have a facility with digital technology and exposure, on college campuses, to more courses on entrepreneurship.
But what about the "people" part of the picture? Along with all that technology, do millennials understand the importance of embedding people (and people-centric insights) into the business-building process? Here are three steps they can follow to do just that:
1. Accept that you don’t always know best.
When Kleenex tissues were first introduced, they were intended to be used with cold cream as a makeup remover. But before long, Kimberly-Clark realized that customers instead were using the product as a disposable handkerchief. Within a few years, that’s exactly how the company was marketing its tissue.
Consumers are smart. So, pay attention to what they have to say about your business -- and be careful not to squeeze yourself into a box so small there’s no room to grow. You never want to risk being so focused on your original vision that you don’t realize when a better opportunity comes along.
2. Let your customers do the heavy lifting.
Keep in mind that the people who buy your product are also the best positioned to sell it. Give them plenty of reasons to do so.
Making your company, product or brand ripe for evangelism is all about the extras. If you give people more than they expect, they’ll be far more likely to talk you up and encourage others to give you a try. But the trouble is, some startups grab on to the notion of “extras” without understanding exactly how that notion works.
A few months ago, I went on to Amazon.com to order a replacement filter for our refrigerator. It came in a box with a handwritten return address in Brooklyn, which seemed a little odd. Even odder was the fact that the package contained a Bic pen as a “free gift.” I’m always happy to have an extra pen, but the disconnect between the freebie and the product I’d ordered made this new acquisition more creepy than cool.
When you’re thinking of ways to give customers something extra, stick with the fundamentals: unexpectedly good service, useful information, a reason to want to be associated with you. When I think about Amazon.com, my mind doesn’t immediately go to that strange filter purchase.
I think about all the times the company has surprised me by anticipating needs I didn’t realize I had -- for things like free two-day shipping and free movies and music (with Amazon Prime). I also think about a company that has always seemed to be a step ahead on the technology front, whether through its plans for drone delivery or its recently released Amazon Dash reorder buttons.
My overall sense that Amazon is always looking for new ways to make my life easier is what makes me not just a fan but a vocal one.
3. Grow a personality.
You need to make people want to spend time with your business. That’s true whether you’re a restaurateur, a subscription service or a gadget maker. Today’s consumers want to be engaged with their brand partners -- and they want to have fun doing it. Take a look at how Chipotle projects itself. In the restaurants, every element plays into its “Food with Integrity” platform: from the playful, hand-lettered packaging to the organic, cruelty-free ingredients.
Or consider how Lyft sets itself apart from Uber and others by being irreverent and fun (giant pink, fuzzy mustache, fist bumps, great music) and by making it a point to sign on drivers who are upbeat and good conversationalists. Sometimes it really is more about the ride than the destination.
So, millennials, pay heed: You may have an absolute killer idea and a business plan worthy of an MBA case study. But neither will matter if you don’t invite people into your business. They’re the best partner you could possibly find.