“It’s very easy to fall in love with your product. You think it's this very shiny, amazing thing, but if it's not solving a customer’s problem then you're not doing it right.” Laura Guiterrez, Co-Founder of MiLibreta
We’ve seen this love-struck look in the eyes of entrepreneurs when they think they’ve created a product that will solve a troubling problem in the market. But many of the startups that hold tight to their initial vision don't last. Without flexibility and a willingness to co-design a solution with the customer, the business is likely to flop. Listening effectively means treating the poor, not as recipients of charity, but as customers who deserve the opportunity to gain greater control over their lives.
As The Brand Custodians, MiLibreta, and Brio, discovered in The Rockefeller Foundation-Acumen Student Social Innovation Challenge — an online program designed to help entrepreneurs develop their idea for social impact — once they landed on their initial concept, the work had only just begun. When launching a new business, we must take the time to test our theory with potential customers. These “customers” possess certain characteristics: they have a problem, they’re aware of that problem, they’ve tried to find a solution and failed, and they can afford to purchase a solution.
Here's how these three social enterprises embraced the discomfort and took bold steps to put the customer at the center of their innovation.
Don’t Assume, Keep an Open Mind
"Speaking with customers helped me demonstrate courage by stepping out of my comfort zone to meet new people. I found that I enjoyed speaking to the business owners, listening to their pain points and refining the idea to serve them better." –Damola Pedro, Co-Founder, The Brand Custodians
Damola Pedro, Abdul-Rahman Buhari, Raqeebat Buhari, and Oreoluwa Olomodosi, wanted to find a way to bridge the gap between youth unemployment and employability in Nigeria. To do this, they needed to find out what skills candidates were lacking when applying to jobs. It was Damola’s own experience using e-commerce platforms on Instagram, where she saw the potential for brands and retail outlets to strengthen their digital marketing in order to drive sales and increase brand awareness.
Their team linked these ideas together to envision an up-skilling program that would train college graduates in social media management and marketing. But when they actually started speaking to customers, they realized their understanding of the problem was surface-level. “When we started with our hypothesis testing and our customer interviews, we realised that our view on digital marketing skills was very broad and we had little understanding of digital marketing and its sub-components,” said Damola.
Their team interviewed 30 entrepreneurs to uncover what areas of digital marketing they were struggling with most. They assumed social media management was the entrepreneur’s biggest challenge, but they found that many were failing in other areas such as graphic design, video editing, website design, and advertising. “Our experience in the Accelerator allowed us to keep an open-mind and test the robustness of our idea. Where we felt we had made some inaccurate assumptions, we adjusted our business model to what our customers (the entrepreneurs) actually needed,” explained Damola.
With this insight, they set to work on building a four-week intensive training program called The Brand Custodians. The program is created for students from low-income backgrounds to become skilled digital content creators and virtual assistants for e-commerce entrepreneurs. After the training program is complete, these young professionals will be matched with businesses eager for their knowledge.
When we listen to customers — without trying to convince them to buy our product, we enrich our understanding of the problems they face, and we’re able to develop a more impactful product.
Listen From a Place of Inquiry
MiLibreta is a B2B platform connecting small businesses with microfinance institutions in Mexico. Entrepreneurs Ana Neri, Josefina Van Thienen, and Laura Guiterrez envision their product will serve two different segments: the ‘customer’ and the ‘user.’ The customers being the microfinance institutions (MFIs), that provide loans to small businesses. The users being the small business owners, who utilize the platform to build their credit profile to become eligible for larger loans. Through the MiLibreta platform, MFIs can easily assess the health of small business owners, saving both parties time and money, and increasing their potential for greater impact.
But to confirm this assumption, Ana, Josefina, and Laura spoke with both customer and user to see if the problem was as pressing as they thought. They scheduled 20 interviews with existing microfinance institutions in Mexico, developing a customer discovery questionnaire.
Before they took their questions to the field, they were reminded to never lead with the proposed solution during a customer interview. The purpose of the interview is not to sell the product to customers — it’s to learn ‘what is the problem my customer is having?’ and ‘do they see a need for a solution?’ The latter is crucial; even when people encounter a problem, they’re not always willing to put their money down to solve it.
When interviewing customers, we started with this question: ‘what are the biggest problems that you're facing to scale your microfinance institution?’
Josefina Van Thienen, Co-Founder, MiLibreta
As they predicted, the same answer persisted in all 20 interviews: the operational costs for MFIs to offer individual loans to small businesses were astronomical. Continuing the conversation, they made an important discovery. “The microfinance institutions knew that operational costs are very expensive, and they knew that they needed to change that, but they had no idea where to start or how to do it.” Laura Guiterrez, Co-Founder, MiLibreta
When interviewing the users, they found that with Mexico’s loan interest rates as high as 73%, owners relied on MFIs to expand their business and scale their impact. As these entrepreneurs continue to build upon their findings, one value they now consider paramount to their business’ success is the importance of creating ‘user-centric’ products.
We believe that the only way to create is to hear and include the voices of the users, that live the pain in the first person.
Josefina Van Thienen, Co-Founder, MiLibreta
Effective listening can’t be accomplished in a single conversation. To create a product that fits the needs of community members, we must listen constantly, with an open mind to pave the way for relationships grounded in trust. By listening from a place of inquiry, MiLibreta deepened their understanding of how to connect two beneficiaries using a product that will allow both parties to catalyze their impact across Mexico.
Listening to Build Trust
According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, one in five people face mental illness at any given time in the U.S. But in developing countries, two in five people face mental illness, further compounded by the burden of poverty and violence. For Daisy Rosales and Aaron Rosales, the statistics spoke for themselves.
After working in a low-income community in Quito, Ecuador, Daisy and Aaron conducted a needs assessment survey with a local organization and discovered that 98 percent of families reported incidences of alcohol-related domestic violence. It was this realization, Daisy’s background working with high-needs populations, and Aaron’s PhD in Clinical Psychology that motivated them to launch Brio. Brio provides quality mental health care in low-resource settings through their partnership program and unique mental health design toolkit, to equip local human service organizations with the tools needed to provide effective, sustainable care.
In conducting interviews with current and potential partner organizations in Mexico City, Daisy and Aaron listened to their struggles and identified how they could best support their partners. Time and again, partners returned back to a single word to explain the model of care they wished to provide: accompaniment. Accompaniment is often modeled in the healthcare field where chronic illness goes beyond a single doctor-patient visit — it requires that healthcare providers build long-term support plans for patients. Aaron added, “One of the most powerful lessons we learned when listening to potential partners was that there is this overwhelming complexity in the human rights space about the need for mental health support, but in the midst of all of those things, people seem to be most focused on their relationships and leaning upon each other.”
He explained that these conversations solidified Brio’s need to provide services beyond just skill-building and technical expertise. It’s “about the way we relate, the way we show up, the way we work alongside our partners that is really essential,” he said. The long-term partnership program that Brio created seeks to do just that. Understanding that every community’s needs differ, Brio designs context-specific pilot programs to ensure local organizations can provide care with the resources they have.
When partners tell us ‘Sometimes what we want is just to not feel alone, to feel like you're walking with us,’ then we can build that into our organization.
Daisy Rosales, Executive Director, Brio
When we view our customers as co-creators, listening to their problems and learning how we can help solve their toughest challenges, we build trust. We move away from transactional relationships and create services and partnerships anchored in empathy and oriented toward creating solutions that serve us all.