Chat with Steve Blank, about Henry Ford and Steve Jobs by Bruno Rondani

In the past years, Steve Blank has gained great notoriety in the world of entrepreneurship, with its methodology of Customer Development and with the ‘lean startup’ movement. His manifest, ‘Listen to customers’ contradicts Henry Ford’s maximum “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”, later renewed with Steve Jobs quote “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them”.

When asked about what he thought of these two maximums, his answer was: “if Henry Ford had really made these questions, and he probably did, people would have said that they needed a faster mean of transportation, not faster horses. And if Jobs had had good insights on what people wanted, it is because he could adapt and reformulate his companies’ products after many failed attempts”.

For Steve Blank, one should clearly differentiate the type of market his innovation or startup aims at. In existing markets we know there are consumers, there are competitors, and we can even predict with certain accuracy what the expected growth for the next five years is. In new markets, we know that there are no consumers, not to say any competitors. In existing markets, it is possible to eventually innovate without consulting hundred of consumers, since we already know some consumption patterns. However, in new markets the consumers’ behavior is still unknown and the innovative products will only sustain themselves after their validation. To get it right at the first time without prior validation is nothing more than a stroke of luck.

What is often observed is that business plans do not resist the first contact with the consumer. The entrepreneur or innovator, when they have an idea and test it in a first conversation with a potential consumer, he thinks: what a fool, he did not understand my idea. After talking to ten consumers, the reconstructed idea is very different than the original.

In the case of the Ford Model T, launched with great success in 1908, many previous versions were being commercialized and tested in the market since 1903. There were 19 versions with prototypes and products that were evaluated by the market, between model A and model T. After the success of model T, Ford still launched models S and N. Upon arriving at model U, in 1927, Henry Ford decided to go back to letter A, since the product was already very different from the formers.ed029_special

Was there, therefore, Henry Ford’s vision, the only man to understand that we did not want faster horses, or have been the consumers that validated and shaped what we mean by the automobile market of today?

What Henry Ford really thought about its invention is much better expressed in another citation much more coherent with what we understand today as entrepreneurship and open innovation: “I haven’t invented anything new. I have simply assembled in a “car” other people’s discoveries behind which are millions of hours of work. If I had tried five or ten years ago I would have failed. Progress and success occur when all the factors are ready, and then it is inevitable”.

As for Steve Jobs, let’s stay with the importance he gave to the consumer, best expressed with this quote: “our DNA is as a consumer company – for that individual customer who’s voting thumbs up or thumbs down. That’s who we think about. And we think that our job is to take responsibility for the complete user experience. And if it’s not up to par, it’s our fault, plain and simply.

Naturally, Ford and Jobs knew much more about innovation than any quote of effect they might have said.

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