A ripper tip

One of the best things about working at SmartCompany is that we get to talk to real entrepreneurs every week, hear their stores and extract their top advice for our readers. It’s always fascinating and quite often very inspiring.

But today I want to share with you a tip I picked up from our sister site, StartupSmart, which was launched in September and has already become an invaluable resource for entrepreneurs who are starting a business, planning to start a business, or just looking to keep the start-up vibe alive in their business.

Yesterday, editor Oliver Milman published a brilliant profile of Rip Curl co-founder and former Rich 200 member Brian Singer, who helped build the company from a backyard operation into a global success story.

His tip was very simple, but also extremely insightful.

“We both knew a lot about surfing and a lot of our friends were surfers. We knew what they wanted and we delivered it to them,” Singer told StartupSmart.

“Make sure you are the customer. Live the customer’s life. If you are starting a magazine, read all the magazines you can. If it’s motor vehicles, talk to all the people you can in that industry. Whatever you do, listen and respond. If you don’t do that, you won’t be around for long.”

Sure, it’s obvious stuff. Listen to your customers, do your research, respond to the market.

But what really grabbed me was the line “make sure you are the customer”.

In the surfwear game, having two founders that surf is mandatory. But in lots of other businesses, a gap can form between the business and its customers.

A business might sell to the health and resources sectors, for example, but they don’t know much about how those industries operate. Or a company might appeal to a certain demographic, without much insight into those customers.

You might be able to get away with this for awhile, Singer is saying, but soon you will be found out.

The idea of “making sure you are the customer” could have a number of levels.

If you want to take it at the most literal level, it means making sure you actually use you products or services in your own business. You know their benefits, you know their weaknesses, you know how the purchasing process works, you know where to go for information on that product and service.

This might not be possible in every sector, and where it’s not, you will have to work harder. Understand the ins and out of your sector. Get to conferences and industry events to learn the latest trends. Talk to customers at length about their problems and challenges. Survey clients. Hire staff directly out of the industry you service. If you are an older entrepreneur selling to the youth market, make sure you’ve got some young staff.

The point is, entrepreneurs must immerse themselves in their business and industry. A gap between the business and the customer is, in Singer’s world, a potential wipeout.

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