Executive Director Blog

One of the biggest challenges for first-time entrepreneurs is falling too much in love with their ideas. You’ve spent so many sleepless nights with it, so many fascinated days, watched it grow – and now it’s your baby.

That’s understandable, but emotional attachment can keep you from listening to constructive feedback and lead you down a path of wasted time and effort. Since time is your greatest asset, that means missing other great opportunities and perhaps sitting on a bad idea, out of money and all other support.

There’s one skill above all others that can save you from this outcome: being a good listener.

This may be easier for the introverts among us. They’re more likely to quiet take in a lot of information and then provide thoughtful analysis. Adam Grant, professor of management at the Wharton School, conducted research showing introverts tend to produce stronger outcomes in the workplace because of those traits.

But the extroverts who tend to populate the ranks of entrepreneurs need to take a page as you start the most vital task in the process, which is interviewing 100 or more people about your idea. The first several interviews you might throw away because you didn’t understand what you were asking, but far from being useless, they helped you shape the questions going forward.

These interviews should be with strangers who can help you understand who your customer is and whether your idea will truly hit that magic level of being worth more to that customer than the status quo. Only then, by developing empathy for your customer, can you know whether the problem you intend to address is actually worth tackling. Empathy is the first step in design thinking, because no entrepreneur can design a solution without first understanding the need.

Affirmations can be nice in this process, but critics who poke holes are far more valuable. As you also find mentors, investors and advisers, keep being a good listener, open to being coached. You’ve got to stay true to your idea, of course, but blind perseverance in the wrong direction has zero value.

Remember, this isn’t about selling. Even after you’ve compiled the interview information, made adjustments and decided you’ve got a worthy idea, it’s still not about selling. It’s about partnering with people to make their lives better through a product or service you want to provide.

And even at that stage, and all of them going forward, you’ll have to keep listening.

Robert Grajewski is a serial entrepreneur, investor and Evans Family Executive Director of the Innovation Center at Vanderbilt University.