How to Figure Out What People Want


The thinking process of most innovators is something like this:

  1. Get an idea for what you want to make.
  2. Create it.
  3. Find someone who wants it.

I think any entrepreneur will immediately recognize this is a horrible strategy for starting a business (or making any decision).  By making something before you see any opportunity, you may waste a lot of time building something that nobody wants and doesn’t help anyone.

Contrast this perspective to a market focus.  A successful entrepreneur will look at the problem in a different sequence:

  1. Find something missing or needed in the world.
  2. Get the idea for what will fill this hole.
  3. Create it.

By starting with the problem, you avoid wasting effort on a solution nobody needs.

Inward Thinking Versus Outward Thinking

A product focus is a symptom of inward thinking.  It starts from the perspective of the innovator who wants to create something.  This type of thinking starts with you and branches towards the outside world: you first start with your desire to create, then an innovation from this desire and only then do you start looking for how to connect that innovation to the outside world.

A far more difficult, but successful thinking pattern is outward thinking.  This starts outside yourself.  Forget your specific desires to create and build and start with what is needed.  Once you have ideas for what is needed, you can select the best of these to connect back towards an innovation and finally your desire to create something.

The reason outward thinking works better is that your internal passions and creative ability are general, while the outside world is specific.  In other words, you may have the passion to create a piece of software for cellphones (general).  But the opportunity might be for software that manages your social networking contacts (highly specific).

It’s way easier to start with the highly specific needs of the market and work back to a general passion, than it is to start with a general interest and hope that your highly specific product fits.

How Not to Do Market Research

When I started this website, I had a bad case of inward thinking.  I already knew what I wanted to make, a game designed to teach goal-setting.  I already had the specific solution, now my goal was to find people to use it.

Before I started, I went out with the goal of doing market research.  Unfortunately, I got very little accomplished because I already knew what I was going to do.  There isn’t much point asking questions when you already believe you know the answer.  I never bothered to question whether this project was something necessary or desirable, I just knew it was something I wanted to make.

Now when I work on projects I aim for the opposite direction.  I try to figure out what is wanted, and how the world works, before I settle upon what I want to create.

Why an Outward Focus Isn’t Easy

When you’re solving a difficult problem, you tend to use what you already know as a starting point.  When you’re creating a product, the most available information are things like:

  • Your skills.
  • Your interests.
  • Your creative ideas.

However the specifics about the world are often unknown when you set out.  With limited information, the tendency is to use the most inward information as a starting point, because it is easy to reach.  In my example, I didn’t know anything about information products and what people wanted to know, how they bought products and what they were looking for, all I knew is what I could make and what I wanted to make.

This approach backfires, because when you start with an inward focus, it is harder to find information about the outside world.  When you are selling a hammer, every customer has a nail.  So, if you’re writing a book on building your own boat, everyone will start to look like a potential boat maker.  Even if they aren’t.

I think the key to having a market focus is to actively ignore what you already know.  Don’t focus on what you want to make or what you’re interested in.  These things are incredibly important, but if you use them as a starting point, you’re going to get bad results.

If you can start from a virtual blank slate, you can then spend time looking into where there are opportunities and how the world works.  This way you may catch dozens of excellent opportunities that wouldn’t have fit anything you dreamt up earlier, but might fit a new idea that you have the skills and passions for.

A Simple Guide to Market Research for Extremely Small Businesses

Focus groups and customer surveys are how the big guns can do it.  When you have lots of money to spend, it’s easy to focus on empirical data.  If you’re a guy (or gal) like me, then you don’t have that luxury.  So I think a dirty and cheap way of doing market research is closer to this:

  1. Forget About Your Ideas – Save your inventiveness for when you have a good direction to apply it to.  Starting with a product, or worse, spending months working on something before you can answer basic questions about what people want is a waste of time.  You’ll get back here later, but for the beginning, pretend your options are completely open.
  2. Find a Broad Area to Research – It’s impossible to find out everything.  A good starting point should focus on picking several areas where you want to start looking for opportunities.  Be as general as possible, but limit yourself to your skills or the type of opportunity you’re looking to exploit.  So if you have lot’s of software development skills, don’t get bogged down on a specific product, but you might want to look at areas that use software.
  3. Write Out Your List of “Dumb” Questions – Write out all the things you would need to know before starting something new.  Really basic questions like:
    • What’s important to people?
    • What are the start-up costs?
    • Who are the people you need to know to do business?

    If you don’t know them, write them down.  Don’t start working on a project until you can cross off almost all these questions from your list.  You’ll probably be wrong or off the mark on many of them, but at least you’re closer than complete ignorance.

  4. Google and Phone Calls – Internet research will get you some information and answer a few questions.  For the rest, it will probably involve picking up the phone (or email) and actually talking to people for information.
  5. Sort Back Opportunities to Your Interests and Abilities – Once you recognize some opportunities, now you have the chance to apply that broad filter of interests and skills to weed out the ones you don’t like.  What you should be left with are some real opportunities that also match with your passions and abilities.

  • Kali


    my question would be: can’t some people come quicker to outward thinking if they start inward?
    Nonetheless it’s cool to read something with a different perspective. I agree that with an inward perspective its easy to fall into the trap of seeing more things than optimal from your worldview. But really, isn’t this just a form of escapism? Which is not actually inward thinking? At the same time if you start with an outward perspective.. isn’t it possible you could forget your true desires? Or is that just rationalization for not adapting to the world? Or for loving the world you inhabit?

  • J.D. Meier

    I agree. The value of the solution is always gated by the value of the problem solved.

  • Scott Young


    Yes. I focused on businesses because that’s a clear-cut case where outward thinking is a more successful approach. I think in other cases it can become murkier.

    I think it depends on that you’re moving from the limited/specific end of a problem towards the general. In some cases this might be the opposite. If the world was filled with tons of opportunities for say, a career, but only a very limited and specific amount interested you, starting from an inward perspective would make sense.


  • Chris Emrick

    Actually, this mind set is the difference between effective long-term business and short-term business. Look at it this way. How many products brought to market require a massive ad campaign to generate demand? Pretty much every tech device in the last 50 years. How many last more than a few years at most. But how often have you seen a can opener advertised? It solves a straight problem with a solution that has options (powered, manual, etc.). As long as the inward perspective dominates, you have to create a demand for what you offer. Try doing that when people have limited resources (time, money, attention, etc.) and you spend twice as much as you wanted to. This is often why businesses can go bankrupt with the “wrong” product. When you shift to filling actual needs, people are willing to find you. Word of mouth marketing, etc. is the basis of this. And when you fill other’s needs, they are willing to fill your needs. Barter, trade in kind, etc. all is the basis of this. If you want a much better description of this, believe it or not, look into the Piers Anthony book “The Source of Magic” from the Xanth series. Yes, I just recommended a SF book as a business book. The strategy described by the hero at the end of the book shows the benefits of the outward focus of strategy.

  • Pete

    did you ever finish the goal-setting game?

  • Tim

    Thanks for describing my inward/product focus so succinctly. It’s a constant battle for me to avoid assuming that my personal view is not the worldview …

  • Thor

    How about this type of market strategy:

    1. What have I ever spent money on online?
    2. Why did I buy any particular product, what sold me?
    3. Could I do that better?

  • Scott Young


    Even with a market focus, you still need marketing for your product. Sometimes this is advertising (which is actually a very expensive and sometimes ineffective form of marketing), but it is usually something. The “build it and they will come” mantra just doesn’t apply to business.

    A really large company might be able to push a somewhat unwanted product into the market with a huge advertising budget. But in almost all cases, you can’t buy advertising to make up for a product nobody wants in the first place.


    Yep. Just look in the “Get More” section of the website and scroll to the bottom.

  • sandy

    How aout this outer marketing? Find a group that has lots of issues, which you can personally identify with. An example: baby boomers with beauty issues.

    Then research some of their questions and concerns. Check out forums, read boomer related magazines and articles.

    See if some of the issues which you, being a boomer yourself, hopefully, have similar concerns. Write down your own issues and concerns.

    Then, Develop products around these issues. This way you deal with issues you can relate to personally and solve problems for your peers.

  • Scott Young


    That’s another option. Many good companies were formed when a large group of people finally said “Enough” and one person set up the alternative. The difference is this lies in the end (the people) not the start (the product).


  • Jennifer

    I really enjoyed this article. One of the reasons why it’s so easy to bend towards inward thinking, is because people “assume” others want what they would buy for themselves. People have different tastes and needs.

  • Omar

    There are so many problems and opportunities in the world. How do you decide which one to focus on? Is there a systematic/philosophical approach to getting to that one you feel you could really target?

    Also, when is it ok to focus on a problem you may not have yourself but you hear others have?