Empathy in entrepreneurship

Thursday November 04 2021
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Business trust commitment concept.

By Business Daily Africa

Millions of entrepreneurs across Africa start off every year to launch new business ventures or to add novel products or services to their existing firms. In our quest to grow sustainably profitable enterprises, we often rush and jump to conclusions and make assumptions about what other people may purchase.

Maybe we wake up one morning with an exciting idea about a mobile application that can provide some sort of banking service, as an example. Then many entrepreneurs would go forward and make the mistake of only asking their friends and family about their new business idea.

Not only are friends and family likely to be overly supportive out of a concern for your wellbeing, but you also have a natural self-bias that makes you more prone to see your own thoughts and ideas as far more brilliant than those around you.

However, we must keep our eyes focused on who might actually buy our products or services. Someone living in the upscale Runda neighbourhood of Nairobi and their commensurate social circle would be wholly incapable of empathizing with and understanding a prospective lower-wage working individual in Kampala, as an example.

Nonetheless, a plethora of business founders still proceeds to build a business around a product or service while only gathering the opinions and ideas of themselves and their friends and family who often do not fall into the target market.

In the earlier example, the Runda resident should actually travel to working-class areas of Kampala and observe and listen rather than talk, the residents and understand their lives, ambitions, struggles, and successes.Some examples of products where it seems like the creators neglected to pay attention to the needs of customers include some long-distance buses with seats so packed together that you cannot move your legs freely. What about when buying earbuds, but the cable attaching to your phone or laptop is so short that you must hold your head too uncomfortably close to the device.


Even in the service sector, many entrepreneurs and managers lose their sense of empathy and connection to customer thoughts and needs. Take for example hospitals around the Thika Road corridor of Nairobi.

A USIU-Africa process flow investigation found ridiculous bottlenecks whereby the facilities were so out of touch with customer desires and feelings that numerous people living or working on or near Thika Road travel to other parts of Nairobi to get faster medical care.

In one particularly egregious example, patients queued for hours in non-socially distanced corridors simply to pay one single solitary cashier. The bottleneck delayed customers and caused highly paid medical doctors, lab technicians, physical therapists, etc., to be underutilised waiting for the bottleneck of patients to push through.

Instead, the particular hospital could simply observe and listen to customers and therefore recruit one or two more modestly paid cashiers to dramatically increase patient capacity, reduce waiting times, and markedly improve customer satisfaction. The hospital could quickly realise over a 1,000% return in six months based on the minimal investment of two more cashiers.

So, as entrepreneurs, spend time interacting with your customers, observing their pain points in interacting with your products or services, conducting inexpensive surveys, and holding quick focus groups. Many entrepreneurs do not take the extra step to understand, sympathize with, and jump into the minds of their current and prospective customers.

In order to do entrepreneurship correctly, empathy-building must start even before a business launches. Building and designing products or services must start with comprehending the perceptions, pains, feelings, and hopes of your particular target market.

As an example, what overarching concern might a target customer hold who is a career professional and a mother of two young children, works fifty hours a week as an insurance actuary manager, oversees the family garden or shamba business on the side, provides care to her elderly parents, and all while serving on the leadership committee of her estate in Dar es Salaam?

In understanding her day-to-day life, you get to understand what she might need or not need and what pain points she holds. Clearly from the above example, it seems like a lack of time or crushing quantities of over-work might prove to be significant pain points in her life.

Therefore, if you can understand these pain points and then create products or services that help alleviate those issues, then you have a dramatically higher chance of winning that target market demographic as your customer.

Design thinking expert Stanley Gichobi advocates for entrepreneurs to actually take a paper and pen and draw a day in the life of their target market customer. What are the highlights of their day? The struggles, challenges, and difficulties?

Then, how can your entrepreneurial solution provide relief from their regular pain points? Essentially, the daily journey map drawing can help you know how you can build your product so that it delights the customer you hope to reach.

In summary, do not jump to conclusions when building your business or designing your products or services. Spend intentional time listening to and observing your target market customers who are the most likely to purchase from you.