Did A Medieval Peasant Have a Need For an iPhone?

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By Svyatoslav Biryulin

What a startup founder should know about customers’ needs

When I was a kid, I went to a music school. It was far from my place, so I had to take a tram to get there. Unfortunately, the public transportation system didn’t work efficiently those days, so sometimes I was compelled to wait for the tram for 30 minutes or even longer, freezing in the winter or sweating in the summer. Did I have a need for a mobile app that could let me call a cab with a couple of taps on the screen? Did a medieval peasant have a need for iPhone? Did Steve Jobs create a “new need” by re-inventing mobile phones? Let’s find out.

I have been talking to many founders, and some of them had biased notions of their customers’ desires. And this is dangerous because, as you may have heard, up to 40% of startups fail because there is no market need for the solutions they offer. On the other hand, psychiatrists and neurophysiologists learn people’s needs thoroughly, and we can use their findings for business purposes. They tell us that the list of requirements is a kind of program pre-loaded into our brain by nature. For example, the list of newborns’ desires is relatively short and consists of physical necessities, such as safety, warmth, food, etc. But as a person grows up, the program unfolds step by step, and an adult person wants more – from the same basic biological requirements to social justice and self-realization. 

Wishes engraved in our brains

Desires are significant for humans because they are a source of motivation, and hence they are why we do all the things we do. As children, we research the world around us out of the need for safety (the more we know, the more confident we are). We learn to walk, speak, and do the math because it helps us succeed in the social competition (or at least we hope so). We crave to create films, paintings, computer programs, or big firms to get recognition, feel useful, and amuse ourselves, after all. 

Many scientists believe that the number of our needs is the same for all of us. For instance, an American psychologist Steven Reiss in his book Who Am I? The 16 Basic Desires That Motivate Our Actions and Define our Personalities claimed that all the people share the same 16 desires (the list is below). But the extent to which each desire is essential for a person is individual, which makes us different. For example, a passion for Power may be significant for some people, and they, therefore, become leaders of enterprises, criminal gangs, political parties, etc. But if your friend prefers to work remotely online, sitting alone on a desolate island, Power desire means close to nothing to him. 

16 basic wishes, according to Steven Reiss, are:

• Power

• Independence

• Curiosity

• Acceptance

• Order

• Saving

• Honour

• Idealism

• Social Contact

• Family

• Status

• Vengeance

• Romance

• Eating

• Physical Activity

• Tranquility

Reiss’s colleague Marshall Rosenberg believed that people have more than 40 desires. But, after careful consideration, one will see that his 40+ desires are the more nuanced version of Reiss’s sixteen ones. Moreover, Rosenberg’s list of needs can be detailed as well. But what the ideas of both scientists have in common is follows:

  • All the human needs were created by nature in the course of evolution, and they helped us become who we are.
  • The list of desires is the same for any individual, but some of the desires are more important for one person than for another, and that makes us different.
  • This set of needs was formed by evolution many centuries ago and hasn’t particularly changed recently. Technically, a newborn’s brain 300 years ago is biologically identical to the one of a child born yesterday. 

Among other things it means that Steve Jobs didn’t create any new needs. Even geniuses can’t change our nature and add new features to people’s brains elaborated by evolution for ages. So instead, he magnificently used one or several of the existing desires. Which ones? Let’s talk about it at the end of the article. But a medieval peasant had the same set of needs as we do, so if she had been born in the XXI century, she might have wanted a new iPhone. 

Needs-driven world

People are driven by basic needs even when they consume products far more sophisticated than simple food. They buy fancy clothes to emphasize their uniqueness and post their photos online to attract attention, and both needs have to do with a fundamental need to win in the social contest. They drive expensive cars and buy large houses out of the desire to comfort, power, or self-esteem. 

Some needs seem to be created artificially, but if we dig deeper, we will see that it comes down to the same basic set of 40+ desires. For instance, now the weight control market is huge, but people didn’t worry much about excess weight a couple of centuries ago. Isn’t it an artificial need? But the wish to lose some excess kilos wasn’t created by cunning marketers, and it is not a need at all. This market and respective products are based on some of the basic desires – to look good, be attractive for others and be on-trend (that is to be a part of a group). 

The needs have always been the same for all of us, but the ways to satisfy them evolve over time. Five thousand years ago, the first regular post service appeared in Persia. Before that, people could communicate with each other face to face. In 1774 telegraph was invented; in 1910, the first telephone line was installed at home in the USA. On the 3rd of April in 1973, the Motorola employee, Martin Cooper, made a call from the first mobile phone Motorola DynaTAC. In February of 2004, Mark Zuckerberg, then still a Harvard student, launched a social network that became Facebook later. All these decisions met one need – to stay in touch with other people.

How to identify customers’ needs?

One hundred years ago, most people suffered from lacking basic food, medicines, clothes, houses, etc. It was relatively easy to learn their needs – poor people observed the wealthy minority’ lifestyle and wanted the same for themselves. But nowadays, citizens of developed countries can satisfy most of their needs, and it seems difficult to find out what they want. Unfortunately, asking direct questions doesn’t help much; people rarely articulate their hidden desires, especially those hidden even from themselves.

But there is good news for founders – people always have needs and will always have. Any satisfaction is temporary, and even the most desirable purchases become familiar parts of our lives over time, and we need something else. A friend of mine dreamed about an expensive car, but soon after buying it, he started dreaming about another one, even more expensive. Another my acquaintance, a billionaire, began writing books, but not on business topics – now he teaches his readers how to “live a meaningful life”. Evidently, his business success doesn’t satisfy him anymore. Therefore, whatever we achieve, we always seek for more, it is a part of human nature.

We can’t identify customers’ needs by asking direct questions, but we try to walk in their shoes. There are many helpful books on this topic, for instance, Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick. But we have to keep in mind that all our customers tell us boils down to that 16 (or 40+) basic wishes. And whatever decision we make concerning our product or customers, we must ask ourselves which basic need it meets and how. Even in b2b-markets, employees buying things for the company’s needs or, say, using professional software at work want to satisfy their basic desires – to feel comfortable, avoid mistakes, be respected by colleagues, and win a social contest inside the organization, etc. Scientists have been studying human needs for decades, but they haven’t discovered desires for discounts and sales, fancy cars, fast-working computers, or concrete blocks – people buy them to satisfy their basic wishes.

Key findings

Before you make any customer-related decision, you should ask yourselves which basic needs they would ultimately satisfy. Does it bring your clients comfort or safety? Does it help them gain power or find peace? Will your customers benefit from the value your solution proposes in terms of acceptance, social contacts, and idealism? The world has changed, but when it comes to needs, we are the same as 500 years ago; we’re chasing the same dreams, and only entrepreneurs who understand it become successful.

So, what did Steve Jobs create? He created a new phone and nothing more. When the first iPhone appeared, the smartphone market was divided chiefly between Nokia, Samsung, and Blackberry. All the three produced reliable, handy, and… boring phones. A smartphone was considered to be a device made to read mail and news, and make calls – and that was all. The unconfirmed story says that when Mike Lazaridis, a creator of Blackberry, saw the first iPhone, he said that it was just a “teenager’s toy”, and that businesspeople would never dump his child in favor of the Apple’s product. Apparently, he couldn’t imagine businesspeople taking selfies and uploading pictures of their breakfast to social media.

iPhone was just nice – nice to handle and friendly to use. Using it felt like a game, and Steve Jobs, even though he was not a professional marketer, knew very well that people would always like to play, to get some pleasure, even if they were heads of banks or CEOs. In a way, iPhone was a toy compared to the other smartphones at that time. Consequently, millions of people wanted to play with it.

About the Author

Svyatoslav Biryulin is a former CEO and general manager of several large enterprises. Since 2016 he has been working as the founder and CEO of his own consulting company. The company focuses on strategic consulting helping organizations devise, formulate and implement new strategies for a successful future.

Svyatoslav is the author of many articles on strategic management, foresight, strategic analysis, and several books. Lives in Ljubljana, Slovenia.


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