When we reach adulthood or at least something that closely approximates it, most of us discover that the world is not what we thought it was. Depending on your built-up expectations, growing up and entering the “real world” can be quite a disillusioning experience. A similar transition is experienced by new entrepreneurs.

Once upon a time, almost every new business owner had some previous work experience from a previous position where they got a chance to at least witness the behind-the-scenes ups and downs that come with running a business. Nowadays with the term and concept of entrepreneurship gaining popularity with each coming day, not just because of people like me who write a lot about it, but also because in countries like Zimbabwe where jobs are scarce, entrepreneurship or rather self-employment, is often less of a choice and more of a necessity. These are people who are then left to experience the aforementioned ups and downs all on their own for their first times with no one to reassure them that these come with the territory.

Discovering that people won’t just “support” you

As more and more people start dabbling in commercial enterprise, some seem to have discovered something quite unpleasant about the people around them: these people, who are supposed to be their customers and sometimes investors, are often accused of their unwillingness to support their fellow men and women in their already difficult quests to build businesses. We have people (the complaints go) who would rather hand their money to some faceless corporation than buy from their neighbour or fellow congregant’s struggling shop. Then we also have local companies which bemoan a similar lack of local support for their products. There is a problem somewhere if everyone from the vendor next door to giant companies is complaining about the same thing.

Do you deserve support?

Unfortunately, after some thinking on the matter, I have come to what might prove to be an unpopular conclusion: the people who are complaining deserve the bulk of the blame. People who underestimate how difficult running a business is are often confused when said business fails to be as successful as their imaginations assured them it would be. Some might reason that they did something wrong and try to fix this while some will give up in despair and start dusting off their CVs. There will always be another group of people who will believe that they did nothing wrong, so they will start looking for external forces to blame. Maybe it is the government, the economy or (wait for it) something is wrong with society at large. The first two are fairly valid (if not cliché) excuses; the third while, being a refreshingly bold declaration, usually makes me very uncomfortable.

Addressing the wrong problem

While textbooks do not usually cover the finer points of starting a business, I think they have made it pretty clear that a business should be built around the needs of the target customers, not the other way round. So going back to our cringe-worthy but way too common excuse—failure by society (your neighbours, community, church mates, countrymen etc.) to support you by becoming customers, while understandably disturbing and frustrating, should never be viewed as the root cause of your business problems. The truth is that it is extremely hard to change people and society (leave this to activists and politicians; they do not have the additional baggage of having to sell products). Do you know what is far much easier to change? Your products, services and the way you market these and yourself.

The customer is always right

Declaring that you do not have support is just a veiled admission that you have run out of ideas. Find a version of your product or service that customers will pay for, never blame them for not liking what you have to offer. Choose prices that they seem to be willing to pay. Tweak your marketing message until it starts working. “The customer is always right” is not just a phrase that you feed unhappy customers, but a mantra that should also guide you. You should rephrase this as “the customer is always right in whatever they choose to buy”. By acknowledging this your role then becomes that of creating or offering products and services that large numbers of people will pay for and marketing them with the same goal in mind.

Give customers what they want

Anger at customers and questioning their attitudes is an exercise in futility. It is better to bend to the whims of the market sooner rather than later, just ask the makers of counterfeit goods. While producing a knock-off version of someone else’s product is something unethical which you should frown at, those people offer local entrepreneurs a simple and valuable lesson: customer opinions and perceptions matter far more than your own, follow them if you cannot change them. Of course, it is precisely the job of marketing to manipulate these (opinions and perceptions) but beyond this, there is nothing much else you can do or say.

In conclusion

It, therefore, becomes necessary to call this worldview that assumes any business or company deserves any kind of support from the public what it is: a harmful sense of entitlement that distracts entrepreneurs from adapting their businesses to meet customer needs. Customers do not owe businesses anything, much less their support. Any customer support, whether from the local community or the nation (if you are that big) should be viewed as a fortunate occurrence at best rather than something you deserve or can even complain about if it is not forthcoming.