VCs and Marketing Firms Courting Young People — And the Myth of More Customer Feedback is Better

A really funny story (free) in the WSJ a couple weeks ago about VCs trying to understand and court young people — both young consumers and young entrepreneurs. David Cowan, the main VC subject of the article, and I agreed that the next step is for him to set up a fraternity — Old School style. There was also word on SiliconBeat that the Mayfield Fund recently hired a 29 year-old guy to help them attract cash-hungry young entrepreneurs and to understand the youth demographic driving the MySpace phenomenon.

Besides finding this all hilarious, I just wanted to add that I believe some customer feedback is a good thing, but not too much. I believe in many instances customers don’t know what they want, if only because they’re ensconced in a default reality that doesn’t allow them to imagine new and better ways of living. In the complicated world of teenage wants, this is probably more the case.

That’s why I scratch my head when I get emails from market research firms looking to gather teens and talk about where their/our technology desires are heading. Like in other customer segments, I don’t think teens know what they’ll want in the future, and holding a focus group to figure it out will be an exercise of fascinating but unhelpful group psychology: "How I can please the facilitator by sounding smart?" The same thing happens when you parade a handful of teens on-stage in front of adults at the Web 2.0 conference.

While teenage behavior may be complicated, it’s not hard to figure out. I advise companies building the next mySpace-killer to consult teenagers, but less frequently, and instead think about what drives all user behavior and which parts of that behavior can be captured and monetized.

3 comments on “VCs and Marketing Firms Courting Young People — And the Myth of More Customer Feedback is Better
  • I couldn’t agree with you more. We have had the same issue of people trying to create social networks for teens and at the same time thinking that asking them what they want and creating it is the way to go. Do we need another MySpace?

  • The problem is that many of these VCs have no connection with real people their own age, let alone teens.

    One VC buddy of mine complains that his partners insist on having their assistants set up real silverware even for an internal lunch. His protests that they should simple eat off paper plates to save time were dismissed as “silly.”

    Another VC friend–only in his late 40s–had this reaction when he asked me to put together some “youthful” music for an event of his:

    “Just don’t put any of that rap music on it. I can’t stand that stuff.” [launches into a very bad, incoherent set of monosyllabic utterances which I took to be his best imitation of a rap song]

    The answer, however, is not to hire young people, but to go out there and actually experience what it’s like.

  • Ben, I’m enjoying your blog, although I’m a bit behind on posts. Just saw this one and had to share a very old (OK, I’m dating myself), very apocryphal story. Supposedly the inventor of the xerographic process contacted IBM. IBM did a customer survey and proved that customers were not willing to spend more money to get rid of carbon paper (do your readers even remember carbon paper?). The result is obvious — Xerox was born. The morale of the story is exactly what you related — customers don’t always know what they want!

    Love your blog — keep up the great work!

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