Patrick Ip | Crain's Silicon Valley

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Patrick Ip

Background:  

Patrick Ip is co-founder and CEO of Unity, a company that uses a machine learning–powered platform for influencer marketing. Ip is a 2013 alumnus of the University of Chicago, where he studied political science before landing an internship in Australia that led him to an opportunity to gain senior official status at the United Nations and run its social media for two years. He moved on to Google and worked on a campaign called One Billion Acts of Peace with a team that worked with 13 Nobel laureates to try to increase the numbers of acts of peace around the world. The project was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in both 2015 and 2016.

The Mistake:

Entrepreneurs are told not to care about their competition and to focus on their [own] work.

We happen to be in a space at Unity where we have 260-plus competitors. When you’re surrounded by other businesses, you start to care about how to make more money and how to become more profitable, and you lose your focus on why you’re actually there — which is to solve some sort of problem for or to improve the life of your customers.

Though you never want to enter a business where there are so many competitors, we at Unity saw it differently because we spent a lot of time talking to [those competitors] and trying to understand how they were thinking.

When I ran my first company, Kip Solutions, we applied for an incubator, and often when you apply for that, you think spending time with other businesses that are facing the same challenges as you are is the best way to grow the business — but that's not always the case.

One of the things we learned at Unity from talking to our competitors was that their approach to business was wanting to build the best tools and ultimately have the businesses make that decision.

They created a tool to help find influencers, but when we talk to businesses, they don’t have time to find the influencers, so some of the competitors were asking the wrong questions.

I realized that these other businesses weren’t in our space, and they didn’t completely understand our customers or what we were trying to do.

You shouldn’t be spending time just with other businesses; you should be spending time with your customers.

The Lesson:

Through the 10-week incubator at Kip Solutions, one of the lessons I walked away with was that you shouldn’t be spending time just with other businesses; you should be spending time with your customers.

After the incubator ended, we at Kip Solutions holed up and spent time in co-working spaces where we could actually be next to customers instead of other businesses that might or might not understand what we’re trying to do.

For Unity, having a good idea of what our competition is doing and how they’re thinking — and being able to map out where they’re going in the marketplace versus where we can go — allowed us to stay on top of the situation in many ways. 

But I think we just started to ask different questions.

By spending more time with your customers, you start to create more empathy with them.

Patrick Ip is on Twitter at @PatrickIp.

Photo courtesy of Unity

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