Pattern matching is a dangerous sport. No matter where you search for patterns, you are practically guaranteed to find an outlier. The same is true in entrepreneurship. Yet for someone like Andrew Warner, the founder of Mixergy, pattern matching is becoming a fact of life. That’s because Andrew has interviewed literally hundreds of successful entrepreneurs.

The other night in Washington D.C. I had the opportunity to catch up with him. I wanted to learn more about what insight he was gaining. Over the past couple years he has begun to uncover patterns that he sees from one success to the next. When I asked him, “what is one of the most common patterns you see?” His response was quick, “real entrepreneurs find the pain.”

His response resonated deeply. It’s fairly straight-forward: successful entrepreneurs work as quickly as possible to get to a point where they have identified and deeply understand their customer’s pain.

Andrew had a couple of examples. They were examples of failure to discover the pain (the early Justin TV), as well as examples of successes thanks to pain discovery (AirBNB). If you want to learn the lessons of successful entrepreneurs, Andrew’s site is chock full of them (Mixergy).

In addition to Andrew, who clearly has hundreds of stories to tell, I quickly identified one I saw earlier in the week from Ramit Sethi. In an interview with Patrick McKenzie of Kalzumeus software, he tells the story of one of his students who was in search of techniques to boost her business:

One of my star students is a young woman named Jackie, and she lives in the Midwest, and she’s a violin instructor. Now, she’s quite good at violin, but that wasn’t really what interested me. The fact was she had clients, but she came to me saying, “I want to learn how to grow my business.” […]

In eight weeks, she was able to generate $81,000. How did she do that? She quickly found out who her customer was. [aka. she found the pain]

The customer was not the 10 year‑old kid. It was the mother of the 10 year‑old kid. By the way, that mother tended to be ethnic, tended to be Asian. Not a surprise when you think about it. But this isn’t obvious prior to starting to do the research. Now, by the way, what does this Asian mother want? She doesn’t really just want her kid to play like Yo‑Yo Ma.

Why does she want that? Because she wants little Timmy to get into Harvard. And so, when you deeply understand that, then everything about your positioning, your marketing can change. For example, imagine a new testimonial which says: “My son used to be really shy and withdrawn. Now, after going to Jackie’s class, he’s so talkative. He’s made so many friends. I can already see his grades going up because of the new discipline that he’s learned.”

But that’s neither here nor there, from the perspective of selling Little Timmy’s mother on the value of violin lessons. She wants to buy violin lessons. OK. Customers wants do not always align with their needs – often, selling them successfully involves a) understanding their wants, b) getting to the root issues behind them, and c) proposing to deliver solutions to those root issues by – wham, switcheroo – giving them what they actually need.

Wow! That speaks directly to the heart of what her clients want. By the way, it’s not a lie. It’s completely accurate. This is marketing at its best, where you are actually listening to the customer and then delivering value on what they want, totally ethically.
The example that Ramit provides is not just an example of identifying the pain, it’s an example of where the business owner is also able to communicate their understanding of the pain that exists. You don’t necessarily need to have the best solution (at least in less competitive markets), you just need to effectively communicate the fact that you truly understand the pain of the customer. In other words, you need to deeply understand your customer.

Ultimately all other activities in entrepreneurship are nothing more than tactics and day-to-day activities. Yet if you want to see what differentiates the successful for the not so fortunate, look no further than the businesses’ customers. They have a pain and it’s your job to provide them with the solution that solves that pain.