Automattic Design recently engaged in a “deep dive” customer research project to understand the psychology of small business owners. The underlying reason behind making this work happen has been our knowledge that roughly half the small businesses in the world don’t have a website. And since we’re a company that makes, among many things, website-making technology we felt it would be good to know the SBO (Small Business Owner) more intimately.

Companies like Intuit have been publishing their observations for quite a while. This report from 2009 is just one example of the work they’ve been doing to not only empathize, but to empower, the SBO. In their 2009 report, Intuit writes:

Innovation will be mandatory for small businesses over the next decade as they survive and thrive by seizing new opportunities, improving their competitive position, and providing more value to their customers.

Now, ten years later its clear that one of those “technical innovations” happens to be participating online with some form of small business presence. Be that a Facebook Business Page, or a Google My Business Page, or playing a good Yelp or Instagram game, etc. Or, maybe by having a website.

You might be thinking, “A website? Isn’t that a technology from a previous generation?” This immediately brings to mind an old TV commercial campaign that Oldsmobile (it was one of GM’s brands) ran to try to get younger people to buy what was perceived as a car for the previous generation with the slogan, “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile.”

Clearly the Oldsmobile died with all the “father-types” back in the 80s. It’s a useful parable for what happens when a legacy technology and/or product-line tries to find its way in an increasingly competitive landscape. Heavy investments tend to go into the brand or into trying to adapt the latest disruptive technologies already in use by rising competitors.

Over time, I’ve become a believer in focusing on strengths instead of weaknesses. And not getting hysterical about what we should be doing or asking who WE are. But instead, making major investments in having a clear understanding of who we serve. 

When I was at the MIT Media Lab, I spent most of my time with our customers: our corporate sponsors. When I was at Rhode Island School of Design, I spent most of my time with our customers: our students and parents. When I was at Kleiner Perkins, I spent most of my time with our customers: our startups’ teams. So at Automattic, it made sense to spend most of my time with our customers: writers (aka “bloggers”) and small business owners (aka “byzzers“).

So what have we learned about small business owners through our new customer research? Nothing all that different at a macroscopic level from what Intuit’s already unearthed over the last decade. Or what GoDaddy’s been sharing for the last five years. But we have found a few things that have caught my attention, with one being that there’s a falsehood in believing that a small business owner is much like a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who wants to grow at all costs. We heard more often something like this:

With our agency we want to continue smart growth, so we’re not looking to make this agency significantly larger. I like the number of clients we have, the number of hours we work…

To illustrate this point, I offered to create a website for my barber, Kirk. He asked me to explain to him why he’d want it. So I shared how it could help his barbershop business grow. And he looked at me incredulously when saying, “I’ve already got enough customers. I don’t need any more.”

I had thought that Kirk was an anomaly — and I placed him in the pile in my brain labeled as such. But after our customer research project, and by having more fine grain analyses to work with, it’s great to see him represented in our data. My biases were so strongly tuned to “Silicon Valley” or “startup!” thinking that I’d gotten too smart to imagine I might be a little stupid.

So in summary, our customer research has revealed a ton of arrogance in the beliefs that our design team once held about what we should be doing for our customers. And now we’re on a journey to make immediate corrections to our products and services to achieve relevance to an impassioned customer base of SBOs who are looking for solutions on their own terms — solutions that may not include a website.

And if we are successful by next year, we will thankfully not have to resort to, “This is not your Parent’s WordPress.” as our new slogan. Let’s see what happens! Back to work for me. —JM


Check out our new experience architecture for WordPress that’s coming soon! It’s not only “new” — it’s good!

Posted by John Maeda

I'm a learner. By training.