From Rod’s Success Secrets. Click here for the rest of the ongoing series.

by Rod D. Martin
July 29, 2015

Fortune LogoMust you be ruthless and selfish to be a successful entrepreneur? No. It’s exactly the opposite.

An entrepreneur must be ruthless with himself — he needs to be a disciplined machine — but the rest of what he does is an exercise in following the Golden Rule.

The entrepreneur brings a new product or service to market. When he begins, no one wants it. So if he wants to be successful, his first and foremost goal must be to solve a problem many people have, in a way those people would want it to be solved.

How to do this will not always be obvious, either to the entrepreneur or to his prospects. No one had ever used an iPhone before Apple created it, so it was not clear that anyone would want to use one, much less pay $850 for one (much less pay $850 ever year or two for a new one).

This is the chief risk in an entrepreneurial venture: will they want it? This is not about ruthlessness or selfishness. It’s about thinking of the other guy first. What does he want? What does he need? How could his life be made better? And after you answer that question as best you can, and after you sink a lot of your own time and money, as well as that of your investors, into creating your solution to the problem, you still have to persuade that other guy that he wants what you offer him and that your offering is the best solution available.

After all of that, you might — might — get paid.

That is capitalism in a nutshell. And it holds the distinction of being the only economic system in history that encourages people to think in this way, even when they don’t want to and wouldn’t normally do so. Every system attempts to meet basic needs: only capitalism creates the extraordinary variety we enjoy, only capitalism employs phrases-turned-beliefs like “the customer is always right” and whole business models like freemium.

Everything in a free market system is about persuasion. And persuasion always puts the other person ahead of ourselves. It necessitates respect, it requires kindness, it blossoms in sensitivity. Sometimes it’s crass, sometimes its cheesy, but sometimes so are we. It meets everyone where we are, and constantly strives to meet more of our needs: cheaper, better, faster.

Like all human systems, capitalism works imperfectly. But of all of its manifestations, entrepreneurship is capitalism’s highest expression. It is impossible, in fact, for an entrepreneurial venture to work any other way (unless you’re just stealing the investors’ money and running off to Tahiti). It is, in a sense, pure.

So be ruthless with yourself. Save the good stuff for everyone else. And by doing so, you can be very, very successful.

 

A version of this article appeared in Fortune Magazine, and originally appeared as an answer on Quora