Are You Really Solving a Problem?

Posted: September 14, 2014 by Tim Metzner in Innovation, Marketing, Planning, Startup

TIM-METZNER-BWOver the last few years I’ve spent a lot of time with entrepreneurs at the very earliest stages, including many Startup Weekend events. One common pitfall that I see many teams fall into is starting with an idea for a “great product” versus a specific problem that they are trying to solve.

What’s the difference? Glad you asked.

Starting with the Solution

I understand why most people tend to start here, it’s how most of us think. The high profile successes seem to be from “inventors” who are creating things so new and different that the world doesn’t even know they need it. Quotes like Henry Ford’s classic “If I asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse”, and iconic leaders like Steve Jobs, perpetuate the belief that this is how great companies are started.

The trouble is, most companies aren’t Apple. Sure there will always be room for highly disruptive companies that are reinventing entire industries, but this is unquestionably the exception. The reason starting with a solution is so difficult is you literally have to create demand for a product; it’s a solution searching for people with a problem to solve.

So what’s the big deal? Where it really matters is sales and marketing. Think about it, if there aren’t people currently looking for your unique solution, how are you going to find them (or they find you)? You better have a massive war chest for marketing, promotion, sales and education, and/or a crazy viral coefficient (something that inherently makes people want to share your product).

Starting with the Problem

I love meeting entrepreneurs who are fanatical about a specific problem they are trying to solve. By focusing on the problem, instead of falling in love with a solution, they tend to be a lot more flexible. They don’t care as much about what form the solution ends up taking, but they know everything there is to know about the problem people are experiencing.

This give them two big advantages:

  1. Validation that there are people (hopefully with money) who are looking for your solution (i.e. there’s a real market).
  2. Knowledge of how, when and where to reach those people. In fact, many times these founders got started by solving their own problems; the perfect candidates for talking to others experiencing similar problems.

 

Vitamins vs. Painkillers

Taking it a step further, think specifically about solving problems that are causing an immediate and obvious pain that people are experiencing, not just a slight inconvenience. Wouldn’t you rather be selling aspirin to someone with a headache than a vitamin with the hope of preventative long-term health?

One way to determine whether you’re building a painkiller or a vitamin is to consider the value proposition you’re offering. Are you selling a solution to something customers have already experienced, or a promise of how things could be better in the future? Most painkillers are the former and tend to be very easily identified by customers, while painkillers are forward-looking with a vision you need to sell customers on first.

So are you really solving a problem that needs a painkiller? A painkiller with a large market of potential customers experiencing a problem should create a much more attractive opportunity to customers, investors and partners.

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