You're confusing problem and solution and it's killing your startup. Here's the fix.


Wouldn't it be cool if… that's how a lot of founders will start their career. And often also how it will end.

Because you end up falling in love with a product that isn't a solution to a problem anybody cares about.

People buy a quarter-inch hole

There is that famous line

People don’t buy a quarter-inch drill. They buy a quarter-inch hole

which drives the point home very well: don't sell products, solve problems.

This seems obvious, but even if I look back at the stuff I worked on I have to admit I made the same mistake. It's almost natural to shoot for the solution, after all that's what you get an idea about, not the problem.

Some people, maybe trained for it, are better than others at looking for problems to solve, but most of us randomly bump into things that give us ideas. Since that's the case, the best you can do is to get in the habit of taking a step back from your idea and look at the issues around it.

Are they important enough for someone to pay for?

Start by validating the problem

When you get that first idea you should write it down and put it in a drawer and go to sleep. The morning after, start thinking about what that idea would affect. What kind of people? In which situations? Try to describe it at the best you can.

Once you have some idea of who might need that solution for what, pick those two things apart and start looking at the problem first.

For example if you thought you could use social networks to sell cars ask yourself how people sell cars today. Is that a good experience? what's broken? And is whatever part that's not good of that process going to be aided by social networks?

If you can answer positively that question then your next step is to validate it with that person you had in mind

Problem interviews

If you're just starting out it's likely that interviews are the best way to test your assumptions.

Armed with an idea of who your customer is (likely an early adopter at this point) you can get out of the building and talk to him/her.

At this point it's really important that you focus on the problem, which means no pitching and in general no mentioning of your solution.

Mixing problem and solution interviews is going to give you murky results that are likely harder to make sense of, especially since talking about the solution is going to prime your prospect while you're looking for their subjective truth.

There's more to a good problem interview, but sticking to the problem is certainly the first and most important step and often the easiest one to skip if you've fallen in love with your idea.

Not solving a problem? no problem.

You may think that because you aren't solving a problem, but for example making something more convenient, this doesn't apply to you.

This is not true. Even in the case of convenience, you still need to test if that convenience if valued by your prospect customer.

If the process you're hoping to make simpler and/or quicker is already perceived as easy and quick then it's unlikely that you have a business.

Aspirins and vitamins

You might have heard people talking about aspirins and vitamins and what they really mean is pains Vs gains.

Generally we react to pain in a very emotional and impulsive way trying to get rid of it as soon as we can almost at any cost, depending how strong the pain is. The classic example is a headache, which if it's strong enough will immediately drive you to the closest drugstore to buy aspirin tablets.

Gains, especially far in the future, are for us much harder to understand and appreciate and so it's often things we'll struggle to invest into. Vitamins are the classic examples: in the present moment things are ok and so you don't necessarily need them, but maybe you're the kind of person whose long term health is important and so you decide to invest in it.

And in case, educate!

Your product most likely falls into one of these four categories:

  1. you're solving a problem already solved, but do it better
  2. you're solving a problem at least some people are aware of
  3. you're solving a problem people have, but aren't aware of
  4. you're creating e new problems for people so you can sell them your solution

If you're operating in the context of number 4, ask yourself where it all eventually leads, hopefully you'll wake up from the nightmare. More than educating you're looking at cheating people out of their money and peace here.

If you're in the context of number 1 there's probably some aspects of the current solutions that leave problems open so you'd be validating those.

If some people are aware of the problem that's when problem interviews are focused on understanding the strength of the pain and the customer persona - what makes them special that they see the problem?

In the context of 3 problem interviews are key because nobody sees the problem so any solution would be a guaranteed failure. In this case education is most important as a way to help people recognize the problem that's causing them troubles.

What's a product solving a pain you had?

Can you name one product, bonus points if software, that's closer to a pain killer than a vitamin?

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