A classic piece of startup advice is to focus on solving an important problem. Here’s the principle behind that advice, as stated in Dan Pink’s “To Sell Is Human,” by way of Bakadesuyo:
“The quality of the problem that is found is a forerunner of the quality of the solution that is attained…” Getzels concluded. “It is in fact the discovery and creation of problems rather than any superior knowledge, technical skill or craftsmanship that often sets the creative person apart from others in the field.”
This advice is easier said, than applied, however.
Most of us are narcissists–we focus on the problems we know, rather than the problems that are the most valuable. When I was a design student, I (and my instructors) saw endless projects dedicated to improving mountain bikes (hugely popular on campus at the time), skiing, and other such “problems” that privileged 20-year-olds encounter.
The same seems to be happening today. I’ve long since stopped bothering to keep track of all the dating or nightlife apps that people pitch to me.
One alternative is to wait until you’re older to start a company, but I suspect that’s not popular advice. The other is to really work at getting close to a particular market. You ought to spend at least a solid week of living your customers’ daily life to understand their real problems.
Even when you identify a problem, it’s all too easy to jump straight into solutions. Solving a problem that you’ve identified is like answering a question–it’s instinctive and feels good. Most of us are proficient at answering questions, thanks to a lifetime of education.
But the key to finding a good problem is finding a lot of problems, then narrowing down your focus to the most promising one. Finding problems isn’t instinctive or fun. You have to do the opposite of your natural instincts. This takes effort and willpower. In contrast, once you’ve identified a problem, even if it isn’t a good problem, our problem-solving brain will start churning out possible solutions. It’s a lot more fun to explore those than to focus on finding more problems.
As an entrepreneur, you can solve both of these issues by replacing willpower with rules.
Rule #1: Spend a solid week with your target customer and take copious notes.
Rule #2: Identify at least 10 different problems your target customer faces, then evaluate them to find the single best problem.