Startups need a problem, not a solution

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If you have an awesome idea for a new startup, stop. Write down your solution, put it away and start by identifying the problem that you’re trying to solve.

Contrary to popular wisdom to “Always focus on the solution not the problem” building a startup is not about knowing what you want to build up front. It’s about knowing what problem you want to solve and constantly evolving the solution to better fit that problem.

The surest way to fail at building a startup is to try and build a product. Chances are, no one is going to really want it and, like 1000’s of other really well designed & built products, it’ll be a dead end. Look no further than Google Wave, Minidisks (MD’s), Microsofts WebTV or  Facebook Home: They’re some of the most popular, highly funded failures that overlooked a need for the customer. They were great concepts and products, but they didn’t originate from a customer need.

What you need to focus on is the problem that you’re solving. 

The difference is that when you focus on the problem, it frees you up to constantly test and improve your solution to better fit your customers. They’ll help guide you to build a product that people actually want and in doing so massively improve your odds of success.

If you focus on the problem (getting from A to B) there may be many simpler ways to solve it. If it’s a big enough problem, even a basic solution will take off. *

By trying to approach the problem with a fixed solution in mind, you look for evidence that supports it. You have a hammer and everything looks like a nail. As such, you’ll find yourself going down a certain path without actually ever validating that it’s the best one, or continue to build out features as customers don’t want it *yet*. The worst thing you can do at this point is raise lots of money to build your solution as it’s only going to delay the fail and be infinitely more painful further down the line.

The best way to build a solution is to go to your customers with a problem and ask them how they’d like it solved. “What about if you had this”, or “would they prefer if they had that”. Look at how they’re currently solving it (and I hope they are if its a problem) and build out an offering from their feedback. Thats when you build an MVP – the absolute minimum that you can do that will solve your customers problem (at least in a small way).

By focussing on the problem it helps you:

  1. Continually evolve your solution to be a better fit. This should continue as you grow.
  2. Focus on your customer and getting feedback. “How can you solve it better?”
  3. Find much more innovative solutions by asking “what if…”
  4. Find cheaper ways to test your idea. Everyone wants to build an app/website/device to solve a problem. Most times, if it’s a big problem, you can test it by solving it manually and seeing if people want it.

So next time you think up an awesome gadget / service / device / thingy-ma-jig thats going to change the world, stop. Focus on the problem and rather build something really useful that customers are telling you they want. ‘Cause thats how you build awesome things.

 

*Image credit: http://fastmonkeys.files.wordpress.com/2014/06/howtobuildmvp.gif?w=500