How to Stop Solving Problems That Don't Exist.

As an entrepreneur, it's easy to fall into the trap of building solutions in search of problems. You come up with what you think is a brilliant idea, pour your heart and soul into developing it, only to discover that no one actually needs or wants what you've built. You've spent precious time and resources solving a problem that doesn't really exist in the market.

This is an all too common pitfall for startups. In the eagerness to innovate and disrupt, founders can get carried away dreaming up hypothetical problems and convincing themselves that their imagined solution is exactly what the world needs. But building products that the market doesn't truly need is one of the surest paths to startup failure.

Our 7 Strategies

So how can you make sure you avoid this trap and focus your efforts on solving real, meaningful problems that customers will pay for? Here are some key strategies:

1. Validating the Problem

Validate the problem before jumping to a solution It's critical to deeply understand the problem space and validate that the problem you want to solve actually exists before investing in building a solution. Talk to your target customers, observe their behaviors and pain points, gather data to quantify the problem. Don't just assume the problem is real because it seems that way to you.

Some good questions to ask to pressure test a problem:

  • How are people solving this problem today? What are they using instead of the solution I want to build?

  • How painful is this problem for them really? Is it a must-have or a nice-to-have?

  • How many people or businesses actually have this problem? Is it a big enough market?

  • How much would it be worth to them to solve this problem? Would they pay for a solution?

If you struggle to find strong evidence of the problem in the real world, that's a warning sign you may be inventing a problem that doesn't really exist. Deeply understanding the market and customers comes before designing a solution.

2. Ignore the Tech

Focus on the job to be done, not your technology Too many startups fall in love with their tech and lose sight of the actual customer need. They proudly develop cutting-edge blockchain AI machine learning solutions...that no one asked for. As the old saying goes, "when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail."

The antidote is to focus relentlessly on the job the customer is hiring your product to do. What is the underlying need or desire they have that your product serves? Customers don't really care about your tech stack or special features - they care about getting a job done. Framing your thinking around jobs to be done keeps you centered on real customer problems.

For example, people don't want a quarter-inch drill bit - they want a quarter-inch hole. The drill is just a means to an end. Keep the end customer job in mind and work backwards from there, not the other way around.

3. Take away the pain

Look for problems in existing customer behaviors Often the most powerful business opportunities lurk in the gaps between how people ideally want to do something and how they are cobbling it together today. By looking for those pain points and inefficiencies in existing customer behaviors, you can identify problems begging to be solved.

What technologies are laggards in a particular industry? What user experiences have not kept up as needs and expectations evolve? Where are the clunky handoffs and unnecessary manual steps in common customer workflows? Pay attention to what frustrates people as they try to get things done - therein lie the opportunities.

Stripe is a great example of this. The founders realised that accepting payments online was a huge headache for developers. By smoothing out that existing painful customer experience, they unlocked massive value.

4. Complicated razors

Apply Occam's razor Occam's razor is the principle that the simplest solution is often the right one. When evaluating potential problems to solve, be wary of complex, convoluted problems that would require an equally complex solution. The best problems to solve are often ones that can be simply stated and simply solved.

For example: "Hailing a taxi is a hassle" is a clear, straightforward problem that most people can instantly understand. "Booking a room when traveling is a pain" - again, simple problem with a simple solution. Look for problems like these where both the customer pain and the basic outline of the solution are readily apparent. Overcomplicating it often leads down the road of imaginary problems.

5. Be your own salesperson

When in doubt, sell it first If you're unsure if you're solving a real problem, try selling the solution before you build it. Mock up what the solution might look like and shop it around to potential customers. Do they get excited? Are they eager to buy?

The idea is to validate demand for the solution as efficiently as possible. A lack of customer excitement when you pitch the concept is a strong indicator that there isn't a real problem (or at least not one they're willing to pay to solve). Whereas eager customers banging down your door for the solution is a great sign that you're onto a real problem that matters.

Crowdfunding and pre-selling are great ways to do this. Put up a simple landing page describing the solution and see how many people sign up or pre-purchase. Let the market vote with their dollars before you invest resources in building anything.

Remember, building something no one wants is far riskier than not building something people do want. Market validation is cheaper than product development.

6. Icebergs

Beware of icebergs Some problems look small and simple on the surface but turn out to be massive and complex as you dig in. It's important to probe the true scope and difficulty of problems before committing to solve them.

For example, movie recommendations seem like a straightforward problem to solve. Just show people movies they'll probably like - how hard could that be? But as Netflix demonstrated, doing this well actually requires a highly sophisticated data and algorithm challenge. The simple "problem" of recommending movies was actually the tip of a very large, very expensive iceberg.

Be vigilant for these problem icebergs masquerading as simple hills. The more you can break down the problem and map out all the gnarly complexities beneath the surface, the better you can avoid biting off more than you can chew.

7. Look inwards first

Solve problems you yourself have. Some of the most successful companies started by solving a problem the founders themselves experienced. Think of Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp getting frustrated trying to hail cabs on a snowy night, inspiring Uber. Or the Airbnb founders renting out airbeds in their apartments to help pay rent, planting the seed for a global empire.

When you solve your own problems, you can be sure the problem definitely exists for at least one person - you! This gives you an inherent advantage in understanding the job to be done, the existing customer experience, and the true scope of the problem. Solve for yourself and chances are there is a larger market of customers just like you.

Of course, the risk is overgeneralising from your own experience and assuming a problem is more widespread than it actually is. Make sure to still validate the problem with the broader market. But starting with problems you yourself have is a great way to focus on real needs vs. theoretical ones.

Solving problems that don't exist is one of the biggest traps startups can fall into. By deeply validating the problem first, focusing on jobs to be done vs. tech, studying existing customer behaviours, keeping things simple, selling before building, avoiding problem icebergs, and homing in on your own problems, you can make sure you are always solving real problems the market actually cares about. There's nothing more powerful than that.

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