Still ‘on the hunt’ for a business idea? Beware the “solution looking for a problem” trap…

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”

Richard P. Feynman

5, 4, 3, 2, 1, Crickets…

The majority of startup founders have been victims of it…

You discover a seemingly perfect business idea, turn it into a product, launch it, and then BAM, nobody wants it.

But that’s all part of the game – after all, if building a successful business was easy, everyone would be doing it, right?

Although many self-proclaimed business gurus try to convince us otherwise with their ‘7-figure formula’, since I wasn’t born yesterday and you probably weren’t either, I certainly don’t ’t buy into that story tale.

So, with this in mind, today I’d like to touch upon a mistake that I see time and time again.

What’s that?

Founders consciously or subconsciously embrace the “solution looking for a problem” method, which, more often than not, results in products that nobody wants.

So, without any further ado, let’s jump on the meat of this post!

The origin of the problem: The Awesomeness factor

It usually starts like this: “Wouldn’t it be cool if…”

And that’s typically how many founders come up with their product ideas.

Named after Mark Zuckerberg’s famous quote from an interview with Y Combinator Partner, Jessica Livingston, it’s what I call the ‘awesomeness factor’.

During the interview, Zuckerberg was asked about the early days of Facebook, and he was candid enough to admit the following: “We built it and we didn’t expect it to be a company, we were just building this because we thought it was awesome”.

So, what’s wrong with that?

Although Zuckerberg’s approach worked perfectly well for him and made him a few billion dollars, this way of thinking often leads people into the trap of a”solution looking for a problem“.

Let me explain…

According to Wikipedia “A business idea is a concept that can be used for financial gain and is usually centered on a product or service that can be offered for money”.

The classic “Solution looking for a problem” trap…

And that’s exactly what most entrepreneurs do – search for profitable product ideas by following a product-first thinking*.

*Product-first thinking: When a founder starts his/her “journey” from the assumed solution (which is the product idea).

But that doesn’t sound so bad, right? After all, to build a successful business, you need to start from the product because, at the end of the day, this what you’re going to sell to people.

What, “start from the product”? Think again!

That’s my friends how you end-up with a “solution-looking for a problem” product…

Ok, let’s explain exactly what I mean by that:

Having a ‘solution-looking for a problem’ product is when we have a product that either:

a) Solves an imaginary problem, which we have created on your head (the problem never existed in the first place)

b) Solves a future problem for a market that does not yet exist or an industry that might be in an embryonic phase

c) Solves an actual problem, but one that people care very little about

d) Tries to create a problem for people so you can sell them our solution

I think we’d all agree about the undesirability of these nightmare scenarios, right?

However some of you might say: hang on a minute – how did you jump to the conclusion that product-first thinking necessarily leads to the ‘solution looking for a problem’ situation?

“Product-first thinking” as a recipe for failure

Why would this be the case? Well, quite simply, if we start by defining the product, it’s easy to become locked into our solution.

Yes, I know – we’ve all read The Lean Startup and internalised its core principles, but even though we all get that it’s not about crafting the perfect plan A, but instead, as Ash Maurya put’s it “iterate from a plan A to a plan that works, before running out of resourceswe ALL become super attached with our solutions.

I’ve genuinely never met a founder that hasn’t fallen in love with his/her idea BIG TIME…never! And that’s only natural: it’s our baby after all. And the more time we invest in it, the more attached we become.

But this is where the ‘solution looking for a problem’ typically comes into play

We launch the product, realise that the intended market doesn’t want what we have (yes, on this occasion, numbers never lie!), and start the quest to find a problem that fits the bill for our solution.

We’ve already fully committed to that solution and so try to force it into some other market, onto some other customer segment, or onto some other problem… because someone has to want it, right? After all, it’s such a great idea and we’ve worked so hard to turn it into a great product.

But you know what? In real life, it simply doesn’t work that way.

We need to burn this in our mind NOBODY will pay us to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.

Put simply, if it’s not broken, don’t fix it!

But we should not stop there?

Lessons learned from Einstein’s perspective on tackling problems

Einstein is quoted as having said that: if I had only one hour to save the world, I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem and only five minutes finding the solution.

His point here is clear: before jumping into the (assumed) solution, we need to force ourselves to spend as much time as necessary to truly understand and refine the problem and only then, jump into finding the solution.

Of course, “move fast and break things” sounds sexier but on this occasion it simply doesn’t work.

So, the advice couldn’t be clearer.

Stay at the ‘problem phase’ for as long as possible, rather than jumping into the solution prematurely and end-up wasting a ton of energy and time solving the wrong problem.

And then, as Bart Barthelemy and Candace Dalmagne-Rouge urge us in an essay of them at HBR “Go deep. Look for underlying issues. What’s the real obstacle you face? Once you’ve found it, go deeper still. What’s the essence of that obstacle?

So, the real question is: are you willing to risk creating the new butter stick*?

* The butter stick was a Japanese invention designed for people who were too lazy to use a knife to butter their toast, which is a classic (and I admit a somewhat extreme) example of the “solution looking for a problem” type of idea. It inevitably failed because there was simply no commercial market or need for it.

Today’s Key Takeaways

– A successful business does NOT start from the product

– If we start by defining the product, we end up locked into our solution

– NOBODY will pay us to solve a non-problem, so if it’s not broken, don’t fix it!

– Stay at the ‘problem phase’ as much as possible and understand it deeply

So, what do you think?

Are you ready to find a business idea the right way?

***

Ok, “guys” that’s all from me for today.

If you enjoyed today’s post, check out my brand new book, The Aspiring Entrepreneur Entry Strategy: A practical Step-by-step guide for finding a validated, winning business idea that stays true to who you are, that is currently being available at Amazon.

I hope to see you soon

Best

Andreas

Why do so many founders build things no one wants? Because they begin by trying to think of startup ideas. That m.o. is doubly dangerous: it doesn’t merely yield few good ideas; it yields bad ideas that sound plausible enough to fool you into working on them

– Paul Graham

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