Make a choice

You and your company can’t be all things to all people. You need to choose.

That’s always the first thought that strikes, when I hear of someone looking to build a multi-purpose product for a potentially big market;

Jack of all trades, master of none.

My rationale is that when you’re going for several and quite different use cases all at once, it becomes increasingly hard to communicate to your customers, why you’re exceptionally good at serving exactly their needs and get them to spend the cash on your product or service.

Chances are there will always by a small number of focused pure players who do a better job at solving the customers problem than you do with your ’80 % fixed’ approach (which is in essence what you communicate when you say “We can do all of this” instead of “We just do this”).

The argument can be a bit counter intuitive, I know. Because many will think that with more use cases come more opportunity to make an impact and be successful – not less. Alas, the devil is in the detail as hinted at above.

The contrast to the ‘one size fits all’ approach is to look at where the biggest addressable, focused market is – and then go after that big time. Yes, you will be doing one thing (you get my point, I am sure), but you will be focused, and the opportunity will be there to serve customers who are not seeing “A bit of this, a bit of that” as the solution to their specific problem(s).

Agree?

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Be problem-driven

There are quite a few really good arguments for why you should focus on the problem rather than the solution, when you’re trying to build a successful company. But there is one that I think takes the prize as the most powerful one:

By focusing on the problem, you broaden the opportunity for yourself, your company and your future success.

Why?

Because you start being less solution-focused. Not agnostic as such because there will always be something that you do that you need to put into the product to give it the real edge it needs. But less solution-focused.

You may start out developing and shipping one product, get a good reception and perhaps even some decent traction. And once you can see that the core fundamentalt of what you’re doing seems to resonate in the market, you can lift your gaze and start thinking about what’s next.

And this is where focusing on the problem rather than the solution enters the picture:

By focusing on the problem, you will see more opportunities just by looking. And others may present themselves that you would otherwise not have noticed. And this gives you opportunity.

Instead of being strong in a niche, you can become stronger in a space – and maybe even grow to become dominant of an entire industry.

Because you chose a laser like focus on the problem.

Looking in retrospect, most companies don’t become wildly successful by just doing one thing or having one product. They become wildly successful, because they understand the market they are in, the jobs, pains and gains of their customers and constituents – and the problem space they’re working on.

You should apply that approach to yourself and your company too.

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Understand the root cause

Sometimes you can be so blinded by a specific solution to a problem that you completely forget what the root cause of the problem was.

When people are facing challenges of some sort, they seldom jump straight to very specific solutions to the problem.

Instead they dwell at the problem for a while – short or longer depending on problem, person and context – and then they start looking for A solution.

Now, the ‘A’ here is important. Because it implies that most times there are more than one potential solution to any given problem, someone might have. And every possible solution is an opportunity for you to be relevant.

It may very well be that you don’t have the most fancy solution. That your technology is not the most unique. That your solution is not the cheapest.

But does it ultimately matter if you’re the one of the options who have understood the root problem best? Are best at showing empathy? Best at using that empathy to lead people in the direction of your particular solution, when the search for a solution kicks off?

Maybe? Maybe not?

The point here is not to be too fixated and even fall in love with a particular solution. Chances are that before you’re able to get that fabled solution out in the market something will happen that makes it less relevant, non-happening or it just gets overtaken by someone else.

Someone who just understood the root problem better.

The above is not to say that you shouldn’t be focused and bold on bringing new solutions to market that can change how big problems get solved for real people. Of course you should.

But it is to say that you should never forget to make sure you understand the root cause of the problem, and by doing that keep your options for viable solutions open and pursue them as you see fit.

Doing that will greatly increase your odds of succeeding and – most importantly – drastically reduce the risk of running into a dead end.

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Arghh, it’s good enough

“They will love it, when they see it. And they will realize that this is just what they have been waiting for.”

Trying to build something for a market that’s nascent is super hard on so many levels. Yet, it is also one of those areas where time and time again, I meet founders who seem determined that their novel idea is going to take the world with storm, once they unleash it.

It is almost as if the future customers have just been waiting for this new breakthrough. Without knowing it of course.

Reality is it seldom happens that way.

Breaking into a new market let alone creating a new market and a demand in it is super, super hard. And founders who think it’s just a matter of making the technology work are doing themselves and their chances for success a big disservice.

Because what you’re up against is the most dreaded practical barrier of them all:

Good enough.

While they may not be using the optimal solution today, maybe what they have just works for their needs.

Maybe they have become so accustomed to nothing happening in this particular space, that they have stopped looking or even hoping for something better.

Maybe their habits are just so engrained in them that the very thought of doing something in a novel way is somewhat frightening.

The point is that there could be a lot of reasons but that the end result is the same – for the time being:

What I have is good enough.

Overcoming that dreaded barrier is not only a question about making technology work. It is also – and perhaps to some extend more – about packaging it right, getting the message right and getting it out there in front of future customers using the right channels at the right time.

And so much more.

The real important lesson here is that although the opportunity can seem huge, and there seems to be a big void in the market for something new, getting something new going in that void is going to take skill, experience, muscle (aka money) – and some degree of luck.

Don’t ever underestimate that job.

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The “red tape” danger

The problem with too much process and red tape is that it creates excuses for not getting problems solved:

“Our processes dictates that I must do this”, “I am not measured on doing that”, “I cannot do anything about it, it’s the rules”, “We have a policy that…”.

Etcetera etcetera.

Of course there needs to be rules and processes, and sometimes they’re even defined by law.

But having said that it is also important to reiterate that just because you can push a set of rules, a boss or even the law in front of you, it doesn’t mean that you can’t show empathy for the person(s) in the other end obviously experiencing a problem.

One of the reasons why startups even stand a fighting chance against much larger and more resourceful organizations is that they don’t have all these rules, processes and KPIs in place.

They’re just trying to do what they think is necessary to enable them to solve issues and move forward. By showing empathy and some sort of efficient pragmatism whenever they encounter a challenge or – most importantly – a customer experiencing a problem and in need of a fix to it.

When companies grow and more people get onboard, the need for processes, policies and rules will grow – sometimes almost exponentially.

That may be fine in itself. But it should never be an excuse for throwing empathy and the ability to act and fix issues out the window.

If you start doing that you will enable precisely all the behaviour internally in your organization that you DON’T really want. And absolutely don’t need to succeed.

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Attacking a problem

There are two types of problems, you can pursue solving, when you’re trying to build a startup:

You can go after a problem that is really obvious and outspoken. Or you can go after a problem that is non-obvious but nonetheless exists.

If you go after the first, chances are that you will be far from alone in pursuing it. Especially if the problem is big, painful, and the market opportunity is big enough. While competition is by no means bad per se, it adds another level of stress to your journey than those that are already inherently present.

If you go after the latter, you may be more alone in the space of your choice. On the other hand you might also need to spend more time and energy activating the market, as your target market will be so accustomed to nothing happening that expectations that anything will ever materially change are low.

Both choices of direction of the journey comes with opportunities and pitfalls for you. You can succeed in both – and you can fail in both. It is mainly a question about what ends up becoming the decisive factors.

What you however can always do is to make sure that you understand your market, your future customers and their pains related to the problem, before you just dive head in to create your solution.

No matter your approach it will de-risk the journey immensely for you.

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Feel the problem

When you’re trying to solve a problem for someone, it helps a lot if you can empathize – even feel – the problem yourself.

Because it’s when you have a real sense of the problem, you release all those creative juices that allows you to not only look at the problem from different angles but also come up with ideas for how to try out different solutions in easy, creative and quick ways.

On the other hand, when you don’t feel the problem, it can be hard to not over-strategize and overcomplicate how you go about trying to solve it.

It just doesn’t feel natural to you, and when you’re stuck creatively, your only fallback option is the complex process, you bank on to see you well through to the other side.

When you do feel the problem, what you need to do next becomes more natural to you. You have an easier time setting the necessary wheels in motion, getting people onboard to help you and in general just get s*** done.

So make sure you can feel the problem before anything else. It will make the road ahead so much easier.

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What’s in a co-founder?

Not so long ago I met for the second time with a potential co-founder for our MedTech startup. It was a really good and interesting meeting, and the conversation was really good.

One of the things we talked about was what it means to be a co-founder of a startup.

“What does being a co-founder mean to you?”, he asked me. So of course I had to give him my best shot with an answer.

Here goes:

There are very big differences between being a co-founder and being a key employee in my book. And while in the following it may seem so, I wish no disrespect to key employees at all, and their contributions should be deeply valued. They’re just not co-founders.

Back to how I see a co-founder compared to a key employee:

While key employees may be some of the first to head for the lifeboats when your startup ship takes in water and set off for the safety of dry land, a co-founder goes down the ladder to the very bottom of the hull to man the pumps and start pumping away.

In the same way when the shit hits the fan, and the house is on fire, a key employee may try to call for the fire brigade. The co-founder grabs the nearest fire extinguisher, heads into the flames and starts putting the fire out.

You get my drift.

While the key employee may get excited about the professional challenge for a period of time, the co-founder falls in love with the problem and pictures herself digging in until the problem is either solved (or at the very least seeing good traction) or the startup has run out of steam and is beyond any salvation.

While the key employee may choose to focus more on his job at hand and personal goals and KPIs, the co-founder is always ready to step in and help the team, where the need arises.

And so on.

The biggest overall difference between a co-founder and a key employee is a mental one. It’s about WANTING it and being willing do back up that desire by running the extra miles needed for the team and startup to succeed.

Often, when you meet people, you can tell whether they are co-founder material or not.

Some are naturals. Some may grow into it over time. Some will never get there.

Nothing wrong with that. Just be able to spot the difference.

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