Solve my problem, please

Normally, we’re used to seeing startups looking to solve the problems of their customers.

But lately, I have realized that there is actually quite a lot of startups, who are essentially asking their customers to solve their own problems.

I typically see it in outreach emails asking me to go to a service or a product and do something specific; update something, try out a new feature or something of that nature. And it’s all perfectly fine.

But it also sends a signal that something is off; something is less than ideal. We have encountered a problem or a challenge on our end, and you, our dear customer, should ideally help us fix it.

Essentially, what you’re often communicating in this way is a shortcoming. Something you didn’t get right in the first place, and now you’re looking to compensate or perhaps even fix the issue.

You could of course argue that there is no other way than outreach to tell about new offers, features etc., and to a large extend, you would be right about that.

However, I could also make the argument that if you had a truly sticky product that your customers were so habitually using they knew it inside and out, they would find out these things themselves, and there would be little need to do outreach to already existing customers.

In summary: When your need to do outreach to your customers is on the increase, ask yourself where in your product or service, your core offering may be broken or less than ideal.

That is the problem, you should solve. Yourself.

(Photo by Michal Matlon on Unsplash)

Finding the edge

The other day I heard a fascinating episode of the podcast “Pivot” with Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway, where they talked with a guest about the potential in space exploration and colonizing the Moon and different planets.

In the podcast the point was made that when it comes to the Moon, every big nation wants to set up camp in pretty much the same place: Near the South Pole on the edge between the dark side of the Moon and the side that actually gets sunlight.

And why is that?

Obviously, the people who are going to be staying there, want to be in the light in order to function. But the most ressources, including the possibility for finding water, is on the dark side.

Hence you want to find the right balance of sun and darkness by being on the edge.

What kind of implication does that potentially have for startups?

One could be that in order to really be able to change things and make a profound impact, you need to be operating on the demarkation line between sun and darkness;

On the sunny side you will be able to communicate your vision and engage your customers by using arguments and value propositions that they will understand and engage with.

On the dark side you will be uncovering the differentiating way of solving your customers problems that will ultimately set you apart from the competition.

Now, what happens if you don’t find that line, that edge?

If you’re too much on the sunny side you may be able to get attention. But your offering will probably not over the long run be differentiated enough to sustain an advantage over the competition. Put in another way: You run the risk of flaming out in the sunlight.

If you’re however too much on the dark side, you run the classic risk of working on something that nobody will ever really figure out could be a solution to your problem. You will so to say be alone in the dark. Until you die (which startups doing something nobody can see the benefit of eventually do).

So think about your Moon-shot so to say and set about finding the position near the edge between light and darkness. It might take some serious experimentation to get it right, but isn’t that what any kind of exploration is really all about?

(Photo by Ganapathy Kumar on Unsplash)

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?

(Photo: Pixabay.com)

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.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)

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.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)

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.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)

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.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)

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.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)