Recently I’ve been advising a friend on a cloud computing service he wants to offer, and realized I’m starting to think more and more like an investor without technical domain expertise. When I went back and read what I was asking him, I remembered a time not too long ago when I hated hearing the same thing from investors I was pitching to. I’ve been in cloud computing for over a decade, so you can imagine my own surprise when something so obvious as a service offering became a challenge to think of in market terms. I even had the audacity of asking my friend why someone would want to spend on cloud computing at all for the use case he was articulating. Remember, I make a living from cloud computing. Honestly it was not tongue in cheek – I was simply trying to help him reach the problem statement.
There are problems and solutions. Solutions exist only to solve problems – that is, solutions anyone is willing to pay for. And the single most important quality of any type of product/service offering is that others are willing to pay for it. So why is this dead simple concept often lost when we are dreaming up what we think is “the next big thing”?
You see, I am a solution-oriented thinker, and I would argue most other technical-minded folks are as well. If I’m not thinking of a solution, then I’m not really thinking at all, it seems. What I’ve come to learn is that solutions without problems are incredibly dangerous things, especially when you fuel them with the passion of the technical entrepreneurial spirit that burns hot in some of us. When we act on this, we waste valuable time and resources, and sometimes do irreparable damage to our finances, reputation, family, and even health. This is exactly why good investors don’t pour money into solutions without problems. So the most important question to answer with any offering you can think of is: what problem am I solving?
I think there’s a dead simple test for whether you are articulating a problem or a solution. If you ask yourself what problem you are solving, and your answer is in fact the solution, then you are not articulating the problem. Problems describe pain points and some compelling event to address them. For example, building a better mousetrap is useless if you can’t find anyone who actually wants to buy a mousetrap. And why would anyone need a mousetrap? Well, to trap mice! Why do they need to trap mice? The pain point is fear, and the compelling event is they have mice right now. So, they are in pain right now and they want to solve the problem. Simple, right? The fact that your better mousetrap is more expensive than the product alternative is of secondary importance, although you will eventually need to convince them to spend more on it. So again, attack the pain point – it traps more mice, faster. No one cares if it’s made out of titanium or if it uses 10% less cheese. If you don’t attack the pain point, the superior qualities of the better mousetrap are irrelevant. If you are building a new product or service for a customer who will articulate it exactly as you offer it, then you are either solving an incredibly niche problem, or you are just offering a “me too” solution that the market is already well familiar with. Neither of these is worth investing time and money in, unless someone is paying you for custom work.
Some might argue that we’d have way fewer new product/service ideas if people actually took the time to address problems rather than solutions. I will argue that we have too many new product/service ideas, most with little or no value. Just look at how many start-ups fail, no matter how great their products and their teams are. So maybe it’s time we solve more problems rather than create more solutions.