Don't fix these 7 problems
7 red flags that your startup is solving the wrong problem
If you want to generate value, solving a problem is a great strategy
Early-stage startups struggle with defining the problem to solve
Below are 7 common mistakes when defining your problem
A problem well-stated is a problem half-solved
Charles F. Kettering (head of research at GM)
Here are 7 risky problem definitions
🧠 The reasoned problem
Made up by the founder
Usually comes in an imagined story/scenario
Can not be attributed to an actual living person
Example: When booking tickets for a HyperLoop-journey, people will be concerned about carbon offset.
Ask yourself: Who told you about this problem?
🚫 The non-problem
Assigned problem status to part of the story of customer
Customer doesn't see it as a problem
Example: A potential customer talks about how she plans her holidays. It's chaotic and messy, 20 tabs open, but she says she loves that scavenger hunt style to it. The team (unrightly) classified that as a problem.
Ask yourself: Who told you this is a problem?
👥 Problem without an owner
It’s unclear who owns or cares about this problem
It's often the result of sloppy customer research
Finding the owner reveals why it is a problem
Example: a startup wanted to make impact on election voting turnout among the youth. It's tempting to say it's a good thing, but who actually cares enough to pay for this?
Ask yourself: Who cares?
☂️ The umbrella problem
The problem is very broad (e.g. climate change)
The problem can be broken down into smaller sub-problems
Almost all successful solutions focus on a sub-problem
Find your sub-problem
Example A: Climate change > CO 2 emissions > CO2 emissions by vehicles > CO2 emissions by cars > CO2 emissions by cars while waiting for traffic light
Example B: Climate change > Methane emissions > Meat consumption > Beef Consumption > Lab grown meat is expensive
Ask yourself: What is the direct problem we solve? What is the indirect problem we solve?
🤯 The 'lack of overview'-problem
Customers claim "there are too many solutions" or "I don't know where to start"
Founders think the lack of overview is the problem
Lack of overview can be a result of customer not attempting
No attempts can hint at lack of customer need
Example: a KPI-dashboard that nobody uses because they are not focused on KPIs.
Ask your customer: What have you done to fix this problem?
ℹ️ The 'access to information'-problem
Customers claim they don't have enough information to act differently
Can it really not be solved with a simple Google search?
Lack of simple Google search can hint at lack of true need
Example: I've seen many startups pitch a app that provides better information about how sustainable products actually are (clothing, cosmetics, grocery goods). People in interviews tell them that information on sustainability is hard to find. Is it though?
Ask your customer: When is the last time you searched for extra information?
📈 Making your business goal their problem
Some business goals are related to customer behaviour
Sometimes people forget how this business goal contributes to the life of the customer
Result: customers are forced to do things they don't want
Example A: A dating app did a Corona-fuelled pivot. They saw a sudden usage drop due to the lockdown. They prioritised on how they could stay top of mind for their users. They build a solution that their customers didn't want, as their experiments showed. With this move, they ignored the actual needs of the customer.
Example B: I consulted an energy supplier. They said: 'How can we have a more tight, personal relationship with our customers?' I probed them: 'Maybe your customer doesn't want a tight personal relationship with a commodity as yours?' Didn't occur to them.
Ask yourself: Do I know what my customer wants to achieve?
💡 Note: This is not (exact) science
This article is a synthesis of my experience as a startup coach of 100 startups, this is not scientific research.
For each of these problems, there are scenarios where each of these red flags actually isn't a red flag. I'm not claiming that all these red flags are things to avoid at all cost.
I would urge you to do a double-check if any of these problem types resonate with your current problems in your startup.
Do you have more to add to this list? Let me know!
Hey, you! What about this one:
Great - Good - Meh
How was this one for you?