What problem does your product solve? These 5 questions will help you find out
This Symbl for Startups content series separates facts about the founder journey from fiction — with a little help from program mentors and startup experts. For additional information about how early stage businesses can benefit from the Symbl for Startups program, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Before a founder gets too swept up in the glamour of startup life, it’s important to return back to the absolute basics every so often to ensure the business is adequately solving an identified and understood problem.
Whether it’s day zero or day 100 (and beyond) of running a startup, having an easy-to-understand answer to the question “What problem is your business solving?” is crucial.
Now that sounds super obvious, but a cursory glance at the startup landscape — and the many businesses that fail despite all of the hard work put into them — proves that a shocking amount of early stage founders prioritize the more exciting aspects of owning and growing a startup over digging into whether there is real market demand for the product.
Your business must solve a problem and it needs to have market demand; there is simply no business without the people who want to buy your product or service. If your startup has been around for a while and you cannot answer this question in one sentence, it may be time to re-evaluate the company as a whole.
The second important piece of this is whether or not you CARE enough about that problem. Founders must be interested enough in their problem to see the business through, because there will be low lows and high highs to navigate on the road to success. A great mental hack is to fill out the Y combinator application and review your answers—and make sure you aren’t lying to yourself about them. How easy was that form to fill out?
Less-than-desirable terms notwithstanding, the above clip from “Shark Tank” underscores how a founder who knows his target audience extremely well and effectively provides them with a solution to a common annoyance will immediately accrue interest among investors. Say what you will about “Shark Tank,” but very few of today’s founders can relay their product’s purpose as fully and in such a simple manner as Christopher Gray does in this episode.
Gray’s product, Scholly, offers an urgent, overt answer for a highly motivated group — in this case, students hoping to afford to go to college in the U.S. via applicable scholarships—and immediately lands him a deal with one of the sharks. Ideally, every founder would come to the table with a similarly clear-cut problem and answer in mind.
But what if one’s product doesn’t offer solutions for an obvious problem, or the aim of the business has gradually shifted over time?
If you are unable to answer this question succinctly down the road, you will more likely than not find yourself at the helm of a dwindling business. However, if you have customers who are floundering with your product despite its shortcomings, you can work backwards from what they’re telling you and define the use case that will keep your business afloat.
To support this process, below are five questions founders should regularly ask themselves to assess the inherent value of their businesses.
1. What simple, stupid problem does my product solve?
The acronym KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) applies to pretty much any system, but it is especially helpful for early stage business leaders. Simplifying process, vision and mission statements fall under this umbrella, in addition to today’s topic: the glaring problem, big or small, that is yet unsolved. You must put in the work to uncover the one main thing that people will pay for with regard to your product or service.
It is critical to start your founder journey by reflecting upon this question because, when you have a clearly defined problem, the next steps in terms of product development essentially write themselves. Again, you’ll have more luck defining a problem if it has affected you personally and repeatedly.
Another thing to keep in mind is that you may not end up solving the sexiest problem in the universe — and that’s beyond OK! There are hundreds, if not thousands, of entrepreneurs with majorly successful products that solve for minor widespread inconveniences. Not everyone’s going to end world hunger, and you will save yourself both money and time by recognizing your product’s limitations up front.
2. How are other businesses working to solve this problem?
Don’t lose sight of the competitor landscape. The more clearly defined your problem is, the easier it will be to find out if someone else is already out there tackling it. Or, better yet, the competition might be dropping the ball in key ways that you can pinpoint and use as fodder for product design.
However, this advice comes with an enormous caveat: Don’t forgo everything to obsess over the competition and your attempts to outdo them.
Instead, place the bulk of your focus on the customer. When you listen to your customer and work backwards from what he or she is telling you, you’ll always find yourself ahead of the competition.
3. Are there any potential use cases for the product that might represent a more pressing problem?
Let’s say a given product has a well-defined problem, no obvious competition and is ready to launch — but 6 months after it goes to market, you notice a growing number of customers from industries or professions you weren’t targeting reaching out with questions or otherwise showing interest.
At this stage it is highly recommended that you get in contact with as many of these prospective customers as possible to learn why they expressed interest in your product or service, and then use that feedback to tweak your original problem statement. Or rewrite it altogether!
A great example of this kind of happy accident is Slack, which began as a solution for gamers looking for a tool to help them collaborate on teams and blossomed into one of the most successful workplace messaging apps on the market.
It just goes to show that after all of your deliberation about the product and solution you hope to provide, you can’t be precious about your initial intention. People will either find value in it, find value in a piece of it or not find it valuable at all.
You yourself might be super excited about certain features, but a good rule of thumb is to find three paying customers before you write a single line of code.
4. Who is my target customer?
Speaking of prospective customers, you can’t have a well-defined problem for your product to solve without also defining the type of person who is most likely to face that problem in his or her day-to-day life. Entire businesses have been built around constructing personas for marketing purposes, and if you’re having trouble crafting one it could be worth the money to find an expert who can step in and help.
This is why building a business is easier in myriad ways when a founder represents or has a deep level of experience with the target consumer. If that’s the case, you won’t need to spend as much precious funding researching what the target consumer wants, their preferred design, delivery method, etc.
A huge problem for early stage founders is that they will have their product and their marketing, website, etc. not intentionally aligned with the paying customer. Center your hard work on the person who will decide whether or not they want to pay for your product or service, and make a serious effort to speak their language across your marketing efforts, pitch deck and other forms of messaging.
5. What processes can be put in place to ensure the product resolves its defined problem?
Lastly, early stage business leaders at the tail end of figuring out their special product-market fit must commit to regularly testing the product-customer-problem ecosystem for early signs of dissonance. This might look like frequent customer satisfaction check-ins or merely setting a recurring time to reflect upon the above four questions alone or with your team.
Once a problem is pinpointed and resolved, there’s no guarantee that someone else won’t come along and find an even more efficient solution — or that the landscape wherein the problem exists won’t fundamentally change. It’s your job to keep tabs on all of these moving parts well after your business gains traction.
All of this boils down to not being overly committed to your initial idea for a product. Always entertain innovation and strive to keep the customer dialogue alive—those two puzzle pieces can help your business carve out its own spot in the competitive startup landscape.