Are You Really Solving a Problem?


by Tim Metzner

Over the last couple years I've spent a lot of time with entrepreneurs at a very early stage, including at six different Startup Weekend events. One common theme that never ceases to amaze me is how many of them start with an idea for a "great product" versus a specific problem that they are trying to solve.

What's the difference? Glad you asked.

Starting with the Solution

I understand why most people tend to start here, it's how most of us think. The high profile successes seem to be from "inventors" who are creating things so new and different that the world doesn't even know they need it. Quotes like Henry Ford's classic "If I asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse", and iconic leaders like Steve Jobs, perpetuate the belief that this is how great companies are started.

The trouble is, most companies aren't Apple. Sure there will always be room for highly disruptive companies that are reinventing entire industries, but this is unquestionably the exception, not the rule. The reason most companies starting with a solution don't work is because they literally have to create demand for their product; they are in search of a problem that they are solving.

So what's the big deal? Here's why it really matters; marketing. Think about it, if there aren't people currently looking for a solution to a problem that you are solving with your product/service, how are you going to find them? You better have a heck of a war chest for massive marketing, promotion, and education campaigns, OR an incredibly large viral coefficient (something that inherently makes people want to share your product for you).

Starting with the Problem

On the flip side of the equation, what would it look like to start with the problem?

At Differential, we love entrepreneurs who are fanatical about a specific problem they are trying to solve. By focusing on the problem, instead of falling in love with a solution, they tend to be a lot more flexible. They don't care as much about what the solution looks like, but they know everything there is to know about the problem people are experiencing.

This give them two big advantages:

  • Knowledge that there are people in search of a solution to pain (i.e. there's a market)
  • Knowledge of how, when and where to reach those people.

In fact, many times these founders got started by solving their own problems; the perfect candidates for talking to others experiencing similar problems.

Base Hits vs. Homeruns

Probably the biggest reason we're fanatics about solving problems is that we're also fanatics about "base hits". While many VC's and entrepreneurs set out to hit homeruns, we believe in focusing on sound business ideas that are solving real-world problems for a specific audience.

By the way, focusing on base hits doesn't mean you won't hit homeruns. True you'll probably hit fewer, but equally true is you'll strike out less.


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